Eating meat in the modern world could be compared to playing Russian Roulette. If it is cooked thoroughly, nine times out of ten you probably won’t get sick from eating it – not immediately anyway. But repeated consumption of what is known as factory-farmed or industrially-produced meats is actually hazardous to your health. This meat is largely what you will find available at most grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias, and other places that serve food (and yes, even at your neighbor’s house when you are invited over for a homemade dinner). Over time, this activity will greatly contribute to many health issues like heart disease and colon cancer. What are factory farms and why do they adversely affect meat and our health? Let’s find out!
First of all, animals (cows, pigs, and poultry) raised in a factory-farmed environment lead the most unnatural lives. They are often confined to small quarters, and are not allowed to roam or graze. Sometimes they are in metal structures where they stand on concrete, or in large, barren swaths of dirt and stand or lay in their own excrement. They are not allowed to carry out natural behaviors such as grazing, foraging, or rooting. The primary purpose of these farms is to make a profit, so little effort and consideration is given to the animals’ comfort or health.
Conditions are filthy and unsanitary in these operations. The result is often that animals become ill and must be treated with medications and antibiotics. Farmers give the animals regular doses of antibiotics to reduce the incidence of sickness and illness, but the downside is that this creates antibiotic resistant bacteria. Animals are also administered growth hormones in addition to antibiotics. Both substances cause the animals to grow larger and at a faster rate, which in turn equates to quicker turnaround on selling animals for slaughter to make room for more animals being born…and the cycle continues.
Because these facilities are a far-cry from a real farm, the government refers to them as animal feeding operations or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). CAFOs usually refer to a much larger number of animals being processed. If you have ever driven past a farm like this, you’ll know it by the terrible stench of toxic gases being released into the air due to the poor conditions where the animals reside (besides the obvious appearance of industrial buildings and no grass). The noxious odor is actually responsible for a great deal of pollution which affects soil, water, and air as well as illness and death to employees of the operation. Oh, and incidentally, if you are a taxpayer – some of the money you pay goes toward controlling this pollution.
What else? Animals raised in feedlots are fed grain, soy, corn. Why should that matter? Cattle are ruminants and are not meant to consume grains. Their digestive systems are designed for grass consumption. Remember the antibiotics? Those medications are given because the animals become sick from eating plants they were never designed to ingest in the first place. So there you have it: unhealthy animals being made to live in completely unnatural conditions and eating food they were never meant to eat. That’s a recipe for disaster! Yet huge factory farm environments are pervasive, even the norm, throughout our lands. And they make billions of dollars.
Is it really cheaper?
If you ask the average person, he or she might try to convince you that industrially-produced meat has a cheaper price tag. On the surface, that appears to be the case. But don’t be fooled – it is a myth that cheaper meat is truly more affordable. If you consider the the true cost of factory meats – that is, the massive damage incurred to both health and environment – you’ll see that sustainable meat is less expensive. Every time you visit the doctor or hospital because you eat a poor diet, you are maintaining a losing financial system. You’ll be paying for your bad habits in spades for years to come – doctor bills, surgeries, prescription drugs, missing work, and rising insurance premiums. If you are eating and living healthy, you will stay out of the doctor’s office and over time, save money.
Big money equals bigger power
So why is this whole situation allowed to continue? One reason is that huge multi-billion dollar corporations run these farms and dominate the market with monopolies in the industry. They also receive massive subsidies from the government. These systems are designed to put through as many animals in as short a period of time as possible to maximize profit, thus making it much more difficult for smaller, more eco-friendly family farms and operations to continue doing business. It’s a system geared toward rewarding those who rake in big money and punishes the hard-working, less powerful, small-time farmer.
According to federal regulations, factory farms fall under the “agricultural” rather than “industrial” category. Therefore they are not required to the regulatory scrutiny that should be mandated given the massive amount of production and resulting pollution generated. These agribusiness giants hire powerful lobbyists capable of influencing government agencies which monitor agricultural practices. The result is industrial operations which have free reign to hire employees (often illegally) who receive low pay, unsavory working conditions, and no benefits, erect their businesses with disregard to the impact realized on neighboring communities, and cause a tremendously negative impact on the environment. And that’s where your meat comes from.
In contrast, a sustainable farm maintains their facilities with the health of the animals and the environment as the priority. The main idea behind sustainable food is that everyone involved in the process of farming benefits in some way – from the workers, to the animals, to the farmer, to the environment, to the consumer. Currently there are no government regulations about sustainable farming, so it’s important to conduct research into any food you are purchasing from farms calling themselves ‘sustainable’. The closer to home (local) your food is, the more sustainable it is likely to be. Keep in mind, there are plenty of people who do live near factory-farm and industrially-produced food, so it is important to do your research.
Sustainable farms are pretty much the opposite of the factory environment – animals have room to roam, graze, and just be animals. Farmers treat their animals as naturally as possible. All animals eat grass, alfalfa, or some other type of hay. Poultry and birds roam free and eat insects, worms, and forage in the dirt. If sustainable farmers do use medications or antibiotics, the incidents are isolated and most practices involve removing the animal being treated from the main farm environment for an extended period of time (up to one year).
Sustainable and organic…what’s the difference?
