The world is an increasingly carnivorous place. Vegans and vegetarians make up merely 0.96% and 2.64% of the American population respectively. According to a nationwide telephone survey conducted from June to July of 2007, animal welfare is ranked low on scale of importance when compared with other social issues like health care, poverty, and food safety. Such issues were ranked as five times more important than farm animal welfare. Consumers think that the financial well being of farmers is more important than food prices and the welfare of farm animals. 81% of respondents believed that animals and humans have the same capacity to feel pain, but said that human suffering should take precedence over animal suffering. Although 62% said that animal suffering should still be addressed, even if humans were suffering simultaneously, they also said that they would be willing to let 11,500 animals suffer if it meant relieving the pain of one human’s suffering.
Many Americans are willing to pay for improved animal welfare because they know that there is a correlation between increased animal welfare and raised meat prices. 40% of those surveyed said that ethics should be primarily taken into consideration when determining how to treat farm animals while 45% thought that scientific opinions should be used instead. However, it is possible that many respondents falsified their preferences in order to present themselves favorably, so it is quite possible that even fewer Americans than projected care deeply for the well being of animals. In response to such a possibility, this issue brief is being constructed in order to garner support and raise awareness about the often misleading world of the meat industry in the United States and abroad.
The Stakeholders (not “Steakholders”)
In order for change to occur, all stakeholders must be motivated and involved. The stakeholders are comprised of everyone, groups and individuals alike, because everyone is affected by the meat industry in some way. This issue brief was meant for those who were in the dark about the consequences of the meat industry and who could be inspired to adopt a modified, more meat-free (if not vegetarian) diet after reading the materials.
A Brief History of American Vegetarian Awareness
Since prehistoric times, humans have been interacting with their fellow animals. We were threatened by those more powerful than us, and managed to domesticate some species to our advantage for food, work, and even companionship. Accompanying the domestication of animals, many rules, regulations, and laws were put into place by various cultures in order to properly deal with these animals. Ancient Kosher and Halal customs of slaughtering animals were meant to minimize the pain and suffering of the animals. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in Great Britain in 1824. The Animal Welfare Act was signed into law in the United States in 1966. This law regulates the treatment of animals in research, transport, exhibition, and by dealers. It poses a minimum acceptable standard of codes of conduct towards animals. It has been amended several times, most recently in 2008.
While codes of conduct toward animal welfare have been in place for hundreds of years, over the past twenty years, consumers, primarily in industrialized nations, have shed light on the topic of animal welfare. Typically, the wealthier someone is, the surer they are of the quantity of the food they will receive, so they can begin to focus on the quality of the food, including food safety, how it is produced, and what its impacts on the environment, labor, and animal welfare are. Some consumer movements that have arisen in response to increased awareness of and attention on the meat industry have included movements that advocate for the absolute abolition of all use of animals except for economic gains. Other groups have made efforts to improve the treatment of animals in the meat industry. In the European Union, these groups have attracted the attention of the government as well as the general population. Consequentially, numerous laws have been enacted that regulate how farm animals are to be treated. These laws can regulate domestic production but not production abroad. This is problematic because the United States has few regulations or laws in place to protect animal welfare.
Environmental Impacts of Meat Industry
Factory farms, run by corporations, replaced small family farms with massive industrial complexes and free-grazing herds with warehouses to feed and house thousands of pigs, chickens, or turkeys in a single facility. The number of animals produced for consumption in the United States has greatly increased over the last 30 years, but the number of livestock and poultry producing facilities has greatly decreased.
The global meat production industry is one of the largest contributors to the destruction of the environment. Factory farms consume water, land, and resources at rates that are unsustainable. They contribute to the degradation of the environment, air and water pollution, large-scale fish deaths, depletion of the soil, and disappearing biodiversity. The meat industry is more resource-intensive than other forms of food production. “Meat livestock use 30% of ice-free land globally, 80% of global freshwater, and produce 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions which is more than the global transportation sector.” The meat industry is also largely responsible for habitat loss and deforestation. 34% of the global greenhouse gas emissions of the meat industry are from deforestation, methane emissions, and manure management.”
