Perhaps the single greatest dilemma facing wealthy, democratic, post-industrial nations today is factory farming. The reasons for this has to do with the nature of the problem itself, however the reason that this problem is so intractable is that it goes almost completely unaddressed in our society. In the coming weeks, we will explore all aspects of this problem, by starting at the largest possible scope and then zooming to the granular. We will cover everything from the statistics of how factory farming works in the United States, the health effects of this nation's animal product heavy diet, the cognitive capacity of farmed animals, and the limited legal protections that exist for these animals.
Part I: The Statistics
"In God we trust, all others must have data."
-Cecil R. Reynolds
To begin to understand the magnitude of the problem facing the United States (and indeed, the rest of the world), we begin with a statistical analysis. Though this is indeed a global problem, for now let us analyze data from the United States.
First, some raw numbers. According to the Humane Society of the United States, 9.2 billion animals are slaughtered for food every year in the United States, and that is not counting fish and shellfish. By far the vast majority of these animals are chickens, accounting for some 8.8 billion creatures killed annually. Next, come turkeys, with some 232 million individuals. After that pigs with approximately 115 million, next are cattle with 28 million, then ducks at 27 million, and finally sheep and lambs with a "mere" two million.
U.S. Slaughter Totals, by Species (1950 - 2015): Totals***
|Updated June 25, 2015|
|Year||Cattle||Chickens||Ducks||Hogs||Sheep & Lambs||Turkeys||Total|
|(Thousands of animals)||(Billions
***USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service (Farm Animal Statistics: Slaughter Totals),as posted by HSUS
Now of course all these animals, before they are slaughtered, require food to eat. These animals would eat mostly grass were they to live in the wild, and indeed, sometimes they still do. We are keeping our focus on the United States here, but anyone with some knowledge of the problem of deforestation in the Amazon knows that it is largely the result of cattle farms clearing forest to create grazing land. However in the United States, most farmed animals are fed a mixture of soy and corn, and in proportion with the astonishing number of animals killed each year, the amount of soy and corn required to feed them is enormous.
Specifically, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, some 47% of soy and fully 60% of corn produced in the United States are eaten by farmed animals on factory farms. This, in a country where, based on data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 15.6 million families or 12.3% of the total face food insecurity.
Even more troubling than the amount of food required to sustain these artificially high populations of animals is the amount of water they consume. All food that farmed animals eat requires massive amounts of water to grow; in recent years, almonds have for example come under fire for requiring inordinate amounts of water to produce, particularly in California which is currently facing a water crisis. Because farmed animals consume such vast amounts of food, their "water footprint" is proportionally massive.
First, let us consider the amount of water required to produce certain vegetables, fruits, and grains for human consumption.
According to the online publication World Water:
- corn requires between 1,000 and 1,800 liters of water per kilogram to produce,
- soybeans require between 1,100 and 2,000 liters of water per kilogram,
- wheat requires between 900 and 2,000 liters of water per kilogram,
- and apples a mere 700 liters of water per kilogram.
- The ‘infamous’ almond, according to Business Insider, requires more than 3,000 liters of water per kilogram, which sounds pretty bad until you start considering farmed animal food products.
According to Water Footprint Network
- eggs require 3,200 liters of water per kilogram,
- chicken meat 4,300 liters of water per kilogram,
- pig meat 5,900 liters of water per kilogram,
- sheep/goat meat over 8,700 liters per kilogram,
and bovine meat a whopping 15,000 liters of water per kilogram.Now, one might argue that meat and other farmed animal products are more calorie-rich than grains and vegetables, and that therefore this water usage point is moot, yet this is only half true. It is true that meat and other animal products contain more calories per gram of food, yet when you dig deeper into the data the results still show that meat is, in a word, incredibly thirsty.
Using the same data from the Water Footprint Network (which does not differentiate between different types of cereals, vegetables, and fruits but rather averages them out):
- cereals consume 0.51 liters of water per kilocalorie,
- vegetables 1.34 liters of water per kilocalorie, and fruits 2.09 liters of water per kilocalorie.
- Meanwhile, pig meat consumes 2.15 liters of water per kilocalorie,
- eggs 2.29 liters of water per kilocalorie,
- chicken meat 3 liters of water per kilocalorie,
- sheep/goat meat 4.25 liters of water per kilocalorie,
- and bovine meat a full 10.19 liters of water per kilocalorie. That is to say, a kilocalorie of beef consumes fully twenty times the amount of water required to produce a kilocalorie from cereals.
