I’m going to be sharing my environmental posts at this brand spanking new community environmentalist blog The Clade, which was started by former Pandagon contributor Chris Clarke. I highly recommend checking it out and adding it to your RSS feed, and contributing if you have useful environmental news or opinions.
In the comments of the post about the swine flu, I was accused of attaching a vegetarian agenda to the issue, which is a hard accusation to deal with because what angle do you take? I went with, “That was a joke,” because it had the benefit of the truth—I mentioned vegetarianism only as a reaction to the disgusting pictures of the results of the CAFO that’s close to the site of the first major outbreak of the swine flu. But it does make one think about what’s so wrong about so-called “agendas”. The accusation makes sense when someone is trying tie utterly unrelated news items to their obsessions in batshit crazy ways, like when anti-choicers claimed that the swine flu was a conspiracy built around pushing forth with government-funded “abortions” (by which they mean that universal health care will presumably have STD and contraception care provided, both of which fall under the umbrella of “abortion” now). But all too often, I see that accusation being leveled to shut down people who are making relevant points in the “I told you so” department when crisis hits. But in reality, that’s not an agenda so much as using an opportunity when people are paying attention to make relevant arguments that could help prevent this crisis in the future. It is not an “agenda” when liberals point out that proper regulation against creative financing can stop economic catastrophes like our current one, or that invading a Muslim-dominated (but secular) nation on a tidal wave of racist rhetoric might not be the most ideal move for world peace, especially when we’re proven right.
Nor is it the dreaded “agenda” for vegetarians to point out the relationship between the overly high demand for meat and the danger of diseases like the swine flu developing. It’s not that the disease is spread through eating meat, and I don’t think anyone is suggesting otherwise. But as Ann Friedman points out, the H1N1 virus pops up near CAFOs, and if we continue to look the other way and refuse to acknowledge the likely link between pig-based viruses and enormous, we might as well be writing a license to agribusinesses who run these things to pollute without fear of any public backlash.
You can agree with this without becoming the dread vegetarian or animal rights activist. While it’s true that a lot of veggies and environmentalists have affection for animals and green things that we contrast, at varying levels, to our frustrations with our own species, the truth is that the main reason to be an environmentalist who opposes these horrible CAFOs is that they are a human rights violation. With that in mind, I’m not going to bore you with horror stories about how the pigs are treated in these factory farms. If you’re interested, you have Google. No, the problem is that when you cram that many animals in one space, especially if you’re mass killing them, you’re inviting pollution and infection that affects the human beings who have to share the air, ground, and water with CAFOs. And if there wasn’t a ton of corporate money to convince us otherwise, this would be stunningly obvious.
After all, we get it on a much smaller scale when there’s not tons of corporate money involved. A number of years ago, I lived around the corner from a woman that turned out to be one of those dreaded cat hoarders. The city reacted accordingly to the environmental hazard that comes from cramming hundreds of cats into one house, with all their fleas and feces. The cats were all put down, the woman was (I do believe) institutionalized, and the house was torn down. After cramming that many cats in the place, it was unsalvageable. The sheer amount of feces that kind of situation produces alone justifies treating it like a toxic waste site, but animals crammed in that small a space together create disease hazards beyond just what they shit out. When it comes to cat hoarding, we get this, and many cities have put limits on the number of animals you can have in one residence so that they have quick legal recourse to shut down animal hoarding situations.
But not only do we look the other way when agribusiness does the same thing on a large scale, we subsidize them. We do it directly, and we do it through widespread subsidizing of farmers who grow animal feed instead of produce to be consumed by people. The result is that these giant factories pop up all over rural areas, where they turn into shit-producing factories that fill the air, ground, and water with waste that is hazardous just on its own as an allergen, but also can carry diseases that spread to other animals, including people. Smithfield is currently denying that their factory farms that are being blamed for this disease had anything to do with it, but obviously they would say that. We can hope that responsible third party investigators get to the bottom of this, but I’m not holding my breath. Unless I’m standing anywhere near one of the giant lagoons of pig shit that these CAFOs create that, according to the Rolling Stone, “has destroyed rivers, killed millions of fish”, as well as grossing out everyone in the smell zone.
And that’s before you even get into the issue of antibiotics. Without even getting into the controversy over how bad it is for you to be exposed to all these antibiotics through meat, I can say that the fact that the corporate reaction to the natural problem of widespread disease in CAFOs—to keep the animals on a steady diet of antibiotics—should be one of those ridiculous things that should cause any thinking person to take a step back. Antibiotics were meant to be used sparingly, when something goes wrong. They aren’t supposed to be the first resort to stave off bacterial infection. They aren’t an excuse to just be as filthy and unsanitary as possible, and yet, that’s how they’re used in CAFOs.
Ann suggests that this is a reason to consider vegetarianism. I think that the problem is so huge that individual solutions are completely inadequate. What we need is the government to step in and shut the whole thing down, and really stand by the idea that the health and well-being of its citizens is more important than corporate profit. Here’s some ideas on how to do this:
—Ban CAFOs, don’t just regulate them with fines. At a certain point, fines are just the cost of doing business and no real incentive to quit polluting. But when you have regulations in place, you have a system where lobbyists are forever trying to relax the standards so that they can get away with even more negligent behavior. We need strict laws banning factory farming—strong maximums on the number of animals per acre, feed and exercise requirements to make sure animals are walking around, and a ban on mass antibiotic feeding to force meat growers to be sanitary.
—Treat Big Agra like a oligopoly and break them up. That is what they are. If we love the small farmer in this country, we need to act like it. All these giant agribusinesses need to be broken down into much smaller farms.
—Stop subsidizing CAFOs and animal feed. Take all the money we save from giving farmers money to grow tons of corn that goes straight to CAFOs and into lagoons full of pig shit and spend that money instead on subsidizing a variety of produce that will go directly to a balanced diet for actual people.
—Get past the free trade fetish and start slapping enormous tax penalties on companies who try to take CAFO production out of the country. Racists want to make a fuss out of how the swine flu started in Mexico. Yep, and it looks like Americans are to blame. We should take responsibility for our actions.
All this will make meat a lot more expensive. The trade-off will be making produce significantly cheaper. This is a good thing, especially if we want to move towards a national health care system that puts a premium on prevention. You get the health benefits of a healthier diet for Americans, of course, but as this swine flu outbreak is demonstrating, environment counts. And it doesn’t just count when it’s a sudden epidemic that grabs the headlines. Noxious pollution of the sort that CAFOs generate slowly erodes people’s health, even just by making it unpleasant to go outside and get some exercise.
Of course, vegetarians do play a small part in this. The growing but still small minority of vegetarians is just big enough that we’re putting pressure on restaurants to accommodate us, and we’re demonstrating to the rest of the country, one meal at a time, that you don’t need to eat meat 20 times a week. If the government does what it should, the role vegetarians will play is making the transition for everyone else to a less meat-based diet more fun and less scary. Already I’ve started to see an effect in my life. I’ve been doing this for something like 7 years now, and in that time I’ve gone from having people ask me how I can eat to being around people who may be meat-eaters but end up choosing vegetarian more than half the time just as a matter of course.