Out of Sight, Out of Mind
A behind-the-scenes look at our day-to-day meat products
Imagine spending your whole life living in a square metre. For the rest of your days, you will be eating, drinking, sleeping, and most likely suffering in that tiny space of yours. And if that wasn’t bad enough, you will be sharing the same room and the same roof with about 30,000 of your other companions, never to feel the warmth of the sun nor the cool breeze of the wind.
Is this truly a live worth living for?
Atlas, this is the sorry state of factory farms which are present all over the world. A study conducted by the Sentience Institute indicates that over 90% of an overwhelming 70 billion farmed animals worldwide live on factory farms, designed solely to raise the production of meat and poultry. Worldwide, farmers and corporations alike are encouraged to breed and convert animals into chunks of meat in as short a time as possible. Male chicks are thrown into the meat grinder, while the growth of their female counterparts is artificially enhanced, but at the expense of their hearts, lungs and legs. Scientists in Europe have discovered more than half of commercial chickens sold worldwide to have difficulty walking, with some of the chickens dying from serious health implications before they even reach adulthood.
In his television show, British celebrity chef and food activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall came up with an imaginative way to show consumers the hellish landscape of a factory farm. He squeezed 2,500 live chickens into a tiny shed for 39 days, depriving them of sleep 23 hours a day to encourage them to feed. The resulting sight and stench was enough to make fellow TV Chef Jamie Oliver feel physically sick. Although this eventually led to a change in consumer habits in Britain, it is but a flicker in the dark for factory rearing is still the commercial norm for the majority of the world’s chickens, cattle, ducks, sheep and pigs.
First noted in Korea in January 2014, the avian influenza H5N8 wreaked havoc across farms in Britain and the Netherlands, before decimating the population of poultry in farms across Japan, Germany, Italy, as well as the Netherlands and Britain. Fingers were pointed at wild birds, citing that they were the ones who were spreading the virus and causing this catastrophe. However, little evidence could be garnered against the wild birds, since the outbreaks of such diseases occurred at exactly the same time when their populations have crashed. In fact, in late 2014, a United Nations task force set up to investigate the problem announced that outbreaks of bird flu were ‘most frequently associated with intensive domestic poultry production and associated trade and marketing systems’.
Under normal circumstances, birds can get avian influenza the same way us homosapiens can get colds and flu. However, combined with the lack of personal space, together with the warm and filthy conditions that they live in, the immunity of each individual in a factory farm was lowered. It was the perfect recipe for a disaster.
Ever since the 1950s, with the intensification of agriculture, antibiotics became inseparable from the meat industry. In the United States of America, it is estimated that animals in factory farms consume over 80% of the nation’s antibiotics.
The reason? With antibiotics, comes economic productivity. Together with growth hormones, they help to provide nutrients and supplements for animals when their feed is lacking in variety, with studies finding out that pigs whose diets are supplemented with antibiotics require about 10 – 15% less feed to achieve their target weight. In addition to producing meat of better quality, through continuous feeding, antibiotics are able to mitigate the effects of unhygienic living conditions through the temporary boost of the immune system.
Antibiotics should be administered only when the lives of animals or humans alike are endangered, for its uncontrolled use would lead to a far worse adversary: Superbugs. Currently, regions affected by AMR (Antimicrobial Resistance) include farms across Kenya, Morocco, Uruguay, southern Brazil, Central India as well as Southern China. At the current rate of consumption, it is but a matter of time before a superbug becomes resistant to all of Man’s medicine. And yet, this is a path we can choose not to follow, through the encouragement of sustainable agriculture: By allowing animals to roam freely and gain natural immunity through grazing, while administering antibiotics only if it is necessary.
Part 3: Food for the masses
Food production must double by 2050 to meet the demand of the world’s growing population and innovative strategies are needed to help combat hunger, which already affects more than 1 billion people in the world, several experts today told the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) during a panel discussion on “New cooperation for global food security”.
Data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has concluded that food production would need to be doubled to starve off a global food crisis. However, the total crop harvest for 2014 has provided enough calories to feed 15.8 billion people, twice the current world population.
So why is there talk of a growing food security crisis?
About a quarter of the global food basket, enough to feed an extra 3.9 billion people — is being wasted by being binned or left to rot. Together with huge amounts of fruits and vegetables, the global food-waste mountain includes the meat equivalent to about 12 billion farm animals (almost a sixth of global farmed animals) being reared, slaughtered and binned. However, one of man’s biggest atrocities would be feeding more than a third of global food crops to farm animals.
From the Sumatran rainforest in Indonesia, to the Amazon basin in Brazil; from the grasslands of Colorado, to the woodlands of Hampshire, huge swathes of land are being cleared to make space for crops. For instance, in the United States of America, land the size of more than 90 million acres was cleared just to be blanketed in Genetically Modified corn crops, mainly in the Midwest heartland states including Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. And yet, some 40% of the crop is fed to cattle in factory farms, while about the same amount would go on as ethanol biofuel for cars. Only a fifth of what is produced goes to the human market.
