How stressed out are factory-farmed animals? AI might have the answer.

The promise and perils of using facial recognition technology on animals.By Laura Bridgeman  Jun 12, 2021, 8:00am EDT

Share this story

Much of the research into animal facial expressions has focused on species like dogs and horses. But some of the most cutting-edge work is aimed at an unlikely subject: the farmed hog.

The typical hog factory farm employs a small number of workers to oversee hundreds, or even thousands, of pigs — too many for the people running the facility to tell which ones might be in distress. Researchers at the Centre for Machine Vision at the University of West England, where pig emotion recognition work is being conducted, envision this technology could be used to help farmworkers more readily identify sickness and injury. If AI can routinely scan the pigs’ faces and alert workers to particularly stressed-out animals, treatment can come sooner and suffering can be reduced.

Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter

Twice a week, we’ll send you a roundup of the best ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — and how to get better at doing good. Sign up here.

There is even potential for the technology someday advancing to the point of detecting “happiness” in pigs — a holy grail for animal ag.

But while the idea of learning more about what animals are feeling is self-evidently enticing — why wouldn’t we want to learn more about them? — some animal welfare advocates question the very premise of this research. While the bulk of the funding is from the UK government, one reason for the skepticism is that the research is partly supported by companies in the meat and agriculture industry, including a pig genetics company that has availed its farms for the study. It’s not hard to see that industry’s interest in this work: Keeping more pigs alive under intensive conditions would be a financial boon, as would being able to advertise how “happy” the animals were — something the Centre’s website suggests could be possible.

And that all leads to a deeper question: Just how comfortable — let alone happy — can a pig be on a factory farm? In the US, nearly all pigs raised for meat are kept in unnatural, highly mechanized, and crowded conditions, given no access to the outdoors. Conditions are similar in much of the European Union, and factory farming is on the rise in low- and middle-income countries as global demand for meat increases. These environments are so difficult to endure that, by some estimates, up to 35 percent of US-raised pigs die before ever reaching the market.

Piglets crowd a stall inside a hog farm in Drahnsdorf, Germany, in 2016.

The project of discerning the emotional state of pigs — and the meat industry’s larger push to invent new technology that promises to improve animal welfare — illustrates the fine line between meaningful efforts to reduce animal suffering and so-called “humane-washing,” where animal welfare is portrayed as being better than it actually is.

There is a growing body of research that shows what changes farms could make today to reduce the suffering of farmed animals, like eliminating extreme confinement, ending breeding practices that make animals grow too big too fast, and providing outdoor access and enrichments designed to mimic experiences they would normally enjoy if left to their own devices. All of which raises the question: Who is this new technology really for — the pigs, or the humans who raise, slaughter, and eat them?

How to identify stressed-out pigs

The most cost-effective methods of raising animals tend to cause the most harm. Animals’ bodies become levers on which a balancing act is performed: expending the fewest resources (such as living space) while keeping animals alive and productive. Economic considerations often outweigh welfare, resulting in the inhumane conditions that are a hallmark of intensive animal agriculture.

On the side of animal well-being are researchers like Melvyn Smith, director of the Centre for Machine Vision, for whom improving animal welfare is a big motivator in his quest to use AI to identify stressed-out pigs. “If we could understand how the animal is feeling, if the animal can tell us this itself, then that gives us an opportunity to tailor treatment and care for individual animals,” he told me.

To try to understand how an animal is feeling, he and his colleagues, in partnership with Scotland’s Rural College, are building on past facial recognition research. They have already trained a form of deep-learning AI that is tailored to analyzing images, known as a convolutional neural network (CNN), to distinguish between individual pigs just by analyzing photos of their faces.

This new project — aimed at recognizing emotions — adds a layer of nuance to this research by training the CNN to recognize the difference between stressed and unstressed pigs.THE MOST COST-EFFECTIVE METHODS OF RAISING ANIMALS TEND TO CAUSE THE MOST HARM

Like other deep learning algorithms, the Centre’s CNN learns by being exposed to data sets — in this case, thousands of photographs of pig faces that are likely to be experiencing stress or not. Cameras affixed just above the water spigot where pigs drink allow for close-up and relatively uniform images of each pig every time they take a sip. The CNN then analyzes each photograph, searching for subtle variations in the pigs’ faces around the eyes, the position of the ears, and other features.

To observe whether pigs are stressed, the animals are placed in situations known to be either mildly stressful or preferable. Pigs kept in pens with multiple generations tend to experience stress (particularly true of younger pigs), whereas relatively stress-free environments can be created by giving pigs essentially an all-you-can-eat buffet. Saliva and blood can be measured to determine cortisol levels, a chemical associated with a stress response.

With the three-year project about halfway complete, the results so far are impressive: The CNN is able to distinguish between pigs’ stressed and unstressed facial expressions more than 90 percent of the time.

By helping AI recognize expressions related to core emotional states in pigs, farmworkers could be alerted to individuals that are experiencing discomfort, allowing for swifter medical attention or alterations to the pigs’ living environment.

Caring for farmed animals as individuals is becoming increasingly difficult due to intensive animal agriculture operations. On smaller-scale farms, workers are able to spend far more time with individual pigs, getting to know animals’ personalities and watch out for suggestions that they may be unwell. But most pigs live on factory farms, where just a few workers can be responsible for the care of thousands of animals.

And factory farms are ramping up around the world: In the US, where factory farming has become the norm for animal agriculture generally, nearly 130 million pigs were raised and slaughtered in 2019 alone. The UK saw intensive pig farming increase 26 percent between 2011 and 2017. In China, a “hog hotel” factory farm consisting of a collection of buildings reaching 12 stories into the sky clocks in as the biggest multi-story hog farm on the planet, with the capacity to house upward of 1,000 pigs per floor.

A sow with her piglets in a farrowing crate in Germany. Factory farms are ramping up around the world.

It is no easy task to keep pigs alive within the crowded indoor conditions of factory farms. According to the Iowa Pork Industry Center at Iowa State University, about one in three pigs die before reaching the market due to factors like stillbirth, sow crushinginfectious diseases, and poor air quality. Not only does this figure represent massive economic losses for the industry, it also demonstrates the sheer scale of health problems pigs on factory farms must regularly contend with, many of which can cause chronic physical and psychological pain even when they are not ultimately fatal.

Identifying negative emotions like stress could help reduce the suffering of farmed pigs. But the research won’t end there: The next goal is detecting subtler emotions, including happiness.

Can animals have a good life on a factory farm?

Interest in animal facial expressions seems to be growing within the scientific community. Facial coding systems are being developed for species like horses and dogs, where expressions related to pain or frustration are being mapped out. Dogs have been observed to make “cute” faces at humans, while rats and chimps are perceived to smile and laugh when they are tickled.

But is happiness something that can be measured by facial expression?

Smith’s team wants to find out. Once the current study on pig stress is complete, the next stage will be seeing whether the CNN can detect other, more nuanced emotions, perhaps one day giving “farmers and their prospective customers an idea of how happy their pigs are,” as the Centre’s website notes.

But technology capable of detecting happiness and more subtle or complex emotions is not without controversy. When it’s applied to human beings, critics warn of the inaccuracies arising with a one-to-one mapping of prototypical expressions to emotions. A scowl doesn’t always mean anger; a furrowed brow doesn’t always denote concentration.

