While the climate justice movement has highlighted the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation as being the leading causes of the climate crisis thus far, the role of agribusiness and factory farming in particular have received far less public attention. Yet, as documented in a new report by the Global Center for Climate Justice (GCCJ) entitled A Green New Meal: How Factory Farming Fuels Climate Injustice and What We Can Do About It, factory farming in the United States (US) is indeed a major driver of climate change and environmental injustice. The report, authored by Noa Dalzell, Director of the State Climate Policy Network (SCPN), will be released later this month. Dalzell serves as a Fellow at the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, a national organization working toward a world without factory farming through education and advocacy, and has devoted much of her professional life to uncovering the connections between agribusiness and climate change.
Factory farms, also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are industrial-sized livestock operations that pack a minimum of a thousand animals into highly confined, unvegetated spaces for at least 45 days a year. In the US, nearly 25,000 CAFOs collectively raise 9 billion land animals each year. Some 99 percent of the commercial meat in this country is grown in CAFOs. If you consume meat — albeit in a fancy restaurant, or from the local grocery store, or at a neighborhood barbeque — chances are that it comes from a factory farm.
The entire factory farming system is propped up by massive government subsidies and bailouts at taxpayer expense, and thrives economically as a result of weak environmental regulations and a capitalist economic system that prioritizes short-term profits over the well-being of people, the climate, and animals. These harms are especially severe in those most vulnerable communities that are adjacent to CAFOs. Even so, despite factory farming being frequently criticized by animal and worker rights groups and climate justice activists for its many abuses, such a perspective is often overlooked in broader analyses of economic inequality, environmental racism, and climate-related injustices in the US.
In the report, Dalzell documents the many harmful impacts of factory farming — particularly on low-income rural families and communities of color. She also proposes a series of climate-just agricultural policies that are required to dismantle factory farming. The list of these harms is a long one:
Global climate change: Industrial animal agriculture is now one of the leading contributors to climate change, responsible for about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That portion is higher than the entire global transportation sector alone. In fact, the meat and dairy industries emit more heat-trapping gas than all the planes, trains, and cars in the world combined. From start to finish, factory farming is a huge source of GHG emissions.
The industry — which includes the production of feed crops, the manufacturing of fertilizer, and the shipment of products — is responsible for more than 75 percent of total agricultural GHG emissions. If that is not bad enough, there also exists the methane problem. Methane, a byproduct of cows’ digestive processes and manure, is a GHG that has a global warming potential (GWP) 25 to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Animal agriculture is responsible for nearly half of the world’s methane emissions, which is deleterious for our climate.
Environmental Injustice: CAFOs generate billions of gallons of animal waste, which threatens the air, water, and health of nearby communities. In the US, factory farms negatively impact the water quality of more than 145,000 miles of rivers and streams, nearly 1 million acres of lakes, reservoirs, and ponds, and more than 3,000 square miles of bays and estuaries. According to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group, the drinking water in 1,700 individual systems — affecting about 8 million Americans — contain nitrogen at levels higher than five parts per million (ppm), an amount the National Cancer Institute says increases the risk of bladder, colon, kidney, and ovarian cancers. These illnesses are especially prevalent in communities of color and working-class White communities, both of which face disproportionately higher rates of negative health outcomes due to climate change.
In Iowa, CAFOs produce as much waste as 168 million people, a figure 53 times greater than the state’s entire human population. While the human waste removal industry is highly regulated, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has largely failed to effectively regulate the disposal of animal waste. Factory farms dispose of manure cesspools by spraying waste into surrounding areas. While local communities are increasingly utilizing lawsuits to protect their drinking water and air quality, they are often countered by elected officials who work closely with “Big Meat” and champion legislation favored by agribusiness that make it easier for CAFOs to operate.
Across the country, CAFOs are disproportionately located near communities of color and low-income communities. In North Carolina, for example — where about 9 million hogs are raised each year — communities of color have five times as many hog farms as their predominantly-White neighbors. A 2006 University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study found strong correlations between race, poverty, and proximity to factory farms. North Carolinians who live near hog farms also have significantly higher rates of infant mortality and death from kidney disease, tuberculosis, anemia, and other diseases compared to those who live further away, according to a recent Duke University study.
Waste of Natural Resources: In the US, roughly 260 million acres of forested land have been cleared to make room for crops. More than 67 percent of these crops — predominantly soy, corn, and grains — are not used to feed people, but rather to grow feed for livestock. Despite taking up so much land, meat and dairy products provide only 36 percent of the calorie content of the US food supply.
Industrial animal agriculture uses an enormous amount of freshwater. In the United States, factory farms are responsible for 55 percent of total water consumption. In comparison, domestic water use — water used in households — makes up only five percent. It takes an incredible 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. In comparison, most fruit, vegetables, and plant-based proteins require between 15 to a couple hundred gallons of water per pound.
Dangerous and Exploitative Working Conditions for Labor: Factory farms, which employ more than 700,000 workers, are extremely unhealthy and stressful places to work. Workers are routinely exposed to air pollutants that have been linked to respiratory illness, and they frequently suffer from repetitive stress injuries and chronic pain. Adverse working conditions characterized by extreme cruelty and violence toward animals also leads workers to suffer from a multitude of mental illnesses. Despite this high risk of illness, injury, and long, grueling hours, full-time factory farm workers make only $23,000 a year on average.
Factory farms exploit a labor force that otherwise may have limited job prospects. The majority of farm workers come from low-income and immigrant families, and many are illiterate and do not speak any English. A Human Rights Watch report in 2005 extensively investigated the hazardous work conditions and illegal tactics that companies used to crush union efforts, and interviewed workers at major companies like Tyson, Smithfield Foods, and Nebraska Beef. The report concluded that factory farming is the most dangerous job in America, and that the meatpacking industry systematically violates the human rights of workers.
Unhealthy Diets: Factory farming also produces extremely harmful effects on our dietary health. For decades, regularly consuming animal products was considered to be healthy. Kids, for example, are often told to drink milk in order to grow “big and strong.” The reality, however, is that meat and dairy products are the primary source of saturated fat and cholesterol in the American diet, which increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Cholesterol, which is exclusively found in animal products, is detrimental to one’s health. People who eat a lot of red meat have a higher risk of developing inflammatory arthritis, and those who consume a lot of dairy are more likely to develop breast cancer. Drinking lots of milk also increases growth hormone IGF-1 levels, which is linked to prostate cancer. High levels of red and processed meat consumption also raise the risk of bowel cancer.
Despite the severity of these problems, there is hope. The report concludes by offering a wide range of solutions to this crisis, starting with a description of what a shift toward regenerative farming and a more just and equitable agricultural system could look like. These solutions include reforming the subsidy and bailout systems for factory farming; investing more in research and development funding for open access plant-based science; banning the construction of new CAFOs; improving environmental, labor, and animal welfare regulations; and eliminating label censorship, ag-gag, and right to farm laws which favor large corporate interests over small family farmers.
These policy approaches have the potential to become part of a Green New Deal (GND) for America. A GND is not a single law, but a suite of policies designed to mitigate and reverse climate change, democratize energy and transportation systems, create good paying jobs and social services, attack social injustices of all kinds, and build more climate resilient communities. In this sense, a GND calls for a big, systemic transformation to achieve social, economic, environmental, and climate justice. It would mobilize vast public resources to transition away from political-economic systems fed by the exploitation of people and nature to a more just and sustainable society.
All across the country, we have seen that popular mobilization around the adoption of a GND is gaining momentum. In November of 2021, for instance, Boston elected for the first time a woman of color — Michelle Wu — to serve as the city’s mayor. Michelle ran on a GND for Boston platform that was written by Christina Schlegel, Executive Director of the GCCJ. Fortunately, other cities, towns, and states across the country are beginning to follow suit. Visit the Green New Deal Resource Hub at the Center for more information (https://www.gndcities.org/).
Even with these efforts in our cities, rural America also needs a GND, and it must begin with the transformation of the country’s agricultural system. A genuine, comprehensive GND for America would empower family farmers and other rural people to protect themselves from economic exploitation by big banks and agribusiness; promote more sustainable land uses; provide universal access to healthier foods for consumers; encourage agroecology and the elimination of chemical-intensive agriculture; end animal cruelty and factory farming; encourage low-tech carbon sequestration and regenerative agricultural practices; mandate safe working conditions and living wages for farmworkers; restore biological diversity; and catalyze the economic revitalization of rural areas. These are the promises of what Noa calls a Green New Meal for America.
Those corporate elites who oppose Green New Meal policies have benefited economically by producing cheap junk foods that are harmful for our health, displacing independent family farmers, abusing animals, using unsustainable land use practices, depleting soils, polluting the air and water, degrading natural ecosystems, and destroying biological diversity. Ecologically and socially-responsible farming practices simply get in the way of the profit maximization strategies of agribusiness. A Green New Meal would put an end to all of this. It would transform our food system, end factory farming, fight climate and environmental injustice, and redistribute the power of big agribusiness back to farmers, consumers, rural workers, and the American people. It is time for a Green New Meal for America.
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