Why Experts Warn Factory Farms Could Cause Another Pandemic

Read More: Why Factory Farms Could Cause Another Pandemic, Says This Doctor | https://thebeet.com/why-experts-warn-factory-farms-could-cause-another-pandemic/?utm_source=tsmclip&utm_medium=referral

In today’s factory farms, animals are being raised packed so closely together that there is a risk of sparking the next pandemic, according to experts in a new scientific paper that warns we have to rethink agriculture in America.

“When we overcrowd animals by the thousands, in cramped football-field-size sheds, to lie beak to beak or snout to snout, and there’s stress crippling their immune systems, and there’s ammonia from the decomposing waste burning their lungs, and there’s a lack of fresh air and sunlight — put all these factors together and you have a perfect storm environment for the emergence and spread of disease,“ says Michael Greger, the author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, who previously wrote How Not to Die and How Not to Diet.

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Factory Farms Make Up the Majority of the Meat Industry

You may think that the free-range beef or the farm-raised eggs are a healthier and more ethical alternative to the environmentally devastating impacts of factory farming. But current conditions in industrial agriculture are rife for future disease spread, and though “free-range” sounds idyllic, it’s just a way of saying the birds have access to being outside for part of the day, but can still be jammed into large pens by the tens of thousands of animals and birds per yard, it’s hardly safe or ethical.

Today, so-called factory farming still accounts for an estimated 99 percent of the meat we raise around the globe and 90 percent of the meat consumed in the United States. The Sentience Institute estimates that “around 31.0 billion land animals and 38.8 to 215.9 billion fish are being farmed globally at any given time.”

Options that some think of as more ethical such as free-range or family farmed animal proteins do not makeup as nearly as much of the industry’s share as one may think from a quick glance at your local Whole Foods shelves. The devastating effects of factory farming include water and air pollution, deforestation and methane gas emissions. Beyond these highly deleterious environmental impacts, factory farms provide a hotbed for spreading the next animal-to-human disease, which the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has put front and center on our radar.

How Could Factory Farming Cause Another Pandemic?

Some scientific journals have cited animals such as the endangered pangolin as a possible link to how the COVID-19 outbreak lept from animals to humans, as it carries a coronavirus genetically almost identical to the one that caused the current pandemic. So how do factory farms that are filled with common farm animals like cows, pigs, and chickens pose a threat to our health? It has to do with the unsanitary conditions in these factories and meat processing units, according to experts.

The ASPCA describes a factory farm as any “industrial facility that raises large numbers of farm animals such as pigs, chickens or cows in intensive confinement where their movements are extremely inhibited. Animals are kept in cages or crates or are crowded together in pens. These types of farms are sometimes referred to as concentrated or confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).”

With this type of overcrowding, diseases can spread rapidly and are difficult to control. A recent FAIRR report for investors noted the danger that the meat industry poses to both animals and consumers. The report describes, “Three in four emerging infectious diseases in humans are passed on from animals (termed zoonotic diseases). Increasingly these are coming from livestock, including strains of swine flu, avian flu, and Nipah virus. Intensive animal production systems involve high stocking density, indoor confinement, chronic stress, lowered immunity and live transport. Together these factors create the perfect environment for deadly diseases to mutate and spread rapidly. Zoonotic diseases can spread to humans through direct contact with infected animals or indirectly through animal waste or animal products. If a highly deadly strain of avian or swine flu were to become highly transmissible between humans, we would be facing the next pandemic.”

Optimizing Our Food Systems Against Factory Farming with Veganism

So how can we optimize our food systems to avoid these risks? It’s not surprising that investors and consumers alike are betting big on plant-based and vegan alternatives to meat right now. In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, a survey found that 23 percent of Americans are eating more plant-based foods right now. The vegan “egg” giant JUST recently announced a partnership with the largest egg distributor in the US, helping to introduce a more sustainable, plant-based alternative to chicken eggs.

As more consumers reach for plant-based options, and more processors and distributors transition to animal-free products, the risk of a zoonotic disease spreading from factory farm to consumer lessens. In a recent report, the vegan food market is estimated to grow nearly 10 percent by 2025, which will hopefully propel more producers from animal products into the plant-based space.

Read More: Why Factory Farms Could Cause Another Pandemic, Says This Doctor | https://thebeet.com/why-experts-warn-factory-farms-could-cause-another-pandemic/?utm_source=tsmclip&utm_medium=referral

US producers ‘in tears’ at having to cull livestock on their farms

With slaughterhouse capacity in crisis due to Covid-19, one farmer believes he has developed a more humane way of ‘depopulating’ animals

Pigs at a farm near Le Mars, Iowa

Pigs at a farm near Le Mars, Iowa. Breeders are having to slaughter animals on their farms. Photograph: Dan Brouillette/Bloomberg /Getty Images

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Published onWed 10 Jun 2020 06.29 EDT

As traumatised US farmers continue to cull their animals in response to the slaughterhouse crisis, an Iowan pig producer has developed an on-farm method which he believes is quicker and more humane than other available options.

The coronavirus crisis has hit US meat plants particularly hard. As a result there is a lack of slaughter capacity, and farmers are being forced to cull or “depopulate” their animals on-farm.

Approved methods include gassing with CO2, but the practice is controversial. “Dying this way is not a peaceful experience”, even under normal circumstances, let alone in makeshift sheds or trailers, said president of welfare group, Mercy for Animals, Leah Garcés.

Gassing the animals is currently thought to be one of the fastest and most humane methods, leaving animals unconscious within two minutes and dead within 10. The carcasses are incinerated, composted or rendered for fat, fertiliser and pet food.

But for Dwight Mogler of Iowa’s Pig Hill Farms, that is too long. Mogler is a sixth-generation pig farmer with firsthand experience of gassing newborn pigs. “I have talked to people who have been on site for a CO2 depopulation and we have used it for neonatal [new-born] pigs. It can take up to a minute,” he said.

Mogler, who produces about 150,000 pigs a year, says he is fairly confident the gassing is not painful for newborns, but it is disturbing. “There are muscle spasms and the limbs flail, but no vocalising,” he said.

Another depopulation option is overheating, or hyperthermia, commonly known as ventilator shutdown (VSD). A recent undercover video of an alleged VSD pig cull at a different Iowa producer contained disturbing scenes and sounds.

Asked about the video, Mogler said it would have involved turning off the ventilation, turning up the temperature and then the introduction of steam. “It would take less than one hour and any remaining pigs would be shot with bolt guns. It might only take 10 minutes in fact for the pigs to die. But for us that is too long.”

Having rejected CO2 and VSD, Mogler decided to build his own cull facility. It will replicate a slaughterhouse death time of less than two seconds. Ready to undergo testing, Mogler’s system consists of a mobile unit with a V-restrainer, an electrical stunning point and a captive-bolt gun.

Mogler aims to slaughter about 170 pigs every 45 minutes, using a rotating slaughter crew to avoid mental or physical fatigue. “Our capacity would be about 1,500 to 2,000 pigs a day,” he said, and no pig caretakers will be involved in the slaughter.

As well as developing his own cull technique, Mogler donated two pigs to a Missouri sanctuary. Initially reluctant, because the goals of a sanctuary are so at odds with those of a farmer, Mogler changed his mind after talking to a rescue coordinator. “ I found we had so much more in common [than expected]”, he said.