Next, let us consider the environmental cost of factory farming. In 2015, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. produced some 6,587 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. Now most people probably assume that transportation - cars, planes, trains, etc. - produce the most greenhouse gases of any economic sector, but this is not the case. In 2014, again according to the EPA, 14% was caused by transportation, while fully 24% was caused by "agriculture, forestry, and other land use;" only electricity and heat production produced more at 25%. Yet when you dig into the numbers a little bit, the result is even more troubling.
While factory farming produces merely around 9% of carbon dioxide produced by the United States, it produces fully 37% of its methane, a greenhouse gas that is by some estimates has more than twenty times as strong a greenhouse effect as carbon dioxide. This mostly comes from the manure of animals kept in filthy, confined quarters where an enormous amount of feces is produced and left to accumulate. At a time when we are imposing minimum performance requirements and fuel consumption rates for cars with extremely exacting standards, you would think we would not be so careless with the amount of methane produced to eat a cheeseburger.
Perhaps the most shocking statistic is on antibiotic use. This miracle of modern medical science is, as we are becoming more and more aware, incredibly vulnerable to mutation by bacteria. Every few months it seems we hear of a new antibiotic-resistant strain of a deadly disease, with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimating that approximately 23,000 people die in the United States every year due to antibiotic resistant infections. This problem is often blamed on over-prescription or over-reliance on antibiotics given to humans, thus increasing the chances that a mutation of a disease resistant to this treatment could emerge. Yet this is only a small part of a much larger mural of terrible public policy.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA - using data from two different publications studying antibiotic use in humans and farmed animals separately), more than 80% of antibiotics used in the United States are consumed by farmed animals, mostly by injecting it into their feed. The National Institute of Health (NIH) states that a combination of exposure to farmed animals fed antibiotics, eating of meat contaminated with antibiotic resistant bacteria, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in manure being used as fertilizer may pose, "a risk to human health," and late Congresswoman (and microbiologist) Louise Slaughter stated in 2011 that, "what we are witnessing is a looming public health crisis that is moving from farms to grocery stores to dinner tables around the country.
Unless we act now, we will unwittingly be permitting animals to serve as incubators for resistant bacteria." The reason for this massive overuse of antibiotics in farmed animals is that these animals are kept in horrendously filthy and overcrowded conditions, and so without preemptive treatment with antibiotics, disease would spread rapidly throughout the populations in a given factory farm and kill large numbers of animals prematurely, thus negatively impacting the profit margins of the factory farm.
Our culture has seen an increasing interest in creating a more humane, more environmentally friendly, and more sustainable world. How can we justify this system which is so clearly inhumane, so clearly a disaster for the environment, and so clearly unsustainable? We haven't even touched on issues such as soil pollution, deforestation, and water contamination, and it is clear from the evidence we have discussed so far that our economy and our culture are being dragged down by a system of food production that is so egregious in its destruction of lives and and its pollution of the earth that it can no longer be maintained.
Part II: Health
"If you ask a physician 'how many patients have you ever cared for that have protein deficiency?' the docs always say zero (absent a few rare non-diet-based diseases). Then ask 'how many patients have you cared for with Type II diabetes, heart disease, and strokes?' and the answer is thousands."
-Allan Kornberg MD, Board Chair, Animal Defense Partnership
In the United States 610,000 people die every year from heart disease (1/4 of the total number of all deaths), 140,000 die of strokes, 9.4% of people have diabetes, and fully 36.5% of people are obese. These numbers should not only be shocking to anyone with an interest in public health, with US life expectancy flat-lining for several years in a row after climbing steadily for decades, and now actually declining; and also for anyone with an interest in the cost of healthcare, with heart disease alone accounting for more than $300 billion in annual health costs. This massive and interconnected problem can of course not be linked to a single cause, but one of the most important causes is the massive consumption and overconsumption of meat and other animal products in the U.S.
I must preface this discussion by stating unequivocally that I am not a doctor, nor a dietician, nor a scientist, and merely an interested student and a determined researcher. I will back up my arguments with data published by professionals; when possible, I will make my own conclusions based on this data. Yet always I will endeavor to make a clear distinction between undeniable facts, debatable theories, and my own personal opinions.
For our entire lives we have been told by our government, our schools, and our families that we need to eat meat and eggs and drink cow's milk in order to be healthy; that we need protein, iron, calcium, and other essential nutrients in large quantities that can only be derived from animal products. It is truly impressive how many falsehoods are in the previous sentence. These lies are in many cases purchased by private factory farming industries from the institutions we most trust, yet they are also handed down from generation to generation as unchallenged truisms. Let us begin to unravel these falsehoods.