Further complicating the matter is that happiness is a philosophically elusive concept even when it comes to Homo sapiens, since there remains a lack of consensus over what exactly constitutes happiness. Fleeting moments of pleasure, joy, or contentment, along with longer-term experiences of an engaged, meaningful life, are thought to be among the ingredients associated with states of happiness in people.

While the constituents of happiness probably look different depending on the species, certain conditions are more likely to guarantee the suppression of happiness regardless of the kind of animal.

“Pigs can never be happy in factory farms,” says Lori Marino, director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy and an expert in animal behavior who co-authored a study on pig cognition and emotion. To Marino, “a CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] is so far from what a pig needs to thrive that it could not be a place that would make a pig happy or content. They are not designed for pig happiness.”

Inside a CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operation, in Lawler, Iowa, in 2018.

“I also worry that these companies will only share data that are self-serving and the data will be biased toward convincing people that pigs are happy in CAFOs,” she continued.

These concerns may be well-founded. People and businesses that use animals often state that the animals under their control are happy, like the California Milk Advisory Board’s “Happy Cow” campaign or Elon Musk’s “totally happy” lab monkey.

Such claims of animal happiness can be dubious given the mounting science revealing the extent to which animals can be harmed in captivity. One of Marino’s other studies looks at how captivity can cause brain damage in some animals, impairing cognitive functions such as memory and decision-making.

Other researchers conducted a study that found horses that were confined within stalls emitted brain waves associated with states like depression and anxiety, whereas horses allowed to roam in herds on pastures showed brain waves associated with feelings of calm. Pregnant pigs kept in gestation crates, cages that are barely bigger than their bodies, are known to become unresponsive over time — behavior that has been linked to depression. Much is already known about the emotional state of animals in captivity without state-of-the-art tech telling us.

RELATED

How Iowa’s largest hog producer courted power, turned farming into a numbers game, and transformed the American heartland.

Smith’s inquiry into whether pigs are happy on farms may find they’re not, but that doesn’t deter him. He says he is interested in switching the longstanding emphasis within the animal research community from detecting simply an absence of negative emotions to detecting positive emotions, and that this might lead to a better understanding of what contributes to higher quality of life and happiness for pigs.

But given that the current project is partly supported by industry stakeholders, including the farming technology company AgSense (owned by Valmont Industries), JSR Genetics Ltd. (a pig breeding company), and Garth Pig Practice (a veterinary consulting service), skepticism about the uses of this technology is in order. (AgSense, Valmont Industries, and Garth Pig Practice did not respond to requests for comments for this article.)

Moving the needle on animal welfare

The intensive animal agriculture industry is facing increasing scrutiny of operations that not only harm animals but give rise to a litany of damaging consequences, from perpetuating environmental racism — especially in North Carolina, where hog farms disproportionately pollute predominantly Black communities — to accelerating climate change. Demands to abolish factory farming altogether are growing louder.

Still, improvements in farmed animal welfare are worthwhile since it’s unlikely factory farming is going away anytime soon. Once implemented, the Centre’s CNN may quantifiably improve the welfare of pigs on factory farms, even if incrementally.

But while there’s still much to learn about animal welfare, there’s even more that we already know. If the pork sector were concerned with animal thriving, practices known to cause chronic stress — such as gestation crates — would already be eradicated.

Greenpeace activists call on European Parliament members to vote against livestock factory farms in Brussels in 2019. 

There exists abundant evidence of the pain male piglets endure when they are castrated without anesthesia, yet these mutilations continue to be widespread.

Confining pigs indoors within crowded, barren pens on concrete flooring can lead to abnormal biting behaviors that can devolve into cannibalism — something that can be addressed by giving pigs additional space and covering floors with natural materials like peat or compost.

AI technology may one day yield deeper insights into farmed animals’ emotional states. And there’s some genuine value in research diving into what animals are feeling. The question that looms over the use of such tech in a factory farming context is whether we already know enough anyway.

The pig whisperer: the Dutch farmer who wants to end factory farming

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jun/07/the-pig-whisperer-the-dutch-farmer-who-wants-to-end-factory-farming

Kees Scheepens and his two favourite pigs: Borough, left, and Oma.
Kees Scheepens and his two favourite pigs: Borough, left, and Oma. Photograph: Judith Jockel/The Guardian

A unique ‘pig toilet’ and a diet of organic leftovers are part of former vet Kees Scheepens’ plans to put animal welfare and sustainability first
Animals farmed is supported by

Animals farmed

About this contentSenay BoztasMon 7 Jun 2021 01.30 EDT

“Oma, hoi! Hier! Hallooo,” Dr Kees Scheepens, a Dutch farmer known as the “pig whisperer”, is calling his two oldest pigs for some apricot snacks.

Oma or “granny”, a seven-year-old sow, lives with a Berkshire boar called Borough, who’s nine, off a quiet lane in the town of Oirschot, in the south of the Netherlands, on a farm called Hemelrijken – Dutch for “the realms of heaven”.

Scheepens, 61, says he is the 19th generation of farmers in his family, and that after years practising as a vet, he is driven by an unusual set of ambitions: “emancipating” farm animals, putting animal welfare first, and eating far less, far happier meat.

Kees Scheepens feeds pigs outside at his farm in Oirschot, the Netherlands.
Kees Scheepens feeds pigs with leftovers from the local organic supermarket. Photograph: Judith Jockel/The Guardian

“Borough and Oma are here to stay,” he says, squelching to his farthest field, where the two 400kg-plus animals squeeze into their shed. “I’ve given them a name and when you give a name to a pig, I cannot butcher it any more. I had three boars, David, Att and Borough. David and Att are already in heaven but ‘Bro’ is still here.”Advertisement‘Truly an emergency’: how drought returned to California – and what lies aheadClimate crisis to shrink G7 economies twice as much as Covid-19, says researchIdaho’s Republicans in political civil war as state lurches further rightUS reputation as leading global power harmed by Covid response, poll shows – liveFDA approves first new Alzheimer’s drug in almost 20 yearsBoko Haram leader killed on  direct orders of Islamic StateClimate crisis to shrink G7economies twice as much asCovid‑19, says researchhttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.463.0_en.html#goog_887211358https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.463.0_en.html#goog_223764651https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.463.0_en.html#goog_1184734078Climate crisis to shrink G7 economies twice as much as Covid-19, says research

As he walks around feeding and talking a little French to his 28 sows (according to Scheepens, “neuf”, is their grunt of confirmation, and “huithuit” is them asking for more) the place seems idyllic. The pigs are fed on produce being thrown away by organic supermarket Ekoplaza: boxes of white cabbages, slightly wilted beans, veggie-balls, 500kg of Canadian lentils, overripe mangoes from Burkina Faso, hundreds of tubs of peach mango soy yoghurt, and boxes of apricots. A couple of cats and dogs wander around. Meanwhile, in a forested nature reserve area, 45 Angus cows have just calved.

Scheepens primarily raises a breed he calls the “Duke of Berkshire”, a cross of the hairy Berkshire pig and white sow, named with a nod to his years working in England. Although he raises them for meat, he is passionate about animal welfare. “Am I rich in money? No, but I’m primarily motivated by emancipating farm animals.”