Donating pigs to food programmes is another option for farmers, particularly with so many Americans facing increased financial and food insecurity, but slaughtering remains a challenge. For a few there is still space at local lockers, as Iowa’s smaller, state-inspected butchers are known. Most, however, are already overwhelmed, with some fully booked into 2021.

Despite donation difficulties, psychologist and Iowan farmer Dr Michael Rosmann thinks it’s worth the effort. “It helps the farmers a bit, to know they have tried to find a solution for at least some of their pigs,” Rosmann said. “It’s probably only going to help with about 1% of their animals. These are farmers with anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 pigs. It’s a very complex situation and it is not going to end soon.”

Farmers are extremely distressed by the possibility of having to depopulate their animals, said Rosmann, who has talked to several in the past few weeks. “One of them was in tears. He could not bring himself to kill his pigs and he was asking for advice,” Rosmann said. “My suggestion was to find food programmes or local butchers, or people who are able to butcher the animals themselves – that’s allowed by law, if you kill it and eat it yourself.” Sadly, he said, many of those able to slaughter their own animals might be illegal migrants and afraid to come forward.

At industry level, Iowa Pork Producers Association spokesperson, Dal Grooms, said its newly created food-bank donation programme, Pass the Pork, has seen 48,404lb of pork, about 456 pigs, enter the food chain via local lockers.

COVID-19 Exposes Flaws in Animal Protein Production

 from Sentient Media

COVID-19 Exposes Flaws in Animal Protein Production
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Our food system is breaking due to COVID-19 closures, but this collapse has been looming for decades.

We were warned years ago that another deadly pandemic was inevitable—but we did not listen. Instead, humans have continued prioritizing low food prices and convenience over public safety and pandemic prevention.

Though there are many contributors to the current collapse—including a growing global population and deep-rooted cultural norms—big meat and dairy companies, farmers, producers, and consumers are all to blame for the system’s demise. Demand for animal protein and deep-seated industrialization of animal farming have created the perfect breeding grounds for disease.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many slaughterhouses across North America have been shut down or are working at limited capacity because of large outbreaks among farm and slaughterhouse workers. The closing of restaurants, schools, and hotels—responsible for significant amounts of meat and dairy consumption—has contributed to a drop in demand for animal products.

As a result, there are now major backlogs of animals on farms. Eggs are being crushed, milk is being dumped, and our animal protein production system appears to be crumbling before our eyes—a reality that demonstrates the dire need for reform within our animal-dependent food system.

“The system is breaking up,” says Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy in the Faculties of Management and Agriculture at Dalhousie University, in Canada. What we see happening today, he says, “is really showing the limits of our system,” and the cost “are the lives of animals that were produced for no reason.”

Meat Production Is Showing No Signs of Slowing Down
Though COVID-19 has threatened food supply chains, meat production in 2021 is forecast to rise nearly 4 percent higher than in 2020 due to recovery in all major types of meat.

From an economic perspective, “the problem remains in processing,” Charlebois explains. Our food system was transformed over a century ago from local abattoirs to massive corporate slaughter plants. A centralized food system, he adds, “makes the entire supply chain vulnerable.”

Adam Clark Estes—Deputy Editor of Recode at Vox—explains that “Meatpacking remains consolidated to a few dozen Midwestern processing plants, many of which are owned by a handful of huge corporations, like JBS and Smithfield.” That’s why, he says, “when a few of these processors get shut down, due to a pandemic or something else, the country’s entire meat supply suffers.”

Read the full story

Covering COVID-19
With the worst global pandemic we’ve seen in over a century, it’s more important than ever to make sure the truth is reported in its entirety, not just what’s convenient.

Millions of US farm animals to be culled by suffocation, drowning and shooting/’A terrible way to go for £9 an hour’: fear at meat plant after three coronavirus deaths

Closure of meat plants due to coronavirus means ‘depopulation’ of hens and pigs with methods experts say are inhumane, despite unprecedented demand at food banks

A pig in Illinois, US

The pig industry is facing a major glut of market-ready hogs. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty

More than 10 million hens are estimated to have been culled due to Covid-19 related slaughterhouse shutdowns. The majority will have been smothered by a water-based foam, similar to fire-fighting foam, a method that animal welfare groups are calling “inhumane”.

The pork industry has warned that more than 10 million pigs could be culled by September for the same reason. The techniques used to cull pigs include gassing, shooting, anaesthetic overdose, or “blunt force trauma”.

In “constrained circumstances”, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), techniques [pdf] might also include a combination of shutting down pig barn ventilator systems with the addition of CO2 so the animals suffocate.

The ‘depopulation’ comes despite food banks across the US reporting unprecedented demand and widespread hunger during the pandemic, with six-mile-long queues for aid forming at some newly set up distribution centres.

The American meat supply chain has been hit hard by the closure of slaughterhouses, due to Covid-19 infection rates among workers. 30 to 40 plants have closed, which means that in the highly consolidated US system beef and pork slaughtering capacity has been cut by 25% and 40% respectively, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

The closures have meant that animals cannot be killed for food and many must instead be culled, or “depopulated” at home.

A truck loaded with chickens drives on the highway to deliver fowl to a meatpacking plant

10 million hens have already been culled due to slaughterhouse shutdowns. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

More pigs to be ‘depopulated’

As it is comparatively easier to keep cattle on farms, cow culls do not appear to be an issue as yet, and the chicken cull may have peaked, said Adam Speck, an agribusiness analyst with IHS Markit.

“[Cattle] could stay on ranches another six months if necessary. The peak of the chicken cull has passed for now. North of about 10 million chickens were depopulated, either at the chick or egg stage,” Speck said.

At the hen stage, Leah Garcés, president of US welfare organisation Mercy for Animals, said it is hard to be sure of the numbers. But, “what we know with certainty is that 2 million meat chickens [and] 61,000 laying hens”, have been killed on farms.

Compared with poultry, said Garcés, stopping or slowing the production cycle of pigs is harder, mainly because pig growing periods are about six months compared to six weeks for hens. “Pregnancies had already been set in motion when the slaughterhouse closures occurred,” she said, and pigs were already in the system.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) has estimated that: “up to 10,069,000 market hogs will need to be euthanised between the weeks ending on 25 April and 19 September 2020, resulting in a severe emotional and financial toll on hog farmers”.

chicken on supermarket shelf

The peak of the chicken cull has passed, experts said, but pigs may now need to be ‘depopulated’ in large numbers. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

For pig culls, AVMA “preferred methods” include injectable anaesthetic overdose, gassing, shooting with guns or bolts, electrocution and manual blunt force trauma. AVMA methods “permitted in constrained circumstances” include ventilator shutdown (VSD), potentially combined with carbon dioxide gassing, and sodium nitrite which would be ingested by pigs.

Speaking more graphically, Garcés said manual blunt force trauma can mean slamming piglets against the ground while VSD would “essentially cook the pigs alive”.

Asked to estimate numbers of pigs that have already been culled, Speck said producers are very reluctant to depopulate. “About two million might have been culled so far due to the Covid-19 pandemic, over the last six or so weeks.”

Speck added that with slaughterhouses likely to return to 85% capacity by the end of May, the NPPC’s depopulation estimate of 10 million pigs could be significantly reduced.

Speck said breeders are thinning herds and slowing growth to reduce pig supply. “They are sending breeding sows to slaughter, aborting pregnant sows on a small scale and [keeping market-bound pigs] on maintenance style rations with less protein. Coming into the summer months the pigs will also gain weight more slowly as the weather heats up.”

Methods are ‘inhumane’

Asked about growth slowdown, Garcés said it posed other welfare risks. “One method to slow down growth is to turn the heat up inside of the warehouses beyond the pigs ‘comfort zone’ because pigs eat less when they are too hot,” she said.

The combination of feed restrictions and higher barn temperatures, she said, mean pigs are “hungry and hot, increasing their overall discomfort, which is already high in a factory farm setting”.

Hogs at a farm in Illinois, US

Many farmers now face having to cull market-ready pigs. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In what appears to be an attempt by the industry to reduce any negative depopulation impact, a blog managed by the National Pork Board called Real Pig Farming offers social media sharing tips for farmers. The blog suggests farmers: “Think twice before engaging with posts that show what may be happening on farms right now.”

It said: “Most people do not understand the complexity of raising pigs and getting pork from the farm to their table. That means, “[a] good rule of thumb is to speak to a level a third grader [eight to 10 years old] would understand to ensure that things are not taken out of context.”

NPPC spokesperson Jim Monroe said that as of the week ending on 15 May, less than 25% of overall slaughter capacity was idled and the situation was improving. Monroe, added that the “tragic need to euthanise animals is to prevent animal suffering.”

For poultry, culling options are no easier. Filling sheds with carbon dioxide gas is one method, said Kim Sturla, director of welfare organisation Animal Place. Another cull method, she said, is to smother hens with water-based foam, similar to firefighting foam. Water-based foaming is categorised as the “preferred” method by the AVMA.

Previously asked about water-based foaming and other cull methods such VSD, an AVMA spokesperson said depopulation decisions were difficult and “and contingent upon several factors, such as the species and number of animals involved, available means of animal restraint, safety of personnel, and other considerations such as availability of equipment, agents and personnel”.

European campaigners said firefighting foam causes prolonged suffering. Although risks of similar livestock culls appear low in Europe so far, welfare group, Compassion in World Farming advised using foam that contains nitrogen gas because death is faster.

A 2019 European Food Safety Authority journal report said it did not find water-based or firefighting foam acceptable because “death due to drowning in fluids or suffocation by occlusion of the airways” is not seen as “a humane method for killing animals, including poultry”.

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https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/20/its-a-terrible-way-to-go-for-9-an-hour-fear-at-meat-plant-after-three-deaths-coronavirus

Family of worker at a South Yorkshire food processor with multiple Covid-19 cases and three deaths have criticised treatment of staff

The Cranswick Convenience Foods processing plant at Wombwell, South Yorkshire.

The Cranswick processing plant at Wombwell, South Yorkshire. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Published onWed 20 May 2020 11.34 EDT

The South Yorkshire meat processing plant where three workers have died from coronavirus has been criticised for failing to adequately protect workers.

Three workers at a Cranswick food processing facility in Wombwell, Barnsley, which supplies UK supermarkets, are confirmed to have died after testing positive for coronavirus.

The UK-based company, which has annual revenue approaching £1.5bn, said there had been nine confirmed cases at the Wombwell plant, with one worker currently in hospital. The most recent confirmed case was on 11 May.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the family of a worker at the plant said staff had initially been told that social distancing in some parts of the factory was not possible, that they couldn’t wear face masks “because they would be taking them away from the NHS”, and that any staff off sick only got statutory sick pay.

“If you don’t feel well and know if you don’t go to work you’re only going to get the statutory sick pay [£95.85 a week] and are not going to be able to pay the bills, what are you going to do? I am scared he could bring it home to us and our kids. They [plant workers] have not been happy, but they’re all scared to say anything because of losing their jobs. It’s a shit way to go for £9 an hour [worker is paid £9.40 an hour].”

Meat plants across the world are grappling with serious coronavirus outbreaks. The US has been hardest hit, with confirmed cases at more than 200 meat and food processing plants and the death of at least 66 workers. There have also been clusters of cases at meat plants in FranceGermany and Ireland, where more than 500 workers have tested positive.

Giving evidence to MPs yesterday, Ian Wright, the CEO of the Food and Drink Federation, said although the UK food sector had not experienced major infection rates, it had seen “a couple of relative hotspots”. Labour MP Geraint Davies said data from the Office for National Statistics up to and including 20 April has found that plant workers in England and Wales were almost six times more likely die from Covid-19 than the average worker.

The family of the staff member said the Wombwell site had not been closed for a deep clean after the workers’ deaths as has been the case in Ireland, and that social distancing was only properly implemented in the canteen area in the past week. “It’s really hard and physical work, the plant has been busier than ever and there’s not a lot of scope for social distancing when they’re on the factory floor.”

The GMB union, which has some members at the Wombwell plant, said it was “ready to work with the company and our members at the site to review operations, and identify any issues that could impact on the safety of our members”.

Meat being processed at a Cranswick plant in Milton Keynes.

Meat being processed at a Cranswick plant in Milton Keynes. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

A spokesperson for Cranswick said it had rigorous cleaning procedures ongoing throughout the day and that the plant was sanitised at night. Social distancing had been in place in the plant since the middle of March and, in production areas where a 2m gap between people was not possible, the company had put in shielding screens or provided visors. Staff are entitled to contracted or statutory sick pay depending on their individual circumstances.

The spokesperson went on to say that while the company may initially have said it couldn’t get face masks due to NHS demands, they now had visors available for anyone who wanted to use them. Some canteen seats had been taped off with additional space provided and the company had now started sourcing single-seat tables. Equipment to temperature-check staff was also being installed this week.

“Why are they now implementing things this far into it after the deaths have happened and we’ve had the risk?” said the worker’s family.

Nick Allen, the CEO of the British Meat Processors Association, said the initial guidance provided by the government was “fairly minimal”, but that it had started issuing its own industry guidelines to members at the end of March. “This [social distancing] was something that had not been done before and has been a steep learning curve. There has been a considerable effort to get it right.”

Labour MP Geraint Davies, who sits on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee, said safe social distancing and PPE for all meat plant workers needed to be made legally enforceable. “If you work in a plant and fear for your personal safety, but realise there is a queue of people outside who will take your job now they’re unemployed, you’re left with an impossible choice. The government needs to ensure workers’ safety.”

Cranswick said in a statement: “The health and safety of all of our colleagues is our number one priority and we are doing everything we can to protect our workforce. Sadly, three of our colleagues have passed away with Covid-19. Our thoughts and condolences are with their families and we are providing full support to them and to all of our colleagues directly affected by Covid-19.

“From the outset of the pandemic, we have followed all governmental and regulatory guidance, in many cases going beyond the guidelines provided. We have evolved our practices and implemented additional measures to protect our colleagues including social distancing as far as practical, regular deep cleaning at our sites, visors and recommended PPE for all employees in line with the Public Health England and World Health Organization guidelines.

“All colleagues have been told not to attend work if they, or anyone they live with, have any symptoms. Cranswick employees are designated key workers and are at the forefront of maintaining vital supplies of fresh food into the supermarkets. We continue to do everything we can to protect them while they carry out this critical role.”

Are Dairy Digesters the Renewable Energy Answer or a ‘False Solution’ to Climate Change?

Capturing the massive quantities of methane dairy farms emit could reduce overall carbon pollution. But critics say the effort is propping up Big Dairy.



 

logo for covering climate nowThis article is published in partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

At first, California dairy farmer Felix Echeverria was skeptical about installing a dairy digester on his 12,000-cow operation. The process, which involved covering a pit of liquid manure and capturing the methane emissions it releases before “digesting” it anaerobically, is expensive and complex, and not something he was qualified to run. But he saw the benefits neighboring farmers in the Bakersfield area reaped from their digesters and decided to get ahead of a state law that would require him to reduce emissions by 2030.

“I realized I could stay ahead of the curve on greenhouse gas emissions,” Echeverria told Civil Eats. “To know we’ve been able to comply [with the law], that was the motive.”

The other deciding factor: Echeverria learned that he didn’t have to invest in or build the digester, as farmers in years past have. Instead, he partnered with a developer, California Bioenergy LLC (CalBio), that applied for public funding to help pay for the project and now operates the equipment. And in exchange for his manure biogas, Echeverria earns a percentage of sales from the electricity generated by the digester.

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“There’s absolutely no drawbacks,” Echeverria said of the digester, which has operated on the farm since 2018.

Agriculture accounts for nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and as its role in changing the climate has become increasingly clear, farmers like Echeverria are being asked to do their part. In recent years, much of the attention—and the bulk of public dollars—has focused on anaerobic digesters, which help meat and dairy production facilities convert animal waste into energy that fuels vehicles and power grids.

Farmers, researchers, and policymakers across the U.S. see methane digestion as cost-efficient, effective, and revenue-generating for farmers. Proponents also see biogas and its cleaned-up version, biomethane (also known as renewable natural gas, or RNG) as a renewable source of energy that has a huge potential to replace more harmful legacy fuels.

Over the past decade, more than 250 digester projects have been built across the country, most of them on dairy farms. California alone has funded more than 100 digester projects, spending nearly $200 million of its ambitious California Climate Investments dollars on them. The state is poised to spend an additional $20-$25 million this year, though it’s unclear how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the funding process going forward.

“The primary beneficiaries of these projects are the citizens of California. By reducing greenhouse gases, we are contributing to reducing global warming,” said Joyce Mansfield with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), which runs a grant program for dairy digesters.

But digesters do have some drawbacks. They’re complex, expensive projects that farmers can’t afford on their own; they cost $3-5 million dollars each and typically require public subsidies to build—in the form of federal loans, state grants, tax credits, rebate programs, and myriad other incentives.

In the past, environmental advocates have supported digesters, but many have begun to see the technology in a new light. They say the emission reductions are not worth the massive public funding given that most manure-powered biogas comes from large-scale industrial dairy facilities known for their significant environmental impacts. (Straus Family Creamery in Northern California is one of a few exceptions.) As such, advocates say public financing of digesters amounts to supporting and helping to perpetuate large-scale factory farming—and in some cases, causing farms to grow in size—under the guise of mitigating climate change.

“Digesters are definitely reducing methane and generating fuel [and] electricity. It all sounds very good, but it’s not a clean fuel,” said Rebecca Spector, the West Coast director for the Center for Food Safety. “These enormous dairies are polluting the air and the water … and the state is promoting a false solution while propping them up.”

Ultimately, Spector said, portraying digesters as a panacea to dairies’ environmental woes is thwarting the move to a farming system that supports smaller-scale producers, reduced herd sizes, and cows on pastures. “We want dairies to move to more sustainable solutions and we support the state incentivizing that,” she said.

Pressure to Reduce Emissions

Large industrial dairies, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, clean manure out of their barns with water and store the liquid waste in large lagoons. As naturally occurring bacteria break down the manure, they release large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas with a 25 times greater impact on global warming than carbon dioxide. In fact, more than half of California’s methane emissions come from dairies.

Manure management accounts for about 7 percent of agriculture emissions and in recent years, dairies across the U.S. have faced increased pressure to reduce that number. In California, the country’s largest dairy state, producers are required by 2030 to decrease their methane emissions by 40 percent from 2013 levels. And while much of the methane comes from cows belching, dairy manure lagoons account for approximately 25 percent of the state’s overall methane emissions.

Reducing those emissions is no small feat. In 2017, California housed 1.7 million cows—the vast majority of them residing in the Central Valley on approximately 1,300 dairies. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an average dairy cow produces approximately 120 pounds of manure every day.

The digesters capture methane, convert the biogas to biomethane, and inject it into utility pipelines as renewable compressed natural gas (R-CNG) to power trucks, buses, and cars. In some cases, digesters also generate renewable electricity that’s used by the dairy, with the remainder sent into the grid. Dairy methane can also be turned into renewable electricity without combustion to power electric vehicles.

Because of the expense and scale of the projects, digesters are geared toward large dairies.

In the past, dairy producers built and operated their own digesters. But in recent years, as the projects have become more complex and their price tags have ballooned, big developers have largely taken over their funding, building, operating, and maintenance. Most of the digesters are now part of clusters, with the biogas sent to a centralized cleaning hub.

Because of the expense and scale of the projects, digesters are mainly geared toward large dairies—2,500 cows with support stock could support a standalone digester, according to digester developers. If a dairy is near a cluster project, it might work for it to be somewhat smaller.

While digesters may be expensive, data collected at the state level shows digester projects are cost-effective when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the digester program is the second most cost-effective of the state’s 68 climate programs.

“Our projects are providing high value for the state in terms of return on their investment,” CalBio’s President Neil Black wrote in an email. “We are destroying methane, which has greater short-term warming impacts in initial years… [so] the climate benefits will be seen much sooner than projects that reduce carbon dioxide.”

Indeed, the greenhouse gas reductions can be substantial. Echeverria’s dairy digester was expected to cut its manure methane emissions by approximately 75 percent. It will also reduce energy costs and its use of fossil electricity from the grid. The digester delivers approximately 8 million kilowatt-hours of renewable electricity annually to state utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). And the dairy is part of the Kern County Dairy Biogas cluster, a group of 16 dairies with approximately 60,000 milk cows that collectively produce approximately 6 million diesel gallon equivalents per year.

For large dairies, digesters can be a godsend: they cut the cost of complying with environmental rules, and offer a new source of revenue to supplement volatile milk prices. Farmers can also use electricity-engine waste heat to refrigerate their milk, resulting in further savings.

Digesters also provide benefits beyond emission reductions, Echeverria said. “We don’t have as much solids to deal with in the waste stream because a lot more material gets digested and turned into gas. We can move it around easier, our lagoons stay cleaner, and we get a better fertilizer source,” he said, referring to the fact that nutrients are broken down more thoroughly in the digester and are more available to the plants when the manure is spread on fields. And because digester projects are required to double-line the lagoons, he says nitrates don’t leach into groundwater.

Digesters also reduce emissions of hydrogen sulfide and other gases, said Black, CalBio’s president, improving air quality and reducing odors. The company is working to help convert truck fleets from diesel to natural gas, he said, which will significantly reduce nitrogen oxides, a major component of smog, in the highly polluted Central Valley where residents live with some of the worst fine particle pollution in the nation.

But Spector with the Center for Food Safety contends that while digesters do provide some benefits, they don’t solve the issue of nitrates contaminating groundwater—a major issue in the Central Valley, where low-income residents are often forced to rely on bottled water. That’s because nitrates often leach from manure applied as fertilizer into groundwater. Spector says that when digesters burn biogas they also produce air pollution. In addition, the digesters don’t address the climate impacts of enteric emissions (from cows releasing gas) which account for about half of the methane emissions from dairies.

Subsidies for Developers, Revenue to Industrial Dairies

Critics also decry the fact that much of the public funding for dairy digesters has gone into the hands of just a few developers.

In California, the CDFA has created a research and development program that is funded with the state’s cap and trade dollars. From 2015 to 2019, the program has awarded over $180 million to 108 projects, the agency told Civil Eats. And yet the vast majority of that money has gone to just two developers (only 12 developers have ever applied, the agency said).

CalBio has receive the largest amount: $99 million to date. And Maas Energy Works has been awarded $82.5 million. The CDFA grants require a 50 percent financial match, though those funds can also come from other public sources. Both companies also say they have received other public funding for their projects. Additional capital for the projects comes from investors and lenders.

CalBio currently operates five projects in California and is developing, according to its officials, more than 60 additional digesters in seven clusters of existing dairies that will produce renewable compressed natural gas for use in vehicle fleets. Maas Energy Works has a total of 27 digester projects, including 22 in California, three in Washington state, and two in Oregon.

“California has required the dairy industry to reduce their methane emissions by 40 percent. The best way to achieve that reduction is with dairy digesters,” Maas Energy Works spokesman Doug Bryant told Civil Eats via email.

The digester projects are a financial boon to both the developers and farmers. While in previous years, their value was based around renewable electricity generation and the sale of carbon credits, it now comes from the production of low carbon fuel, through the sale of natural gas, as well as the generation and sale of “credits” that can be sold to polluting companies and other organizations that use them to comply with state and federal requirements or voluntary emissions goals.

Precisely who benefits from these income streams varies from project to project. But with the new generation of digesters, it is often the developers who bring in the capital and who then own the digesters while the dairy producers rent their lagoon and provide the manure in return for a cut of the power sold. “Our company helps bring in the capital from lenders and investors. The dairies… receive the payment for contributing their manure, and the better the project performs, the more they will make,” said CalBio’s Black.

He added that dairies have an opportunity to invest in their projects, but that is optional. In Maas Energy Works projects, on the other hand, over half of the projects are 100 percent owned by the dairy farmer and the developer simply operates the digester for a fee, the company told Civil Eats.

Fight Over Renewable Gas

In the coming years, digester developers and dairy farmers may tap into an even bigger source of income as the gas industry looks to replace some of the “fossil-based” natural gas it currently sells. Natural gas companies such as SoCalGas and PG&E have heavily promoted biogas as a cost-effective, reliable “renewable natural gas.” The private utilities say that mixing RNG with regular gas in their pipelines will reduce its carbon intensity. And it appears the gas industry may get its way, at least in the short term.

While in the past, digester projects generated electricity for export to the grid, the current focus is on using the dairy biomethane—in the form of CRNG—as an alternative vehicle fuel and energy source. Out of 108 projects funded by the CDFA since 2015, 102 produce or will produce CRNG. And in recent years, these are built in a cluster of digesters that pipe gas to a centralized hub.

Two years ago, a new California law essentially mandated that a certain amount of biogas from manure and other renewable sources be included in utilities’ energy mix and for it to be injected into the gas pipeline system. The California Public Utilities Commission is currently in the process of creating a procurement standard to make that possible.

Legislators recently extended the ability to tap into $40 million in subsidies through a program that connects manure digesters to utility pipelines. And the SoCalGas settlement for the Aliso Canyon gas leak is also channeling $26.5 million toward the construction of dairy digester projects.

While some have praised this move, critics say it has created a whole set of ethical issues. Jim Walsh, a senior energy policy analyst with Food & Water Watch, says that using California Climate Investment funds to produce renewable gas from biomethane that utilities want in their portfolio supports not only factory farming but also the legacy fossil fuel industry—and could ultimately allow it to continue its polluting ways.

“These cap and trade funds are huge subsidies that utilities and other large polluters pay for to avoid their own emission reductions…. It allows them to greenwash themselves while proceeding with their practices,” Walsh said. “This is really just a shallow attempt to extend the life of their industry in the face of a growing backlash against fossil fuel development.”

Using biogas from manure as part of utilities renewables portfolio isn’t cost effective either, Walsh added, and will significantly increase rates for consumers. Methane-derived RNG can also leak through pipelines when transported, just like natural gas. And the bet on biogas from dairies is happening just as cities around the country are focusing more on electricity and passing laws to stop the building of new gas infrastructure.

In California, state officials have also pushed electricity as a strategy for cutting emissions from homes and workplaces. Meanwhile, utilities like SoCalGas counter that using biogas as part of their energy mix can reduce greenhouse gas emissions faster and cheaper than electrifying buildings.

Ultimately, what could make utilities’ move to biogas problematic is simply a problem of supply. Studies show there likely won’t be enough RNG/biomethane to meet the state’s climate goals.

Alternatives Underfunded, Lag Behind

Dairy digesters aren’t the only way to manage manure’s methane impact, but environmentalists say that other, more cost effective and sustainable methods tend to be much harder to get funded.

The CDFA runs a second methane reduction grants program called the Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP). Those include projects focus on different ways to handle manure, such as composting and conversion to something called dry scrape collection, as well as enhanced pasture-based management practices (though few producers have applied to move their cows to pasture).

The program’s funding makes up only 20-30 percent of the total available for methane reduction programs, records show. More producers apply for the AMMP funding than for digester dollars, but in 2019 about half were rejected due to lack of funding.

The CDFA told Civil Eats that the dairy digester program has greater reductions of greenhouse gases than the alternative program. But Jeanne Merrill, policy director of California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), said the agency’s comparison is flawed. The CDFA calculates emission reduction impacts from AMMP projects on a 5-year project basis, she said, while those from the digester projects are calculated on a 10-year basis. “That’s comparing apples to oranges,” Merrill said.

CDFA officials said they use those time spans because they represent the expected duration of the projects. But Merrill said when greenhouse gas reductions are compared across both programs using similar timeframes, the AMMP projects fare quite well and sometimes do a better job with emission reductions per dollar.

AMMP projects are also faster to implement. Of the 108 digester projects awarded grants since 2015, only 13 are now complete and operational. The remaining 95 are at different stages of implementation.

Alternative methane reduction projects can also help protect water and air quality, Merrill added. Because they’re less expensive, they’re accessible to smaller farms and have greater geographic impact. And while digester projects are only guaranteed for 10 years (although Maas Energy Works told Civil Eats its digesters are expected to survive for at least 20), alternative projects are not subject to changes in complex technologies so are easier to maintain long-term.

“The trouble with digesters is that they only work for a quarter of the state’s dairies,” Merrill said. “Small and middle-sized dairies don’t have enough manure or capital to justify building digesters.”

Given the benefits, Merrill added, the CDFA should allocate half the available funding to non-digester programs.

Coronavirus May Stem the Tide of Funding

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages through California and the rest of the country, it’s still unclear how it might impact dairy digester projects. The pandemic has battered many smaller dairy farmers, with demand for dairy dropping and milk prices at historic lows. But both California Bioenergy and Maas Energy Works told Civil Eats that beyond minor delays and a slow-down in financing, the virus has had a limited impact on their operations so far.

In the near term, the impact may be financial. Before the pandemic, California’s governor Gavin Newsom proposed a budget that included a new ambitious Climate Catalyst Fund of $1 billion over the next four years. Companies—including farms and digester developers—could apply to get low-interest loans to reduce their climate impacts. That budget proposal, Newsom now says, “is no longer operable” and will have to be revised.

But given the fact that CDFA set its budget for 2020 loans last year, even the pandemic isn’t likely to stop the state’s fledgeling dairy digester industry from progressing—at least for the foreseeable future.

 

Top photo: The Riverview Dairy Digester in Pixley, California. It receives manure from roughly 3,000 cows, plus replacement stock. (Photo courtesy of Maas Energy Works)

LETTER: Hope Smithfield focuses on vegan meats

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Editor, Register-Mail: I hope Smithfield Foods stays closed for a while — and then focuses on vegan meats rather than animal flesh when it’s safe to reopen (“PETA demonstrators take to Monmouth Public Square,” May 13).

Filthy, crowded factory farms, meat markets, and slaughterhouses threaten the health of everyone — not just workers and meat-eaters— by providing a breeding ground for deadly diseases, such as COVID-19, swine flu, bird flu, and more. And the bloody, gruesome process of slaughtering, cutting up, and packaging the corpses of once-sentient individuals can cause those who inflict cruelty to animals to suffer from mental and physical health problems.

Fortunately, meat is not essential. There are tasty, healthy, humane, and environmentally friendly vegan options. Let’s enjoy them. See www.PETA.org for more information and a free vegan starter kit.

Sincerely

 — Heather Moore, PETA Foundation, Norfolk, Virginia

Suffocating healthy farm animals during a pandemic is not ‘euthanasia’

With the COVID-19 outbreak shutting down, at least temporarily, an estimated 20 major slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America, millions of farm animals are left in limbo with nowhere to go.

In Iowa, the nation’s biggest pork-producing state, farmers are reportedly giving pregnant sows abortions by injection and composting dead baby pigs to be used for fertilizer. Amid supply chain bottlenecks, local political leaders warn that producers might be forced to “euthanize” around 70,000 pigs a day.

In Minnesota, JBS, the world’s largest slaughter operation, reopened its Worthington plant last month for the sole purpose of killing and dumping excess pigs. The meat processing plant partially reopened for business last week. Roughly one-quarter of the facility’s 2,000 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.

And in Delaware and Maryland, Allen Harim Foods depopulated 2 million chickens last month, citing a 50% decline in its workforce.

Using the terms “slaughter” or “euthanasia” to describe the rapid destruction of farm animals is a misnomer. Slaughter is killing for human consumption; to ensure meat quality, the animal typically dies from blood loss. Under the federal humane slaughter law, animals (except birds) are first stunned, which means they are rendered insensible to pain.

Euthanasia literally means “a good death.” It involves ending an animal’s life in a way that minimizes or eliminates pain and distress, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The AVMA defines the term “depopulation” as “the rapid destruction of a population of animals in response to urgent circumstances with as much consideration given to the welfare of the animals as practicable.”

Among the depopulation methods deemed acceptable is using a layer of water-based foam to drown and suffocate birds. During ventilation shutdown, operators flip a switch to turn off the airflow in a barn and ratchet up the heat to as high as 120 degrees, leaving trapped birds and pigs to die from a combination of heat stress and suffocation. The process can take hours and likely results in severe suffering. In fact, other than burning animals to death or burying them alive, it is difficult to imagine a more horrific end.

The last time such gruesome depopulation methods were widely used was in 2015 in response to highly pathogenic bird flu, the worst animal disease outbreak in U.S. history, which killed nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys. In that case, birds were sick and suffering, and the justification given for the extreme step of depopulation was that it would slow the spread of the disease in the shortest time possible.

During the current pandemic, however, animals are not suffering from disease, nor are they at risk of transmitting disease to other animals or to humans. Instead, they are being killed, and their bodies disposed of, because meat companies failed to protect their workers properly from exposure to COVID-19.

The meat industry is using depopulation as a quick fix for its lack of emergency preparedness. The conventional animal agriculture industry operates a highly consolidated system that has a hard time adjusting in response to a crisis. It routinely runs slaughter lines at dizzying speeds, provides the lowest level of care to animals crammed in stressful, unsanitary environments, and extends minimal health and safety protections to its workers — to date, thousands have become ill or been exposed to the coronavirus, and some have died. This intensive, high-production system leaves no room for error, yet giant corporations give little consideration to how animals will fare in emergency situations — from disease outbreaks to natural disasters to devastating barn fires.

That hasn’t stopped industrial agriculture from begging for federal assistance, warning of meat shortages and skyrocketing prices. Farmers are also asking the federal government to bankroll depopulation efforts, along with compensating them for their losses.

Already, the Department of Agriculture has pledged that government officials and veterinarians will step in, if necessary, to “advise and assist on depopulation and disposal methods.” Because there are no federal or state regulations governing farm animal euthanasia or depopulation, more than 20 members of Congress sent a letter last week to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urging his department to curb extreme measures, including ventilation shutdown and water-based foam methods.

We simply cannot trust powerful industry players and federal regulators to safeguard animal welfare. According to a recent report by the Animal Welfare Institute, JBS’s Worthington plant, a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa, were the top three worst large livestock slaughter plants in the country for animal welfare violations from 2016 to 2018. These three facilities account for 12% of all U.S. hog production. Violations included multiple incidents of failing to stun animals before shackling and hanging them to be dismembered, likely causing the animals excruciating pain.

Depopulation during the current pandemic is being pursued solely as a consequence of the meat industry’s failure to protect its workers, not because the animals present any real risk to human or animal health. These blatantly inhumane killing methods are completely unjustifiable.

Because these animals cannot be brought to market, millions of animal lives will be wasted. At the very least, we should spare them a cruel death.

Dena Jones is the farm animal program director for the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute.

US coronavirus hotspots linked to meat processing plants

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/15/us-coronavirus-meat-packing-plants-food

A billboard advertises job hiring at Agri Beef’s plant in Toppenish, Washington. Donald Trump last month declared such plants to be critical to the US economy.
A billboard advertises job hiring at Agri Beef’s plant in Toppenish, Washington. Donald Trump last month declared such plants to be critical to the US economy. Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP
Published onFri 15 May 2020 07.45 EDT

Almost half the current Covid-19 hotspots in the US are linked to meat processing plants where poultry, pigs and cattle are slaughtered and packaged, which has led to the virus spiking in many small towns and prompted calls for urgent reforms to an industry beset by health and safety problems.

At least 12 of the 25 hotspots in the US – counties with the highest per-capita infection rates – originated in meat factories where employees work side by side in cramped conditions, according to an analysis by the Guardian.

In Nebraska, five counties have outbreaks linked to meat plants including Dakota county, where about one of every 14 residents has tested positive – the second-highest per capita infection rate in the US. As of Thursday, the Nebraska counties of Dakota, Hall, Dawson, Saline, and Colfax accounted for almost half the state’s 9,075 positive cases, according to data tracking by the New York Times.

Meat processing plants seem to have emerged as incubators for the coronavirus, which has spread rapidly among workers unable to perform physical distancing.

The virus spreads among people in close contact for a prolonged period. It is mostly transmitted through tiny droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth when they cough, sneeze or talk.

On Wednesday, a fourth US agriculture department (USDA) food safety inspector died, this time in Dodge City, Kansas. The city is located in Ford county, where one in 28 residents is infected – the 11th-highest rate in the US. In Kansas, outbreaks in four of the hardest-hit counties are linked to large meatpacking plants.

Almost 300 inspectors, who have struggled to get access to adequate protective gear, are off sick with Covid-19 or under self-quarantine due to exposure, said the USDA, which regulates about 6,500 plants, including 300 or so factories with more than 500 employees.

The deregulation of slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants over the past two decades has increased output and profits at the cost of health and safety, according to advocates .

Even before the pandemic, the industry was riddled with “serious safety and health hazards … including dangerous equipment, musculoskeletal disorders, and hazardous chemicals,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“The pandemic has shone a light on the meat industry where for years workers have been exploited in these plants including being penalized for not showing up even when they are sick or injured. Even now, it’s taken plants to be shut down for companies to provide protective gear for workers,” said Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist at the not-for-profit Food & Water Watch.

At least 30 plants have suspended operations over the past two months, and scores more have reduced operations amid a growing public outcry about working conditions for mostly migrant workers.

But many are now starting to reopen – a move encouraged by Donald Trump, who, in an attempt to fend off unrest about meat shortages in supermarkets, last month declared meat processing plants to be critical infrastructure.

In Nobles county, Minnesota, almost 500 workers at a large Brazilian-owned JBS pork plant have tested positive. The outbreak rapidly spread through the county, with 1,291 confirmed cases as of Wednesday compared with just a handful in mid-April. About one in 17 people in the county have now tested positive, though the infection is now slowing.

The Nobles plant reopened last week after two weeks closed. It has reportedly introduced a host of safety measures, including face shields for those working in close proximity.

Congress will vote on Friday on another Covid-19 rescue package, which includes mandatory health and safety regulations for all essential workers, including meat processing and care-home staff.

US meat exports surge as industry struggles to meet demand


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A view of the chicken and meat section at a grocery store, April 28, 2020 Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — U.S. meat exports are surging even as the industry is struggling to meet domestic demand because of coronavirus outbreaks at processing plants that have sickened hundreds of workers and caused companies to scramble to improve conditions.

Although the situation could cause concern that American workers are risking their health to meet foreign demand, experts say it shouldn’t because much of the meat sold to other countries is cuts that Americans generally don’t eat. And at least one of the four major processors says it has reduced exports during the pandemic.

If companies manage to keep their workers healthy and plants operating, there should be plenty of supply to satisfy domestic and foreign markets, according to industry officials.

FILE – Wilson Castro wears a mask and gloves as he restocks the shelves in the meat department at the Presidente Supermarket on April 13, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“I really feel like the industry is well positioned to serve all of its customers both here and abroad,” said Joe Schuele, a spokesman for the industry trade group U.S. Meat Export Federation.

Meat exports, particularly pork exports to China, grew significantly throughout the first three months of the year. This was partly due to several new trade agreements that were completed before the coronavirus outbreak led to the temporary closure of dozens of U.S. meatpacking plants in April and May and to increased absenteeism at many plants that reduced their output.

The Meat Export Federation said pork exports jumped 40% and beef exports grew 9% during the first three months of the year. Chicken exports, meanwhile, grew by 8% in the first quarter. Complete figures weren’t yet available for April, but Agriculture Department figures for the last week of April show that pork exports jumped by 40% as shipments to China and Japan surged and exports to Mexico and Canada remained strong. Beef exports declined by 22% in that last week of April.

China’s demand for imported pork has risen over the past year because its own pig herds were decimated by an outbreak of African swine fever, and China pledged to buy $40 billion in U.S. agricultural products per year under a trade pact signed in January. China also became the fourth-largest market for American poultry in the first quarter after it lifted a five-year ban on those products. A trade agreement with Japan and a new North American free trade agreement also helped boost exports.

FILE – Butcher Sebastian Soria cuts beef for customers at butcher’s shop La Tiernita of Villa Puyrredon area on March 25, 2020 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images)

Part of the reason why exports have continued to be so strong this spring is that much of the meat headed overseas was bought up to six months ahead of time — before the virus outbreak took hold in the U.S.

“A lot of these sales were made before COVID-19 hit. China had already made these purchases and then COVID-19 hit. They had actually pre-purchased a lot of this before the plant problems hit,” said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University.

It’s also worth noting that meat exports to China and other Asian markets include cuts such as pig feet, snouts and internal organs that have little value in the United States. The most popular cuts in the U.S., including bacon and pork chops, largely stay in the domestic market. More than half of the chicken exports to China were chicken feet. And the Meat Export Federation says demand from the export market helps boost meat production in the U.S. because more animals are slaughtered to help meet all the demand.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said he doesn’t think it makes sense to restrict exports because so much of the meat sold internationally isn’t popular in the U.S.

“I think it’s important to prioritize,” said Naig, whose state leads the nation in pork production. “I think companies should meet the domestic market first and then be free to sell the things that the American consumer doesn’t purchase and the types of things that we don’t normally consume. That’s economically important.”

Workers line up to enter the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Logansport, Ind., Thursday, May 7, 2020. In Cass County, home to the Tyson plant, confirmed coronavirus cases have surpassed 1,500. That’s given the county — home to about 38,000 residents — one of the nation’s highest per-capita infection rates. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Meat production in the United States is dominated by a few huge companies — JBS, Smithfield, Tyson Foods and Cargill. Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for JBS, said that Brazilian-owned company has reduced exports to help ensure it can satisfy U.S. demand for its products. Tyson Foods and Cargill didn’t respond to questions about their exports.

The Greeley JBS meat packing plant sits idle on April 16, 2020 in Greeley, Colorado. The meat packing facility has voluntarily closed until April 24 in order to test employees for the coronavirus (COVID-19) virus. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Smithfield Foods, which is owned by a Chinese company, said in a statement that it isn’t controlled by any government and that the free market determines what products it exports. JBS declined to respond to questions about its foreign ownership. Purdue University agricultural economist Jayson Lusk said it’s not clear what role the foreign owners play in deciding how much meat is exported.

The industry has been dealing with a number of production challenges caused by the coronavirus, and several large plants had to close temporarily because of outbreaks of COVID-19, the disease it causes. At least 30 U.S. meatpacking workers have died of COVID-19 and another 10,000 have been infected or exposed to the virus, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents roughly 80% of the country’s beef and pork workers and 33% of its poultry workers.

Kansas State agricultural economist Glynn Tonsor said he thinks the industry will get past the shortage concerns within the next several weeks.

“I think it’s important that we note that the U.S. hog industry is large enough to sufficiently supply our domestic market and export. We’ve done that for some time. We’ve been growing volumes in both places for some time,” Tonsor said.

Tyson and Smithfield have both been able to reopen huge pork processing plants that were temporarily closed in Iowa and South Dakota, which should help the industry keep up with demand even if some plants aren’t running at full capacity, said David Herring, of the National Pork Producers Council.

“I really don’t think we’ll see a big problem with meat shortages,” said Herring, who raises hogs near Lillington, North Carolina. “As long as the plants are able to come back up and operate maybe not at 100% but at 80% or 90%, I think we should be good.”

The Human Cost of ‘Culling’ Livestock and ‘Depopulating’ Farms

A Tyson Foods pork processing plant, temporarily closed due to an outbreak of the coronavirus, in Waterloo, Iowa, April 29, 2020. (Brenna Norman/Reuters)

It’s not always clear whether industry representatives regret the waste of life or just a waste of food.NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLEUnfolding this month, in the background of the pandemic, is a “depopulation” of livestock farms — another surreal new term of the crisis to add to our list. It’s as detached and colorless a word as the industry could find for gassing, suffocating, or otherwise doing in the millions of animals whose appointments at the abattoir have been canceled by coronavirus outbreaks and who therefore, in the refrain of news coverage, have “nowhere to go.”

The system has its own unbending schedules and logic. No sheltering in place for factory-farmed pigs, cows, chickens, and other creatures when yet more troubles appear. When they can’t die on a kill line, because a slaughterhouse has closed, that just means they have to die somewhere else to get out of the way — even if, as in this case, they’re all bound for landfills, blast furnaces, or burial pits.

Culling is a grim necessity, we’re told, and industry representatives have been straining to convey a sense of loss, though it’s not always clear whether they regret the waste of life or just a waste of food. In an emergency conference call on the logistics of the cull, recorded online by pork producers, one speaker captured the feeling: “It’s a topic that makes us all sick to our stomachs.”

Among techniques discussed in that call, and left for farmers to apply according to cost and “depopulation efficiency,” were gunshot and electrocution (“preferred” methods), “manual blunt force trauma” (beating animals to death with blows to the head, also “preferred”), ventilation shutdown and poisoning by carbon monoxide or sodium nitrate (these approaches “permitted in constrained circumstances”). When the pork producers’ lead veterinarian turned to the details of setting up a “gas chamber,” you could understand how disoriented a rational person would feel.

By presidential directive, the meat industry is now to be considered an “essential” enterprise. This intervention will safeguard such assets as our “national pork reserve,” while reopening the slaughter plants and leaving the companies in their accustomed position of taking no responsibility for the consequences. Culling continues anyway, because with the merest pause the meat system convulses with “backlog,” requiring travails for which producers expect our sympathy.

So sorrowful is the task that Iowa’s governor and U.S. senators have requested federal support not only in “depopulation” itself but also in helping to cope with the emotional aftermath: “Providing mental health assistance to farmers, veterinarians and others involved in the difficult decisions and processes around euthanizing and disposing of animals is imperative.” The National Pork Producers Council, in various statements pleading for public understanding along with the federal cash payouts, likewise speaks of “tragic choices,” “gut-wrenching decisions,” and “devastating last resorts” — all pointing to euthanasia as “the most humane option.”

A grievous situation, from any angle. And it would be nice to think that, even in some fleeting moment of revelation, these people who run our factory farms and slaughterhouses had awakened to the reality that living creatures are never just commodities, that they warrant our moral concern, and their suffering, our compassion. More likely, in these expressions of disquiet, we have a massive case of compartmentalizing, in which the mind selectively acknowledges one kind of problem while failing to grasp others of equal moral gravity.

What is so “gut-wrenching” about culling, compared with practices that these same people accept as a matter of course, in unconstrained circumstances and in disregard of every consideration except their own convenience and profit? With the turn of a switch, and in a matter of minutes, half a million chickens may be gassed or suffocated in a single facility, only because industrial agriculture packs these afflicted fowl of the air into vast warehouses, the laying hens crammed into row after row of small and filthy cages. A depressing possibility, given that such miseries are the design of the same farmers doing the culling, is that all they really lament is the loss of time and money. And even that feeling passes quickly, as culling is turned to advantage, with higher prices following the short-term constriction in supply.

If “mass depopulation” makes for a sickening sight, even to factory farmers, then you would think that “mass confinement” of animals would long ago have had a similar effect. Under “intensive confinement,” another term of the trade, these culled animals have known a world of only concrete and metal, with all the privations, mutilations, and other cruelties that are the industry’s first resort, and with even the veterinarians hired only to refine the punishments. Indeed, every modern hog farm is a training ground in culling, as the weak and near-dead are routinely dragged to “cull pens,” while the others are kept alive, amid pathogenic disease and squalor, only by a reckless use of antibiotics. The externalized cost to public health being left, as always with factory farming, for others to deal with.

Such is the culling expertise of America’s pork producers that when China’s current swine-fever contagion began to spread, factory farmers in that country knew who to call. Our industry’s best minds in the field were dispatched to the scene, where even now millions of pigs are being gassed or buried alive.

Where was the industry’s concern for “humane options” when this regulatory change was advocated? Where was that alertness to “tragic choices” when it might have done some good? And does it give anyone a moment’s pause that pigs, slaughtered at a national rate of half a million a day, are highly intelligent and social creatures, at least as smart and sensitive as any dog facing the similar horrors of a Wuhan wet market?

The chairman of Tyson Foods last week, in an unctuous and self-pitying letter typical of the industry’s public pronouncements, expressed confidence that his company’s “core values” would see it through the crisis. Yet for years, that company and others have sought laws to prohibit anyone from taking pictures inside their facilities, lest we learn more about how things work in what industry executives prefer to call “protein production.” What are the core values of people in a massive enterprise that depends so heavily on concealment and euphemism?

How jarring to hear them now supplicating for “mental-health assistance” to soothe their emotional wounds, as if they felt some attachment to animals they have done nothing but abuse, employing methods they are afraid to let us see. And how absurd to find Tyson’s top man solemnly declaring that “the food supply chain is breaking” (meat, he informs us, is “as essential as healthcare”), as though we’re just one or two slaughterhouse shutdowns away from famine. Happily, the crop growers of America — the farmers who truly sustain our country, and who don’t need gas chambers when things go wrong — have got us covered.

Sometimes the failures in a system reveal the essence of the whole. Abnormal circumstances can clarify problems that pass for normal. Doubtless, in their “depopulation” measures, the livestock farmers themselves feel they have “nowhere to go,” forced by their own manias of consolidation and hyper-efficiency to make one harsh choice after another, all the conscientious alternatives long ago ruled out. Yet if somehow it troubles them, in their culling labors, to treat millions of living creatures as nothing — bulldozed away, like so much piled-up trash — then now’s a good moment, for all of us, to notice that the system is just as merciless when it is working to perfection.

Every one of those creatures, like billions of others, was marked for a bitter, frightened, pain-filled life anyway — and to what good end? It is all in service to a business whose ruthlessness to animals, utter indifference to workers, destructiveness to the environment, and manifold harm to human health combine to qualify it as perhaps the least essential industry in America, and among the most amoral.

By all means, give them their mental-health assistance. Add some ethics counseling, too. And just make certain that the treatment includes serious, intensive introspection.