Why Are Cows Meat, Pigs Pork, Turkeys Turkey, and Tunas Tuna?


Marc Bekoff Ph.D.

Animal Emotions https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animal-emotions/202006/why-are-cows-meat-pigs-pork-turkeys-turkey-and-tunas-tuna

A 12-year-old asked, after his mother told him animals don’t have feelings.

Posted Jun 24, 2020

Names and labels used for “food animals” are psychological ploys to distance people from their meals and reduce cognitive dissonance.

A few weeks ago I received an email from a 12-year-old boy (Erwin) who was concerned and confused about the names and labels that are used to refer to so-called “food animals.” He asked, “Why are cows meat, pigs pork, turkeys turkey, and tunas tuna?” The COVID-19 pandemic is calling attention to the lives and plight of a wide variety of nonhuman animals. He had read about the horrific conditions at pork-producing meatpacking plants and, while he knew that what we call pork had previously been a sentient pig, he hadn’t really thought much about it.I reminded him that the meat and pork industries are more appropriately called the cow and pig industries, that a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich is really a pig, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, and that the real question at hand is “Who’s for dinner?” rather than “What’s for dinner”? A few other email exchanges showed me he clearly understood what I was writing. 

Erwin also mentioned that when he asked his mother this same question, she casually told him that animals don’t really have emotions or feelings, and “These words are used are for marketing and people don’t want to come to terms with the fact they are eating a cow or a pig.” Erwin wondered, rightfully, why birds, fish, and invertebrates who are eaten usually called by name, for who they are—chicken, turkey, goose, tuna, halibut, lobster—and wanted to know more about the names and labels that are used to refer to nonhumans who are regular features on countless humans’ meal plans. He also wondered why lamb chops are a popular food item, and I couldn’t say much about it given that it’s well known that sheep are fully sentient beings just like cows, pigs, and other mammalian “food animals,” but I was pleased he asked. I once asked a hunter why deer meat is called venison, but people freely talk about elk steaks. He said something like, “Many people don’t want to face the fact they’re eating a cute deer like Bambi.” 

Why are cows meat, pigs pork, sausage or bacon, chimpanzees bushmeat, turkeys turkey, chickens chicken, tunas tuna, and lobsters lobster?

Of course, there are many other examples of misleading speciesist names and labels used to refer to “food animals.” Indeed, they have become global memes. In my emails to Erwin I mentioned a few things that are easy to summarize. I began by writing that his mother was right on the mark—most people don’t want to know they’re eating cows or pigs, but don’t really think about who they’re eating when birds, fish, or some invertebrates are on the menu. Numerous people think that animals whose species’ identities aren’t hidden or disguised aren’t really sentient or emotional and they’re all the same. This couldn’t be further from the truth, given what solid science has shown us about birds, fish, and numerous invertebrates.2,3 We also know that mammals, birds, and fish don’t like being caged and brutally abused in ways that defy any compassion or empathy at all, that birds and fish don’t necessarily suffer less than mammals, and that they have unique personalities. Animal sentience isn’t science fiction and animal suffering isn’t an enigma

 Tito White, with permission

Walter, a rescued turkey, at Luvin’ Arms Animal SanctuarySource: Tito White, with permission

I also mentioned that the words and labels that are used are very effective psychological ploys that distance people from their meals and reduce cognitive dissonance for those who fully know—or should know—who they’re consuming, but want to forget about it. He fully understood what I meant. Also, some people know the animals suffer and still can’t stop themselves from eating them—eating misery—and can’t resolve the “meat paradox” by not doing what they well know causes pain, suffering, and death. 

The 3 Ds that influence meal plans: How denying and distancing work to reduce dissonance.

I went on to tell Erwin that his mother was incorrect in saying that nonhumans don’t have emotions or feelings. I wondered if she really meant this or if it was her way of denying and distancing herself from who she was eating. As incredible as it sounds, there still are people who deny that nonhumans are sentient and emotional beings. They’re clearly stuck in the darkest of dark ages and maintain that we don’t really know if other animals have emotions. These denialists go on to falsely and inanely claim that there’s no science to support the idea that other animals are sentient and emotional beings, so therefore they’re not. I won’t belabor the crude logic here, but it really does exist. For example, recently, The Ontario Federation of Agriculture made this absurd claim, despite clear scientific evidence that numerous nonhumans have rich and deep emotional lives.I told Erwin that the real question at hand is why emotions have evolved, not if they have evolved, and that they matter very much to the individuals experiencing them. article continues after advertisement

I also explained to Erwin that the vast majority of “food animals” produced by massive industries are numbered, rather than named. This is another way for people to distance themselves from who the animals—each and every individual—truly are. Animals on sanctuaries, such as turkey Walter (above), are invariably named, and this helps to establish close and enduring relationships and recognize every single one as the unique individual they are. Of course, unnamed animals aren’t less sentient than named individuals. All should be referred to as “who,” rather than “it,” “which,” or “that.”

