The sun shines brightly down upon the verdant expanse of the beautiful American pasture. The fresh grass offers prosperity to the cattle that stroll along grazing the earth. Calves are born from the rich soils that feed new life. As consumers glance down at labels with a red barn and open field on the styrofoam packages encasing our meat, this is the imagery that they often conjure up in their minds. And, as this meat sears on our skillets, rarely are its origins or the life it lived before questioned. In reality, the beef from our grocery store chains whispers its past in a cry some rarely acknowledge. It reflects a life imprisoned in a dark, hardly ventilated enclosure: of a mother cow who was artificially inseminated, of a newly born calf who is to grow up never to see the American pasture. And that infant is born to die. The perils for a cow locked into the world of industrialized farming stand as one of the great issues that frequents environmentalist discourse.
On a larger scale, this conflict concerns the meat industry as a whole. Some view the industry as a necessary evil that supports the burgeoning American population. Zachary Nold champions this perspective, highlighting the benefits of the meat industry. He hails it as our savior, alleging that “[the industry] is very important to our economy [and] the lives of many Americans would be destroyed” without it (Nold). Nold argues that the meat industry supports the nation as it employs millions of Americans, while simultaneously feeding millions. On the contrary, others deem the industry as immoral and disadvantageous to the climate, arguing that it must be countered with a cultural shift towards plant-based consumption. In support for a societal conversion to plant-based dieting, Greta Thunberg, a renowned climate change activist, condemns the industrialized agricultural system for “stealing our future” (Webber). Must we allow the hyper-industrialization of the meat industry to take liberties, such as the inhumane treatment of animals, to support the ever-growing American nation, or should we realign our collective moral compass to liberate the abused farm animals and prevent the destruction of human lives caused by climate change?
In what follows, I assert that both positions are but extremes on the spectrum of possibilities for solving the ills and consequences of the meat industry. I concede that our meat consumption fuels this industry that strips innocent animals of their freedoms and of their lives, and that our consumption perpetuates this virulent climate crisis. I maintain that the solution is not to utterly destroy the meat industry. Rather, we must reform it, but we must do so fully and completely. This agricultural reformation will allow the birth of a new age of American farmers who can once again become the backbone of the industry, escaping the domination of the vulture-corporations with insatiable greed that laugh in the face of humanity and nature itself. In order to diminish these avaricious corporations, we must transform our culture into one that does not perceive meat as the necessary ingredient to every meal on our plates. We must change our behavior towards meat consumption. Otherwise, we resign ourselves to a life of moral blindness both towards the animals and to the human race—a blindness that may cost us everything.
The ills of the meat industry come from the reduction of living, sentient beings into mere resources at our disposal. Meat products exist as the largest segment of the United States agricultural system—a fact that reflects our dietary culture’s odd fixation on meat itself. The extent of our overconsumption is evident in the USDA’s report from 2019, where 34.3 million cattle were slaughtered, producing 27.2 billion pounds of beef and 80.2 million pounds of veal (USDA ERS). This statistic is startling as it condenses our excessive consumption of cattle-based products into clearly defined statistics. In fact, the amount of cattle slaughtered in 2019 would be equivalent to the loss of approximately 10% of the United States population of 328.2 million people (“U.S. and World Population”). This extreme level of cattle death should implore us to look inward and question why our rates of consumption have reached such heights. Heights that are further emphasized in the slaughtering of 9.34 billion chickens, which produced 50 billion pounds of meat, in 2019 (Little). These statistics, though alarming in their enormity, can fail to resonate with people as they see the 34.2 million cattle and 9.34 billion cattle slaughtered as necessary to support a population of nearly 400 million people. The issue lies in this disconnect within our minds between the product—the meat—and the animal itself. Every year millions of animals endure a tortuous, painful existence to bring the meat on our plates that we eagerly slice into, promptly asking for more.
The magnitude of our meat consumption reveals itself in the weight and extent to which the meat industry processes both cattle and chicken, but these numbers fail to show where it all begins. Let us assume that today a new cow was born. The calf will begin its life on the open range, fulfilling the popularized image of a cow grazing on a lush field that extends into the horizon. Soon the freedom of that young cow will come to an abrupt end, for renowned author and activist Michael Pollan reveals that by six months of age the modern American cow “has seen its last blade of grass for the rest of its life” (Frontline). This blissful cow has no conception of the fate that awaits it as it innocently grazes besides its mother. This innocent freedom that fills the open range will soon be lost, as the cow will spend a mere fraction of its life on an actual pasture. Once it has reached the pivotal age, its ears will be pierced to adorn an identification tag, while a hot iron will sear its skin that will leave a scarred emblem of the cow’s tragic fate (“Factory Farmed Cows”). Once marked, the inevitable will arrive, and the American pasture will be but a memory. The cow will now spend the rest of its life in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO (see fig. 1), which tout themselves as efficient American farms but are glorified warehouses and paddocks that overfeed animals a combination of grains, oilseeds, and cereals so as to achieve the desired slaughter weight (Keiffer 12).