You may not be aware that sustainable-produced food is not necessarily organic. Here are the differences:
1) Organic farms must be certified annually by the USDA to carry the label. The sustainable principle is a philosophy and a way of life.
2) Organic farms often produce food in a sustainable manner. On the other side of the spectrum though, standards for organic simply require animals have “outdoor access”. This could be something as menial as through a window screen. And, it means the premises could have a dirt or cement area on which animals spend a majority of their time. So the difference is that sustainable farms provide the room animals need to carry on natural and healthy behaviors, whereas organic may or may not.
3) Organic farmers are prohibited from using antibiotics on animals, while sustainable farmers can choose to use them if their animals become ill, or not at all.
4) Hormone use in animals is prohibited in organic or sustainable-raised animals.
5) Organic farms may be small or corporate (and subsequently, could be operated much like a factory-farm) while sustainable food is raised by small farmers. Farm size is also key – organic farms can be small or large and sustainable farms are maintained on much smaller land plots.
6) Travel distance – your food can travel any distance and still be labeled ‘organic’. Sustainable food never travels too far.
Can organic food be sustainable at the same time? Yes it can. But many corporate operations are using the term ‘organic’ to sell products because there is now an automatic association between its mention and health. Be aware that some of these operations do not farm sustainable products. Do your homework to find out what practices are in use.
Be certain in your research, that when you purchase meat or dairy from a farmer, you distinguish between animals fed grass for the majority of their lives and then finished on grain, and those who eat grass for the entirety of their existence. The former is still grain-fed and cannot technically be in the true grass-fed category, and will not carry the same superior health benefits of all-grass fed meat.
So what does all this mean?
For years, most health rhetoric has told us that we should curtail eating a lot of red meat because of things like saturated fat and cholesterol. What many studies conducted don’t take into account is the content of the meat being consumed. Here is a side-by-side health analysis of factory-farmed meat and sustainable grass-fed meats:
high in calories low in calories
high in carbohydrates low in carbohydrates
low in protein high in protein
high in fat low in fat
The content of meat is critical as to how it is absorbed and nourishes the body. Just think about how nutritionally empty and unbalanced meat produced from factory farms is, not to mention chock full of toxins and harmful substances (this shouldn’t be a surprise given the process it endures to get to the grocery store). In order for meat to properly nourish our bodies, it must be naturally lean, low in calories, carbohdrates, and fat, and high in protein. It must contain the correct balance of Omega 3s and 6s (higher in Omega 3s), and conjugated linoleic acid. Truly sustainable grass-fed meats and dairy products achieve these requirements perfectly.
Take a look at the following recently conducted study:
“The bottom line is we found an association between red meat and processed meat and an increased risk of mortality,” said Rashmi Sinha of the National Cancer Institute, who led the study published in March of 2009 in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
In contrast, routine consumption of fish, chicken, turkey and other poultry decreased the risk of death by a small amount.
“The uniqueness of this study is its size and length of follow-up,” said Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study. “This is a slam-dunk to say that, ‘Yes, indeed, if people want to be healthy and live longer, consume less red and processed meat.’ ”
Neither Mr. Popkin nor Mr. Sinha outwardly stated that their study was done specifically on factory-farmed meat. But, because the majority of people who eat meat consume the factory-farmed variety, it is more than likely that this study means to tell us that factory-farmed meat causes disease. We know all factory farmed meat is processed beyond recognition from a real, whole food. Therefore, by his own admittance, Mr. Popkin and his colleague are confirming that eating factory-farmed meat can cause a person’s life expectancy to be shorter. No debate.
We can reasonably draw the conclusion, then, that when you hear people say things like, “the average person has 5 pounds of undigested meat in their colon”, they are referring to this horrific, meat-like substance people have been consuming in developed countries for the last hundred or so years. The advent of factory farming began just before the turn of the 20th century (late 1800s). Coincidentally, heart disease in the United States took a sharp upturn during the 1920s and has not let up since. The other major disease which has paralleled with the rise of factory farming is of course, colon cancer.
What’s the Solution?
There is indeed a viable way for all citizens to make a noticeable impact on the horrors of the factory farming. Sustainable farms have a vested interest in maintaining their practices for the good of everyone, and won’t compromise your health or environment to increase profts. Here are some things you can do starting today:
- Look for local produce, dairy, and meat products grown on smaller farms which use safe practices (no pesticides, organic soil management, no hormones, antibiotics, etc.). CSAs are good places to start, and ask around to locate other farms that grow the types of food you are interested in buying.
- Encourage and others and educate your family and friends on the benefits and necessity of buying local and from farms that use safe practices for growing food.
- If you have a farmer’s market, visit it regularly. The money spent on those products will go toward minimizing waste and fossil fuel usage, reduce damage to health and environment, and supporting the smaller farms and your local community’s economy.
- You can use the Eat Well Guide to search for farms, restaurants, merchants and more who support sustainable farming.
- Get involved locally and nationally on the issue of stopping factory farms in their tracks. Visit The Petition web site to sign and send in your signature saying you don’t support these operations of death and destruction.
For more information about getting involved to end abuse, suffering, and damage caused by factory farms visit Factory Farming Campaign.