Finally, I mentioned to Erwin that many people who choose to unmind “food animals” and falsely rob them of their emotional lives don’t hesitate to attribute rich and active minds and a wide variety of emotions to companion animals with whom they share their homes. Uminding is a ruse by which some people claim certain animals such as cows, pigs, sheep, and others who wind up on humans’ plates are dumb and don’t have feelings, and this ploy allows them to eat and otherwise use and abuse them without a care in the world. While many people don’t like to admit it, in terms of harms, pain, suffering, and death, dogs and cats don’t really suffer more than individuals who find themselves on humans’ meal plans. When people ask me how can I work in China helping to rescue moon bears from the bear bile industry knowing that people there eat dogs and cats, I usually respond by politely saying something like, “Well, I live in the United States where people eat cows, pigs, sheep, and other fully sentient animals, and I dislike both practices. What’s the difference?”

While it may sound strange or heartless, there really isn’t a difference between eating traditional “food animals” and companion animals, because they’re all sentient and deeply suffer on the long and pain-filled journey on their way to peoples’ plates.Along these lines, in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, Melanie Joy “explores the many ways we numb ourselves and disconnect from our natural empathy for farmed animals.” She came up with the term carnism “to describe the belief system that has conditioned us to eat certain animals and not others.”

Youngsters offer hope and we must listen carefully to them.

I’m pleased that Erwin wrote to me. He raised a lot of issues, many of which he was unaware were so salient, current, and on the minds of numerous people. I’m also happy that he understood what I wrote to him, or came to understand it after a few exchanges. Along the way, his mother thanked me and said she was revising her ways of thinking about animal sentience and animal emotions. I was pleased that she and Erwin could have further conversations about who we eat, how they’re labeled, and why. I thanked her and noted it was a win-win for all.article continues after advertisementhttps://4a194d60cc7be2e2f602ef76b092b970.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

I’ve written a number of other essays motivated by great questions from curious youngsters.6 These discussions give me hope. We really need to listen carefully to what they’re are saying and asking. We must do the very best we can to leave future generations a more compassionate and friendlier world in which humane education and peaceful coexistence are high on the agenda.

Don’t have a cow, but Big Dairy’s climate footprint is as big as the UK’s

dairy cows with planetGrist
DOWNSIDE OF DAIRY

https://grist.org/food/dont-have-a-cow-but-big-dairys-climate-footprint-is-as-big-as-the-uks/

If dairy cows were a country, they would have the same climate impact as the entire United Kingdom. That’s according to a new analysis from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), which considered the combined annual emissions from the world’s 13 largest dairy operations in 2017, the most recent year for which data was available.

The institute’s report follows up on a similar analysis the organization undertook for 2015. That year, the IATP found that the five largest meat and dairy companies combined had emissions portfolios greater than those of some of the world’s largest oil companies, like ExxonMobil and Shell. Most of the emissions were from meat, but this latest report finds that dairy remains a significant and growing source of emissions: In the two years between reports, the 13 top dairy companies’ emissions grew 11 percent — a 32.3 million metric ton increase in greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions that would be released by adding an extra 6.9 million cars to the road for a year.

Dairy emissions come mostly from the cows themselves — specifically, from their notorious burps. Fermentation processes in cows’ stomachs produce the byproduct methane, which doesn’t stick around in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide but absorbs more heat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says methane from ruminants like cows are an important contributor to the increase of atmospheric methane levels.

Shefali Sharma, director of IATP Europe and author of the new study, said it was staggering to see dairy’s increase in emissions, especially since it occurred in the two years after the Paris Agreement was negotiated. “We’re supposed to be going in the opposite direction,” she told Grist.

The report points to consolidation and rising production as the main culprits for the increased emissions. From 2015 to 2017, the 13 companies used mergers and acquisitions to expand geographically and subsume smaller farms. As the companies got bigger, their production increased by 8 percent, which led to the emissions hike.

The dairy industry takes issue with the report’s framing, chalking the emissions increase up to an “accounting change.” As smaller farms were absorbed by the big companies, the industry argued, their production and greenhouse gas emissions got wrapped into the 13 largest producers’ emissions numbers.

“These are not new emissions,” the International Dairy Federation and the Global Dairy Platform said in a joint statement responding to the IATP report.

At the same time, the companies haven’t done much to help researchers figure out their net greenhouse gas output; none are required to disclose their climate impacts, and only five of the 13 publicly report their emissions. Zero of them have committed to reducing the overall emissions footprint of their dairy supply chains.

“There’s no transparency, not even basic production numbers,” Sharma told Grist. To calculate the companies’ emissions for the IATP report, Sharma used production estimates calculated by the IFCN, a dairy research network, and calculated each firm’s associated carbon emissions using an accounting method established by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Instead of focusing on total emissions, the biggest dairy producers have tried to paint a different picture of their climate impact. The IATP report says companies like Danone have drawn attention to something they call “emissions intensity”: the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each liter of milk.

According to Sharma, focusing on emissions intensity allows dairy producers to make more milk, more efficiently, and then say they’re reducing their climate impacts. Even if the total number of cows increases (which it has), and even if cumulative emissions go up (which they have), the industry can mask these planet-warming effects by emphasizing greater greenhouse gas efficiency per unit of milk produced. For example, a 2019 report from the FAO — which was co-authored by the Global Dairy Platform — says the dairy industry’s emissions intensity, measured in greenhouse gas per kilogram of milk, declined by nearly 11 percent from 2005 to 2015.