Protein is a nutrient essential to a healthy human body. It is composed, as many of us know, from amino acids, one of the fundamental building blocks of life. As stated previously, I am not a scientist and so I will not attempt to explain the granular details of how our body uses protein, but in essence, proteins are used in building muscle and are also converted into calories to provide the energy we all need to live. Children and pregnant women, in general, need more protein than the average adult as they are either growing muscle mass rapidly (in the case of children), or they need to provide nutrients for a fetus and produce milk (in the case of pregnant women).
Yet how much of this essential nutrient do humans need? And perhaps more importantly, how much does the average person in the U.S. consume, and are there any negative health impacts from consuming too much of it? The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a subsidiary agency of the CDC, recommends that the average adult male should consume around 56 grams of protein per day and the average adult female around 46 grams. Yet the average adult aged 19-30 in the United States consumes fully 91 grams of protein per day, around 80% more than is required.
What are the health consequences? According to the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine (an organization of doctors who advocate for plant-based diets), high protein diets are associated with a number of negative health outcomes, including osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function, weight gain, and yes, heart disease.
Well, you might ask, if eating too much protein is so bad, then where am I going to get enough protein without eating animal products? The answer is that most plant-based diets will give you more than enough protein, and indeed, if you are eating enough calories, it is almost impossible to not get enough protein. For example, lentils contain about 7.8 grams of protein per 100 calories, tempeh about 9.6 grams per 100 calories, tofu 10.7 grams per 100 calories, spinach around 13 grams per 100 calories, and seitan a full 17.5 grams per 100 calories.
Meanwhile, according to the USDA, pork chops contain a mere 3.25 grams of protein per 100 calories, chicken sausage about 7.7 grams per 100 calories, and beef around 14.6 grams per 100 calories. Which is to say, lentils are on average more protein rich than pork chops, tofu more so than chicken sausage, and seitan more so than beef. Now of course, most people don't sit around trying to calculate how many grams of protein per calorie they need to eat, so let's simplify this a bit.
For a male to get the average recommended daily amount of protein, around 56 grams, all he would need to eat is four ounces of cooked seitan (24 grams protein), one cup of boiled lentils (17.9 grams), one cup of cooked quinoa (11 grams), and one cup of boiled spinach (5.4 grams), and voila! You've just eaten 58 grams of protein, just a few grams over the daily recommended amount. Meanwhile, in order to get the daily recommended amount of 46 grams of protein, a female would need to eat one-half cup of tofu (19.9 grams protein), one cup of boiled chickpeas (14.5 grams), two tablespoons of peanut butter (8 grams), and one cup of broccoli (4.6 grams), and tada! You've just eaten 47 grams of protein. The point of all this is to say that it is perfectly possible, indeed easy, to get all the protein you need from a plant-based diet, while still eating a variety of tasty food.
Next, let us discuss iron. Iron is an essential mineral used in all types of basic bodily functions: it allows red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body (and also gives blood its distinctive red color), and it is an important component in many enzymes that perform functions as varied as protecting against infection and controlling body temperature. An insufficient amount of iron can cause anemia and, if serious and chronic enough, can be a very serious condition. The NIH recommends that adult males get around 8 milligrams of iron per day, while for adult females it is 15-18 milligrams (females require more iron due to iron loss from menstruation).
Once again, as with protein, we have long been told that we need to consume animal products, and in fairly large numbers, to get enough iron, but this is simply untrue. It is true that you can get a lot of iron from eating meat and other animal products, but a) you often have to eat a lot of calories to get the recommended daily amount of iron and b) plenty of plant-based foods have just as much if not more iron. For example, according to the USDA once again, chicken sausage contains around 0.33 milligrams of iron per 100 calories, pork around 0.42 milligrams per 100 calories, and beef around 1.36 milligrams per 100 calories. Meanwhile, raw lentils contain around 1.89 milligrams of iron per 100 calories, raw broccoli around 2.13 milligrams per 100 calories, and raw spinach a whopping 12.2 milligrams per 100 calories. Thus, it is not only possible but in fact downright easy - certainly easier than from eating animal products - to get more than enough iron per day by eating a plant-based diet.
