Factory Farming on Hold

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Covid-19 has infected meat-packers, almost 12,000 of them. At least 48 have died and many plants have temporarily closed. So it seems like a good time to ask, would it be so terrible if slaughterhouses shut down for good? True, meat-packers would have to find other employment, but the end of factory farming and industrial slaughter of cows, pigs and chickens has many upsides. First, stopping animal torture. Chickens are so crowded together they have to be de-beaked. Cows spend their entire lives cramped in cells, barely able to turn around. The treatment of pigs – highly intelligent mammals and doubtless aware of the brutality they suffer and who causes it – is abominable. So the idling of slaughterhouses by the pandemic could be a lucky development, and not just for animals.

Second are the environmental advantages of de facto vegetarianism. Bovine burps contribute hugely to atmospheric methane, a green-house gas far more potent than carbon-dioxide. With pigs, there is the immense problem of excrement. Lagoons of this waste decorate hog country and in coastal regions, like the Carolinas, pollute waterways and ground water during hurricanes and major storms. Then there’s the awful practice of deforestation, as happens in the Amazon, to create pasture. The atmosphere that humans depend on for life needs more oxygen-producing trees, not more methane-producing cattle.

The public health advantages to reducing humanity’s meat intake are significant. Factory farms customarily dosing animals with antibiotics has created superbugs, immune to human medicine. For the beef, pork and chicken industries, it’s just too profitable to stop this, and so they resist efforts to curb it. Then there are the cardiac advantages of not eating red meat. For years doctors have warned patients to ingest less of this killer. Removing beef cattle from the food chain would not entirely put heart surgeons out of business, but it would considerably slim their practices.

The world has 1.468 billion head of cattle and 677.6 million pigs. Feeding these cows requires billions of acres per year. That’s a lot of land. Brazil has more cattle than any other country, and the pasture they need for grazing comes from chopping down the Amazon rainforest. But with global warming galloping wildly ahead at rates that endanger civilization, this is a disaster for humanity. It will suffocate us. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the Trump administration is reopening beef imports from Brazil. When Trump met in March with Brazilian president Jair “let’s burn down the Amazon” Bolsonaro, resuming the beef trade was agreed to. That includes meat-packer JBS, which “procured cattle from illegally deforested areas,” according to one report in April.

Disastrously, the world outside the U.S. has been adopting our meat-based diet. It spread with a vengeance to China, which now has one of the world’s largest cattle populations, at roughly 96.85 million head, bigger than the U.S. one at 94.4 million. India’s cattle population is also in the many tens of millions, though that country has lots of vegetarians – an example we would do well to follow. To reduce our carbon footprint, we should eat less meat.

Slaughterhouses are Covid-19 hotspots, with workers crammed together and sharing germs. Whether or not infected workers leave the virus on the meat they butcher is not known. The meat industry says no. But the meat industry also pushes to keep its plague-infested plants open. Last month, after a number shut down, with workers falling ill and some dying, Trump declared slaughterhouses essential business. So now workers face a dilemma: stay home, lose their unemployment checks and starve or clock in and very possibly get sick and die. A civilized government would not impose such a choice on its people.

But then, a civilized government would compel its industry to produce sufficient hospital gear during a pandemic. A civilized government would make sure its medical workers had masks and gowns to protect them from a highly contagious, lethal disease. A civilized government would aggregate and publish the mortality statistics of its nursing homes. And a civilized government would support its workforce financially during a medically necessary lockdown. With the meat-packers, the situation is stark. Instead of forcing these workers to accept illness and possibly death, maybe it’s time to retrain them and shut the slaughterhouses down for good. But then again, this is Amurica, where people shoot each other over having to wear face masks. Such people would probably rather die than give up meat. They’d certainly rather other people die. Other people like the luckless meat-packers.


Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.