By Marcia Nehemiah
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.” —Mahatma Gandhi
What I eat has become an increasing source of concern for me, not because I need to lose weight, nor because I have health problems. My desire to eat healthful, clean food has become more and more difficult because it is in direct opposition to agribusiness’ desire to maximize profit and minimize cost. Food—once a source of nourishment and pleasure—has become, in my estimation, one of the most crucial environmental, social and moral issues of our time.
The Green Revolution of the mid-twentieth century introduced the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, among other practices. While purporting to reduce starvation worldwide (a claim often refuted), these practices have led to the decimation of small-scale family farms; an increase in cancer, greenhouse gas emissions, and antibiotic resistance; global land degradation; and decreased biodiversity, among other impacts.
The essential problem is illustrated by this oxymoron: factory farm. A factory is a mechanized, human-made environment where inanimate objects are made into other inanimate objects. A farm was once a relatively small tract of open, cultivated land where humans tended to a variety of plants and domesticated animals in an effort to feed themselves and/or others.
This kind of farm, despite the pictures you see on corporate packaging, is a thing of the past, wiped out by large-scale operations where living creatures are referred to as “animal units.”
I addressed one part of my food dilemma by adopting an almost vegan diet, after learning about concentrated animal feed operations, or CAFOs. I learned that animals raised for meat produce 61 million tons of waste each year. The resulting manure runoff has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states, contaminated groundwater in 17 states and caused staggering fish kills. Ammonia and other gases from manure irritate animals’ lungs. Eighty percent of U.S. pigs suffer from pneumonia before they are slaughtered.
I learned that each chicken in a factory farm “lives” in a cage as small as six-tenths of a square foot. So closely confined, animals resort to cannibalism and aggression, so the birds are debeaked with the electrically heated blades of a trimming machine.
Animals are not the only creatures who suffer. I learned that workers in slaughterhouses are poorly paid, have almost double the injury and illness rate of workers in other industries, and suffer psychological damage.
I learned that 50 million pounds of antibiotics are produced in the U.S. each year, but a staggering amount of it isn’t used to cure illness. Twenty million pounds, or 80 percent, is used in the factory farm system, 16 million pounds to increase livestock growth, and the remainder to prevent (not cure) such diseases as anemia, influenza, intestinal diseases, mastitis, and pneumonia that abound in CAFOs. The use of antibiotics in farm animals is one cause for the rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases in the human population.
We don’t have to take what they’re dishing out! There are many ways to effectively withdraw support from this dysfunctional, destructive system and to make more sustainable choices regarding food. Here in Northeast PA numerous farm markets and organic farmers sell clean food. If you shop at a supermarket, ask the manager to stock specific organic products. Plant a garden, organic if possible. Preserve and can what you grow. If vegetarianism is not your thing, boycott factory-farmed meat and support local farmers who raise meat ethically. Hunt, or find a way to access meat that has been killed in the wild.
Finally, you can make a difference by sharing your food and your food knowledge with others.
Poet and writer Marcia Nehemiah wrote a monthly column on sustainable living for a local award-winning regional newspaper from 2007 to 2013. Her most recent book, Crone Age, explores the promises and riches of aging by profiling eight women octogenarians from the Upper Delaware region. She also enjoys bird watching, hiking, snowshoeing and rafting the Delaware. Visit www.marcianehemiah.com.