He started his pig project almost a decade ago, aiming to help bring open-air farming back to the muddy Netherlands, and pioneer a new type of barn farming.

‘I would say pigs are the most hygienic animals we have on the farm,’ says Kees Scheepens, seen here explaining the pig toilet, which encourages pigs to separate urine and poo in order to reduce the production of ammoniac.
‘Pigs are the most hygienic animals we have on the farm,’ says Scheepens, seen here explaining his system for encouraging pigs to separate their urine and poo to reduce ammonia production. Photograph: Judith Jockel/The Guardian

“Factory farming of pigs in the Netherlands is a dead end,” he says. “We now know that a pig is not a thing: it is a sentient being with a high level of intelligence, comparable with the intelligence of a child. What I see worldwide is that many pig farmers don’t know any more what pigs are about. They just don’t have the skills to know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

What’s wrong, he believes, is factory farming where cannibalistic “vices” such as tail biting replace normal pig behaviour such as rooting around for food. This leads to widespread “tail docking” in many parts of Europe to stop animals eating each other’s tails, even though the practice is banned.

Instead, Scheepens argues, pigs need a more natural environment, to be able to root around in beds of straw or wood chips and have outdoor access, with a special toilet replacing slatted floors (where urine and faeces fall through and mix).

“I would say pigs are the most hygienic animals we have on the farm,” he says. “They will not poo or pee in their nest. Pooing always goes well: their noses are so sensitive, they recognise the smell.”

Meat has become a throwaway product, where the true value is not seen any more

Kees Scheepens

To encourage them to urinate separately, he has created a reward system: a machine delivering lemon sour candies when their urine goes through a special floor membrane in an outside “toilet” area.

Why is peeing important for sustainable farming? “When I reward them for correct urinating, there will not be the contact between a nitrogen compound found in urine and an enzyme in the manure: that creates ammonia, and that’s one of the main factors in the [excess] nitrogen discussions [taking place] in the Netherlands.”

Pigs eat treats they receive after using a toilet. The pigs are encouraged to urinate on the dark patch in the left-hand corner of the pen, where one of them is standing.
A pig eats a treat after urinating in the correct place. The pigs are encouraged to urinate on the dark patch in the corner of the pen. Photograph: Judith Jockel/The Guardian

Advertisementhttps://ed4e90b076baf41ba58d4eca9ad19ac9.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Scheepens believes animal cruelty at abattoirs and intensive farms cannot last; his own turning point came after the swine flu epidemic of 1997–98, when he was forced to euthanise about 10,000 newborn piglets.

“At the time I just did my job. But later on, I developed very serious epileptic seizures. I said to myself: ‘You have euthanised healthy pigs. As a vet you are trained to cure animals that are sick or to keep animals healthy, not to butcher piglets.’”

Returning from a period working in England, during which he was diagnosed with epilepsy, he decided he wanted to be a farmer like his forebears. “I think when you want to work with animals and have them play a role in agriculture, it has to be sustainable,” he says.

A poster explains how the ‘pig toilet’ works.
A poster explaining how the ‘pig toilet’ works by preventing contact between the nitrogen compound found in urine and the enzyme urea in the manure. Photograph: Judith Jockel/The Guardian

“Meat has become a throwaway product, where the true value is not seen any more. Wouldn’t it be nice if farmers were offered an income with the same farm and half of the animals? Sustainability can only be there in my perception when you take care of animal welfare first.”

The Netherlands is a densely populated country, and the land is often poorly drained. So as well as outdoor farming, Scheepens wants to revolutionise animal barns so smells and emissions are reduced, and pigs can laze, eat, root and wallow as nature intended.

Pigs at Kees Scheepens’ farm. ‘We now know that a pig is not a thing. It is a sentient being with intelligence,’ he says.
Happy pigs at Kees Scheepens’ farm. ‘We now know that a pig is not a thing but a sentient being with a high level of intelligence,’ he says. Photograph: Judith Jockel/The Guardian

Advertisement

“The last three to four generations have started using fertilisers, pesticides and going from big, bigger to biggest,” he says. “That was the societal trend in agriculture, but I think we have to become smartest. I don’t want to have a grandchild saying to me: ‘you broke that tradition of farming because you destroyed the Earth.’”

He thinks there’s no need for pig farming to stink: “I always say to farmers, you can just ignore what we gained in knowledge on animal welfare because your barn needs to be paid off. But the mental and emotional reasons to change are huge. In every farmer, there’s also a heart.”

Sign up for the Animals farmed monthly update to get a roundup of the best farming and food stories across the world and keep up with our investigations. You can send us your stories and thoughts at animalsfarmed@theguardian.com

Air Pollution From Livestock and Fertilizers Kills Nearly 18,000 People Yearly

A curious pig looks at visitors to the barn on one of the Silky Pork farms in Duplin County in a 2014 file image. Air pollution from Duplin County farms is linked to roughly 98 premature deaths per year, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A curious pig looks at visitors to a Silky Pork farms barn in Duplin County, North Carolina. Air pollution from Duplin County farms is linked to roughly 98 premature deaths per year, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

BYChris WalkerTruthoutPUBLISHEDMay 11, 2021SHAREShare via FacebookShare via TwitterShare via Email

A white lower-case t on a black background

READING LISTHUMAN RIGHTSChomsky: Without US Aid, Israel Wouldn’t Be Killing Palestinians En MassePOLITICS & ELECTIONSWarmonger Rahm Emanuel Is an Abysmal Choice for US AmbassadorPOLITICS & ELECTIONSGOP Votes to Oust Liz Cheney for Not Peddling Trump’s Big LiePRISONS & POLICINGFor Eid, Let’s Celebrate the Queer and Trans Muslims Working Toward AbolitionPOLITICS & ELECTIONSMI Lawmaker Caught Spreading Falsehoods Introduces Bills to Punish Fact CheckersPOLITICS & ELECTIONSBiden Seeks Bipartisanship Even as McConnell Admits GOP Only Wants Obstruction

Anew study from a group of agricultural researchers found that nearly 18,000 deaths occur annually in the United States due to air pollution coming from farms.

The study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, noted that gases associated with manure and animal feed are producing particles that are able to drift hundreds of miles away from their source. Most of the deaths attributable to farm pollution, however, come from animal-based agriculture, accounting for 80 percent of the deaths the study uncovered.

Chronic exposure to increased levels of fine particulate matter (sometimes shortened to PM2.5) that is released from farms “increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, and stroke,” an analysis of the study noted.

Never miss another story

Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.

  • Email

Notably, deaths associated with farm pollution are more localized than deaths that occur with greenhouse gas pollution. Communities upwind from farms discharging the pollutants are at greatest risk, said Jason Hill, University of Minnesota professor and a lead author of the study. In other words, the health effects from agriculture-based air pollution tend to be more localized, dependent upon local weather patterns and other factors.

While that reduces the risk from these pollutants at the national and global levels (areas most affected by this type of pollution are in eastern North Carolina, California’s Central Valley and the Upper Midwest), the annual number of deaths caused by farm pollution now exceed deaths caused by pollution from coal power plants in the U.S.

The biggest culprit behind the deaths from farm pollution, in the study’s estimation, is ammonia, a chemical that’s released by manure and fertilizer, and which often combines with other pollutants found on farms, including nitrogen and sulfur. Hill, speaking with The Washington Post about the study, pointed out that animal waste is often stored in “lagoons” on farms, where huge amounts of ammonia are generated by the breakdown of animal feces. Ammonia is also created when farmers apply too much fertilizer on crops.