Entire ecosystems are being destroyed just to produce animal feed: That of the Sumatran rainforest for palm oil, that of the Amazon rainforest for soya, that of grasslands across North America for corn, and that of the Indian Ocean for bait. Worldwide, due to industrial agriculture and rearing, the noose is ever tightening around creatures of all sort: penguins, polar bears, elephants, jaguars, orang-utans, rhinos.
How can we ever justify factory farming?
Agriculture, Forestry & Land Use make up about 18.4% of the total greenhouse gas emissions, more than that of the transport industry (16.2%). Although there are numerous other factors which are contributing to global warming, this is one of the few things we could change, starting from our meal options. We could encourage free-range grazing as opposed to industrial farming and end the competition between farm animals and people for food. This would in turn lead to scaled down production of crops for animal feed, or if production levels remain unchanged, the feeding of an additional 4 billion people. Other actions that can be taken include reducing meat consumption as well as food wastage.
Our planet is on a tipping point. At its current rate, sea-level rises could lead to a decrease in availability of freshwater as well as a reduction in crop yields across the globe by as much as a fifth. Other than dooming about a third or more of all land-based species of plants and animals to extinction, the world as we know it could be lashed by more severe storms, droughts, floods, and crop failures. For instance, the damage done by African Locust Swarms have been getting bigger year on year; while Hurricanes and flash floods have become more and more common across the globe.
In essence, if we continue to produce, consume and waste food at our current rate, we will only be able to do so for another few decades or so before there’ll be nothing left.
You might be thinking, what do earthworms have to do with all this?
Despite their small size, they play a vital role in the world of agriculture. They mix soil and nutrients in the earth, stirring up the essential ingredients for growing the food (corn, soya, virtually all plants) on which we depend. In fact, it has been estimated that they completely turn over the equivalent of all the soil on the planet to a depth of 1 inch (2.5cm) every 10 years.
However, in the quest to attain a yield as high as possible, to rid the earth of pests, corporations tend to siege the soil with a relentless barrage of chemicals: Nitrogen, pesticides, herbicides. The result was a carpet bomb for weeds, insects, caterpillars, beetles, slugs, snails, wasps, ants, termites as well as our dear earthworms. Without our little friends, the soil would deteriorate and yields would decline.
As the soil from monocultures would oftenly go through short-rotation periods, without anything to hold the earth together, soil erosion from wind and heavy rain is inevitable. Since 1850, Britain has lost 84% of its fertile topsoil, with erosion continuing at a rate of 1 to 3 cm per year. As soil would take hundreds of years to form, the results would prove catastrophic: Without soil, we will not be able to grow food. We will be in a plight similar to that of Matt Damon in The Martian, except that there will be no one to save us.
To combat soil infertility, farmers would then resort to the use of fertilizers and manure. Too little, and the crop yield may suffer. Too much, and the immediate consequences are barely noticeable. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in May 2015, some 104,000 metric tons of nitrate and 19,300 metric tons of phosphorus flowed down the Mississippi and Atchafalaya river into the gulf of Mexico. It is as if a flotilla of more than 4,000 shipping containers headed downriver in just 1 month, fully loaded with pollution.
Needless to say, the resulting environmental impact is catastrophic. Due to the increase in nutrients in the sea, phytoplankton bloomed and died in such massive quantities that their decay sucked nearly all of the oxygen out of the water. As such, bottom dwelling marine life are forced to the unfamiliar surface as the water body below became oxygen deprived. In terms of numbers, the NOAA estimates the dead zone to cost US seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year, while the area of low to no oxygen water covered 6,474 square miles, almost twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.
Central Valley: The beating heart of California’s land of milk and honey. This piece of land is particularly productive for agriculture, generating about 40% of the nation’s fruit, nuts and vegetables. However, the area is so arid that it relies on artificial irrigation to keep the crops growing.
Drilling for water intensified to the point when some parts of the valley were collapsing at the rate of 2 inches (5cm) a month, bringing down nearby infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and farmland. With more than 90% of California’s water use being associated with agricultural products, it is estimated that the amount of water used in producing a kilogram of beef would keep a person in daily baths for 3 months, while a kilogram of chicken would take 24 bathtubs of water.
With only 0.5% of Earth’s freshwater available to humans worldwide, it is puzzling that globally, we are dedicating about 70% of it to agriculture alone. As livestock population explodes to meet growing demands, so too does the amount of water used for irrigation. Before long, agriculture would literally dry up ecosystems.
At the end of the day, one thing comes to mind: Agricultural yields need to be redefined, from tonnes produced per hectare to people nourished per hectare. With more than half of all the world’s food ending up as rot or animal feed, action needs to be taken before the effects of industrial agriculture have taken their toll.
As we will see in my next article, the economical and ecological benefits are endless if we encourage free-range grazing over unethical factory farming, mixed farming as opposed to monoculture, as well as the reduction in our meat intake and food wastage.
We all have a part to play in this global endgame.
Inspired by Philip Lymbery’s Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were