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Meat: A Social Justice Issue?

Often times, when we talk about the negative consequences of animal agriculture, the focus of our discussion centres around three common themes: human health, environmental damage and animal welfare. While these are important issues, on fewer occasion, do we recognise the social justice consequences linked to the production and consumption of animal-derived products.

Growing evidence suggests that the animal agriculture industry plays an important role in global-level social justice issues, like world hunger and modern slavery. What’s more, because of it's environmental impact, this industry has also been linked to the extinction of indigenous tribal people and the issue of climate refugees. That is not to mention, the gruelling conditions in which people of this industry are expected to work and those who neighbour these operations, expected to live.

World Hunger

World hunger is one of the largest social justice issues that we face today. And, as our population continues to rise, one that will only grow in emergency. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that there are approximately 842 million people around the world, without sufficient access to food. On a daily basis, these people go undernourished, consuming less than the recommended 2,100 calories a day. And, sadly, 25,000 people die as a result of starvation, every day.

There are many factors that perpetuate world hunger, including: war, politics, disease and poverty. But, another contributing factor, which implicates the animal agriculture industry, is the global price of cereal.

The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food enough to feed 8.7 billion people—more than the entire human population on Earth! This huge demand for food contributes to an increase in the global price of cereal. And, when the global price of cereal increases, so too does the number of people living with chronic malnutrition. Consider that in 2009, after a 96% increase in cereal price (relative to 2001), there were 1.2 billion people living with chronic malnutrition, that's a 14% increase compared to the 857 million in 2001. Essentially, the starving people of the world are (indirectly) in competition for food, with the world’s farmed animals.

Because a meat-free diet requires the use of less cereal, each day, a vegetarian is able to reduce global cereal prices – albeit, by a miniscule amount. But, over time, this contributes significantly to a reduction in cereal price. According to the Darwin Challenge, after just 13 meat-free days, an individual is able to reduce the global price of cereal enough, to raise one person out of chronic malnutrition. Which means that together, through small changes to our diet we could have a huge impact on world hunger.

Slave Labour

The animal agriculture industry has also been linked to the social justice issue of modern slavery. The severe exploitation of other people for personal or commercial gain, modern slavery can take many forms. It can include, but is not limited to: the trafficking of people, forced labour and servitude. Unfortunately, modern slavery is all around us and there is more slave labour supporting our consumption of animals than is generally acknowledged. For example, most of the fish killed and exported to the United States comes from Southeast Asia, where journalists have extensively documented some of the worst forms of modern slavery—men chained or held in cages on fishing vessels for years at a time.

Far from a developing-world-issue, slave labour has also been documented extensively here in the UK and Northern Ireland. According to a report published by the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) the UK is one of the main destinations of trafficked workers in Europe. The report also details that victims of modern slavery in the UK, are most commonly working within the animal-agriculture industry, typically in shellfish, poultry or egg production. Globally, the International Labour Organisation estimates that there could be more than 1.7 million victims of slavery working in this sector.

As consumers we can feel helpless when faced with just how widespread and systemic these issues of social justice are. But, as consumers we hold the greatest power to promote change. Our demand shapes supply, and so, by reducing our consumption of industrially reared meat, eggs and dairy we can help to reduce the demand for slave labour.

Indigenous tribes

The production of animals, and of crops for animal feed, is a leading driver of global deforestation and accounts for approximately 80% of the deforestation happening in the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest! In the UK, we seem particularly reliant on both meat and animal-feed, harvested in this delicate area of the world. In 2018, just over 50% of the UK’s imported soya-meal came from Argentina. And, Marfrig a Brazilian meat company that buys cattle from deforested land in the Amazon, has shipped 147,000 tons of beef to the UK in the past five years. That’s enough to make 850 million burgers!

While deforestation has far reaching consequences for life on Earth, the often unthought-of victims, are the indigenous tribal people who have lived in the Earth’s forests for thousands of years. To name but one, the Wichí people of South America, an indigenous tribe with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The livelihoods of these people are reliant upon forest land: for shelter, to hunt wild boar and for forest flora, to cure the sick. Now, because of the animal agriculture industry, their tribal lands are being deforested and they are facing extinction. In an interview with the Guardian, Amancio Angel of the Wichí people despairs: we have no future, we used that forest to hunt and collect fruit, people from other communities got honey there, now life has become impossible”.

Although our food choices might seem small to us, collectively, a reduction in our demand for meat could have a huge impact on communities living on the other side of the world. Did you know that you alone could help spare 55ft² of rainforest, just by swapping one beef burger, for a veggie burger?

Climate refuges.

The animal agriculture industry is now said to be one of the leading causes of climate change. Annually, the this sector produces 7.1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to all emissions from the world’s cars, trains, airplanes and boats. Even more concerning, the global population of cows alone, produce an average of 150 billion gallons of methane each day. Methane is said to be 25-100 times more destructive than carbon dioxide, with a global warming potential 86 times the size! All of this, outside of the destruction that the industry inflicts upon the Earth’s forests, land and oceans.

As our climate changes, we are seeing more cases of extreme weather events: drought, rising sea level, flooding, storms and water shortage. Such extreme weather events have a disproportionate impact on poorer countries who lack the infrastructure and resources to recover. When a disaster strikes, people in poor countries are often forced to abandon their homes and flee elsewhere. People who must leave their home because of the effects of climate change and global warming are known as climate refugees. They belong to a larger group of immigrants known as environmental refugees, who are forced to flee because of natural disasters, such as volcanoes or tsunamis.