However, the same section of the report also says that “increased production efficiency is typically associated with a higher level of absolute emissions (unless animal numbers are decreasing).” The Global Dairy Platform acknowledged this in its statement responding to the IATP report, saying that as the industry increased its production by 30 percent globally between 2005 and 2015, it could have increased its absolute emissions by 38 percent. But because of “improvements” to increase efficiency, absolute emissions only rose by 18 percent.

Sharma says it’s a distraction to focus on emissions intensity. “You’ve got to reduce your overall emissions, it doesn’t matter about your ‘per unit,’” she told Grist. To her, that means producing less milk — with fewer cows.

On top of the climate change impacts, the IATP report also highlights the impacts of big dairy operations on small- and medium-sized farms. In each of the world’s four main dairy-producing regions — North America, Europe, India, and New Zealand — bankruptcy and farm losses increased between 2015 and 2017.

In the United States, 94 percent of family farms in dairy have closed since the 1970s. Between 2014 and 2019, Wisconsin — America’s self-proclaimed “Dairyland” — lost more than a quarter of its 10,000 dairy farms.

In the absence of governmental supply management policies, the mega-dairies that incorporate these small farms are able to flood the market with milk, often for export, driving down dairy prices and crowding out small holders or reducing their income. They are also often unaccountable for environmental pollution, from manure runoff from fields to spills from manure storage lagoons to air pollution.

To remediate the situation, Sharma doesn’t think people need to give up milk; she just wants the dairy industry to radically change its business model. “You could totally still have farms with livestock on them,” she told Grist. “It just wouldn’t be the vast quantity of livestock that we see today.”

According to the IATP report, a comprehensive set of government regulations to decrease dairy production would come with all sorts of co-benefits — for farmers and the climate. A supply management system to lower dairy output could allow companies to pay farmers better wages and allow the government to reinvest in less emissions-intensive systems of small-scale farming. These reforms could help strengthen rural economies and protect ecological systems. And ending subsidies to the largest dairy operations could free up funds that could go toward support and job training for out-of-work dairy workers.

To enact these policies, Sharma suggests consumers think beyond switching to locally produced dairy or almond milk. “In terms of individual demand, that’s just not going to move the needle,” she said. But calling federal elected officials about agriculture policy might. Holding global dairy corporations accountable is a political challenge, but Sharma is hopeful: “Political change is possible, it’s achievable,” she said. “We just have to create it.”

Agriculture and livestock: Are they victims or perpetrators of climate change?

June 11, 2020 /https://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/news/agriculture-and-livestock-are-they-victims-or-perpetrators-climate-change-1912177
LAST MODIFIED: 01:54 AM, June 11, 2020

Though much of the world is focused on transitioning away from fossil fuels as a way to fight climate change, there are other often overlooked contributors to the conundrum resulting from climate change. Two of them are agriculture and livestock. Sure, they provide us with the food we eat every day. But cumulatively, they are also the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels.

While the majority of global warming activities give off carbon dioxide, the agricultural sector primarily releases methane, which is a greenhouse gas 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. The source is mainly rice that is grown on flooded fields with depleted dissolved oxygen. In the absence of oxygen, organic matter in the soil decomposes and produces methane that escapes into the atmosphere. Rising temperatures would cause rice cultivation to release even more methane.

Another source of methane is ruminants, particularly cows and goats. As part of their digestion cycle, they expel intestinal gases, mostly methane, via belches. Methane can also escape from stored manure and organic waste in landfills. If manure is stored as a liquid or slurry in ponds, tanks or pits, it decomposes anaerobically (in the absence of air) and emits a prodigious amount of methane. However, when handled as a solid or deposited naturally on grassland, manure decomposes aerobically and creates negligible methane emissions. Ruminants, manure and rice cultivation account for almost 25 percent of anthropogenic methane emissions.

One of the methods of reducing methane emissions from rice fields, as suggested by scientists at the World Resources Institute, is to plant rice in a raised bed and flood only the furrows. This method has the potential to cut methane emissions in half.

Controlling methane emissions from ruminants is more difficult than trimming or regulating methane emissions from fossil fuels. A large number of mitigation options—namely, diet manipulation, vaccines, chemical additives and genetic selection—have been proposed. They have different efficiencies in lowering production of intestinal methane.

Methane emissions from manure depend on temperature and storage duration. Results from typical Canadian farms indicate that use of underground manure storage tanks, maintained at lower temperatures, lessens methane emissions. Additionally, farmers found that if they clean the tanks regularly, it took longer for methane-producing organisms to grow back. Consequently, methane emissions decrease substantially.

As for agriculture, according to a report of the United Nations published last year, about 50 percent of the Earth’s cultivable land is dedicated to growing crops for humans and roughly 30 percent is used to grow grain for livestock. Given how much land it takes to grow food to feed livestock, a very vocal segment of environmentalists insist that “meat is heat” and encourage consumers to go vegan.

