This is a letter written to my family and friends as a result of reading Jonathan Safran Foer's book, Eating Animals.
"In the midst of these grave moral crises, can art be anything other than a means of raising our awareness of our moral failings? Can we really justify engaging in art for art’s sake while every day billions of animals suffer unnecessarily, thousands of children die unnecessarily, and the energy used by patrons of art, and indeed by the air-conditioned art galleries in which we view art, contribute to changes in rainfall patterns and rises in sea levels that are already forcing people to become refugees, and will increasingly do so in the future? In these circumstances, isn’t the art world guilty of gross self indulgence?"
Peter Singer, excerpt from an interview with Giovanni Aloi
My dearest family and friends,
I recently read the book, Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer and it had a profound effect on my life. So much so that I felt the need to write a letter to all of you and share what I learned. Foer is not an animal activist. After his son was born, he wrote this thoroughly researched book as a way to learn where our food comes from. The book is not a call to vegetarianism as the title might lead one to assume. It is, however, a plea to all of us, as citizens, to learn all we can about where our food comes from in the hope that change will occur through knowledge. To do nothing is to be complicit and it is in this spirit that I write to all of you.
Whenever I think of my favorite family memories, food is involved: Christmas dinners in Georgia at my brother and sister in law’s house, large family dinners in Maine, Thanksgiving in Connecticut with my mother in law, and countless dinners out with close friends. As children, we listened to family stories around the dinner table and learned a lot about who we are through the simple act of sharing a meal. Like Foer and so many Americans, I have avoided thinking about the origin of my food. It is through this book, that I have learned the truth and it is through this book that I have been warned. Understanding where our food comes from goes far beyond animal ethics, although personally, that’s a big one for me. Our environment and our health are at risk and it is up to us to change things.
I have often pictured my food as starting out on a family farm, cared for and appreciated, until the time for a humane slaughter. I knew that factory farms existed but I had no idea that they had become so prevalent. CAFO, as they are called, stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Organization. 99% of the animals used for our food are raised in deplorable conditions on corporate run factory farms, while only two generations ago, family farms raised our food animals.
Although the book covers the fish and poultry industries, I am going to focus this letter on the pig industry. Pigs are misunderstood. Often thought of as dirty and stupid, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, they do enjoy rolling in the mud but that is a cooling mechanism, as they don’t have sweat glands. As far as intelligence, pigs have tested on par with three-year-old children and are considered to be far more intelligent than dogs. They also are capable of forming attachments to their young and to humans. Sadly, they are mistreated by the industry in such magnitude that it was hard to read and now hard to write about. It is necessary to understand what is happening behind the locked gates of the factory farm and 95% of our pork comes from pigs raised in CAFOs. Sows are continually impregnated and kept in dark gestation crates, unable to turn around. Due to the confinement, covered in sores, the sow will be given multiples antibiotics to combat constant infection. Due to the cramped space, she will never see the piglets that nurse beneath her; the piglets will be lucky if they don’t get suffocated or trampled on. The young are weaned on average after 15 days, whereas, if left to nature, weaning would be fifteen weeks. They are packed in cages, stacked one on top of the other, allowing urine and feces to fall from the cages above, until old enough to move to fattening pens. When ideal weight is reached, the pigs will be shipped off to slaughter never having seen the sunshine or experienced the outdoors. Many will die in transport of dehydration and/or freezing to death while others will drop dead from heat exhaustion or fear. This is a horrific existence for an animal that by nature is inquisitive, enjoys family attachments, and loves to forage for food.
Scientists have genetically altered pigs to grow at an alarming rate to increase profitability. When sent to slaughter, a pig will weigh between 240 and 265 pounds and be anywhere between 4 months and 1 year old. Their legs have not been genetically altered to support the extra weight, so the remaining grown sows and uncastrated males can grow to 800 pounds, and suffer from severe and crippling joint pain throughout their confinement. When it was discovered that stress causes pork meat to turn mushy, scientists quickly altered genetics again to remove the stress gene. This plan backfired, as each animal experiences stress in a different way, so finding a single gene was not possible. They ended up creating a pig that can only exist in an artificial environment and in this attempt created a pig that suffers more.
