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Factory Farms' Wide Net of Pain and Destruction

  • Farm Animals Aren't Alone in Suffering Industrial Agriculture's Terrible Effects
    By David Steele
    The Canada Earthsaver, Fall 2009
    Straight to the Source

Summary: Gross overcrowding and anesthetic-free castration, tail-docking, and ear-cutting are all standard practice on the modern farm. And animals aren't the only ones harmed by factory farms.

A small part of the outrageous cruelty inherent in factory farming has seeped into the public consciousness lately.  Mercy for Animals filmed the gruesome deaths of thousands of male chicks at a single facility, ground up alive because the egg industry has no use for them. All over the internet and the news, the video shocked millions of people who had no idea that this is standard practice.

In a sense, these chicks are the lucky ones. Their sisters face lives that will be hell on earth. Their beaks cut off without anesthetic and crammed six or more to a cage, each will have less than a square foot of wire mesh on which to spend her life. Pigs, cows, turkeys and broiler chickens endure similar fates on 'modern' factory farms. Gross overcrowding and anesthetic-free castration, tail-docking, and ear-cutting are all standard practice on the modern farm. In the hypercompetitive world of industrial agriculture, the comfort of the animals is not a consideration.

And farm animals aren't the only ones harmed by these practices.

Feeding farm animals requires a great deal of land. Traditional methods destroy wildlife habitat for pasture. Modern methods are substantially more destructive. Pasture at least leaves habitat for gophers and prairie dogs. In industrial agriculture, pasture is unnecessary. Since the animals are fed mainly corn and soy beans, pasture land is replaced by field after field after field of monoculture. In plowing the fields for these crops, prairie dogs and gophers are sliced to bits.

According to United States Department of Agriculture figures, over 70% of all the corn and almost 85% of all the soy we grow becomes animal feed. At least 150 million acres are devoted to the purpose. To put that into perspective, the USDA tells us that the top ten vegetable crops we humans eat are grown on less than a million acres, combined. If we were to shift away from animals and eat the corn and soy ourselves, well over 100 million acres could be left unplowed That's an area two-thirds the size of Alberta where wildlife could once again establish itself.

It's not just farm land that is taken from our wild animal cousins. Growing all that grain and soy requires enormous amounts of fertilizer. Most of that fertilizer isn't absorbed by the plants. Instead, it runs off the land into streams, rivers and, eventually the ocean. In doing so, it feeds massive algal blooms that, after they die, suck the oxygen out of the coastal waters. Giant dead zones are created as sea life suffocates and the birds and seals that depend on it starve. In 2008, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico reached 20,000 square kilometers.

Manure, leaking from factory farms similarly creates dead zones. Manure seepage from 'modern' chicken farms in Maryland and upstream in New York and Pennsylvania has turned the once thriving Chesapeake Bay into a near-sterile underwater wasteland. Untold millions of wildlife have suffered and died because of it.

But the worst is yet to come. Most insidious of all, modern animal agriculture is accelerating global warming. As United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has demonstrated, animal agriculture is responsible for nearly a fifth of all global warming gases. As the planet warms, once again it is animals who suffer most. Ever earlier springs have brought songbirds back to England weeks earlier than the historical norm. Because most of the insects on which these birds feed are still on the historical schedule, this is disastrous for the birds. Arriving early, they set up their nests early and the young soon hatch. Too early for the parents to find the insects they need, these young birds starve to death. Not surprisingly, the songbird population as a whole is plummeting. A similar phenomenon has been recently described in North America.

Scientists predict that, as the globe warms, large swaths of tropical land will become uninhabitable. Arctic species, too, will become extinct. Combined with all the other effects of factory farming (and our addiction to planes and automobiles), the future of the wild creatures on this planet is very much in doubt. If we're going to have any chance of avoiding this bleak future, dropping meat and eggs and dairy from our menus will be an important prerequisite.

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