A painted red barn nestled between rolling green hills. Cows and pigs spill out of the wide-flung door, with a cluster of chickens scratching in the dirt nearby. A farmer sits atop a four-wheel tractor, hand raised in a friendly wave to passing neighbors who live just down the road. This scene is what most people would associate with farming, imagining this to be the birthplace of the foods we find on grocery store shelves today.

This is the way things once were in rural America. However, things have changed, and unfortunately, not for the better. With the advent of industrial agriculture, today’s food system is at times unappetizing, tragic, and downright frightening. This reality is intentionally obscured from view by corporations that lead us to believe their cows are living fair lives out there on the pastureland. Misleading images of “happy” cows and smaller-scale farms—both of which are impossible to retain thanks to industrial agriculture—are weaponized to provide the public with the false belief that all is well.

Learning about the truths of industrial agriculture can be a bit like taking the red pill. But doing so will help you make better choices about the food you eat, benefiting your health and the health of the world.

What is Industrial Agriculture?

Beginning in the early 1900s and coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, industrial agriculture is the practice of intensive farming of animals and crops. It is characterized by large-scale monoculture, high levels of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, CAFOs. These operations are run by large, often multinational corporations with political power, vast financial resources, and often open disregard for the wellbeing of the land, workers, or animals.

CAFOs, which include feedlots and factory farms, are places of untold misery. In factory farms, species such as pigs, dairy cows, and chickens can spend their entire lives indoors within extremely cramped cages. At egg-producing CAFOs, male chicks are ground up alive while egg-laying hens have large portions of their beaks removed. Piglets are castrated without any painkillers, and their mothers are confined in spaces so tight they can’t even turn around. In feedlots, animals such as cows designated for meat consumption are crowded together in tight, filthy pens before they are shipped away to slaughter.

Monocultures, also known as monocropping, involve huge swaths of land dedicated to a single crop. Wheat, corn, and soy are major crops in the United States. Monocropping is highly unnatural and depletes the soil at unsustainable rates, leading to heavy application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which cause problems of their own.

Why is Industrial Agriculture Bad?

Industrial agriculture is endlessly damaging to the environment and all those it seeks to exploit. Not only do many of the major players in industrial agriculture have dark, violent histories, but the technologies employed and the underlying disrespect for life results in massive casualties.

The industrial agriculture system today is set up to line the pockets of the powerful few industry leaders at the expense of nearly everyone else.

Abuse is perhaps the defining characteristic of industrial agriculture and is present at all levels of these operations. Animal abuse is one of the most obvious, despite being hidden behind picturesque marketing materials and “humane” labels, which are doled out liberally and use woefully insufficient guidelines. Abuse of people is common within this industry as well. Workers in slaughterhouses have been known to develop debilitating mental conditions, including PTSD, and are routinely exposed to several potentially fatal hazards. Field workers are among the most oppressed of any workers in the US and are vulnerable to human trafficking, assault from superiors, and other horrors.

Below are four ways industrial agriculture harms our world and every being in it.

1. Pesticide Toxicity

If you’ve ever seen those small planes flying very low over farm fields, you’ve seen one form of pesticide application known as crop dusting. Pesticides come in three main categories: herbicides to control plants referred to as weeds; insecticides and rodenticides for insects and animal infestations, respectively; and fungicides that deal with fungal and mold diseases. These play a large part in large-scale mono-crop farming, most of which goes on to be fed to factory-farmed animals, which are then passed on to us.

Certain pesticide corporations have horrific histories. Monsanto, which merged with Bayer in 2018, worked with the US government to develop Agent Orange, a herbicide used as an experimental form of chemical and biological warfare during the Vietnam War. To this day, congenital deformities continue to afflict people in Vietnam, three generations after the widespread application of Agent Orange.

Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide is currently the most widely used pesticide in the United States and likely the world. Its main ingredient, glyphosate, has been thought to cause cancer, autism, and other chronic illnesses. Thanks to a slew of new lawsuits, Bayer has been ordered to pay out billions of dollars in damages to those who have developed cancers such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and this could be just the beginning of such lawsuits.

2. Water Pollution

Water pollution from industrial agriculture is known as point-source pollution, meaning it comes from a single source. Only large-scale agricultural operations, as opposed to smaller-scale farms, produce enough pollution to be considered point-source. Examples of industrial agricultural water pollution can come in the form of pesticide or fertilizer runoff and waste from CAFOs, including land-based operations as well as fish farms. Water pollution can affect surrounding streams, groundwater, broader ecosystems, and even the atmosphere.

In 2016, the Waterkeeper Alliance, Environmental Working Group, and North Carolina Riverkeeper organizations released data on CAFOs in North Carolina, where, in some places of the state, pigs outnumbered people 40 to one. These facilities produce enormous volumes of waste, often collected into vast, open-air waste lagoons, which are sometimes aerosolized over crops to act as fertilizers. This practice has been linked to deadly chronic conditions for nearby human residents. Waste lagoons also pose serious risks for groundwater and stream contamination, leading to elevated levels of ammonia and nitrates in surrounding bodies of water, which can be fatal to fish and harmful to humans.

