Dear readers: It is a tragic irony that the billions of farm animals raised for human consumption are a major contributing factor to climate change, and that they are dying and suffering as a consequence of climatic extremes worldwide. In the U.S., livestock producers enjoy taxpayer support via the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Disaster Relief and Livestock Indemnity programs, which provide compensation for losses due to extreme heat and cold. But the animals have no relief.
Pigs and poultry in overcrowded factory sheds suffer hyperthermia when ventilation systems cannot keep up with rising temperatures and humidity. They are less “productive,” and suffer from inhaling ammonia and other toxic fumes from their excrement, over which they must live. Many die.
Likewise, dairy cows produce less milk under heat stress; many, along with beef cattle, are exposed to the elements in feedlots or out on the range. According to Texas A&M University, the economic losses for cattle, sheep and goat farmers from the 2021 winter storm was $228 million; the actual number of animals freezing to death was not posted.
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The mainstream media rarely reports on the plight of these factory-farmed animals in sheds decimated by storms and tornadoes. Likewise, the occasions when torrential rains burst the dams holding animal waste, which then pollutes rivers and lakes and, ultimately, the drinking water of many communities. Nor do we hear about animals suffering out on the range decimated by decades of overgrazing and drought.
The energy used to ventilate factory farm sheds adds to the carbon footprint of the livestock and poultry industries, in addition to the millions of acres of agricultural land dedicated to raising feed for them. This land is rarely seeded with a post-corn and -soybean harvest “cover crop” to serve as a carbon sink and protect and enrich the topsoil.
Communities living close to factory farms suffer a variety of health problems from the foul air being blown out of these sheds, and from the high nitrate content of animal waste spread on fields. This waste ends up in their drinking water, along with toxic algal blooms from the high phosphates. Pig and poultry factories are also sources of influenza virus epidemics and outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella and other (often antibiotic-resistant) infections in humans.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when some slaughterhouses/processing facilities were closed down after workers contracted the disease, animals destined for slaughter were held in confinement. The delays in shipment caused much suffering.
It is my hope as a veterinarian and animal welfare and protection advocate that the public will make more informed choices in the marketplace. We must join in the transition to a more sustainable, humane and healthful plant-based diet, the producers of which need our support. They have been too long marginalized by a government that continues to support and subsidize cruel factory farms and a toxic industrial agricultural system. I voiced these concerns back in 1996 in my book “Agricide: The Hidden Farm and Food Crisis That Affects Us All,” and in my professional opinion, the crisis is now worse than ever because of climate change. But there is a glimmer of hope in the USDA’s Organic Certification program for produce and GMO-free (not genetically engineered) labeling of many consumables.
Making agriculture humane, sustainable and socially just, and helping rectify the climate crisis rather than contributing to it, is a matter of national security, economic stability, food quality, food safety and public and environmental health.
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