In 2009, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, predicted that climate change will become one of the leading drivers of population displacement, superseding that of political or conflict related forces. Guterres added that in 2008, a staggering 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters, a figure which experts predict could rise to anywhere between 50 or 200 million by 2050.

At the time of writing, the Climate Clock, indicated that we had approximately 6 years, 277 days, 2 hours, 34 minutes and 50 seconds to achieve zero emission, before irreversible climate disaster. And, while saving the world from a climate catastrophe might seem like too mammoth a task, our consumption of meat provides us with a possible solution for change, something that each of us has the power to action. Did you know that by replacing one portion of beef, you could save 224.8kg CO₂eq? That’s enough to charge 28,779 smartphones! You can use the Meat Footprint Calculator to learn more about the savings you could make simply by reducing your consumption of meat.

What is it like to work on an industrial farm?

Industrial farming operations are propped up by slave labour, they tend to employ individuals from marginalized communities, poor migrants and undocumented immigrants. Because of this, these workers typically lack many of the same protections that you and I enjoy, and even take for granted. Factory farm jobs have on the highest turnover rates across all forms of employment, estimated to be between 95-100%. This means that these workers are typically replaced within the same year and therefore do not enjoy job security. Because of their disposability, workers are unlikely to unionize and will endure horrible working conditions, hazardous environments and long-shifts, all for very little pay.

Far from the idyllic images of green pasture that come to mind when we think about farming, these workers are expected to endure some of the most dangerously polluted working environments in society. Hazardous amounts of dust and toxic gases like sulphur and ammonia cause farm workers to suffer from chronic health problems and respiratory diseases. It has been claimed that at least 70% of workers suffer from respiratory diseases including bronchitis, mucus membrane irritation, asthma-like syndrome, and acute respiratory distress syndrome.

What’s more, industrial farms are hotbeds for zoonotic diseases, like mad cows’ disease, bird flu and swine flu, that can easily spread from animals to humans. And, the recent COVID-19 pandemic saw workers in this industry at particular risk. The conditions in these farming operations considered a "ripe breeding ground" for the spread of this deadly virus.

While most of these reports come from the US, evidence published by Compassion in World Farming suggests that the situation in the UK is not too dissimilar. They state that around 73% of farmed animals in the UK are kept in factory farms. Using an interactive map, they show that there is scarcely a county in the UK without at least one-industrial farm. The total of US-style mega-farms operating across the UK, nears 800, a 26% increase over 6-years.

As can be imagined, the conditions in slaughterhouses aren’t much of an improvement. Slaughterhouse workers endure one of the most physically and mentally demanding jobs in society. These people work long and strenuous shifts in a filthy and dangerous environment. Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Obuaya has likened the work of a slaughterhouse worked to that of a child soldier, whereby the worker is repeatedly forced into a conflict situation and committing acts of violence. Because of the nature of their work, slaughterhouse workers have an increased risk of developing mental health illnesses and severe trauma disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS). Not only that but working in a slaughterhouse is also linked to increased risk of crime, domestic as well as drug and alcohol abuse.

An ex-slaughterhouse worker, the Cyberactivist recounts their experience with working in a Tyson slaughterhouse. They open “an issue not even thought about by most people, even many of those in the fight for animal rights, is the effects on the minds of those people who do the actual slaughter of the chickens”. The post is incredibly eye-opening and explores the desperation felt by these workers, the desensitisation that they simply have to go through to keep their sanity intact and the development of self-directed disgust. Cyberactivist also touches on the isolation that develops, being a slaughterhouse worker. After all, the people you work with aren’t a shoulder to cry on, and your friends and family simply don’t want to hear about your work. “You feel isolated from society, not a part of it. Alone. You know you are different from most people.”

What is it like to live next to an industrial farm?

Factory farms don’t just hurt those working in the industry, they use methods that heavily pollute the local area, water and air. They bring pest infestations, cesspools and swarms of flies. Farming operations like these neighbour some of the world’s most marginalized communities. These people are at risk of having their overall quality of life of severely compromised and yet they lack the resources to demand better living conditions.

There is now an abundance of evidence which suggests that living close to a factory farm to be negative for human health. This research has shown that the accumulation of manure and urine leads to a build up of ammonia which is an irritant to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs and linked to respiratory illnesses. Research by Julia Kravchenko and colleagues has found that US communities in areas with a higher density of industrial pig farms see higher all-cause and infant mortality, lower birth weight, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia.

More genera research investigating the negative consequences of air pollution has identified an increased risk of anxiety and stroke, as well as damaging effects on brain development in children and reproductive health. In reducing our consumption of meat, we take a stand for cleaner living environments – not only for those living in close proximity to industrial farming operations, but for all.

So, to answer the question in the title of this piece. Meat: A Social Justice Issue? Yes. Our consumption of industrially-reared meat and other animal-derived products, is absolutely a social justice issue. And, while all of this paints a very bleak picture for the current state of our food system, it indicates too, the powerful impact that our day-to-day decisions can have on the world. In recognising this impact, we simultaneously recognise the vehicle by which change can occur.

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