I switched to a veg diet because factory-farming hurts us all

Photo by Idella Maeland on Unsplash / Edited by Caroline Colvin

The decision came during my second of four years stuck on a university-sponsored meal plan. Fueled by a dislike of dining hall food’s quality (and a suspicion of its sustainability), I decided to reduce the amount of meat I was consuming.

It was maybe one or two meals a week. When I ate off campus (or at home over the breaks), I would enjoy dinner without sticking to any vegetarian meals. But around my junior year, in an attempt to help both my skin and my stomach, I started lessening my dairy intake. I switched to almond and soy milk in my coffee, and quickly found myself developing a primary lactose intolerance. I also found myself sticking to the new diet. 

I know, I’ve seen the videos. But I live on chicken nuggets I could never give them up.

By senior year, I was privileged to receive an education that truly exemplified and justified the some of the “how’s” of our world on a scientific level. One of the major concepts that came with my upper-level chemistry courses was the development and pharmacodynamics of modern antibiotics (and the continuing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria).

In short: antibiotic research thrived in the 80s, but the grants that supported new development quickly dried-up. So much so that modern pharma companies currently can’t see the financial benefit of expensive xenobiotic research, which would serve as only short-term therapy. Pair that with a decreasing supply of effective treatments— with the overprescribing of misuse of antibiotics — and you create a major threat to public health.

So where does meat come in?

Starting in the 50s, the American farming industry resolved tackling increasing demand for meat with the use of feed-additive antibiotics. It’s estimated that around 40% of all antibiotics are produced for this purpose, with the majority in poultry production, according to a study published by the National Institutes of Health. These antibiotics reach threatening levels of almost 100 - 200 g/ton of penicillin and tetracyclines in the main food sources of these animals. This type of usage is precautionary, deemed “subtherapeutic” under the intent to reduce outbreak of infectious diseases before they threaten the health and finances of major farms. 

Yes, this is greatly beneficial in the short term. But this type of practice can allow factory farms to cut corners — falling back into far-from-humane practices and less-than-ideal sanitary conditions while still raising livestock to maturity.

Photo by  Luke Stackpoole  on Unsplash / Edited by Caroline Colvin

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash / Edited by Caroline Colvin

Factory-farming is inhumane to animals

What comes of antibiotic misuse is disease-resistant organisms: they can survive one pass of an antibiotic treatment and can mutate to reproduce new generations of bacteria that cannot be eliminated with the base-level concentration or chemical analogs currently used. One major instance of this occurred in response to the overuse of avoparcin in livestock.

Avoparcin is a known analog to vancomycin, with vanocmycin being a last-known treatment for bacterial infections that are unresponsive to the antibiotics used for human subjects. This vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) is such a threat that subtherapeutic use of avoparcin has been discontinued. This has resulted in a noticeable decrease in VRE strains. However, the study of disease-resistant contamination — through contact of employees of farming industries — hasn’t been studied comprehensively yet. The sheer volume of antibiotics exaggerates the all these issues presented. 

If the idea of drug-resistant superbugs doesn’t completely freak you out enough: factory farming also creates substantial waste.

Factory-farming is inhumane to our environment

The majority of these antibiotics and hormones fed to factory-farmed livestock is left unprocessed and excreted. These antibiotics and hormones make their way back into our waterways and permeate the fields used for crops.

Attempt to minimize spread of disease has rationalized the use of large-scale animal-waste pools — which slowly breakdown into methane and carbon dioxide, through a process called anaerobic digestion. This solid waste is used can be manure or nutrition for crops. And by reusing the resulting waste, farms save millions of dollars in waste-disposal costs. Still, these “anaerobic lagoons” of animal feces pose an impending threat to their local environment — and this waste is actually one of the largest contributors to climate change.

Factory-farming is inhumane to us — some more than others

What’s more is that the risk of large-scale contamination events is quite prevalent. Prime examples include spills like:

Photo by  Wade Austin Ellis  on Unsplash / Edited by Caroline Colvin

Photo by Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash / Edited by Caroline Colvin

Another factor to consider is that this waste disproportionately affects marginalized people. The journal Environmental Health Perspectives wrote:

African Americans were more likely than whites to live in areas with flooded CAFOs [Confined Animal Feeding Operations] according to satellite estimates, but not according to DWQ reports. These areas have high poverty rates and dependence on wells for drinking water. Our analysis suggests that flood events have a significant potential to degrade environmental health because of dispersion of wastes from industrial animal operations in areas with vulnerable populations.

These DWQ reports refer to North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality’s Water, where debate has spurred the field of environmental-justice movements. In particular, North Carolina has been writing the book in this area of activism, calling into question disparities between waste treatment, access to clean drinking water, and general environmental pollution in primarily white versus non-white communities.

And then, there are greenhouse gases

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to the continual increase in temperature of our planet. Carbon dioxide, aka CO2, is one of the most well-known greenhouse gases. It’s produced by burning carbon-containing materials like solid waste, biological materials, and well, other greenhouse gases. Luckily, CO2 is consumed by plants as the plants produce glucose and release oxygen (if you’re not familiar: does anyone remember “photosynthesis” from grade school?). On the other hand, CH4 aka methane, is produced by the burning of fossil fuels and the decomposition of animal waste. Compared to carbon dioxide, methane is much more difficult to collect, consume, and convert into a less toxic gas.

The tricky thing is that our earth would not be hospitable to life without naturally producing greenhouse gases. But the increase humans have created has caused significant concentrated the gases collecting just within the atmosphere — trapping the sun's radiation and gradually increasing temperatures worldwide.

When it comes to greenhouse gases and meat consumption, consider this: The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that roughly 18% of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the animal agricultural sector. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates an almost 50% increase in methane gas emissions from pig and cow livestock between 1990 and 2005. And lastly, according to the Humane Society of the United States, 65% of greenhouse gas nitrous oxide comes from animal-farming — and has 300% the global warming potential than CO2.

Photo by  @pierredb  on Unsplash / Edited by Caroline Colvin

Photo by @pierredb on Unsplash / Edited by Caroline Colvin

When it comes down to it: This type of farming is immoral

I hear many people who are borderline vegetarian — not to discredit those who consciously choose non-meat options on occasion — and I would say most of the time their reasoning is in regard to animals dying. Even with the too-aggressive efforts of PETA, framing animal cruelty as the sole rationale for a meatless diet doesn’t necessarily work. I’m not here to tell you the moral implications of animal cruelty are an illegitimate reason to give up meat once and for all. I just want to make it a compounding issue: The

  1. damage done to the environment by factory-farming, as well as

  2. the harmful effects of this kind of farming on humans (particularly marginalized communities), along with

  3. the ways antibiotics allow factory-farmers to cut corners

provides a well-rounded overview as to why cutting meat can be an ethically sound dietary choice.

It feels like there’s a dichotomy between those who can’t be bothered to hear an ounce of scientific reasoning, and those who tiptoe into Facebook’s media blackhole suddenly feel they have an advanced degree in applied biochemistry and immunology.

What I ask is just to listen to scientists. In my ideal world, Capitol Hill’s 2020 intern class has a diverse array of environmental scientists and social justice activists among the economists and poli sci kids. Men making decisions about women’s bodies is just as wrong as cis-hetero people writing legislature on queer politics. And that’s just as wrong as politicians making ill-informed decisions on our environmental future without the opinions of specialists.

This list is far from comprehensive list and nothing near a true deep-dive into the wrongfulness of factory farming. But I hope it can provide an ounce of perspective so that the next time you hear “CFC’s Causing an Ozone Hole” or “VRE Threat from Anaerobic Lagoon,” you can process what you’re reading and understand what sort of threat we’re facing. 🍒