Finally, let's discuss calcium. Of all the falsehoods purchased by the factory farming industry with regards to human health, this one is perhaps the most egregious. First, consider the fact that humans are the only mammals, indeed, the only animals period, which consumes milk from another species or consumes milk after infancy. This alone should tell us something about our dietary habits, yet the milk industry has long convinced us that cow's milk is necessary for healthy adult humans to consume.
The most basic lie about cow's milk you often hear is that you need to consume it in order to grow healthy bones. To quote from National Milk Producers Federation, "Dairy foods are also excellent sources of nutrients of public health concern, including calcium..." and the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee states that, "It is especially important to establish the habit of drinking milk in young children, as those who consume milk at an early age are more likely to do so as adults."
There is a lot to unpack here, so let's start with the idea that you need to drink milk to get enough calcium in order to grow strong bones. This is, at best, a half-truth, and at worst an outright fabrication. It is true that calcium which is, according to the NIH, "the most abundant mineral in the body," supports bone growth and structure, and an insufficient amount of can lead to osteoporosis as one ages. However, not only is this mineral found in plenty of other foods besides dairy products, it is often found in similar or more abundant quantities.
The NIH recommends that the average adult consume around 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day. With that in mind, let's consider the calcium content of various dairy foods when compared to plant-based alternatives. According to the USDA, low-fat yogurt contains around 150 milligrams of calcium per 100 calories, cheddar cheese around 165 milligrams per 100 calories, and 2% milk around 272 milligrams per 100 calories. Meanwhile, raw broccoli contains around 137 milligrams of calcium per 100 calories, fried tofu around 149 milligrams per 100 calories, and raw kale around 300 milligrams per 100 calories.
So, once again, as with protein and iron, it is not only easy to consume enough calcium on a plant-based diet, but it is nearly impossible not to do so. As to the quote about getting children to drink milk young to build the habit, does that not sound like people trying to force a habit upon children so that they will consume such a product as milk more? Is there not something troubling about that?
Now, a reliance on a certain type of food to provide essential nutrients and minerals is not sufficient evidence for a health crisis, so how is the consumption of meat linked to our near-epidemic levels of heart disease, obesity, etc.? Well, let's start by discussing atherosclerosis, a common form of heart disease. You see, according to the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine, most heart disease patients, around 95%, do not have a genetic predisposition towards this condition. Rather, it is more often caused by lifestyle choices such as diet and tobacco use. Nor does this heart disease develop only in older patients; several studies have shown that young adults who die of non-coronary related events, such as U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War killed in combat, already showed evidence of plaque buildup in the arteries, some before they had reached the age of twenty. This is a problem that can develop very early in a patient's life due to lifestyle choices such as diet.
High cholesterol in the bloodstream (serum) is a major risk factor for heart disease. Many people are aware that there is more than one type of cholesterol - usually this is shorthanded to "good" cholesterol (known as high-density lipoproteins or HDL) and "bad" cholesterol (known as low-density lipoproteins or LDL). A good rule of thumb doctors often follow to track a patient's cholesterol is to compare the ratio of total cholesterol to "good" cholesterol or HDL, hopefully the level is less than 4:1. Meanwhile, the average male in the U.S. has a ratio of around 5:1, however the average vegetarian male in the U.S. has a ratio of between 1.3-2.8:1.
What accounts for this discrepancy? The answer, in short, is that food produced from animals tends to have very high levels of cholesterol, while plant-based foods have no cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol only comes from animal products. Now many people of course know this, and some believe that they are safe from cholesterol as long as they only avoid "red" meat, aka beef. However, chicken meat in fact contains just as much cholesterol per weight, 25 milligrams per ounce, as beef. Put another way, 100 milligrams of cholesterol can be found each in four ounces of beef or chicken, half an egg, or three cups of milk.
According to Health Central, a healthy person should consume no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day, and people with heart disease no more than 200 milligrams. Yet how easy is it for someone eating an omnivorous or heavily meat/animal product-based diet to consume far more than this? To be blunt: the best way to reduce your risk of heart disease (possibly besides quitting or never taking up smoking) is to stop eating meat and other animal products.
Building off of this foundation, let us consider strokes. Strokes are highly correlated with atherosclerosis, which is not too surprising. Atherosclerosis is after all nothing more than the hardening of the arteries with plaque, and strokes are caused by the cutting off of blood flow to the brain. In fact, this correlation is almost one to one. According to the American Heart Association, "Intracranial atherosclerotic disease (ICAD) represents the most common cause of ischemic stroke worldwide." Therefore, the only conclusion we can come to is that one of the easiest ways to reduce your risk of strokes later in life is to reduce or completely cut out your consumption of meat and other animal products.
