It’s early days yet, but the COVID-19 pandemic has already proven to be revelatory, exposing much that is ugly about the “normal” functioning of the US: the sorry state of health care, the unresponsiveness of corporate-owned government, the hyper individuality of the populace, the high levels of ignorance among the same, and the racism of the entire system.
Regarding that lattermost point: This nation was founded by white Europeans who stole the land from the Indigenous and then built wealth with African slaves, and guess who’s doing the worst in this pandemic? The Native Americans and the Blacks. And look who’s protesting the loudest to get things “back to normal”: Whites, many of them with Confederate flags. Let that sink in.
Agriculture was at the heart of the settler colonialism: The land was seized for farming and the people were kidnapped to work the fields. From brutal beginnings, the situation has only worsened, especially in the last few decades. Small-scale, family-farming à la Old MacDonald is the stuff of myth at this point, with precious few exceptions. Pesticide use is up, ground-water levels are down, top soil is blowing away, wildlife biodiversity is shrinking, and human workers are abused.
Corporate ownership of the means of food production has led to concentrated ownership, de-localization, and supply chains that are brittle in response to stress. A handful of corporate giants (in fact, only four) have gobbled up most of the US meat industry.
These corporations have set up “economies of scale” that utilize mass mechanization and impose horrific living conditions never before seen—and not seen enough, thanks in part to “Ag Gag” laws that forbid photographic or video documentation of what goes on in such places. One could be forgiven for assuming these companies don’t want their customers to know the details of how their meat is processed. Especially when the results are thing like fecal matter in 100% of the ground beef (as found in a food-safety test conducted by Consumer Reports in 2015). Jim Hightower went so far as to say that factory farms aren’t farms, but “concentration camps for animals.”
A tremendous number of animals have been slaughtered in the US each year: over 35 million cows, 123 million pigs, 226 million turkeys, and nearly 8 billion—that’s billion with a “b”—chickens. Shockingly, about 30% of this goes to waste. This stat bears repeating: nearly 1/3 of the meat produced every year in the US is thrown away. It’s so bad that even industry cheerleader, Beef Magazine, felt the need to call attention to the issue.
All of this cruelty and waste has been “normal” up until now. But it just got worse with the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest heinous act has been the “depopulating” of farm animals, a rather colorless euphemism for killing them and disposing of the bodies without processing them for food.
* Nearly two million chickens were “destroyed” in Delaware because with 50% of the human workforce out due to the pandemic, there weren’t enough people to “harvest” and process them, and they were going to outgrow their facility.
* According to the Huffington Post, an Iowa farmer gave his pigs injections so they would abort their fetuses—about 7500 piglets total—due to a lack of space for them: adult pigs he planned to send away for slaughter were no longer wanted by the processor.
* The same article mentioned that in Minnesota, 61,000 egg-laying chickens were euthanized because the market for their eggs dried up.
* The New York Times reports that “a single chicken processor is smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week.”
* Finally, the New York Daily News states that “about 700,000 hogs are being killed every week across the nation because barns are overcrowded, many plants are either closed or short-staffed and not enough animals can be processed for meat.”
What all these incidents have in common is that they result from a system that, like a moving assembly line, only functions smoothly if every single step is operating consistently. There is little-to-no margin for error. Unlike an assembly line, break-downs result not merely in a misplaced part or a delay, but in pointless death.
Doubtless these are not the only incidents, either. Farmers are loathe to publicize such things because they look bad, especially when so many citizens are lining up at food banks.
Such incidents will also be repeated, both sooner and later, as the current pandemic undergoes waves, and as other disruptions strike civilization, which is inevitable in a world marked increasingly by chaos.
The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to dispense with what’s “normal.” Given that “normal” is generally unhealthy for people and unsustainable for the planet, fundamental change is absolutely necessary. This has been necessary the whole time, but given the system’s immense scale and seemingly unstoppable inertia, it seemed impossible to even start. But now, with the current suspension of the status quo, we have a real opportunity. We shouldn’t squander it.
Here’s what needs to change about farming in general, not just animal agriculture, in the interest of being kinder to the planet and providing a healthier diet for humans:
Farmers should be well compensated for their labor, but it should not depend on the vagaries of the market or the crony-controlled policies of the corporate state. We must disconnect food production from the profit motive.
This would perhaps naturally follow demonetization, but we need to make it explicit anyway. The food supply should be in the hands of people, not faceless business entities.
The severing of food growing from human hands has been a disaster. Contamination and disease have accompanied mechanization, as has a decline in the quality and flavors of foods (both plant and animal) as they are bred primarily for processing. Using fewer machines means we’ll need more humans, but the joys of working outdoors, closer to nature, would appeal to many if they were given the option.
The distance from farm to fork must be reduced as much as possible. True, not every region of the country can raise every kind of food for simple reasons of climate, so Florida and California will always need to trade citrus to New England and the Pacific Northwest for apples, but the days of Fujis from New Zealand and the 1500 mile salad have to end.
This would largely be a consequence of relocalization and what it means is that all food will not be available year-round anymore. Fresh tomatoes, sweet corn and watermelons will be a summer treat. The colder months will be the time of winter squash, roots and hardy greens. Rather than considering this arrangement a hardship, it can be the start of a re-engaged place-based consciousness. Our unhappy rootlessness as a culture is exacerbated by our disconnection from the cycles of the seasons where we live. Once we rediscover the rich scrumptiousness of vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes, warm from the sun, we won’t want the pale, firm, mealy abominations they peddle in January. This appeal of the authentic eventually dulls the appetite for the fake, and applying that to living at large, not just our diets, would be beneficial to us not only as individuals but as a society.
It’s time to drop the chemical inputs, genetic modification, and monocropping. Our practices must return to regenerative methods that work with natural processes, instead of against them. We’ve knocked things so far out of balance that the road back to health will be challenging, but the sooner we get to it, the better. Ultimately, this path leads to re-wilding and to pre-agricultural wildtending practices but that’s a whole ‘nother subject.
The callous killing of animals, the wholesale wastage of food, the elevation of profits over sustenance and ethics—these things must stop. We must stop them. Making demands of our institutions is part of that, but so is building alternative systems to replace them. We have a real opportunity to create a new society based on real community and actual sustainability through mutual aid.
And, we cannot remain human-centered; we must view the heartless killing of animals in it true context: as an injury to one that is an injury to all.