As the young cow is prepared to end up on our plates, it will subsist on a corn-based diet that it has not evolved to consume. Though ecologically disadvantageous, feeding the cows corn will exponentially increase the rate it reaches its desired slaughter-weight (Frontline). Yet substantial repercussions on the cow’s health will transpire from a corn-based diet. The once nutritionally-fulfilled calf will now await severe illness within the CAFO as the corn disrupts its digestive system, particularly by expanding the rumen, the cow’s first stomach, to such an extent that bacteria begins to seep into the bloodstream (Frontline). After enduring its adulthood confined in a concrete American pasture, the cow will find itself ready for slaughter. Within the slaughterhouse, the cow that once grazed the fields with its mother now dangles from chains attached to an overhead trolley, where it will bleed out as workers use a long knife to slit its aorta (Pollan). The cow will die hoisted in the air with concrete beneath its feet. But, on our labels, we will continue to see a smiling cow that feeds on fresh grass in an open-field.
This cow, as well as other farm animals, live a life of imprisonment for what seems to be the sake of our own basic needs, but is instead for the sake of corporate profit. The 2008 film Food, Inc. explores the state of CAFOs, where the Perdue subsidized grower Carole Marison exposes the horrors of chicken houses. As she stands within her Perdue-regulated CAFO, she concedes that “it’s not right what’s going on here” (Kenner 12:30). Despite corporation instructions, she refuses to adapt her chicken house to the then-new standard of a dark warehouse, lack of windows, and artificial ventilation (see fig. 2).
Though Marison refuses certain guidelines, she does overfeed her chickens under the supervision of Perdue. Consequently, the chickens succumb to being grossly overweight, which results in “their bones and their internal organs [not being able to] keep up with their rapid growth” (Kenner 13:40). These chickens live sorrowful lives. The shame in Marison’s voice accompanies every revelatory sentence she utters. The revelation in this instance is that Perdue, similar to every major meat corporation in the nation, forces its farmers to slaughter animals in mass, inhumane quantities, so that meat fills our plates while we remain woefully ignorant to the terror that occurs at these industrialized meat farms. These corporations have implemented the previously mentioned CAFO-prescribed diet for the sake of generating greater profit. Within the realm of corporate greed, Michael Pollan elucidates that providing cows with corn rather than grass is economically “irresistible” to the corporate-funded rancher, as it costs a mere $25 to $35 to increase the cow’s weight by 40 to 50 pounds (Frontline). The industrialized agriculture system, therefore, tortures sentient beings in the pursuit of money. As their profit swells, they maintain and promote certain illusions that conceal the severity of the CAFOs. Blinded by these false perceptions of what American farms truly are, we overlook the lives that have been inhumanely lost. Cultural misconception entraps us and permits the continuation and expansion of the corporate entanglement into our agriculture.
As animal welfare wilts away beneath the influence of corporate interests, environmental costs simultaneously arise as the natural world is sacrificed for the sake of profit and greed. The mass production of meat products, particularly beef and poultry, floods the American agricultural system. In maintaining this excess, livestock emissions contribute to approximately 14% of the greenhouse gasses emitted worldwide, according to a 2013 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (Keiffer 58). Industrialized agriculture proclaims itself to be efficient and streamlined, rather it is incredibly wasteful and determinant as evidenced by its greenhouse emissions. This level of waste seeps into the very infrastructure of how CAFOs are maintained and operated. Due to the fact that cattle in these CAFOs reside within warehouse-like buildings, they cannot simply graze and fertilize the pastures with their manure. As a result, their waste must be manually removed. The current method relies on cattle’s manure and urine filtering through a slotted flooring, which then gets mechanically swept into a manure pit and pushed into a “lagoon” (Keiffer 59). This absolutely vile process “generates methane [and] other volatile organic compounds,” and such substances “belch[e] foul odors and eye-watering ammonia into the atmosphere for all to breathe” (Keiffer 59). The industrialized agriculture system merely accepts this level of waste and continues to promote the notion that this system stands as the far more effective method of farming than that actual local farming.
