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Behind Closed Doors – the Vulnerability of Big Meat

North Carolina Liquid waste lagoon

Typical animal waste lagoon in North Carolina

Already in January, workers entered 10 massive, confined turkey and chicken operations in Indiana and sprayed foam designed to suffocate the birds. When the cold temperatures froze the hoses, local prisoners were brought in to help manually kill the birds. Other operations shut down the ventilation systems killing the birds as heat temperatures rose. More than 400,000 birds have been euthanized so far in an effort to contain a new strain of avian flu in the U.S.

Last year, approximately 45 million birds were killed to contain the spread of a different avian flu strain in the U.S. Two years ago, a massive piglet virus outbreak killed millions of pigs (an estimated 10 percent of the U.S. hog population).

The rapid spread of new disease strains, made worse by a changing climate, is one very visible reason why the expansion of factory-style animal production is viewed as unsustainable. As Olivier De Schutter, Hans Herren and Emile Frison point out in commentating on livestock’s ecological footprint– this industrial model of meat production “yields too many negative outcomes on too many fronts to be justifiable.”

Although this industrial model of animal production originated in the U.S., it is now truly global. Global meat industry giants include: Brazil-based JBS (considered the largest meat corporation in the world); China-based Shuanghui (the world’s largest hog producer); and U.S.-based Tyson Foods (the world’s largest poultry producer).

While this model of production is now global, the U.S. experience exposes many of its unintended and often unspoken consequences. The Pew Commission on Animal Agriculture identified a host of negative impacts from industrial animal production in the U.S. on rural communities, public health, the environment and animal welfare. In North Carolina, groups have called for the government to launch a civil rights investigation into how the concentration of hog farms, and associated manure lagoons, in largely minority communities have caused environmental and health problems. International human rights violations have been alleged associated with the dangerous work, and poor treatment, of U.S. meat and poultry workers.

Of course, this is more than a U.S. problem. In December, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy hosted a webinar where animal industry experts outlined eerily similar systems in the U.S., Brazil and India that force contract poultry growers to take on enormous financial risk, without having the power to negotiate fair prices. China’s embrace of industrial animal production is accelerating the model’s growth both inside and outside of China.

This factory-based model of animal production is gaining increasing scrutiny at least partially because of its large climate footprint. Much of agriculture’s estimated 10-13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be linked to the rise of animal agriculture – whether from methane emissions or through the use of synthetic fertilizer to produce the massive amounts of corn and soy needed for animal feed.