According to the study, livestock waste and fertilizer overuse likely accounted for about 12,400 deaths per year. While particulate matter emanating from “dust from tillage, livestock dust, field burning, and fuel combustion in agricultural equipment use” accounted for around 4,800 more deaths annually.

Agriculture industry leaders were quick to push back against the study’s findings. “U.S. pork producers have a strong track record of environmental stewardship,” claimed Jim Monroe, a spokesperson for the National Pork Producers Council.

A spokesperson for Smithfield Foods, which runs industrial hog operations in North Carolina, agreed with Monroe’s contentions, citing a study from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which said it didn’t find air quality problems in the areas where they had farms. But that study has some noteworthy flaws, including the fact that monitors used to detect ammonia levels were set up far away from the farms themselves.

Ammonia is a reactive chemical, and is difficult to detect unless a significant amount is released at one time.

In spite of this pushback, the study on agricultural air pollution noted there are potential solutions to the problem that could reduce yearly deaths in the U.S.

“Air quality–related health benefits … can be achieved through the actions of food producers and consumers,” the study’s authors said. Reducing particulate-related emissions, promoting dietary shifts in animals, reducing food loss and waste, and other methods are cited in the study as helpful to reducing the number of deaths from agricultural air pollution.

“The greatest benefits are from changes in livestock waste management and fertilizer application practices,” the study said. “Producer-side interventions in the 10 percent of counties with the highest mitigation potential alone could prevent 3,600 deaths per year.”

Methods based out of regenerative agriculture — described as “a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm” by the Climate Reality Project — could also be beneficial for scaling back farm-based air pollution, particularly in California, where such efforts could potentially reduce the impact of wildfires in the state. Such methods (including encouraging animals to graze natural plants, shrubs, or grass on the land, rather than animal feed, and engaging in no-till farming strategies to increase moisture levels in the soil) have been cited by farmer Alexis Koefoed as helping her family’s farm survive a wildfire last year.

“I think what the fire reinforced for me is that regenerative agriculture, managing the soil, using animals as grazers to build healthy soil is absolutely the direction to go in,” Koefoed said.

Beyond saving family farms, reducing the impact of wildfires could result in better health outcomes for nearby areas, particularly since smoke from those fires has been found to be 10 times more harmful than from other sources, including car exhaust.

The Egg Industry Grapples With a Grim Practice: Chick Culling

NEWS & FEATURESPRINT

REPUBLISH

After the U.S. egg industry missed its own deadline to eliminate the practice, some wonder when change will ever come.

Visual: Edwin Remsburg / VW Pics via Getty ImagesBY JONATHAN MOENS03.15.20210 COMMENTS

EVERY YEAR, up to 7 billion day-old male chicks are tossed into shredding machines, gassed, or suffocated in plastic bags — a process known as chick culling. This grim ritual is underpinned by both biology and economics: Male chicks don’t lay eggs, and they fatten up too slowly to be sold as meat. Across the globe, culling has become the default strategy for the egg industry to eliminate the unwanted hatchlings.

“It is horrible. You see these puffy, newly hatched chicks on a conveyor belt,” headed toward a large blade that slices them “into a gazillion pieces,” said Leah Garcés, president of Mercy for Animals, an animal rights advocacy group in the United States. In recent years, local and international animal rights groups, particularly in France, Germany, and the U.S., have been ramping up pressure on governments and the egg industry to commit to ending the practice — particularly given technological innovations that allow producers to identify the sex of a developing chick before it hatches. The process is called in-ovo sexing, and such technologies, versions of which are already deployed in some countries, can obviate the need for live chick culling.herd of cows on grassland during daytime

RELATED

Can Biotechnology Transform the Cattle Industry?

Nearly five years agoUnited Egg Producers, an agricultural co-operative whose members are responsible for producing more than 90 percent of all commercial eggs in the U.S., released a statement pledging to eliminate chick culling by 2020, or as soon as a “commercially available” and “economically feasible” technology became accessible. That pledge was negotiated with the Humane League, an animal rights nonprofit organization. But 2020 has come and gone, and while UEP’s pledge wasn’t legally binding, some egg industry leaders and scientists say there is little sign that the industry is anywhere near phasing in cull-free technologies that could still meet the colossal supply of more than 100 billion eggs produced every year in the U.S.

Part of the reason for the sluggish pace of change, critics say, is that the U.S. has been investing in and nurturing the development of sophisticated cull-free technologies that, while promising, remain expensive and could take several more years to develop, scale, and deploy across the nation — particularly given that the Covid-19 pandemic has shuttered labs and otherwise slowed the pace of innovation. Meanwhile, a method of in-ovo sexing of eggs is already being used in Europe — though some American stakeholders say that method, which involves creating a tiny hole in the eggshell with a laser, is sub-par, because it increases the risk of contamination. European developers dispute this, however, and as of this year, cull-free eggs are available in thousands of supermarkets in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and France with only modest additional costs to consumers and hatcheries.

What’s clear is that as the hunt for a solution drags on, the U.S.-based culling continues apace. “I don’t like false promises,” said Michael Sencer, executive vice president for Hidden Villa Ranch, a California-based food company that owns egg and dairy subsidiaries. Sencer expressed support for UEP’s pledge, but he acknowledged, “They’ve supported a number of groups that said they could come up with the technology and nothing has happened.”

UEP declined to be interviewed by Undark and instead provided a press statement highlighting its continued commitment to end culling. “We remain hopeful a breakthrough is on the horizon,” Chad Gregory, president and CEO of UEP, said in the statement.

Whether U.S.-based producers could be nudged by critics to explore existing technologies rather than pursue new ones remains unclear, but both animal rights groups and industry leaders agree that chick culling is not only cruel — it is wasteful. “I mean, name another industry where 50 percent of the finished product immediately goes to the garbage can,” said Jonathan Hoopes, president of Ovabrite, a Texas-based startup developing an in-ovo sexing technique. Incubating male eggs also takes up unnecessary space, energy, and money, making a solution to culling in the interest of both animal rights activists and egg producers.

“Forgetting the ethics of not killing all those birds, look at the money saving,” said Sencer, who estimated that the industry could save billions of dollars with the right technology. “It’s mind-boggling.”


SINCE THE 2016 statement, the largest funding initiative to eliminate chick culling has come from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), which launched the “Egg-Tech Prize” — a public-private research initiative that provides funding for scientists and startups seeking to develop in-ovo sexing technologies — with Open Philanthropy in 2019. Deploying such a technology would not only make chick culling obsolete, it would also allow the industry to repurpose unwanted male eggs for food, animal feed, or vaccine development.

In November of 2019, FFAR announced six finalists who received more than $2 million in total seed funding to develop sex identification technologies. Phase II of the competition will award up to $3.7 million for a single working prototype.

Animal rights groups and industry leaders agree that chick culling is not only cruel — it is wasteful.

According to Tim Kurt, FFAR’s scientific program director, the deadline for submissions has been pushed back due to Covid-19 delays and is now scheduled for spring 2022. However, the foundation could also decide not to fund any of the teams if they are not satisfied with the timeline. That’s a prospect Tom Turpen, a contender for the prize, says is a real possibility, especially given that at least some of the teams — his included — have experienced setbacks since the start of the pandemic. With travel restrictions and university laboratories shut down, access to data, equipment, and supplies has made it harder for teams to make progress on particular aspects of their projects, says Kurt.

Finalists, who were awarded between $396,000 and $1.1 million dollars each include startups and research laboratories with big, out-of-the-box ideas. This includes Orbem, a German startup that sexes chicks by combining high-speed scanning of eggs with AI technology, and SensIT Ventures, Inc., a California-based company, which Turpen heads, that uses a microchip to sex chicks by identifying gases emitted by eggs early in development. The selection team specifically funded projects that could potentially upend the egg industry, says Kurt.

The technologies that were selected have “the potential to really transform the industry,” said Kurt, who was involved in the selection. “They might be a bit higher risk, but if they were successful, and our funding could help them become successful, they would really be the most ideal solution.”

For all of Undark’s coverage of the global Covid-19 pandemic, please visit our extensive coronavirus archive.

Kurt and other industry leaders are optimistic that some of these technologies will help eliminate chick culling in the near future, but others are less hopeful. Changing current practices, Sencer said, would require “billions of dollars of investment in new equipment. And it’s just not going to happen [quickly], it’s happening slowly.” Sencer added that he predicts the technology may be scalable towards the end of the decade.

Even researchers competing in the Egg-Tech Prize themselves admit that, while a sexing technology may be on the horizon, cull-free eggs won’t be scalable for at least two more years. Turpen says the biggest obstacle lies in developing a technology that is not only capable of rapidly and accurately sexing chicks, but is also readily affordable to consumers and hatcheries across the nation.

“You could do a lot of things to identify the sex of the egg. That’s not the point. The point is: Can you do it and still have eggs people can afford to eat?”

To avoid a surge in costs that would inevitably arise from suddenly adopting a new mode of production, Turpen says a more likely and more reasonable path to scaling this nationally would be a slow and incremental process. “The adoption and replacement of existing equipment — that’s going to look more like making the coal industry go away.” That industry “is going away,” Turpen said, “but it’s going to be a long time.”

Other researchers in the Egg-Tech Prize have also made it clear that an all-encompassing solution to culling is not around the corner. Benjamin Schusser, whose research with colleagues at the Technical University of Munich turned into the spin-off company, Orbem, declined an interview, saying “we don’t want to awake[n] hope that there is a solution almost ready for market.” Pedro Gómez, the CEO and co-founder of Orbem said in a 2019 interview with Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, that they hope to “classify one billion eggs per year by 2025.”

While a sexing technology may be on the horizon, cull-free eggs won’t be scalable for at least two more years.

Given the mismatch in expectations, some are baffled by UEP’s ambitious commitments to stamping out culling. Hoopes says the industry has made similar pledges in the past and they failed to yield tangible results.

But David Coman-Hidy, president of the Humane League, considers the progress in research and development since 2016 a “major win,” and credits the UEP pledge with heightening awareness about a cruel and largely unheard-of practice while bolstering innovation in in-ovo sexing technologies. In fact, the Humane League saw the 2020 goal as somewhat flexible, says Coman-Hidy. “Back then, it was such early days, we didn’t know how quickly or how many companies would get involved or what the research would look like.”


MEANWHILE, COMMERCIALLY VIABLE, in-ovo sexing technologies already exist in Germany and France. And Germany is poised to become the first country to ban industrial culling of male chicks, after the government approved a draft law to end the practice from 2022 onwards.

Currently, a company based in Germany and the Netherlands called respeggt GmbH uses in-ovo sexing by creating a tiny hole into the egg using a laser, extracting fluids, and sexing the chick by testing for specific hormones, explains Kristin Hoeller, head of business development and public affairs for respeggt. The technique, known as Seleggt, is based on research by scientists at the University of Leipzig and further developed in collaboration with REWE, a German supermarket chain, and HatchTech, a Dutch technology company specializing in incubation and hatchery equipment.

The method can sort chicks on the ninth day of development, when it is “exceptionally unlikely” that chick embryos experience any sensations whatsoever, David Mellor, professor emeritus of animal welfare science and bioethics at Massey University in New Zealand, wrote in an email. This is a crucial detail given that chick embryos have the capacity to experience pain at later stages of development. A procedure that might cause harm, such as using the male egg for food or vaccine development, may simply be shifting the cruel practice to an earlier stage, says Peter Singer, an animal rights advocate and professor of bioethics at Princeton University.

“The adoption and replacement of existing equipment — that’s going to look more like making the coal industry go away,” said Turpen.

Using this method, respeggt now has cull-free eggs in more than 6,000 supermarkets across France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, with hopes to expand further. They have also devised a ready-to-implement business strategy for producing commercial cull-free eggs. Hatcheries won’t have to invest anything, Hoeller said. Instead, costs will be passed onto centers where eggs are packed into cartons for commercial distribution. These packing stations will have to pay a license fee of around 2 Euro cents, about the same in U.S. currency, per egg. While respeggt plays no role in how supermarkets price eggs, the cost to consumers ranges between 2 and 5 Euro cents more per respeggt egg than regular ones.

Many U.S. experts, however, are concerned that creating a hole in the eggs could pose a serious food safety risk, given that it increases the chances of contamination from external sources. “It’s a risk that I think the industry would rather not take,” said Turpen. Kurt echoes this, saying that all finalists explicitly use non-invasive techniques to avoid this possibility. Focusing on non-invasive techniques also means they can be more easily repurposed for other scientific endeavors, such as vaccine development, he adds.

Hoeller disputes the suggestion that their technology poses an infection risk. “The perforation of the eggshell with the laser has no negative results at all,” she said, adding that the hole is so small it actually closes itself naturally within 30 minutes.

To be sure, some animal rights groups suggest that quibbling over a technological solution distracts from what they see as the real problem at hand: the egg industry itself. “Instead of putting a Band-Aid on a Band-Aid on a Band-Aid and trying to fix all these problems with more technology and more technology, here’s another idea: Why don’t we do plant-based eggs?” said Garcés. She and other animal rights activists point to food waste, animal suffering, and health-associated costs as reasons to divest money away from the egg industry to support companies that produce plant-based alternatives.

Short of that, though, other non-invasive egg sexing technologies have also been developed in Europe. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and amid pressure by the French government to ban culling by the end of 2021, Carrefoursupermarkets planned to launch their first round of cull-free eggs on May 1, 2020. However, experts note that this technology sexes chicks on the 13th day of development, a period where the chick fetus may experience pain. Anticipating these criticisms, the German company behind this technology, Agri Advanced Technologies GmbH, a subsidiary of EW Group, is currently developing another technology aimed at determining the sex of chicks on the fourth day of development.

While imperfect, Hoopes suggested that the existence of viable, up-and-running technologies in Europe raises questions about why the U.S. is taking a slower, more ambitious approach. But other experts speculate that the technologies being pursued in the U.S. may ultimately prove cheaper and more flexible in the long run. “You would think the simplest method of doing this would be the best,” said Singer. “But maybe for very large producers, the investment is worth it. Maybe it pays off in saving labor costs or other costs.”

At this point it’s not clear what the best strategy to eliminate culling is yet, says Singer, but he believes there is a moral imperative to at least try and stamp out the practice from hatcheries around the globe. It’s also important to continue to pressure the industry to change, he said, but change will require not only perseverance, but patience. “These things,” he said, “will take some time.”

Industrial animal farming is a ticking timebomb

MARCH 7TH, 2021 8:00 PM

Industrial animal farming is a ticking timebomb Image

SHARE THIS ARTICLE

Sir– Industrial animal farming, more commonly known as factory farming, has, according to the UN, caused the majority of infectious diseases in humans in the past decade.

In Russia, scientists have detected the first case of transmission of the H5N8 strain of avian flu to humans and have alerted the World Health Organisation.

Scientists isolated the strain’s genetic material from seven workers at a poultry farm in southern Russia.

The workers did not suffer any serious health consequences.

While the highly contagious strain is lethal for birds, it has never before been reported to have spread to humans.

Humans can get infected with avian and swine influenza viruses, such as bird flu subtypes A(H5N1) and A(H7N9) and swine flu subtypes such as A(H1N1).

The more widely known strain of avian influenza is the H1N1, which is responsible for all the major flu outbreaks, like the 1918 Spanish flu and the 2009 Swine flu outbreak.LETTERS

The H5N8 is a sub-type of the influenza A virus that causes flu-like symptoms in birds and mammals.

In recent months, outbreaks of the H5N8 strain have been reported in Russia, Europe, China, the Middle East and North Africa but only ever in poultry – until, that is, this latest news from Russia.

There is a timebomb called Climate Change with which we are all familiar.

There is another, less talked-about timebomb that is ticking just as loudly: that timebomb is factory farming. Yet no government that I know of, anywhere in the world, is listening to it. Why is this? 

Gerry Boland,

Keadue,

Co Roscommon

De-evolution of the Thanksgiving turkey

Because of crowded conditions on factory farms (where most Thanksgiving turkeys are raised), beautiful birds who started out as a species looking like this …

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 125202493_10157639512601188_1129398445369613081_n.jpg

when kept in dark, stinking windowless barns (with maybe a small access door to the muddy, lifeless yard, so the farmer can claim they’re “free-range”) turn out looking like this…

Perhaps it’s time to swear off flesh foods and give the turkeys something to be thankful for. Someday you’ll give thanks you did.

Photos©Jim Robertson

Here’s the kind of life birds like the ones above are expected to lead on factory farms…

Thanksgiving turkeys endure extreme suffering

‘Suffocating closeness’: US judge condemns ‘appalling conditions’ on industrial farms

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/nov/20/suffocating-closeness-us-judge-condemns-appalling-conditions-on-industrial-farms

Pork giant Smithfield has settled with North Carolina residents who sued over stench, flies and truck traffic from Kinlaw FarmsAnimals farmed is supported byAbout this content

Barry Yeoman

Fri 20 Nov 2020 11.34 EST

Shares889

Pigs are seen in a pen at a farm in Ayden, North Carolina.
 Pigs in a pen at a farm in Ayden, North Carolina. Photograph: Callaghan O’Hare/Bloomberg/Getty

A US judge has issued a blistering condemnation of industrial farming practices. The judgment comes as one US meat giant finally settles after a six-year legal battle with plaintiffs who sued the company over the stench, flies, buzzards and truck traffic coming from its industrial swine farms in North Carolina.

J Harvie Wilkinson III, one of the judges in a case that pitted locals against the Smithfield subsidiary formerly known as Murphy-Brown, decried the “outrageous conditions” at Kinlaw Farms, the operation at the center of the lawsuit – “conditions that there is no reason to suppose were unique to that facility”.

“How did it come to this?” wrote Wilkinson, who was nominated to the fourth US circuit court of appeals by then president Ronald Reagan and has served since 1984. “What was missing from Kinlaw Farms – and from Murphy-Brown – was the recognition that treating animals better will benefit humans. What was neglected is that animal welfare and human welfare, far from advancing at cross-purposes, are actually integrally connected. The decades-long transition to concentrated animal feeding operations [CAFOs] lays bare this connection, and the consequences of its breach, with startling clarity.”

Wilkinson described a system in which pigs were forced to live in enclosures they had outgrown, reducing them “to almost suffocating closeness … The dangers endemic to such appalling conditions always manifested first in animal suffering. Ineluctably, however, the ripples of dysfunction would reach farm workers and, at last, members of the surrounding community.”

‘A savagely broken food system’: Cory Booker wants radical reform … now

 Read more

His comments concurred with the court’s main opinion.

More than 500 North Carolinians, most of them black, filed more than two dozen lawsuits in 2014. Some lived near farms that had contracts with Smithfield. Others lived near farms owned by the company outright. They described being trapped inside their own homes, sickened by the smell of hog waste stored in open pits, and unable to hang laundry, cook outdoors, or entertain visitors.

The announcement of the company’s decision to settle came immediately after the fourth circuit in Richmond, Virginia, rejected a call from the world’s largest pork producer for a retrial of one of the cases. Juries in 2018 and 2019 had awarded hog farm neighbors almost $550m. The US district court in Raleigh, North Carolina, knocked the awards down to about $98m because of a state law capping punitive damages.

Smithfield’s chief administrative officer, Keira Lombardo, said in a statement: “In the midst of a global pandemic, where food shortages have been commonplace, it is now the time to keep our full attention on the important work of producing good food in a responsible and sustainable way – rather than returning to the court for what would be ongoing and distracting litigation.” Details of the settlement were not disclosed.

‘It smells like a decomposing body’: North Carolina’s polluting pig farms

 Read moreAdvertisementhttps://4c4daec54156d86938e82c5321617518.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Smithfield lost the first five cases that went to trial. It appealed the three largest verdicts, calling the litigation an “almost existential threat” to North Carolina farmers. It claimed the district court had made numerous errors, such as allowing the neighbors’ odor expert to testify while excluding some testimony from Smithfield’s expert.

In the new ruling, a three-judge panel rejected most of the pork producer’s arguments. The company “persisted in its chosen farming practices despite its knowledge of the harms to its neighbors, exhibiting wanton or wilful disregard of the neighbors’ rights to enjoyment of their property,” Judge Stephanie Thacker, an Obama nominee, wrote for the court.

The appellate judges did agree with Smithfield on one point: that the plaintiff’s lawyer improperly used the parent company’s financial data to convince jurors that punitive damages had to be large enough for the pork giant to feel. The appellate ruling said jurors should not have heard those details. “We fail to see what value the parent company financial evidence would have that could possibly outweigh the substantial risk of prejudice it carries in that delicate context,” wrote Thacker.

Elsie Herring, a plaintiff in another of the cases, said she was pleased that the court had sided with the neighbors on most issues. “Our lives have been destroyed by the industry,” she said. The North Carolina law firm Wallace & Graham, which represented the plaintiffs, did not respond to questions about the settlement. It said in a statement that the appellate court “fully got the truth” of its clients’ struggles.

PETA Billboard to Honor Cows Killed in Truck Crash

ShareTweet

Memorial Will Encourage People to Help Keep Animals out of Transport Vehicles by Going Vegan

For Immediate Release:
November 18, 2020

Contact:
Nicole Meyer 202-483-7382

Cortlandville, N.Y. – In honor of the five cows who were killed when a truck carrying them overturned on I-81 on Friday, PETA plans to place a billboard near the crash site proclaiming, “See the Individual. Go Vegan.

“These gentle cows endured a terrifying death on the highway, and those who survived were presumably taken to slaughter,” says PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. “PETA’s ad encourages anyone disturbed by the thought of animals suffering on the side of the road or facing the slaughterhouse knife to go vegan.”

The truck was transporting Holstein cows, the breed most often used by the dairy industry, in which workers artificially inseminate cows (rape them by inserting an arm into the rectum and a metal rod into the vagina) and tear calves away from their loving mothers within a day of birth. They ship male calves off to be slaughtered for veal, while females endure the same fate as their mothers: repeated forced pregnancies until their bodies break down and they’re slaughtered for cheap meat.

PETA notes that there have been at least 71 crashes this year involving trucks carrying animals used for food. Each person who goes vegan saves the lives of nearly 200 cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals every year and helps prevent future pandemics: Confining and killing animals for food has been linked to SARS, swine flu, bird flu, and COVID-19, and the meat industry has allowed slaughterhouse workers to face a nearly unchecked spread of the novel coronavirus.

PETA—whose motto reads, in part, that “animals are not ours to eat or abuse in any other way”—opposes speciesism, which is a human-supremacist worldview. For more information, please visit PETA.org or follow the group on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram.

Animal Agriculture and Its Negative Impact on Climate Change

https://sentientmedia.org/animal-agriculture-climate-change/

One of the most overlooked factors of accelerated climate change is animal agriculture. Could changes to the human diet help us slow down the climate crisis?Reading Time: 6 minutes

Animal agriculture has long left its mark upon the earth. Forests have fallen and grasslands trampled in favor of crops and pastureland. Now, however, this sector’s impacts are being felt in the atmosphere – carrying troubling implications for every living thing on the planet.

The agriculture sector is one of the biggest drivers of anthropogenic – meaning human-caused – climate change. Animal agriculture, which sees the raising and processing of ruminants, poultry, and marine life, accounts for some of the biggest sources of greenhouse gasses. Global temperatures rise as forest cover decreases, and oceans warm as they absorb ever-more carbon dioxide. 

Yet there are solutions to these problems – among which is the adoption of plant-based diets. It is not too late for the world to take action against the perils of a changing climate, but time for action is now. 

How Does Animal Agriculture Affect The Environment

Practicing agriculture does not necessarily come naturally to us as a species. For much of human prehistory, people lived in societies oriented around hunting and gathering. The earliest signs of agriculture can be dated at around 12,000 years ago, yet since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, agriculture has taken on an entirely new face, adopting intensive practices such as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) which foster truly heartbreaking conditions for farmworkers, animals, and surrounding communities alike. 

Called humanity’s greatest mistake by some due to the resulting hard labor, diminished nutrition, and social inequality brought by agriculture, this system of food production now presents the world with a new quandary: environmental destruction on scales that can no longer be ignored. 

CAFOs produce enormous amounts of waste, which collect in vast open-air lagoons that can be breached by extreme weather events or gradually seep into groundwater. Water pollution from CAFOs can cause algal blooms which can devastate entire marine ecosystems. Air pollution is generated from CAFOs as manure is vaporized, sending toxic wafts through the air to surrounding communities. 

Vast fields of monocrops also cause a host of environmental effects, including air pollution. Pesticides and herbicides are sprayed in liberal amounts, which can cause a host of debilitating illnesses, including cancers, for farmworkers and surrounding communities. Soil depletion is also a serious looming issue. Monocropping, along with the overuse of agrochemicals including synthetic fertilizers like nitrogen and phosphorus, are denying fields a fallow period or crop rotation has the effect of leeching soils of their nutrients. These practices render soils far less productive over time. It takes hundreds, if not thousands, of years for soils to become abundantly fertile again. 

Impact Of Animal Agriculture On Climate Change

Out of all the human activities that cause climate change, agriculture is one of the biggest contributors. Estimates as of 2020 put the sector’s global contributions at 37 percent. Below are a few key factors accounting for climate change emissions resulting from human-cased agriculture. 

Land Use

A full 50 percent of the world’s livable land – meaning land that is ice-free and fertile – is being used for agriculture. No other human activity takes up more space. In contrast, all urban areas account for around one percent of livable land use. A whopping 77 percent of agricultural land is dedicated to raising animals, including grazing and the land used to grow their feed, including vast monocrops of species like corn and soy. Surprisingly, this huge expenditure of resources and land use provides only 18 percent of the world’s calories. 

Land used for any type of agriculture – be it livestock or crops meant for people or animals – is brought under cultivation by clearing forests and grasslands, which are carbon sinks due to their abilities to absorb carbon. Currently, forests consume roughly a quarter of all anthropogenic CO2, yet the more forests are slashed and burned to make way for pastureland or monocrops, the less carbon will be absorbed, resulting in accelerated climate change.

Livestock

Farmed animals – referred to as livestock – generate over 14 percent of all anthropogenic emissions, with estimated totals hovering around seven gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emitted every year. The bulk of these emissions are due to raising cattle for meat and dairy, contributing 60 percent of total livestock emissions.  These emissions are thanks to the vast amounts of resources cows consume, the land they require for pasture (in the case of beef cattle), and other manure they produce. Cow manure contains nitrous oxide and methane, the latter being one of the most potent greenhouse gasses due to its outsized ability to absorb heat. 

Fisheries

Marine life, including fish, shellfish, shrimp, and other animals are taken from the seas in astronomical numbers. Nets, some of which are large enough to contain 12 jumbo jet airplanes, are dragged through the water or across the bottom of the seafloor, capturing everything in their path. Direct fishing activity, plus the energy expended to transport, process, and refrigerate carcasses amounted to an estimated total of 179 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses in 2011 – and this number likely will continue to grow as demand for seafood increases. 

How Do Greenhouse Gases Affect the Climate?

In greenhouses designed to grow plants, the transparent glass structure allows sunlight into the greenhouse while preventing heat from escaping. The earth’s atmosphere functions in a similar way, with gas molecules acting like the glass. Certain gases are more effective at absorbing heat than others; these include methane, nitrous oxide, and perhaps the most infamous, carbon dioxide. These three gasses are among the main culprits of climatic warming and change caused by human activities. 

One of the biggest drivers of global warming has been the release of carbon into the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil, and coal, which power many aspects of modern life. Even electric cars, which run on batteries and do not themselves generate carbon emissions, draw electricity from grids still run on fossil fuels (although the goal of using 100% renewable energy for electric grids is more achievable than ever). When carbon released from fossil fuel burning is released into the atmosphere, it binds with oxygen and forms carbon dioxide and begins trapping heat in the atmosphere. Because carbon emissions make up the vast majority (81 percent, as of 2018) of total greenhouse gases, they pose one of the gravest threats to climate stability. 

Although carbon is the greatest emitted by volume, other greenhouse gases can be much more potent. For example, one ton of nitrous oxide – emitted by agricultural processes including the use of nitrogen fertilizers in crop production – is equivalent to nearly 300 tons of carbon dioxide.

Methane is approximately 30 times more potent in its ability to absorb and trap heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Can Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Animal Agriculture Be Reduced?