Grain that is fed to livestock instead of humans creates huge energy loss. Furthermore, as Peter Singer wrote in his 1975 book, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, the crops used to feed the livestock of the American meat industry could feed the world three times over. Demand for meat in the United States has increased astronomically since the 1970s, so imagine how much of the world could be fed just by American livestock crops in 2015. The global meat industry was expected to double between 1999 and 2050, which will also double the meat industry’s environmental impacts unless a more sustainable method of meat production is found, if people insist upon consuming it.
Factory farms create a serious waste problem by creating an astronomical amount of waste each year weighing in at approximately 500 million tons per year, which is three times the amount of all human waste in the United States. The waste is stored in “lagoons,” giant concrete or earthen pits. When the lagoons are full, the remaining waste is sprayed untreated on nearby fields as fertilizer. These lagoons are prone to spills and collapses and pose health risks to workers, nearby residents, and the environment, they have been outlawed in some states but still remain quite common. Animal waste has high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus, so it poses a major risk to groundwater and surface water. When it gets into streams and rivers, it stifles oxygen in water, suffocating fish and causing algal growth.
The air pollution caused by factory farms has recently been recognized as dangerous. Not only do the odors affect the moods and quality of life of nearby people, but “studies have found hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter concentrations at unsafe levels in and around factory farms.” Workers and residents exposed to this pollution suffer nausea, breathing trouble, nervous system impairment, and chronic lung irritation. While factory farm workers and neighbors are most at risk of compromised health and environmental dangers, pollution from factory farms endangers the entire population as a whole. Smog and contaminated urban drinking water supplies are among the complications that endanger society. Furthermore, the antibiotics added to animal feed in factory farms could make human diseases harder to treat and cure.
Factory farms pollute because of pricing pressure, advances in technology and veterinary antibiotics, and industry consolidation. The environmental and health risks from factory farms call for government action, sufficient regulation of factory farms is lacking. This is because there is a lack of historical data on factory farms emissions and because public opposition has failed to lead to regulation. It is a game of power politics in which small rural residents and farmers are harmed but huge corporations are benefitted by factory farms.
Because factory farms, or “confined animal feeding operations,” (CAFOs) are detrimental to regional air and water quality, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), states, and environmental groups have recently tried to bring more attention to CAFOs. However, it is difficult to formulate regulation for CAFOs because of politics, scientific obstacles, and the time and costs required. Because American environmental laws have been in existence longer than factory farms, the factory farms are largely exempt from emissions regulations. Farms, especially factory farms, are among the last industries to function outside of regulations. Only recently have legislators and regulators been paying attention to the demands to regulate CAFOs. In recent history, a series of lawsuits let to the Clean Air Act of 2003 and the Clean Air Act of 2005, in which the EPA agreed to start testing the factory farms’ air emissions, hopefully ultimately restricting emissions. The Sierra Club led a number of civil suits against major meat producers for disobeying federal emissions reporting requirements. Such steps focus on the production and reporting of emissions information. The provision of information means more regulation and better awareness and behavior of factory farm polluters. The Department of Justice and the Sierra Club will enforce such regulations and policies. These steps are not enough to fix the overwhelming problem of CAFO pollution, but serve as hopeful turning points.
An interesting alternative to traditional factory farmed meat is a new phenomenon called “cultured meat.” Cultured meat is “meat produced in vitro using tissue engineering techniques; animal tissue will be grown in vitro instead of growing entire animals.” The overall impacts of cultured meat are much lower than those of conventionally produced meat. Cultured meat can prevent the spread of animal-borne diseases such as Mad Cow Disease. The texture, taste, and nutrition of cultured meat can be manipulated using controlled conditions. This means that nutrition-related diseases caused by meat eating could be reduced if not eliminated. Results show that cultured meat production produces far fewer emissions and requires only a fraction of the land and water required than traditionally produced meat. Cultured meat, despite having been begun in the 1950s, is still only at the research stage. It is currently grown small-scale in labs. Large-scale production would require more research and about $160 million in investments in order to commercialize it as a product.