Moreover, in line with the projected population growth, global demand for food is expected to grow by up to 70 percent in the coming decades. This substantial increase in demand would require clearing more space for agriculture and cattle grazing, so that the per capita threshold of land required for a nation to be self-sufficient in food production could be maintained. Vast swaths of the Amazon Rainforest, along with lands and forests in other places, are already being cleared for growing crops and grazing cattle. If current trends continue, most of our planet’s remaining land and forests would need to be cleared to feed the world.

Deforestation and land degradation indirectly contribute to the negative impacts of atmospheric carbon dioxide. One of the main reasons for this is because forests are natural carbon sinks. They absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into oxygen that we breathe in. Hence, by cutting down big areas of forest without replacing the trees that are removed, we are causing an inadvertent change in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Several studies indicate that planting more than two billion acres of trees could remove two-thirds of all the carbon dioxide that human activity has pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Trees also recharge the water table and create microclimates that increase local rainfall. In addition, deforestation puts biodiversity at risk, further undermining nature’s ability to cope with the impacts of climate, for example absorbing heavy rainfall.

Clearly, agriculture in general, and livestock in particular, contribute considerably to climate change. Nevertheless, climate change is also a major threat to the sustainability of livestock globally. An increase in air temperature as a result of global warming directly affects milk and meat production, reproductive efficiency and health of the animals. Also, excessive heat would reduce their body size and fat thickness.

Agriculture is also highly vulnerable to climate change. It is affecting food security by raising the risks to food supply due to heat waves, drought, flood, storms, soil depletion and desertification. Over the coming dozen years or so, farmers in developing countries, especially in South and Southeast Asia, will be the ones to bear the brunt of global warming, as per a recent report of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN.

It could, therefore, be said that agriculture and livestock farming are caught in a vicious cycle that makes them both victims and perpetrators of the harmful effects of climate change. Most of the times when agriculture perpetrates its crimes, it is not even contributing to feeding the ever-increasing world population. Instead, a good portion of the agricultural products are consumed by livestock—mostly bovines—which demonstrates this paradox.

How do we solve this complex problem? The solution obviously requires a coherent and integrated approach to climate change, energy usage and food security. Faced with global warming, competition for scarce resources, and inaction by world leaders, we, the people, have to transform the entire global food system and make it much more resource-efficient while continuously curbing its environmental impacts, including its greenhouse-gas emissions.

We also have to increase yields while curtailing dependence on agrochemicals. Besides, we should minimise food waste, cut down consumption of resource-intensive and greenhouse gas-producing foods, notably meat, and switch to climate-friendly vegetables, such as the nutritionally rich seaweed kelp. Farming kelp is beneficial for the ocean.

Furthermore, employing sustainable practices, like organic agriculture, has enormous potential to help in the fight against global warming, whereas maintaining the status quo with widespread industrial agricultural practices will continue to be terribly detrimental to the climate. In short, making agriculture and livestock industries and all associated activities sustainable is the answer to win the battle against global warming, as well as accelerate the transition to a healthier and more just society.

 

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Scientists understand cattle not climate villains, but media still missing message

FOR a long time emissions from cattle have been lumped in with emissions from other sources as the same destructive forces for the planet in the global climate change narrative.

However, through research overseen by scientists including Dr Frank Mitloehner (right) from the University of California Davis and Dr Myles Allen from Oxford University, scientific consensus is starting to build around the point that livestock-related greenhouse gases are distinctively different from greenhouse gases associated with other sectors of society (more on this below).

Dr Mitloehner, an internationally recognised air quality expert, explained to the Alltech One virtual conference on Friday night (Australian time) that the concept of accounting for methane according to its Global Warming Potential, as opposed to just its volume of CO2 equivalent, which showed that not all greenhouse gases are created equal, has now made it all the way to the International Panel on Climate Change.

However, despite increasing awareness and understanding at a scientific level, the message has still not been taken up by the mainstream media.

“What I find interesting is that the one missing entity in this whole discussion so far has been the media,” he told Alltech president and CEO Dr Mark Lyons in a live streamed video interview.

“I have not seen any major reporting on this even though it’s such a hot topic.

“I mean, the world talks about what the impact of our food systems are on our environmental footprint.

“Now, this is a major new narrative. And to me, it’s very unusual and it’s very confusing as to why the same outlets that have touted this topic as being so paramount are not talking about these new findings whatsoever.

“So to me that’s problematic. And we have to think about why that is. Have we not explained it right? Is it too early for them to report about it? I don’t know, but this narrative is not going away.

“You will see it will gain momentum, and it will become the new reality.”

Why all greenhouse gases are not created equal

Dr Mitloehner said to date the global climate change debate has tended to focus only on how much greenhouse gases are emitted by different sources.

Most discussion fails to recognise that certain sectors of society, such as forestry and agriculture, also serve as a sink for greenhouse gases.

Climate debate focuses on the 560 tera-grams of methane emitted each year but tends to ignore the 550 tera-grams sequested by sinks like agriculture and forestry (right).

