Each year, thousands of people choose to adopt a vegan diet – a diet free of all animal products. While veganism is a lifestyle choice, it is also a powerful boycott against some of the world\’s largest and most entrenched institutions: corporate farms that produce more than half of the country\’s food, global financial institutions that require countries to feed only the wealthy, meatpacking plants that have the highest injury rates of any industry, stockyards that pollute the poorest neighborhoods, and corporate media that censor public health advisories. Veganism is at heart a boycott against the old and destructive belief that profits are more important than human and non-human welfare. Likewise veganism should be seen as an essential part of our work for social justice. As a movement, we should begin our work by taking the protest to our plates.
Animal agriculture is an enormous industry. In 1999, more than 9 billion farm animals were slaughtered and packaged in the U.S. alone. Last year, the U.S. produced more than $25 billion in beef, $20 billion in milk, $15 billion in chicken, $7 billion in pork, and $5 billion in eggs. Likewise, animal agriculture is made up of some of the richest companies in the country, many of which have virtual monopolies in their industries. Currently, only four companies account for: 42% of all turkey production , 49% of all chicken production , 57% of all U.S. pork slaughterhouses , and 79% of all beef-packing. And just 1% of all feedlots in the U.S. feed 55% of the country\’s cattle. The animal industry, in turn, depends upon three transnational companies to supply most of its animal feed: ADM, Cargill, and ConAgra.
As a result of its alliances with the transnational feed companies, animal production has effectively destroyed family farms in the U.S. Small grain farms cannot compete with the giant feed companies that are supported every year by the hundred billion-dollar animal industry. And small animal farms cannot match the economy-of-scale of animal \’factory farms,\’ where animals are placed in inhumane conditions for the sake of efficiency. Bernard Rollin, Ph.D., explains that it is \”more economically efficient to put a greater number of birds into each cage, accepting lower productivity per bird but greater productivity per cage…individual animals may \’produce,\’ for example gain weight, in part because they are immobile, yet suffer because of the inability to move…Chickens are cheap, cages are expensive.\” So-called \’free range\’ farms are little better — merely corporate factory farms with a small outdoor yard, usually impossible for animals to reach. As a result, an American consumer can almost never buy animal products without supporting the corporate farms, multinational seed companies, and animal agriculture monopolies that keep family farms out of business.
The federal government hasn\’t helped small farmers either. Animal agriculture is one of the richest beneficiaries of corporate welfare in the U.S. Thanks to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, taxpayer money is used to buy $500 million in animal products for National School Lunch Programs and other public assistance programs every year. Although many of these animal products are believed to contribute to heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and a number of other health problems, they continue to be distributed to public programs across the country. Why? The federal board that produces the U.S. Dietary Guidelines is made up of 11 members, 6 of whom have links with the meat, dairy, or egg industries. The committee chairman has worked for the National Dairy Council, Dannon, and Nestle — a classic conflict of interest demonstrating how corporate and governmental interests can become synonymous.
Globalization and World Hunger
Animal products are a centerpiece in the globalization of agriculture. The increasing demand for animal products in the U.S. and abroad has fueled the import/export agriculture system. Through the WTO and other liberal trade policies, the U.S. and other high-income countries (HICs) have found new markets for their animal products by exporting to low-income countries (LICs), where only the wealthiest can afford them. At the same time, these exports have encouraged LICs to switch from a largely self-sufficient plant-based agriculture to a largely import-export animal-based agriculture. In the last decade alone, per capita meat consumption doubled in LICs. This has increased many LICs\’ demand for animal feed, which has of course benefited large U.S. grain merchants that export grain at highly subsidized prices.
How did this trend emerge? After World War II, the United States became the model of economic prosperity for much of the Third World, and animal agriculture became one of the symbols of its affluence. For the poor, meat, milk, and eggs symbolized entry into the middle class. For poor nations, they symbolized entry into the industrialized world. As the editors of Farm Journal observed, \”Enlarging and diversifying their meat supply appears to be a first step for every developing country. They all start by putting in modern broiler and egg production facilities — the fastest and cheapest way to produce nonplant protein. Then as rapidly as their economies permit, they climb \’the protein ladder\’ to pork, milk, and dairy products, to grass-fed beef, and finally, if they can, to grain-finished beef.\”
Many developing nations began the climb at the height of the \’green revolution.\’ In 1971, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report encouraging developing countries with surplus grain to develop a market in animal feed. In countries where rice was the dominant crop, FAO promoted increased production of grains, which can be more easily used for animal feed. The U.S. provided further encouragement in its foreign aid programs, tying food aid to the development of feed grain markets. The U.S. even gave companies like Ralston Purina and Cargill low-interest government loans to start poultry operations in developing countries, to help them up the ladder.