Obesity is of course deeply related to these health problems (the American Heart Association states that it increases the risk for heart disease and stroke) and, as with heart disease and strokes, eating meat is directly correlated with a higher rate of obesity. According to an article published in the online publication BMC Nutrition titled "Meat consumption providing a surplus energy in modern diet contributes to obesity prevalence: and ecological analysis," consumption of meat is more highly correlated with obesity than any other food group, including carbohydrates, as well as physical inactivity, and even total number of calories consumed. Once again, a health problem that is reaching a crisis level in the United States and one that is closely correlated to heart disease and stroke, can be easily remedied or at least partially addressed by cutting meat and other animal products out of your diet.
Now, let's discuss diabetes. I will tread somewhat more lightly here as there is not as strong of a one to one correlation between eating meat and diabetes, and consuming foods high in sugar is also a major concern for people at risk of this disease. Nevertheless, there is a correlation. According to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2017 titled "Meat, Dietary Heme Iron, and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: The Singapore Chinese Health Study," a study which followed the diets and rates of diabetes of more than 60,000 people, found that both, "red meat and poultry intakes were associated with a higher risk of T2D." The point is that of the tapestry of reasons for the increased rate of diabetes the United States (according to some studies the rate has nearly doubled in the last twenty years), meat and animal product consumption has to be considered one of the main causes.
There is now a clear evidence that bowel cancer is more common among those who eat the most red and processed meat, and stomach cancer is also strongly linked to processed meat consumption. The World Health Organization has classified processed meats – including ham, salami, bacon and ‘hot dogs,’ as a Group 1 carcinogen stating there is strong evidence that processed meats cause cancer. Additionally, other red meats such as beef, lamb and pork are categorized as probable cause of cancer.
Additionally, a study from Harvard and published in the British Medical Journal, recent study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the British Medical Journal, found that women who eat one to two servings of red meat per day have a 22% increased incidence of breast cancer compared with women who eat little red meat.
The researchers also found that women who replaced red meat with legumes-beans, lentils, and peas in early adulthood had less breast cancer. And broadly speaking, in 2018, the World Cancer Research Fund Network called for eating a diet high in plant-based foods, eliminating entirely processed meats, and otherwise, if red meats are eaten at all, no more then three times per week max.
Now, let us consider how this all came to pass. How did these myths about a healthy diet come to permeate our society so completely? The answer, in a word, is money. First, consider the famous food pyramid, you remember, the one we all learned about in school. It has gone through many different iterations over the last few decades, the basic food pyramid got its start in the 1990s and has now been replaced with the so-called "choose my plate" model, which supposedly endeavors to have a more individualized diet for different people.
Here's the thing though: the food pyramid, and the current "choose my plate" was not created and is not promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services, but instead by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), an agency designed to benefit farmers and agricultural interests, mostly by promoting the sale of U.S. agricultural products. In other words, that food pyramid you learned about in school was designed by an organization whose primary responsibility is not the maintenance of good public health, but to sell you as much food as possible from as many different kinds of farmers as possible.
Further, let's look at some of the advertising performed by the meat, egg, and dairy industries. In 2011, Cargill, Tyson, and Hormel, some of the biggest meat companies in the United States, spent $1.79 billion, $552 million, and $115 million respectively on advertising alone. Just three of the biggest meat companies in the U.S. spent nearly $2.5 billion on advertising alone (note: this source, Counting Animals, does not say whether this is money spent in the U.S. or globally, but regardless, the number is still astonishingly high). What's more, according to Open Secrets, the dairy, livestock, and poultry/egg industries spent a combined $11.2 million on lobbying in Washington in 2016, while many of the suppliers of feed and agricultural equipment for these industries spent tens of millions more.
Meanwhile the Humane Society of the United States, amongst the largest animal protection group in the country with an annual budget of around $200 million, spent a mere $390,000 on lobbying in 2016. Is it any wonder then why the government tells us, and the prevailing wisdom of practically every family in the U.S. is that meat, dairy, and eggs, are not only healthy but also critical for a healthy diet?
Does this all sound a bit conspiratorial? Ok, maybe a little. But my point here is that the massive consumption of meat in the United States is tightly wrapped up in questions of profit by major corporations. That is not to discount the role that family has on a child growing up learning to eat animal products in massive quantities, but this message learned at home was paid for by industries whose concern is not your health, but how much of their product you purchase.