Health Complications of an Omnivorous Diet
Vegetarian diets are comprised primarily of cereals, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, possibly including eggs and dairy products. Vegans do not consume any animals or animal products. A vegetarian diet has less saturated fat and more starch, fruits, and vegetables than a non-vegetarian diet.
Much research and many studies support the notion that eating a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is healthier than an omnivorous or carnivorous diet. Western vegetarians have, on average, a lower body mass index (BMI) than non-vegetarians, lower average cholesterol, and a lower mortality rate by approximately 25%. Being a vegetarian also lowers the risk of diseases like constipation, gallstones, appendicitis, and diverticular disease. Studies show that in Britain alone, beginning a vegetarian diet could prevent about 40,000 deaths per year from cardiovascular disease. Vegetarians are, on average, thinner than non-vegetarians.
Animal fat is the culprit behind many chronic degenerative diseases, especially cardiovascular disease and some cancers; diets high in fat and low in fiber could lead to colon caner. The pesticides used in and the pollution caused by the meat industry are associated with higher risks of cancer among both workers and consumers of the meat industry. Hunger and food insecurity are not currently due to lack of food resources, but because of “insufficient political will or moral imperative to change the way food is allocated.” “The developing world alone is producing enough food to provide every person with more than 2,500 calories per day,” yet millions of people continue to starve as the resources are spent on the meat industry. If the meat industry continues like this, food scarcity could soon become a prominent problem. It is imperative that food producers realize and recognize that resources are finite and that long-term interests must be pursued and addressed. Even slight reductions in meat consumption could improve the health of individuals, the quality of the environment, and the lives of many livestock.
Economic Consequences of Meat Market
In 1996, the United States government spent $68.7 billion on agricultural subsidies. Our food does not come inexpensively, contrary to what we are led to believe by the cheap food prices at the grocery store. This generates a false sense of security; these costs do not even include the costs of cleaning up pollution.
Many consumers in industrialized nations are willing to pay more for products that were produced under conditions of higher animal welfare. In a survey of British consumers, it was shown that consumers would pay between six and 30% more for eggs if the inhuman towers of battery cages would be banned for hens. If the amount that people are willing to pay for products of higher animal welfare is great enough, then producers have sufficient incentive to produce such goods. This could also create incentive to mislead consumers, however. Firms have an incentive to disclose desirable information and details, but not the undesirable qualities.
Consumers, acting independently, will act selfishly, without concern about the external ramifications such as noise, pollution, decreased animal welfare, and other costs. The government may then step in to regulate costly behavior and encourage or subsidize the less costly behavior. Governments might try to measure the costs and benefits of animal welfare regulations in the form of studies or surveys to ensure that the views and values reflect those of society as a whole. If the private benefits of consumers do not outweigh the animal welfare costs, the government must step in and decide whether the individual and the collective benefits outweigh the costs of imposing regulation. Animal welfare laws typically cost a lot because they increase production costs.
Ethics of Animal Welfare
In the past thirty years or so, food has become a means of personal expression. People use it to convey their identity, opinions, and moral convictions. This has led people to express concern over the treatment of livestock and the methods of slaughtering. New activist groups have emerged with animal welfare and rights as the central issue. The way animals are treated in a society speaks volumes about the morality of such a society.
“Ethical vegetarians” choose not to eat meat because they believe it is morally wrong. “Although they recognize that eating meat is also detrimental to their health, ethical vegetarians understand that vegetarianism is an encompassing commitment to a way of life.” They are upset by others who eat meat because they see vegetarianism as a “moral imperative.” This is entirely different from vegetarianism who abstain from eating meat for health or religious reasons.
“Moralization is the process where a preference is converted into a value.” Moralization is both an individual and a societal process that transforms certain objects or actions from morally neutral to having moral qualities. Multiple reasons are sought to justify a conviction when something becomes moralized. In terms of the anti-factory-farming movement, the justifications that are usually used include the destruction of the small family farm, environmental degradation, animal welfare concerns, and disgust at the un-natural methods of breeding and raising animals.