In the face of all the ethical and environmental concerns that America’s industrial agriculture poses, what can we do to combat this goliath industry? In order to conquer the current state of the meat industry, the influence of corporations, such as Perdue and Tyson, must be diminished. Seemingly, there already appears to be institutions established with the sole purpose of regulating the state of agriculture in this country. For instance, the USDA’s National Organic Program (or NOP) has been enlisted to determine organic standards, controls, and to enforce food regulation across all sizes and forms of American farms (Anderson 91). The NOP’s apparent duties suggest that it actively attempts to ensure positive agricultural practices. However, the NOP approaches the organic movement as though it were a “brand,” seeking profit rather than supporting the creation and maintenance of holistic, sustainable American farms (Anderson 92). The failure of the NOP has allowed the organic industry to become flooded with the influence of major corporations. Kraft, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and General Mills produce the vast majority of the food labeled USDA Certified Organic (Anderson 93). This infection of corporations must be ameliorated by the introduction of new policies that properly insert restrictions on corporations’ influence in American agriculture, rather than allowing certain guises like the ‘organic movement’ to suggest farms have become more ethical.
In creating new policy, the focus must lie in eliminating the prevalence of the CAFO. The CAFO is deeply rooted in the profit margins that corporations seek to achieve—hence, feeding the cows corn rather than grass. By removing the CAFO, the animal will instead be raised on pasture for the entirety of its life. If the animal remains in the pasture, regenerative agriculture can ensue. In essence, regenerative agriculture describes practices that aim to promote soil health through restoring its natural carbon levels; this includes rejecting the practice of tilling and turning towards drilling seeds into the soil (Ranganathan et al). This form of agriculture sees the formation of a mutual interaction between the animal and the pasture, where reciprocity between the two enable their individual prosperity. For instance, within a regenerative ranch, the waste of an animal becomes a source of energy that feeds the regeneration of the soil, whereas in a CAFO waste and manure merely becomes “toxic sludge” that filters out into landfills (Anderson 96). To witness the benefits of regenerative agriculture, the process must be understood as a holistic one, where the practices of the rancher and the farm itself must be transformed. By reinventing tilling practices towards directly drilling seeds, the forage of the pasture will naturally become more substantive to support larger animal populations, and thus as Stephanie Anderson argues, “recognizing that quality forage is more efficient than feedlot rations [the CAFO diet of corn and grain] could revolutionize the cattle industry” (Anderson 96). Ultimately, reforming the land the animals live on will have ethical and environmental benefits, such as their manure becoming both an energy source and fertilizer to the pasture. If we wish to see improvements, we must detach corporations from our agriculture.
The elimination of the CAFO also warrants us to change the manner in which slaughterhouses operate. The cow that dangles above the ground as it bleeds to death can no longer persist as the popular mode of killing farm animals. Jon McConaughy of Double Brook Farm remorsefully chooses the pigs that he intends to kill and watches as his butchers talk and pet the pig until they finally shoot a bullet into its head, rendering it unconscious and allowing the butchers to bloodlet without it enduring conscious pain (Pfleger). Though the image of a dying pig would haunt any onlooker, this method of slaughter is far more humane than commercial slaughterhouse practices. Since we must transform the state of agriculture to improve it ethically, we must also alter the way we approach the deaths of these sentient beings.
In conjunction with reforming the meat industry itself, as a society we must gradually integrate plant-based alternatives into our diets. This would involve substituting certain meat and dairy products for their plant-based equivalents. Katherine D. McManus describes this dietary practice as the “plant-forward eating pattern,” where an individual does not sacrifice all animal products but proportionately consumes a greater amount of plant-based items. The Beyond Burger is a prime example of a plant-based alternative that allows the person the satisfaction of eating a burger without the aftertaste of ethical and environmental concerns. This plant-based burger consists of pea, mung and fava bean, brown rice plant protein, and a variety of plant-sourced fats (“Our Ingredients”). According to the Life Cycle Analysis (or LCA) conducted by the University of Michigan, the production of this “burger” utilizes 99% less water, 93% less land, and 46% less energy than with the production of a standard beef burger (Heller and Keoleian). This plant-based alternative emphasizes the rewards of either partially or completing phasing out meat and animal products from an individual’s diet. It offers both the environmental benefits, such as 90% less water, and eliminates the ethical repercussions of slaughtering a cow.
There exists a great deal of plant-based meat alternatives that can greatly decrease the high levels of meat consumption within this country, but the issue lies in the apprehension of converting to an entirely new and foreign pattern of eating (i.e., vegetarianism and veganism). This issue can be resolved if education on the plant-forward eating pattern increased. People should know that they can slowly turn towards plant-based options, rather than simply believing they must only follow the strict guidelines of vegetarianism or veganism. The goal must, then, lie in turning towards a more plant-based society in a manner that accounts for this hesitation towards dietary change. For instance, eggs are a foundational ingredient in a vast array of foods that people consume on a daily basis. A person may rightfully reject veganism if they view eggs as a key ingredient, but if educated on egg alternatives their willingness to reduce their animal-product consumption may increase. The viscous water in which legumes have been cooked—or aquafaba—offers such a solution to egg substitution. With knowledge of this substitute and a greater understanding of plant-based dieting on a whole, our culture will inch towards a less meat-dependent society. In turn, we can begin to conquer the beastly nature of the industrial agricultural industry and its CAFOs that supply our mass consumption of animal products.