Cruelty towards food animals is widely documented. There are numerous videotaped films available showing live animals being prodded, kicked, and beaten. One of the worst offenses occurs when animals are not stunned before killing. Basically, they are skinned alive or in the case of pigs, dropped into boiling water before they are dead. The industry is well aware of these atrocities but know that the law is unlikely to press charges. Piglets are castrated, de-toothed, and de-tailed, chickens are de-beaked, and calves are castrated and branded, all without anesthesia. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering CFEs, or Common Farming Exemptions, make farming methods legal as long as it is a common practice. This allows factory farm corporations to define cruel behavior. Considering corporations are now running farms from offices far removed from the horrors of the actual farm, and the bottom line dictates success, you can see how the treatment of animals is not high on the list of priorities.
Crowded and living in unsanitary conditions, CAFO raised animals are exposed to disease for most of their lives and are maintained through the administration of antibiotics. They are fed antibiotics before they get sick as a way to prevent illness. These antibiotics are passed on to us when we eat the animal. Swine flu starts in CAFOS. The aggressive treatment of farm animals with antibiotics is causing these pathogens to mutate. The biggest fear is that when we get another large pandemic flu outbreak, that scientists agree is inevitable, our drugs will not work, as the germs will have mutated and become resistant to treatment. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology confirmed that the overcrowding, unsanitary conditions of the factory farm and the genetically altered and sickly animals who are raised there are directly responsible for the mutation of pathogens. The H1N1 virus that spread through North and South America can be traced back to a hog raised on a CAFO. For the first time, scientists saw a virus consisting of genetic material from pig, chicken, and human viruses. The most feared virus in existence today began on an American factory farm.
During my last semester, I was appalled to learn that one Smithfield slaughterhouse in North Carolina kills 32,000 pigs a day. Considering that this is only one of many Smithfield facilities, I think you get the picture. Raising and slaughtering this massive number of pigs creates a big problem for the environment and Smithfield is at the forefront of the problem. Pigs raised in confinement and over fed for rapid growth create a large amount of waste. In fact, a typical hog farm will produce 7.2 million pounds of waste material a year. The statistics are mind- boggling. Smithfield kills more hogs annually than the combined population of Memphis, Fort Worth, Columbus, Austin, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Detroit, San Francisco, Dallas, San Jose, San Antonio, San Diego, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angelis, and Chicago or 31 million animals. These animals produce as much fecal waste as produced yearly by the entire human populations of California and Texas. So what do they do with it? They pump liquefied feces and urine outside to large cesspools; each lagoon can cover over 120,000 square feet and reach 30 feet deep. There can be 100 of these lagoons surrounding one industrial farming complex. This causes numerous health problems for both workers and residents in the area. Smithfield has broken numerous environmental laws but has found that it is cheaper to pay the fines than end their factory farm system. Every time we purchase a Smithfield ham we are increasing their revenue and continuing the suffering of animals and humankind.
In defense of factory farming, supporters will say that inexpensive meat allows the poor to eat meat and that it is elitist to stop their practices. But the truth is that hunger worldwide could be wiped out by exporting the grains we use to feed these animals. We are fast becoming a nation of obese citizens and world hunger still remains an enormous concern. What can we do?
Personally, I have decided to become a vegetarian with plans of becoming vegan. I am a work in progress. This decision was not difficult for me as I have never been a big meat eater. I know the world is not going to suddenly follow my lead but change starts with one person and that person can be you. If we all make responsible choices at the grocery store and upset the cash flow, then and only then will we see an end to the CAFO system. If going vegetarian/vegan is out of the question, then please try to purchase your meat from family farms, as local as possible. You can also start by incorporating meatless dinners into your weekly menu plan. Eating a plant based diet is both delicious and fun and the health benefits are well documented. I do believe that the more people understand about this horrific system, the sooner it will end. Two nights ago, our local news ran a report on the dangers of factory-raised meats and diseases within our meat supply. I am hoping this is a good sign. At the bottom of the page, I have listed resources to help locate farms that raise meat animals in a safe way. Their slaughter, however, is never humane. I wish all of you health and happiness and many more memorable and meatless family dinners.
Peace and love,
www.sustainabletable.org Eat Well Guide provides an extensive list of small farmers.