Farm animal welfare is controversial and complicated. For example, in factory farms, many animals are kept in crates or cages. This is controversial because while it protects them from predators and each other, it is also a confining, uncomfortable environment for an animal to spend its life in. Three overlapping ethical concerns of animal rights activists for the quality of life of animals are: 1. Animals should lead natural lives using their natural abilities and adaptations, 2. Animals should be free of prolonged intense fear, pain, and other negative states, and should experience normal pleasures, 3. Animals should be healthy, grow, and function normally both behaviorally and physiologically.
Although much concern about animal welfare from activist and industry groups has been heeded, the group of people most affected, the consumers, have largely not been heard on the issue. Vegetarianism is largely comprised of females. Teenage vegetarians are typically white, from a higher socio-economic class, practice methods of weight-control and weight-loss, and have an increased concern for the environment, animal welfare, and gender equality when compared to their meat-eating peers. Moral vegetarianism is often viewed as an extreme example of the general public opinion regarding farming practices. This general opinion is typically concerned with a combination of animal welfare, human health, and environmental issues.
Livestock producers should greatly take into consideration this gender-oriented advocacy of vegetarianism because women currently and will most likely continue to have a strong, disproportionate influence on the purchasing of food for households.
Science is usually used as the foundation of public policy, but in the case of animal welfare protestations, it is often coupled with morality. However, as of recently, media has been the most influential platform for the raising of awareness of animal rights issues and for the expression of concern and questions over such treatment. Media sets up the political agenda by playing up or marginalizing people and issues. Media coverage can both help and harm animal rights special interest groups.
It has been proposed that supporters of the regulation of factory farms instead consider a different approach that focuses on something called “reflexive law.” Reflexive law is a set of information-based tools that decide which and how much information is to be disclosed to the public. This information is in the form of “raw data, hazard warnings, or environmental labels.” It shames polluters and provides an outlet for consumers, business partners, and shareholders to express their dismay at the pollution caused by the meat industry. Reflexive law is also faster and less expensive to put into place than “command-and-control” regulation.
The number of interest groups that take part in political lobbying has exploded since 1970. In the United States, the number doubled between 1955 and 1990, doubled again from 1970 to 1990, and reached 20,000 official interest groups in 1995. Recently, new social interest groups have emerged that no longer rely on political lobbying and legislative to achieve their political goals. They instead use media to influence marketing and consequentially the decisions of consumers. This is effective for three reasons: the passing of legislation is slow and blocked, consumers are increasingly affluent, and targeting the food market is now easier because it is more concentrated.
Decisions made by the government regarding food safety, farming practices, and animal welfare increasingly reflect the view of the people as a whole. Moralization transforms personal preferences into societal values, which are more likely than preferences to be institutionally and legally supported. An example of this is Bill C-22, which is an amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code to protect animals, which resulted from moralization. A wide variety of potential policy outcomes exist to deal with farm animal welfare, and all of them are rooted in moralization. “Legislation enforcing minimum standards combined with subsidy payments as incentives would be the best policy approach.” “Considering societal trends, it may be prudent if decision makers in livestock production methods were to take into consideration or at minimum acknowledge factors other than science in a long-term vision of sustainable and ethically supportable agricultural production systems.”
The United States is behind on factory farm regulation and animal welfare laws, but some other countries have stepped ahead. In Swiss society, animal welfare is an important issue. Swiss policy makers have reacted with strict animal protection legislation and two programs to promote animal-friendly farming. Also, the European Union adopted the “Protocol on Protection and Welfare of Animals.”
However, the construction of policy regarding animal welfare is challenging. The government must carefully weigh costs and benefits when making legislative and regulatory changes and decisions. “Good welfare provides private productivity benefits to producers and some level of positive external benefits to people who care about animal welfare status.”
In conclusion, this issue brief makes the case for vegetarianism for four reasons. First, the meat industry is largely responsible for the degradation of the environment. Second, a meat-free diet is much healthier than an omnivorous or carnivorous diet. Third, the meat industry takes a large toll on the domestic and global economies and much money could be spent on other important institutions but is instead spent on the meat industry. Finally, many see the killing and treatment of animals in the meat industry to be unethical and morally wrong. Cutting down even a little bit on meat consumption would reduce each of these four problems substantially.
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