By far, the most effective way to reduce the animal agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas footprint is to significantly reduce, and eventually eliminate animal agriculture. While this might sound “extreme”, it is the state of industrial animal agriculture – characterized by inhumane CAFOs, waste lagoons teeming with pathogens and antibiotics, and requiring enormous land and feed inputs – which is even more extreme

This is not to say that eliminating animal agriculture is something easily accomplished. Demand will have to decrease, thanks to people turning to plant-based diets. The ease of adopting these diets is not the same for everyone, however. Many lower-income neighborhoods in the United States are classified as food deserts, where a lack of grocery stores forces people to endure extremely limited options, such as gas stations or fast-food restaurants. 

People in nations like the United States who do not live in food deserts bear much of the responsibility for reducing demand for animal products. Fortunately, plant-based options abound to replace animals in a wide range of products, from cheese to milk to burgers and sausages. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are two of the leading companies in the plant-based meat sector, helping the idea of plant-based meats go mainstream and helping people understand that it’s possible to achieve the BBQ-worthy tastes without the climate side-effects. Plant-based meats use up to 99 percent less land and emit up to 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Animal Agriculture And Global Warming

Flying in planes or driving SUVs have long been understood as having negative impacts on the global climate. While these are certainly deserving of critique and change, the agriculture sector deserves time in the spotlight. If industrial agriculture continues to grow unchecked, global warming will increase – with potentially disastrous impacts, the beginnings of which are being felt today. Methane, produced by livestock including sheep, goats, and cows, is a greenhouse gas with a terrific ability to trap heat in the atmosphere. The agriculture industry is responsible for fully 40 percent of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

In order to curb global warming, and keep the global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that global emissions will need to be reduced by around 40 to 50 percent. According to the U.N., the only way to achieve these reductions is to drastically increase forested land – which means reclaiming land currently under cultivation and to stop intrusions into existing forests.  

Conclusion

Due to its profound impacts on the climate and environment around the world, agriculture may well be humanity’s gravest mistake – because it may be our undoing. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are seriously curbed, the world is going to be a far more difficult place to endure. Reducing demand for animal agriculture and adopting a plant-based diet is among the most important actions any individual can make. 

The pandemic highlights the gruesome animal abuses at US factory farms

Andrew Gawthorpe

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/03/coronavirus-animal-abuse-us-factory-farms

Stories have emerged of mass killings of chickens and pigs, a tiny fraction of daily abuses heaped on farmed animals

Mon 3 Aug 2020 08.53 EDT

Shares297

Among other methods, pigs have been killed by a method known as ventilator shutdown, in which the airways to a barn are closed off and steam is introduced.
 Among other methods, pigs have been killed by a method known as ventilator shutdown, in which the airways to a barn are closed off and steam is introduced. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

More than any event in recent history, the coronavirus pandemic has made plain the consequences of our abuse of animals. From the Chinese wet market where the virus likely emerged to the American slaughterhouses which have become key vectors of transmission, our ravenous demand for cheap meat has been implicated in enormous human suffering. But the suffering is not ours alone. The pandemic has also focused our attention on how American agribusiness – which has benefited from deregulation under the Trump administration – abuses animals on an industrial scale.

Republican proposal slashes weekly unemployment benefits to $200 – as it happened

 Read more

As slaughterhouses across the nation have been forced to close by the virus, gruesome stories have emerged of the mass killing of millions of chickens and pigs who can no longer be brought to market. Chickens have been gassed or smothered with a foam in which they slowly suffocate. Among other methods, pigs – whose cognitive abilities are similar to dogs – have been killed by a method known as ventilator shutdown, in which the airways to a barn are closed off and steam is introduced. A whistleblower’s video shows thousands of pigs dying as they are slowly suffocated and roasted to death overnight.

Although the pandemic has focused attention on these incidents, they represent a tiny fraction of the daily abuses heaped on farmed animals. The billions of animals slaughtered every year in the United States are intelligent, sensitive beings capable of feeling a range of emotions. They are driven to raise their young and form complex social structures, both impossible under the conditions of modern farming. Instead, they live short, painful, disease-ridden lives. Chickens, who make up over 90% of the animals slaughtered every year, suffer the worst. Their deaths are subject to effectively no federal regulation, meaning the birds are frequently frozen, boiled, drowned or suffocated to death.

Trump has moved to deregulate agribusiness even further, giving companies that abuse animals freer rein to prioritize profit over welfare

Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration has moved to deregulate agribusiness even further, giving companies that abuse animals freer rein to prioritize profit over welfare. The administration dropped enforcement of animal welfare statutes and moved forward with proposals to reduce the role of government inspectors in overseeing conditions at slaughterhouses – proposals which an inspector general says are based on faulty data. The administration also removed from public view a searchable database of animal inspection reports, shielding abusers from scrutiny. The records only went back online when Congress forced the administration’s hand.Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

As in other areas, the culture war waged by Trump’s supporters has enabled his pro-business policies. “Soy boy” has emerged as the insult of choice among the alt-right, identifying meat consumption and complicity with animal suffering as markers of masculinity. When the right cast the Green New Deal as an assault on the American way of life, they were sure to include copious meat consumption among the precious tenets under threat. “They want to take your hamburgers,” former White House aide Sebastian Gorka told a conservative audience, equating the Green New Deal with “Communism”. The reactionary writer Jordan Peterson, who has made a fortune from trolling the left, even chimed in by claiming to follow an all-beef diet.

Bringing an end to the atrocity which is America’s system of animal agriculture requires challenging both the coziness of the government-agribusiness connection and the cultural norms which underpin it. But other recent developments have shown how hard this will be. Sales of meatless meat have exploded in recent years, but they remain a tiny fraction of overall sales. Meanwhile, although Cory Booker became only the second vegan to seek a major party presidential nomination, the strength of cultural and political headwinds prevented him from drawing a link between his dietary preferences and public policy. When pushed, he embraced the framing of the issue favored among the right, declaring the freedom to eat meat “one of our most sacred values”.

As concern over abusive practices on factory farms and public interest in alternative diets have grown, businesses and their political allies have fought back with laws intended to restrict the information and choice available to consumers. So-called “ag-gag” laws, which criminalize undercover investigations of conditions on farms, have been joined by state laws preventing plant-based alternatives from using labels such as “meat” or “sausage”. The Food and Drug Administration is even considering a nationwide ban on the use of the word “milk” to label alternatives derived from soy or oats, in an effort to protect the dairy industry.

In the face of so many vested interests, even the harm caused by the pandemic looks unlikely to lead to fundamental change in America’s system of food production anytime soon. But there are glimmers of hope. When meat supplies dwindled in the first weeks of the lockdown, sales of plant-based products surged, suggesting consumers see them as a genuine alternative. If these products can be improved to a point where they can compete with meat on taste and cost, consumers and even the meat industry might embrace them on a large scale, potentially spelling the end of industrialized animal abuse.

For both the billions of animals raised and killed each year and for ourselves, that day cannot come soon enough. There is nothing natural or inevitable about factory farms, which have transformed human agriculture into a monstrosity which would be unrecognizable to previous generations. After they pass into history, future generations will view them as one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated by humankind. As coronavirus ravages our economies and our bodies, it is clearer than ever that only a pervasive and self-defeating blindness prevents us from seeing factory farms the same way.

  • Andrew Gawthorpe is a historian of the United States at Leiden University