This was just the kind of help American companies wanted. As Americans\’ own per-capita consumption of beef, pork, and eggs was declining because of health concerns, U.S. companies were looking for markets abroad. There were simply more customers to be found in the LICs. As Dan Glickman, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, put it, \”World population is growing faster than ever. Rising incomes in Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe are translating into more money for food and an increasingly Western palate, including an increased appetite for animal products . . . We should see the world for what it is — 96% of our potential consumer base.\”
Corporate marketing strategies were aided by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) policies that pushed many LICs to invest in local livestock production. Countries like the Philippines, Egypt, and India received loans to develop animal industries, which corporations hoped would cultivate a local taste for future American animal products and grain imports. The strategy worked. From 1970 to 1990, livestock production in the Philippines and Egypt increased more than 50%. During the same period in India, local milk and egg consumption tripled. But only the rich could afford to buy these products. Products that couldn\’t be sold locally were exported to rich countries, where consumers could pay a higher price. In India, where more than half of the population lives on $1 per day, and more than half of all children under 5 suffer malnutrition, the government pushed to increase meat exports more than twenty-fold.
Perhaps most astonishing is that in 1984, when thousands of Ethiopians were dying each day from famine, the public was unaware that at the very same time, Ethiopia was using much of its prime agricultural land to produce grains for export to feed livestock in the United Kingdom and other European nations. The 1984 famine was not a result of food shortages, as such, but of the shift from food to animal feed.
Since 1984, food grain deficits have struck many other countries and forced them to import grain from American companies — often using development loans that increased their debt to Western banks and development agencies. Egypt, for instance, imported eight million tons of grain in 1990 and fed 36% of it to livestock. A dramatic shift from having been self-sufficient in grain during 1970, with only 10% of the grain fed to livestock.
The irony is, most LICs would not need any imports were they growing plants instead of raising animals. In fact, almost all would be able to feed their entire country if they switched back from import-export animal agriculture to their more efficient plant-based agriculture. But the import-export animal agriculture suits U.S. grain companies, two-thirds of whose exports now go to feed livestock in other countries.
It also suits agricultural landlords who, due to the increased demand for land to grow feed, can now charge outrageous rents. Many of the world\’s malnourished are tenant farmers who rent the land they work. The increasing demand for animal feed has led to increased rents that only corporate granaries can afford. As a result, growing numbers of farmers are landless and unable to feed their families. As the Worldwatch Institute reported, \”Higher meat consumption among the affluent frequently creates problems for the poor, as the share of farmland devoted to feed cultivation expands, reducing production of food staples. In the economic competition for grain fields, the upper classes usually win.\”
Throughout the Third World, livestock production is monopolizing the best land, undermining the local food supply, and barring the efforts of citizens to become food self-reliant. The trend continues to this day. The WTO, USAID, and development banks increase the trade in animal products, while U.S. corporations continue to reap the benefits.
Animal agriculture is among the dirtiest industries on the planet. The United Nations\’ Food and Agriculture Organization has linked animal agriculture to the contamination of aquatic ecosystems, soil, and drinking water by manure, pesticides, and fertilizers; acid rain from ammonia emissions; greenhouse gas production; and depletion of aquifers for irrigation.
As with most industries, factory farms and slaughterhouses are ordinarily located in poorer communities, where citizens do not have the political power to protect themselves from pollution. Of particular concern in these communities is manure pollution. As the number of animals raised for meat, milk, and eggs has skyrocketed, so has the amount of animal waste. Manure contains nitrogen and phosphorus, which lead to algal blooms when in waterways and lakes. These blooms deplete oxygen, kill fish, and destroy ecosystems. Manure also contaminates groundwater; in areas around factory farms, as many as one-third of all drinking wells don\’t meet EPA safe drinking water standards for nitrate.
In addition to being dirty, animal agriculture is also inefficient. Every year, 70% of the U.S. grain harvest is fed to farmed animals. Eating animal products thus requires growing more grain for animal feed, which, in turn, means using more genetically-engineered crops, more pesticides, more synthetic fertilizers, and more petroleum. Animal agriculture\’s dependence on higher yields accelerates topsoil erosion on farms, rendering land less productive for crop cultivation and forcing the conversion of wilderness to grazing and farmlands.
At a time when population and consumption pressures have become an increasing stress on the environment, the inefficiency of animal agriculture has sparked widespread concern. The grain and soybeans used in the production of meat consumed annually by one average American could instead be used to feed 7 people for a year. UN projections have estimated that the 1992 food supply could have fed about 3.2 billion people on a 75% vegetarian diet, 4.2 billion people on a 85% vegetarian diet, or 6.3 billion people on a purely vegetarian diet.
