You probably care a lot about how your fruits and vegetables are grown. You may not think as much about where your family’s animal protein comes from, but the conditions in which most meat, poultry and even dairy is produced may give you and your kids pause – even those most likely to clamor for yet another burger or hot dog.
Americans eat a lot of meat and poultry – 27 billion pounds of beef were produced last year alone, most of it in “factory farms.” All those animals produce lots of manure – quite literally tons of it. The 775 animal operations in the Maumee Basin of Western Lake Erie alone produce 5.5 million tons of manure each year. The coastal plain of North Carolina has 1,500 factory farms that produce as much as 4 billion gallons of wet swine waste and 400,000 tons of dry poultry waste.
The mountains of waste smell terrible, but the stench is far from the worst problem it creates. Bacteria, such as from hog feces, can get into the homes and lawns of neighbors and endanger their physical and mental health. And the problem is getting worse. From 2005 to 2018, the amount of manure produced in the Maumee Basin rose by more than 40 percent.
All that waste has to go somewhere. Manure from large-scale animal farms runs off into groundwater, lakes, rivers and streams. It pollutes drinking water, hurts air quality and triggers tremendous stress for local residents. That may be one reason life expectancy in North Carolina communities near hog farms is particularly low, even after adjusting for other socioeconomic factors.
Kids may love poop jokes, but the production and consumption of animal protein is no laughing matter. You and your children might find the conditions the animals that you eat are raised in outrageous and disgusting – perhaps enough to drive even the most enthusiastic carnivore into the ranks of committed vegans. The animals live in crowded, dirty conditions often infested with flies and rodents. The water they drink or that’s used to wash down the facility can get contaminated with any number of these pollutants.
Here are a few other things to consider – and point out to the kids when they clamor for yet another burger, hot dog or order of chicken McNuggets:
- Not all meat is produced in a factory farm. By buying certain kinds of meat, you can avoid supporting a great deal of the harm of factory farms. Look for grass-fed, pasture-raised or “free range” meat in lean cuts that have no antibiotics or hormones and are certified organic. Check out EWG’s label decoder for help.
- It’s not just livestock raised for meat that’s raised in industrial-scale animal operations – dairy cows are too. So if you’re not a fan of large-scale animal production, you’ll may want to change your dairy consumption habits, too. Buying organic milk, cheese and other dairy products will be better for your family’s health and for the environment.
- Crowded living conditions in factory farms make animals sick, which has driven the overuse of antibiotics for livestock. This has led to the development of strains of bacteria in animals and humans that are resistant to life-saving medicine – the last thing most parents want.
- Manure runoff contains chemicals that algae feed on, such as nitrates and phosphorus. They’re responsible for the toxic algae blooms that pollute many lakes and rivers (and sometimes make them off limits for swimming and fishing). If you’ve seen “Do Not Swim” signs recently at the beach or your area lake, or greenish scum floating on the water’s surface, you’re often looking at the direct consequence of industrial-scale animal production.
- Factory farms aren’t going away any time soon. The amount of red meat and poultry consumed in the U.S. fell after the Great Recession of 2008 but rebounded and was projected to reach 222.2 pounds per person per year in 2018. It’s expected to go up in the rest of the world, too. Dairy consumption in this country is also on the rise. Your family can do its part to avoid adding to the problem. For starters, consider going meatless (and without dairy) once a week.