After the Kyoto protocol, the climate change debate centred on the 560 tera-grams of methane emitted into the atmosphere each year from all sources, including fossil fuel production and use, agriculture and waste, biomass burning, wetlands and other natural emissions.

“That is where most people stop the discussion, even though they shouldn’t,” he explained.

“Because in addition to emissions putting methane into the atmosphere, we also have sinks on the right side of this graph (above).

“And these sinks amount to a very respectable total number of 550 teragrams.

“So in other words, we have 560 teragrams of methane emitted, meaning put into the atmosphere, but then we have 550 teragrams of methane taken out of the atmosphere.

So in other words, the net emissions per year that we are dealing with is not 560, but it’s actually 10.

“Yet everybody talks about 560.”

In a biogenic carbon cycle, constant livestock herds or decreasing livestock herds over time did not add additional carbon to the atmosphere, he explained.

The carbon emitted by animals is recycled carbon. It came from atmospheric CO2, captured by plants, eaten by animals and then belched back out into the atmosphere, after a while becoming CO2 again.

Methane is a heat-trapping, potent greenhouse gas, and he stressed he was not suggesting that “it didn’t matter”.

But the key question for livestock is do ruminant herds add to additional methane, meaning additional carbon in the atmosphere which leads to additional warming?

The answer he said was clearly “no”.

Oxford University authors including Professor Myles Allen have shown that biogenic methane is not the same as fossil methane.

It is the same chemically, but the origin and fate “are totally, drastically different”.

“As long as we have constant herds or even decreasing herds, we are not adding additional methane, and hence not additional warming.

“This is a total change in the narrative around livestock. And I think this will be the narrative in the years to come.”

A chart documenting the size of the US cattle herd since 1867 shows it has decreased to around 90 million beef cattle and 9 million dairy cattle, down from peaks of 140 million beef cattle in the 1950s and 25 million dairy cattle in the 1970s.

The Australian cattle herd has similarly decreased from a peak of over 33 million cattle in 1976 to around 24 million today.

“We’re clearly see a decreasing number of livestock over the last few decades meaning with respect to livestock numbers, we have not cost an increasing amount of carbon in the atmosphere, but indeed we have decreased the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere,” he said.

By contrast emissions from fossil fuel extractions were not part of a cycle, but “a one-way street”, because the amount of CO2 sent into the atmosphere in this process by far overpowered the potential sinks that could take up CO2, such as oceans, soils or plants.

“So here we have a one-way street. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the main culprit of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and the resulting warming.

“I have yet to see a climate scientist who would say that it’s the cows that are a primary culprit of warming. Most of them will agree that the primary culprit is the use of fossil fuels.”

“However, people critical of animal agriculture always point at cows, and cattle, and other livestock species. And they feel that this is a very powerful tool to ostracize animal agriculture as we know it.”

Not only were cattle not the primary culprit of global warming, they were also potentially part of the solution, as an explanation of stock gases versus flow gases demonstrated.

Long-lived climate pollutants such as Co2 were referred to as ‘stock’ gases because they last in the atmosphere for 1000 years. “Every time you put it into the atmosphere, you add to the existing stock of that gas,” he explained.

Methane (CH4) was a ‘flow’. Provided it was coming from a constant source, what was being put into the atmosphere was also being taken out.

“The only time that you really add new additional methane to the atmosphere with the livestock herd is throughout the first 10 years of its existence or if you increase your herd sizes.

“Only then do you actually add new additional methane and thus new additional warming.

“So please remember there are big differences between long-lived stock gases such as CO2 or nitrous oxide versus short-lived flow gases such as methane.”

He invited the audience to imagine a scenario where methane emissions from cattle were decreased by 35 percent.

If this could be achieved, it would have the effect of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and create a net cooling effect.

“If we find ways to reduce methane, then we counteract other sectors of societies that do contribute – and significantly so – to global warming, such as flying, driving, running air conditioners, and so on.

“So if we were to reduce methane, we could induce global cooling. And I think that our livestock sector has the potential to do it. And we are already seeing examples where that happens.”

He offered several examples of how the agricultural sector has already had success in reducing methane.

A few years ago the California legislature wrote a law called SB 1383 mandating a 40 percent reduction of methane to be achieved by the year 2030.

California’s farms and ranches have reduced greenhouse gases by 25pc since the laws were enacted.

This was achieved by using “a carrot rather than cane approach”, by rewarding farmers and ranchers who wanted to reduce emissions by giving them financial incentives to invest in anaerobic digesters or alternative manure management practices.

“I know if we can do it here, it can be done in other parts of the country and in other parts of the world.

“And if we indeed achieve such reductions of greenhouse gas, particularly of short-lived greenhouse gases such as methane, then that means that our livestock sector will be on a path for climate neutrality– on a path to climate neutrality. And that, to me, is a lifetime objective.”

Agriculture needs to work harder to tell its story

Dr Mitloehner said it was important the industry work harder to ensure the public understands the science around cattle production and greenhouse gas emissions.

“I feel that it is actually critical to get what we find in our research environment translated and communicated with the public sector.

