24. Problems of Factory-Farming Livestock, Revisited

I just read a truly alarming book:  Ellen K. Silbergeld’s 2016 Chickenizing Farms and Food:  how industrialized meat production endangers workers, animals, and consumers.

As the title promises, the book reports on how raising livestock changed from small farmers’ pastures to industrial-type “factory farm” schemes where animals are packed tight into huge buildings and raised to slaughter-weight as fast as possible.  It apparently began with broiler chickens in the area where Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia meet, but has now spread all over the world and involves pigs and cattle as well as poultry (both for meat and eggs).

This model has spread fast and widely because it does produce lots of cheap meat, for which there is a huge global demand.  But as Silbergeld discusses at length, it does so with serious downsides.  These include the massive (and as it turns out, superfluous) use of antibiotics, which are rapidly breeding antibiotic-resistant strains of disease-causing organisms and threatening to cause epidemics of dangerous illnesses that could not be treated.  They also include horrendous pollution from the animals’ manure, which is not treated as the contaminant it is.  The reason for that has to do with the way in which the  big corporations that control the industry contract with farmers to actually raise the animals, but on terms that are so strict and pay so little as to leave these contractors no resources for effectively treating the waste yet absolve the corporations from responsibility for it.  This abuse of the contractors carries over to the vile conditions of employment for workers involved in  raising and slaughtering the animals.  And these workers are not only at risk themselves of terrible injuries and of contracting antibiotic-resistant disease, but they could also infect anyone they come in contact with when they go home.  The now-almost-complete erosion of regulations to protect either the workers or consumers is part of this picture that Silbergeld paints.

Silbergeld asks readers to respect the food choices of people who want to eat the meat that these factory farms produce, and so she insists that industrialized livestock raising is here to stay.  Her solution to the problems she describes is therefore that we should openly acknowledge that livestock raising is now an industry rather than anything that can be called farming and must be regulated as an industry, not treated as agriculture at all.  She proposes tough standards for worker safety, pollution control, and contractor and consumer protection, and posits that government should be held accountable for holding this industry to passable standards.

If this could be accomplished, it might very well solve the abuses Silbergeld describes.  I believe there are only two catches (besides the difficulty of getting governments to buck the interests of large corporations).  One catch is that in Silbergeld’s proposal to control and regulate factory farms, such huge portions of the corn and soybean crops would still be inefficiently feeding livestock as to continue to challenge our farmland to feed us all.  The other is that if the livestock industry really had to pay its workers and contractors a living wage and really had to control and treat the manure adequately, it would surely raise the cost of meat and other animal foods by a considerable margin.  And then the huge amounts of cheap animal foods that are the whole purpose of the factory farms would no longer be cheap.  This would unravel the whole scheme:  the economies of scale provided by industrial-agriculture livestock raising require a massive market, but if the necessary regulation raises the cost of meat significantly then that mass market is no longer massive enough to support the industrial-agriculture scale.

I do accept Silbergeld’s belief that we have no right to disrespect people’s desire for meat.  But I do not see any way for the industrial-model production of animal foods to feed the world.  It co-opts too much of our crop production and, if properly regulated, would probably not permit heavy meat-eating for most people for economic reasons.  This does not mean that people who want meat can’t have it.  But it does mean that meat would mostly be a minor ingredient in foods on most days, and a feast-food just occasionally, if we really want a healthy and well-fed world.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley