For the past few weeks, my wife Chelsea and I have been surrounded by green hills and hundreds of cute, fuzzy animals. Crowing roosters kick-start each day of our picture-perfect pastoral scene.
We are volunteering at Farm Sanctuary’s animal sanctuary in Northern California. For the month of February, we're sharing a house with other volunteers and contributing our time to this farm animal rescue and advocacy organization.
While Chelsea cares directly for the sanctuary animals, I’ve dedicated this month to creating videos and photographs to tell their stories. Prior to their lives here, the tales often begin at unseen factory farms, where 99 percent of animals in the U.S. are raised.
After first reading about factory farms in Eric Schlosser's best-selling book, Fast Food Nation, I stopped eating fast food. After a few more years consuming online research, documentaries like Cowspiracy, and books about the environmental impact of traditional animal agriculture, I decided to opt out of the destructive system and stopped eating factory-farmed meat, dairy, and eggs served in restaurants or sold in grocery stores. The ultra-triathlete Rich Roll ultimately inspired me to shift to an entirely vegan lifestyle three years ago, and I haven't looked back since.
Farm Sanctuary's friendly rescue animals have served as reminders that I made the right choice in adopting a plant-based diet. Here are five things I wish everyone knew about the factory farms where most meat is raised:
1. Factory farm workers labor in deplorable conditions.
Most factory farm workers are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Fear of deportation or getting fired means employees rarely report injuries or unionize to get basic rights. Annual turnover rates exceed 100 percent, meaning most people spend less than a year on the job.
They work in conditions where inhaling noxious gases is part of the daily routine. Many suffer from bronchitis due to the fumes, dust, and other lung irritants. Of the 700,000 people working in factory farms, 50 percent of them require treatment for serious injury over five years.
2. Excessive antibiotic use in factory farms fosters deadly disease.
In a typical factory farm, antibiotics keep animals alive in stressful, crowded, and disease-promoting enclosures just long enough for them to reach slaughter weight. In fact, about 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States go to farmed animals. These same antibiotics are also commonly used as growth agents to spur more rapid weight gain. After all, less time raising an animal equals greater profits.
Unfortunately, rampant antibiotic use leads to drug-resistant “superbugs” that threaten humans. The Centers for Disease Control has said that “Up to half of antibiotic use in humans and much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe."
3. Female pigs are confined in crates so small they can’t even turn around.
My favorite animals at Farm Sanctuary are the pigs. When I scratch their bellies, they roll on their sides, wiggle their tails, and grunt their appreciation. They're as friendly as black Labs, and watching them happily rooting around in the grass cracks me up every time.
On a factory farm, these sensitive and intelligent animals are confined to tiny crates. Female pigs are used as breeding machines and kept in spaces so small (6 inches of “breathing” room on each side) they don’t even have the space to turn around. Not once ... in their entire lives.
These “gestation crates” are so inhumane that the European Union, Canada, and nine U.S. states have banned them.
4. Cows must have babies to produce milk.
The dairy industry doesn’t want us to know this dirty truth: Cows (like all their fellow mammals) don’t just magically produce milk. Like humans, they must get pregnant and give birth for milk production to start.
For cows, a continuous cycle of insemination, pregnancy, and birth ensure maximum profitability. So if humans are taking the milk intended for the calves, what happens to the cute babies?
The male calves are often stuffed in tiny crates and killed for veal. The female calves are raised apart from their moms to be dairy cows, and they, too, are slaughtered after a few years when their milk production decreases. It’s a system maximized for profit.
5. Negative environmental effects are stacked a mile high.
From polluting our waters to creating dead zones in rivers and oceans, factory farms have a huge impact on the environment. I was shocked to discover that one dairy farm with 2,500 cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people (bigger than Oakland, California). Multiplied 40,000 times to encompass the 99 million U.S. cows, the scope is staggering, and that doesn’t even include other livestock.
This infographic from the popular documentary Cowspiracy depicts other environmentally destructive aspects of this industry.
We don’t have to buy into factory farms. We can question our food producers and support organizations like Farm Sanctuary that help share the truth.
As Bob Dylan said, “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
The choice is yours.