“Because only if what we find makes its way to the light of the day, only then it matters”

It was also important that the public discussion used accurate and not misleading numbers around livestock emissions.

It is often stated that livestock emissions represent 14 percent to even as high as 50 percent of total emissions, but Dr Mitloehner said this did not reflect actual livestock emissions in developed countries such as the US were the number was closer to just 3 percent of all US emissions.

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Scientists understand cattle not climate villains, but media still missing message

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Methane’s Rising: What Can We Do to Bring It Down?

ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCES  Editors’ Vox


Reducing methane emissions is critical for addressing climate warming, but which are the easiest and most cost-effective ways to do this?

By 

Methane emissions have increased dramatically over the past decade and a half, significantly contributing to climate warming. A recent article in Reviews of Geophysics examines how to measure methane emissions accurately from different sources, and explores various mitigation and emission reduction strategies. Here, one of the authors explains the causes of increased emissions, the imperative to address this problem, and what we might be able to do about it.

What are the main sources and sinks of atmospheric methane?

Methane comes from many sources. Roughly two-fifths of emissions are natural, such as wetlands, and three-fifths are human-caused, such as leaks from fossil fuel industries, ruminant farm animals, landfills, rice growing, and biomass burning.

Landfill site in Kuwait
Landfill site in Kuwait. Credit: D. Lowry, from Nisbet et al. [2020], Figure 3

The main sink for methane is destruction by hydroxyl (OH) in the sunlit air, especially in the tropics in the moist air a few kilometers above the surface. Other smaller sinks are chlorine in the air, and destruction by bacteria in the soil.Why has there been a sharp rise in atmospheric methane over the past few decades?

Methane emissions rose quickly in the 1980s as the natural gas industry was rapidly expanding, especially in the former Soviet Union. Then the growth rate slowed and the methane budget (the balance between emissions and their destruction) seemed to have reached equilibrium in the early years of this century. However, in 2007, unexpectedly, the amount of methane in the air started growing again, with very strong growth since 2014, much of it in tropical regions [Nisbet et al., 2019].Simultaneously, there was a marked change in the isotopic composition of atmospheric methane. For two centuries, the proportion of Carbon-13 in the methane in the air had been growing, reflecting the input from fossil fuels and fires, which is relatively rich in C-13, but from 2007, the proportion of C-12 methane has risen [Nisbet et al., 2016].

There is no clear agreement why this rise in methane began again in 2007, nor why it accelerated from 2014, nor why the carbon isotopes are shifting. One hypothesis is that biological sources of methane have increased; for example, population growth has increased farming in the tropics, and climate warming has made tropical wetlands both warmer and wetter. Another possible hypothesis is that the main sink has declined; if true, this would be profoundly worrying as OH is the ‘policeman of the air’ cleaning up so many polluting chemical species. A third hypothesis is more complex, speculating that fires (which give off methane rich in C-13) have declined while other sources have risen. Of course, these hypotheses are non-exclusive and all these processes could be happening at the same time.

Why is a focus on reducing methane emissions critical for addressing climate warming?

Methane is an extremely important greenhouse gas. In its own right, it is the second-most important human-caused climate warmer after carbon dioxide (CO2), but it also has a lot of spin-off effects in the atmosphere that also cause warming.In the 5th Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013, warming from methane was assessed at about 0.5 watts per square meter (Wm-2) (the measure of solar irradiance) compared to the year 1750. That’s large, and when all its spin off impacts are added, the warming impact of methane was around 1 Wm-2 (IPCC 2013 report Fig. 8.17), which is significant when compared to about 1.7 Wm-2 warming from CO2. Sadly, both numbers of course have now much increased.

Methane’s atmospheric lifetime (the amount in the air divided by the annual destruction) is less than a decade. So, if methane emissions are quickly reduced, we will see a resulting reduction in climate warming from methane within the next few years. Over the longer-term CO2 is the key warming gas but reducing that will take much longer, so cutting methane is an obvious first step while we try to redesign the world’s economy to cut CO2. It’s rather like a dentist giving a quick acting pain reliever while making plans for a root canal procedure.What might be the some of the easiest or most cost-effective ways to cut methane emissions from different sources?

Simple box model to show the potential impact of mitigation on methane emissions
Simple box model to show the potential impact of mitigation. The purple line approximates emission levels that would be compliant with the Paris Agreement. The blue line represents no change in emissions after 2020. The other lines show a 10% (orange line), 20% (green line) and 30% (red line) cut in emissions spread linearly over the period 2020–2055 followed by stable emissions. Credit: Paul Griffiths, in Nisbet et al. [2020], Figure 22 left panel

We need to identify the major human-caused sources that we can realistically change quickly.Some relating to the fossil fuel industry are easily identified and already subject to regulatory control in most producing nations, so it should not be difficult to monitor and achieve better behavior. For example, gas industry leaks represent lost profit, while deliberate methane venting in the oil industry is simply lazy design. Meanwhile, the coal industry is rapidly becoming uncompetitive with renewable electricity.

