Commercial meat industry practices not so appetizing
It’s almost scary how large of a role the beef industry plays in American society. Beef is practically anywhere that food is available. To most people, this may not seem like a problem. However, there are many hidden issues behind the beef industry, especially concerning the environment and human health.
One of the largest impacts that beef has is on global greenhouse gas emissions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 28 percent of our global methane emissions come from the beef industry.
Julia Lapp, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Physical Education at Ithaca College, said the significant percentage is due in part to the animals themselves.
“Cows are gassy creatures,” said Lapp. “They produce methane, both in their manure and their bodies, and just by virtue of the fact that meat consumption has gone up globally, we are producing more methane, which is also true in other farm animals.”
Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas that is roughly 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA. Ruminant animals — cattle, sheep, buffalo and goats — are one of the largest sources of methane in the atmosphere because their digestive systems produce the greenhouse gas, making them significant contributors to global climate change.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the beef industry’s only affect on the environment. Concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs, are areas where cows, or other animals, are packed into an extremely small area producing a large amount of waste.
“The [CAFOs] waste needs to be treated as a toxic substance because of its high density,” said Lapp.
Emily Shaw, co-president of Slow Food Ithaca College, said CAFOs are not only bad for the environment, but also the quality of life for the animals is also extremely poor.
“Not only are [CAFOs] dirty, but they’re horrible living conditions for the cows,” Shaw said. “They are pumping these cows with hormones and antibiotics and this is what people are eating. Then, all of [their waste] is going into the water system and the air.”
CAFOs are dangerous to the local environment because of the significant amount of waste produced. If it leaks into the water system, water treatment plants may be overwhelmed in managing such a high concentration of chemicals found in the waste, thereby polluting the water and poisoning individuals who drink and use it. According to the Center for Disease Control, states that have a large number of CAFOs experience 20 to 30 serious water problems per year as a result of the waste.
Another problem with the beef industry is the destruction of local biodiversity. Big producers spread their cattle farms across the globe, utilizing cheap land in developing nations. However, the land cleared is often rainforest or some other diverse landscape. A Greenpeace report, “Skaughtering the Amazon,” stated that the Brazilian government attributes 80 percent of Amazonian deforestation to the beef industry. Rainforest areas are a significant source of life for the world’s biodiversity. Even disrupting one species’ lifestyle and population can be enough to have a detrimental effect on all other species living nearby it due to the interconnectedness of food webs.
The beef industry also has negative effects on human health. For instance, foodborne pathogens are common in the commercial beef industry because it is easy for an infection to spread between animals. This makes it difficult to track the birthplace of the disease.
A large number of cows in a cramped location can produce a higher risk for disease, such as a dangerous strain of E. Coli, which is found in the cow’s waste. Up to four or five meat lots can contribute cows to one slaughterhouse, mixing the cows together and making it impossible to tell where the disease originated. What’s worse is the ground beef used in hamburgers can be made with dozens, hundreds, even thousands of cows. According to the CDC’s 2011 report, there are approximately 70,000 cases of E.Coli infections a year, resulting in over 2,000 hospitalizations. Incidentally, the CDC also states that 14 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks are related to the beef industry alone.
The beef industry is also likely to have unhealthy effects on consumers due to the chemicals used when raising the cattle. Beyond meat, the presence of growth hormones in dairy products is a risk to human health.
“There are growth hormones that occur naturally in milk, which makes everything trickier,” said Lapp. “But there have been some concerns that consuming dairy that has added growth hormones have an effect on our systems, particularly with things like cell mutation or cancer. There’s not solid research behind that, but endocrinologists see that potential.”
These problems contributed to both Lapp and Shaw’s support of small-scale, locally produced food.
“A more localized system would help with the reliability and safety of the food,” said Lapp. “Local producers want to produce a food item, and if they’re selling to their neighbors and community members … they have that incentive to keep their food healthy.”
Shaw believes that buying local food will be beneficial for both its environmental and social effects.
“The most important thing is that people should know where their food is from,” Shaw said. “Buying locally is very important because, not only does it lessen the environmental impact with transportation, but it also lets you have that personal contact with the person who is supplying your food.”
High Point Farms, a small cattle farm in Ithaca, is an example of local meat production. The cows are not given growth hormones or antibiotics or raised in confinement. In the summer, the farmers use rotational grazing, giving each cow a fresh patch of grass once or twice a day.
Tina MacCheyne, one of the owners of High Point Farms, explained their version of meat production as opposed to the commercial meat industry.
“When we do processing,” MacCheyne said, “We process one animal at a time at a small USDA butcher, so it’s just that one animal’s ground beef, not thousands like in the commercial industry.”
All of these factors contribute to a healthier product for both the consumer and the environment as well as a healthier life for the animal.
If meat producers like High Point Farms are to be the norm, there needs to be a change in consumer choices. Lapp said the continuation of the industrial meat process is consumer driven.
“We eat a lot of meat,” Lapp said, “A meat centered diet isn’t good for us as humans and it’s obviously not good for the planet. The planet cannot support that. We need to be eating more plants. The other part is that we have the cheapest food supply in the world. As Americans, we pay less for food than any other population.”
She said, “[W]e’re used to cheap food, but if we don’t want to pay much for our food, then we’re going to have a food system that continues to do these kinds of things to reduce the costs of production.”
Jess Santos is a junior writing major who was a vegetarian before she wrote this article. Email her at jsantos1[at]ithaca.edu.