Even though animal agriculture has been proven to be a leading cause of climate change, policies are being signed into law that are helping increase animal production rather than decrease it.
As the climate crisis deepens, and thousands gather in Madrid for the annual UN climate summit, the United States is planning to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the only country to do so. And even though animal agriculture has been proven to be a leading cause of climate change, policies are being signed into law here at home that cross serious lines when it comes to environmental stewardship. They are helping increase animal production rather than decrease it.
An egregious example of line-crossing is the ending of limits on the speed at which pigs can be killed in U.S. slaughterhouses. In the fall, when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the change, he claimed meat processors could more effectively “self-regulate,” unleash unspecified “innovation,” and lower government costs by reducing the inspection workforce.
If these rationales sound unconvincing to you, you’re not alone. This planned deregulation is good for large pork packers, who could save up to $3.8 million a year, but bad for everyone else. It’s unleashed a backlash that’s united some of the White House’s least favourite constituencies: environmentalists, workers’ rights and food safety advocates, low-wage immigrants, and supporters of animal welfare and corporate accountability.
As legal challenges to the line speed rollback mount, the dire conditions for both workers and animals in the U.S. meat-packing industry will be harder to obscure. Pigs are already slaughtered in the U.S. at rates that are hard to fathom. One Illinois slaughterhouse kills roughly 22 pigs a minute, or 1,300 an hour, or 21,000 a day. Killing animals is a difficult and dangerous job, and speeding up kill lines will only make it worse.
According to data seen by The Guardian, slaughterhouse workers are almost three times more likely to suffer serious injury (including amputations, burns and head trauma) and seven times more likely to have repetitive stress conditions than the average U.S. employee.
The decision is obviously bad news for the pigs themselves, 118 million of whom are killed in the U.S. each year. The vast majority spend their lives confined in factory farms and in the slaughterhouse meet more indignity. Faster line-speeds will inevitably mean more cases of pigs not properly stunned or killed and still conscious when their bodies are dismembered.
At this point in an op-ed on meat, animal welfare and workers’ rights, you’d anticipate sensible words on mitigating the inevitable suffering, such as regular third-party inspections of slaughterhouses so the industry isn’t policing itself; enforcement of workers’ rights and safety; and the proper administration of stunning methods so that farmed animals are unconscious before they’re killed.
But I’m not going to do that. Instead, let’s stop and see a stunning fact in front of our noses: that agribusiness and its partners in government are trying to enable people in terrible working conditions to find faster ways to kill more sentient creatures, raised in wretched circumstances, to prop up a system of mass slaughter so distasteful that the industry and legislators are trying to ensure no one knows about it.
A World Meteorological Organisation report, released at the annual UN climate summit underway in Madrid, calculates that this decade will have been the hottest on record. The report forecasts a temperature increase of 3°C (5.4°F) above pre-industrial levels by 2100 – double the agreed target of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Thousands of participants at the summit – young and old – are insisting that the time for fine lines and tinkering with the machine is over. We need systems to change – and a crucial area is ending our commitment of 80% of the planet’s agricultural land and almost a third of freshwater to raising farm animals and growing soy and other crops to feed them. But this will take real leadership and informed policies, not frenzied deregulation.
We need to promote a more sustainable food system and plant-based diets. Animal agriculture should pay for its pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use; and governments should end tax breaks and massive subsidies for overproduction of meat and dairy. Policies are needed that place a priority on purchasing low-GHG foods, mainly vegetables, fruits, and grains, and end destructive food supply chains; and governments should support financially and establish a regulatory framework that enables plant- and cultivated-meat alternatives to expand and ensure a light ecological footprint.
Here’s the bottom line: Our factory farm food system is destroying the planet, undermining our empathy and threatening our own future. That is a line we should be mindful of and careful not to cross.