When presented with the ideas that industrial agriculture must return to the pastures of this country, many contend that such an agricultural system could not support our population, while others remain stark in their belief that the meat industry is amoral and must be utterly disenfranchised with a diet that is wholly plant-based. The former argument bases itself on the idea that the extent to which and the way in which we consume meat now is absolutely necessary. Instead, the millions of pounds of meat that we consume each year is a product of our cultural fixation on meat products. In the early to mid-20th century, farmers generally owned their own slaughterhouses in conjunction with their ranches, and thus these small slaughterhouses did not slaughter thousands of cattle a day (Anderson 89). Formerly, America did not rely on such heavy meat consumption. The rate at which animals are slaughtered in the current day is a direct result of the industrialization of American agriculture, which has consolidated slaughterhouses to ensure the greatest rate of animal processes for the greatest profit. To counter the relationship between corporations and our overconsumption, we must tackle the meat industry on a cultural level.
Kahlil Gibran’s 1923 book The Prophet offers us some guidance about how we must change our perceptions on meat consumption. The prophet warns against carelessly hunting or consuming an animal. He proclaims: “When you kill a beast say to him in your heart, ‘By the same power that slay you, I too am slain; And I too shall be consumed. For the law that delivered you into my hand shall deliver me into A mighty hand. You blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven’” (Gibran 30). The prophet wishes for us to treat the world with a tenderness we seem to solely reserve for our own selves. He preaches that the animal’s life lost to feed oneself is not to be accepted as a simple act. Indeed, the industrialization of our agriculture has molded our culture to essentially perceive meat and the animal as two separate entities. This perception has failed us, for it has allowed the industrialized world of farming to swelter and strip our agriculture of morals.
The prophet stands as a blueprint on how we must change as a culture. We must reintegrate reciprocity and ethics back into our agriculture. This concept of reciprocity, indeed, counters the latter argument that the meat industry is wholly amoral. Humans do not need to fully reject meat, but we must reinsert morals into the consumption of it. As Robin Wall Kimmerer emphasizes in Braiding Sweetgrass, humanity has the “capacity for reciprocity,” and in response to all that nature provides, “gratitude [must] come first, but gratitude alone is not enough” (Kimmerer 343-7). Essentially, as we consume meat, we cannot continue to do so blindly and recklessly. If we properly raise our farm animals with respect, offering them a life of dignity, we form a symbiotic relationship with them (Anderson 90). If we fulfill their basic needs—and not merely their hunger but needs as living beings, we fulfill our own. This is where the symbiotic mutualism establishes itself, for as the animals provide us sustenance, we offer them greater access to resources otherwise scarce in the wild, veterinary services, and protection from predators (“Symbiosis”). In altering our perception of these animals, our collective reliance on meat will inherently be reduced as we begin to once again view the meat we consume as lives lost—as lives sacrificed for our own needs. Jon McConaughy believes that “most people should watch [the slaughterhouse process] if they are going to eat animals,” for “if it turns them away from animals, then that’s probably a good thing” (Pfleger). Despite killing his own animals, McConaughy recognizes the cultural change that must overcome the American people. We must realize the costs of our consumption to become conscientious consumers.
The American industrial agricultural system prevails as one of the most bloated industries within this nation. We have been lied to and deceived into believing that the industrial farming industry is more effective and efficient than the farms of yesteryear. Yet our cows die inside concrete prison cells, and our fields have been tilled nearly beyond repair. Greenhouse gases flood our air from the manure that becomes sludge inside a landfill. Corporations have greedily entered the once local farming industry, sacrificing basic ethics for the sake of profit. These corporations have weighed capital gain in favor of sufficient farming. In the face of this villainous industry, we must change. The longer we permit corporations the ability to corrupt the meat industry, the closer to ruin American farming will become. We must implement policies that effectively ensure true farming thrives and reform our diets towards one that welcomes plant-based alternatives. However, the return to local farming practices and plant-forward eating alone cannot heal the wounds that we ourselves have caused this Earth. We must also bring ourselves closer to nature and recognize the symbiotic relationship we have with the natural world we must consume. We must remain conscientious of this relationship. Otherwise, we will merely continue down the path of self-destruction, destroying Mother Nature along the way.
Anderson, Stephanie. One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture, University of Nebraska Press, 2019.