Few places are more dangerous than factory farms and slaughterhouses. Conveyor \’kill lines\’ are cranked to run up to 140 animals per minute. On the job, workers are exposed to a variety of toxins, allergens, and diseases found only in decaying animals. Because of increased production, repetitive motion injuries — such as arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and tendonitis — have increased 10-fold in slaughterhouses during the past 15 years. It should be little surprise, then, that animal agriculture workers have the single highest injury rate of those in any U.S. industry. Injuries among poultry workers are three times the national average; among beef-packing workers, ten times the national average. 36% of beef-packing workers sustain serious injuries each year.
Along with hazardous working conditions, the U.S. Department of Labor has documented widespread violations of workers\’ rights in animal production. These include routine violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, failure to pay overtime for hours worked, and monies deducted from workers\’ paychecks for clothing and protective gear which the companies are supposed to provide.
Frequent injuries and low wages (poultry workers, for instance, earn $7.45/hr on average — only 63% of the average wage for manufacturing industries ) have kept the turnover-rates high in most farms and slaughterhouses. Meatpacking plants generally have the highest turnover rates of any U.S. industry. In poultry plants, an annual turnover of 100% is considered low. In many plants, turnover is as high as 400% annually. Such high turnover helps companies to keep unions from developing. In turn, companies have turned increasingly to exploit immigrant workers, who are ill-prepared to assert their legal rights, and are thus ideal workers for the dangerous conditions. In 1996, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) estimated that one-quarter of all meatpacking workers in Iowa and Nebraska were non-citizen immigrants. ,
Public Health and the Media
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. 70% of heart disease cases are associated with the intake of cholesterol, a substance found only in animal products. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., with 35-60% of cancer cases believed to be linked with diet — particularly high-fat, low-fiber diets representative of animal products. The American Dietetic Association has linked the consumption of animal products with increased risks for a number of other debilitating conditions, including osteoporosis, diabetes, kidney disease, hypertension, and obesity.
Why haven\’t we heard more about these and other health problems associated with animal products? When the dairy industry alone spends more than $300 million each year to advertise the \’health benefits\’ of milk, the mass media are not likely to air stories that suggest animal products are actually bad for your health. For example, in 1997, two Fox TV reporters investigated the links between cancer and bovine growth hormones (BGH), a chemical found in most milk. Upon learning that the story was likely to be aired, lawyers from Monsanto (a producer of BGH and an advertiser on Fox) pressured the network not to air the story and to dismiss the reporters. When the reporters protested, they were fired by Fox. Similar pressures by animal industries have kept a tight leash on the reporting of salmonella poisoning, \’Mad Cow Disease,\’ and the general dietary risks associated with animal foods.
Human liberation and animal liberation
Lastly, there is the treatment of animals in animal agriculture. Today\’s farms are not like the ones most of us learned about in school; they are mechanized factories where an animal\’s welfare is of little concern compared to profit. Each year in the U.S., more than 9 billion animals are caged, drugged, mutilated, and slaughtered for food. Each one of these animals is treated more like a machine than a living creature capable of experiencing pain.
Why should this concern us? Historically, human societies have extended the reach of their ethical considerations — first beyond family and tribe; later beyond religion, race, gender, and nation; and eventually beyond species. To bring other animals into our ethics may seem as absurd now as abolition or women\’s suffrage did 200 years ago. But some day it will seem an obvious extension of compassion and respect to treat animals as sentient beings, deserving of our consideration. As Alice Walker, civil rights activist and author of The Color Purple has stated, \”The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.\”
Americans\’ increased appetite for animal products has made things worse for all of us. The good news is, we do not need to sacrifice our work on other issues to make a gradual change in our diet. As the philosopher Peter Singer has written, \”Those who claim to care about the well-being of human beings and the preservation of our environment should become vegetarians for those reasons alone. They would thereby increase the amount of grain available to feed people everywhere, reduce pollution, save water and energy, and cease contributing to the clearing of forests . . . [W]hen non-vegetarians say that \’human problems come first,\’ I cannot help wondering what exactly it is that they are doing for human beings that compels them to support the wasteful, ruthless exploitation of farm animals.\”
Likewise, a broad range of human rights, animal protection, environmental justice, labor, consumer, and family farm activists are realizing that we share a common foe — animal agriculture. These activists are making a concrete difference by progressing toward a vegan diet. Many start by reducing their consumption of meats. But the same corporations, import/export policies, pollution, and social injustices involved in meat production are also involved in dairy and egg production. Giving up meat is a good start, but not enough. A vegan diet, free of all products from the corporate animal industries, is one of the most effective protests we can make against corporate farming, globalization, labor abuse, environmental degradation, corporate journalism, and the callous indifference to both human and animal suffering. Every time we eat we have an opportunity to take the protest to our plates.