Concentrations of CAFOs, particularly hog farms, as well as other point sources of pollution such as coal plants and trash incinerators, tend to be highest in low-income communities of color. This is a form of environmental racism deployed by corporations based on the perception that these communities have fewer resources and political clout to oppose these damaging impacts. The corporations profit off the workers in these communities, who often have fewer employment opportunities and form financial dependence on these operations.

3. Antibiotic Resistance

Animals forced to spend their lives on CAFOs frequently suffer chronic stress and a host of other debilitating conditions. Immune systems can become compromised as animals’ ability to engage in natural behaviors—or even feel the sun on their skin or feathers—is denied. The often filthy conditions on CAFOs create ideal breeding grounds for all sorts of pathogens. Indeed, it is hard to believe that animals can stay alive in these places at all. A big part of this can be attributed to antibiotics. These drugs are often used throughout an animal’s lifetime, particularly in chickens and pigs who endure some of the most extreme forms of confinement, including battery cages and gestation crates. In these cages, chickens cannot do much more than spreading their wings, and pigs can’t even turn around.

Because antibiotics are not fully digested by animals’ stomachs, up to 90% can wind up in their waste, which can then be used as fertilizer for crops. This, along with the direct consumption of animal products such as meat and dairy, is the way that drug-resistant bacteria come into contact with human beings.

Antibiotic resistance is considered a global pandemic. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) sounded the alarm with a report that around 700,000 people die from drug-resistant diseases each year, with that number climbing to potentially 10 million by 2050, and 24 million forecasted to be forced into poverty.

While the WHO outlines several recommendations relating to human and animal health, it neglects to place the most effective option front and center: plant-based diets. The question that must be asked is whether one of the “greatest threats we face as a global community” is worth eating animals for?

4. Dangerous Consolidation of the Agricultural Sector

While animal abuse is inevitable within animal agriculture at any scale, there’s no question that bigger means crueler. Smaller operations tend to be run by families, sometimes for many generations, who have intimate knowledge of the land and their animals. This differs markedly from industrial agricultural monocrops and CAFOs, which can be operated largely by remote control.

A few key factors play into the demise of mid-sized farms in the US. Industrial agriculture corporations, which are often multinational corporations, are vertically integrated, enabling them to set prices that are different from the actual costs of production or supply and demand. They then overproduce, which lowers the prices and squeezes out smaller operations that are mostly operating on thin margins to begin with. Combined with political influence, including lobbying efforts to pass legislation favorable to industrial players and ultra-low interest rates on loans to expand their operations, they soon become the only player in town.

It’s a question of family farms versus multinational corporations. And in the US, the corporations are winning the war.

What is the biggest problem with Industrial Agriculture Today?

Author Jared Diamond famously claimed that agriculture was the biggest mistake humankind has ever made. Diamond’s theory suggests that, when contrasted with hunter-gatherer societies, agriculture brought hard labor, diminished nutrition (since farmers tend to focus on carbohydrate-rich crops), and social inequality to human societies for the first time.

While these things are up for debate, agriculture has another problem. At its very core, animal agriculture is abusive. Farmers must coerce, control, manipulate, and utterly dominate animals from birth to death. No matter the size of the operation, slitting the throats of animals cannot be called anything but abuse.

The abusive acts on these factory farms are what define animal agriculture. In Diamond’s opinion, this is the biggest problem in agriculture. Animal abuse can be diminished to a significant degree by giving up animal products from one’s diet where possible, as well as getting involved in the social movement to transform our farming system. However, doing so may come at greater costs or may be impossible for some, since access to plant-based foods can be a privilege.

Environmental Impacts of Industrial Agriculture

Industrial agriculture produces numerous negative environmental impacts. Pasture land for grazing cattle and other domesticated animals is destroying ecosystems. Thousands of acres in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, home to numerous Indigenous nations and referred to as the lungs of the planet, are being burned and cleared to make way for cows to produce meat—much of which is destined for American markets.

All of these factors contribute to the climate catastrophe that threatens the planet. The global agricultural system is responsible for more than a third of all human-produced greenhouse gas emissions, caused by factors such as desertification and land degradation, emissions from species such as cattle who produce CO2-rich gasses including methane, and other sources. Plant-based diets require far fewer resources overall and are one of the reasons this diet is touted as being climate-friendly.

What You Can Do

Cutting animal products out of your diet is the best way you can help reduce the impacts of industrial agriculture. Not only are animals themselves harmed by the process of industrial farming, but it is incredibly resource-intensive to raise animals and keep them alive, requiring huge amounts of water and feed. Sticking to plants is a way to cut resource use by a significant degree, and help take money out of the pockets of corrupt industrial leaders.

Industrial agriculture may be winning battles across the board, but people are waking up to the harmful impacts this industry is causing. And as awareness grows, this food system’s power will diminish. Take action with The Humane League today.

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