By Caroline Souroujon
Most of us don’t really consider where the meat on our plate comes from. Or if we do, we tend to picture an idyllic family farm where animals are free to graze the fields. The unfortunate reality of animal farming is far from this picturesque vision; instead, the industry standard is “factory farming”, where thousands of animals are packed together and live under harsh and unsanitary conditions. The factory farming model requires an abundance of natural resources from start to finish, emits large amounts of greenhouse gases, contaminates nearby communities, and offers low-paying jobs in order to satisfy consumer demand for meat. Three pressing issues that arise from factory farming include environmental damage, animal cruelty, and the risk of diseases. While there are many promising innovations that can mitigate these effects, it is important to recognize factory farming’s shortcomings to understand why these solutions are needed.
- Environmental damage
When thinking of the top greenhouse gas emitting industries, what usually comes to mind are the oil or transportation sectors, but what most people do not realize is that the animal farming industry contributes between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, animal farming is responsible for 5% of CO2 emissions, 44% of methane emissions and 44% of nitrous oxide emissions. Emissions are released throughout the entire supply chain of animal farming, from the grazing of forests to set up farms, to the energy required to gather feed, power the farm and transport the meat. According to a global 2013 study by Environmental Research Letters, 36% of the world’s crop caloric output is being fed to livestock, yet only 12% of these calories end up as meat and other animal products for human consumption– a crazy inefficiency in our current food system! Factory farms also contribute to air and water pollution in the communities surrounding the farms. The waste from these farms is often dumped in open-air lagoons and sprayed onto fields– this releases odors that contaminate the soil, water and air. These manure lagoons are also easily susceptible to floods, which can contaminate community water supplies.
- Animal Cruelty
The unethical treatment of animals in factory farms includes not only the slaughter of animals, but also the stressful conditions they are raised in. Industrial farming relies on intensive confinement practices to maximize the number of livestock in a given farm. Inhumane methods such as the battery cages where 5-10 hens are stuffed into an area the size of an iPad, the veal crates used to cage baby cows, and the gestation crates where mother pigs are confined, are all common practices in the industry. On top of this, animals are genetically modified to maximize meat output, and pumped with antibiotics to reduce disease spread.
- Disease Risk
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become increasingly clear the threat that infectious diseases pose to the global economy. Many people are frustrated with the re-opening of wet markets in China that gave rise to the virus, yet experts are starting to look to factory farms as another source of new diseases. According to the CDC, three out of four infectious diseases arise from animals, and the greatest risk of animal to human transmission occurs with direct or indirect human exposure to animals, their products and/or their environments. What makes factory farms a breeding ground for the next pandemic? The dark, overcrowded and unsanitary farms where livestock are raised, which stresses their immune systems and puts them at a higher risk of developing diseases. Many farms also are frequent users of antibiotics, which increase the risk of their livestock contracting highly drug-resistant forms of bacteria. When all the animals at a farm are genetically modified to be nearly identical, viruses and bacteria can easily spread across an entire population. With farm employees constantly being exposed to this environment, the transfer of a virus or bacteria to the human population becomes even more likely.
The rise of plant-based and cell-based foods as a new solution
Plant-based and cell-based foods offer an alternative to animal products that solve the shortcomings of the traditional meat industry. In the US, the average citizen consumes 200 pounds of meat a year, so it is unlikely that people will cut out meat entirely. That’s where plant-based and cell-based meats come in– they offer an alternative to industrial farming that reduces pandemic risk and is better for the environment and animal welfare, while still fulfilling consumer demand for animal products. Innovation has led to plant-based meats closely resembling their animal counterparts in taste and texture, and have contributed to their rise in popularity, with forty-one percent of Americans saying they have tried a plant-based meat product at some point. The production of meatless meat is significantly less resource-intensive than traditional animal farming, requiring less water consumption, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions.
What if there was a way to continue to eat conventional animal products, without the shortcomings of the traditional farming industry? Cell-based (or cultured) meats still sound like a sci-fi movie to most as they are new innovations in the alternative protein space, but they do just that. Essentially, the process begins with cultivating animal cells, which are then grown in a nutrient-rich environment and structured into actual meat. With cell-based meats, there is no need to raise animals, and the process generates up to 96% less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional farming. However, the current limitations are scale and commercialization. As more R&D is done in this field, cell-based meat production has the potential to reshape the way we consume meat.
The recent trends towards cell and plant-based proteins will likely be reinforced by the positive effects they bring, including a reduction in emissions, a smaller environmental burden, more ethical treatment of animals, and the reduction of potential health outbreaks. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, and as people become more aware of the risks animal farming poses, this will likely be the strongest catalyst to help consumers move away from traditional food sources as they become aware of the issues with the way they currently eat.
Sources Mentioned & Further Reading:
Friedman, Lisa, et al. “The Meat Question, by the Numbers.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/climate/cows-global-warming.html.
Gerber, P.J., et al. “Tackling Climate Change through Livestock – A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities. .” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2013 http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3437e.pdf
Cassidy, Emily S, et al. “Redefining Agricultural Yields: from Tonnes to People Nourished per Hectare.” Environmental Research Letters, vol. 8, no. 3, Jan. 2013 https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015/meta