Tropical fires are a particular problem and cause terrible pollution. Many fires are either unnecessary (such as crop waste fires and stubble burning) or very damaging (such as human-lit savanna grassfires and forest fires) so there is a very strong argument for using both financial incentives and legislation to halt fires across the tropics, although in some places there are strong vested interests.

Landfills are another significant source. Although these are highly regulated in Europe and parts of the Americas, in megacities in the tropics there are many immense landfills, often unregulated and often on fire. Just putting a half-meter of soil on top would greatly cut emissions.

And what are some of the most challenging types methane sources to address?

Changing food habits is perhaps the biggest challenge. Much methane is breathed out from ruminant animals such as cows, water buffalo, sheep, and goats. Across much of tropical Africa and India, cows tend to live in the open and their manure is rapidly oxidized so it is not an especially large methane source. But in Europe, China and the United States, cattle are often housed in barns with large anaerobic methane-producing manure facilities, that do make methane. These manure lagoon emissions should be tackled.

We could, of course, all give up food from ruminants and methane emissions would drop, but it would be countered by an increasing demand for crops. More intensive arable farming, especially in the tropics, would be needed, and likely achieved by plowing up forest and savannas, which would increase CO2 emissions, and also require increasing the use of nitrogen fertilizers.

Reducing meat and dairy consumption to only ‘organic’ grass-reared animals seems like a sensible first step for people in wealthier nations. But this needs to be seen in the context of broader issues in less developed nations. Population growth needs to be slowed if agricultural emissions are to be reduced: better schools, especially for girls, improved healthcare, and better pensions would reduce population growth and thus the burden on human food production. A focus on societal issues would ultimately address climate problems too.

Can we be optimistic that efforts to reduce methane emissions will help to meet the targets of the UNFCCC Paris Agreement?

If I’d been asked this question three months ago, I would have said “no”. Methane is rising much faster than anticipated in the scenarios that underlay the Paris Agreement. As I write we are several months in to the global COVID-19 epidemic and it is almost as if nature itself has so tragically hit the pause button. I am one of many scientists trying to measure the impact of the lockdown on CO2 and methane emissions. As we try to rebuild and find our way through the post-epidemic recovery, there will be great changes, and perhaps in many countries a pause for thought, and a chance to choose a new way forward.

—Euan Nisbet (E.Nisbet@rhul.ac.uk), Department of Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK

Citation: Nisbet, E. (2020), Methane’s rising: What can we do to bring it down? , Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO143615. Published on 04 May 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Goldman Sachs says the only other commodity ‘looking as precarious as oil’ is livestock

KEY POINTS
  • Jeff Currie, head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs, believes the two big commodity stories looking ahead to 2021 and beyond will concern oil and livestock.
  • Confinement measures have been implemented in 187 countries or territories over recent weeks and months, in an effort to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
  • It has wreaked havoc in the food industry, with farmers now facing a pronounced market imbalance.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will establish a "coordination center" to help livestock and poultry producers hurt by coronavirus-induced meatpacking plant closures.
Dairy cows stand in a pen at a cattle farm in West Canaan, Ohio on Thursday, April 30, 2020.
Dane Rhys | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs believes the two big commodity stories looking ahead to 2021 and beyond will concern oil and livestock.

The forecast comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has prompted many countries across the globe to effectively shut down.

It has created an unprecedented demand shock in energy markets, with U.S. oil prices tumbling into negative territory for the first time ever last month.

Both major oil benchmarks have registered modest gains in recent weeks. However, Brent crude futures and U.S. West Texas Intermediate futures are still down more than 50% on the start of 2020.

“Investors don’t want to hear anything about oil. They have been beaten up, they are done with this space (and) it is going to take a lot to get them to come back,” Jeff Currie, head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs, said during a video call with reporters last week.

The coronavirus outbreak has also wreaked havoc in the food industry, with farmers now facing a pronounced market imbalance.

As a result, Currie said that he believes the only other commodity market “looking as precarious as oil” was livestock.

“They both share something in common: You do damage to the supply, it takes a while to bring it back online again,” he said.

“We had a problem with livestock going into this … We now have a very serious problem,” Currie added.

Food insecurity

Confinement measures have been implemented in 187 countries or territories over recent weeks and months, in an effort to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The restrictions, which vary but broadly include school closures, bans on public gatherings and social distancing, have forced many restaurants to close their doors.

This collapse in demand from the hospitality industry has reportedly forced some U.S. farmers to let fresh fruit and vegetables perish, while dairy farmers have had to pour excess milk away.

coronavirus spreads to meat processing plants, the United States faces a major meat shortages.
Packages of various meats are seen in a supermarket refrigerator in New York City. As the coronavirus spreads to meat processing plants, the United States faces a major meat shortages.
John Lamparski | SOPA Images }| Getty Images

Meanwhile, an uptick of Covid-19 cases in meat processing plants has led to some closures and a slowdown in production. As a result, there are growing concerns about whether the industry can meet demand for pork, beef and chicken.

At the same time, food banks have reported massive shortages. Feeding America, the largest network of food banks in the U.S., has warned that the number of “food insecure children” in the world’s largest economy could hit 18 million as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is higher than the record 17.2 million recorded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) at the height of the recession in 2009.

What do oil and meat have in common?

Analysts at Bank of America Securities said in a research note published late last month that livestock farmers in the U.S. meat industry were likely “to suffer tremendous financial burdens” as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Pork processors were expected to bear the brunt of plant closures, the analysts said, while beef processing was thought to be in a better position.

The analysts at Bank of America Securities stopped short of warning about the prospect of empty meat cases at the grocery store anytime soon.

But, they did stress those concerns “could become greater” if plants were unable to re-open.

A farmer checks on young female pigs at a hog farm in Smithville, Ohio, U.S., on Thursday, April 30, 2020.
A farmer checks on young female pigs at a hog farm in Smithville, Ohio, U.S., on Thursday, April 30, 2020.
Dane Rhys | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Donald Trump said via Twitter on Saturday that the U.S. government would start to purchase $3 billion in agricultural products from American farmers over the coming days.

He referenced the USDA program, “Farmers to Families Food Box,” that aligns with the department’s $19 billion relief plan announced last month.

Goldman’s Currie said herds had been “tremendously reduced” on both cattle and hogs in recent weeks.

“And what do oil and meats have in common? They are big inputs into inflation in the emerging markets,” he continued. “These are going to be the two big commodity stories I think are going to be important as we look out into 2021 and beyond.”

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.

State’s wolf population continues to grow

Posted 

The number of wolves in Washington has reached its highest level since they were essentially eliminated from the state in the 1930s, according to a report from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As of December 2019, there were an estimated 145 wolves across 26 packs living in the state.

Comparatively WDFW reported 133 wolves across 27 packs in 2018.

While this is a win for wolf conservation efforts, it also creates other challenges such as increased livestock attacks. Last year was a particularly rough year for livestock attacks, WDFW Director Kelly Susewind said in a press release.

“We are working with citizens and communities to strike a balance so both livestock producers and wolves can share the landscape and thrive in Washington,” she said.

“As the wolf population begins to recover, we’re going to see population growth slow in parts of the state where the local population is nearing capacity,” wolf specialist Ben Maletzke said.

In 2019, there were 21 documented wolf mortalities, 18 of which were by landowners protecting cattle, legal tribal harvests or by the WDFW in response to livestock attacks.

Fourteen cattle across the state were killed by wolves in 2019 and another 11 were injured. WDFW notes that 85% of the wolf packs have had no involvement in cattle attacks.

“We had more negative impacts to cattle and lethal removals last year than we’d like to see. It’s been a challenging situation, but ranchers are continuing to play an important role in reducing wolf-livestock conflict,” WDFW wolf policy lead Donny Martorello said.

Since 1980, gray wolves have been listed as an endangered species in Washington. In Western Washington they are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, and in Eastern Washington they are managed by rules in the 2011 WDFW Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.

The meat we eat is a pandemic risk, too

Cattle inside a pen outside of El Centro, California, on February 11, 2015. 
Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images

“If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms.”

Some experts have hypothesized that the novel coronavirus made the jump from animals to humans in China’s wet markets, just like SARS before it. Unsurprisingly, many people are furious that the markets, which were closed in the immediate wake of the outbreak in China, are already reopening. It’s easy to point the finger at these “foreign” places and blame them for generating pandemics. But doing that ignores one crucial fact: The way people eat all around the world — including in the US — is a major risk factor for pandemics, too.

That’s because we eat a ton of meat, and the vast majority of it comes from factory farms. In these huge industrialized facilities that supply more than 90 percent of meat globally — and around 99 percent of America’s meat — animals are tightly packed together and live under harsh and unsanitary conditions.

“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,“ said Michael Greger, the author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching.

To make matters worse, selection for specific genes in farmed animals (for desirable traits like large chicken breasts) has made these animals almost genetically identical. That means that a virus can easily spread from animal to animal without encountering any genetic variants that might stop it in its tracks. As it rips through a flock or herd, the virus can grow even more virulent.

Greger puts it bluntly: “If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms.”

For years, expert bodies like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been warning that most emerging infectious diseases come from animals and that our industrialized farming practices are ratcheting up the risk. “Livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain,” noted the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in a 2013 report.

We know from past experience that farmed animals can lead to serious zoonotic diseases (those transmitted from animals to humans). Just think back to 2009, when the H1N1 swine flu circulated in pig farms in North America, then jumped to humans. That novel influenza quickly became a global pandemic, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

To be clear, scientists believe the novel coronavirus originated in wild bats, not factory farms. But it has awakened us all to the crushing effect a pandemic can have on our lives. Now that we’ve come face to face with this reality, the question is: Do we have the political and cultural will to do something major — changing the way we eat — to sharply decrease the likelihood of the next pandemic?

What we talk about when we talk about pandemics

When we talk about the risk of pandemics, we’re actually talking about two different types of outbreaks. The first is a viral pandemic; examples include the 1918 influenza pandemic and Covid-19. The second is a bacterial pandemic; the prime example is the bubonic plague, the “Black Death” that wracked Europe in the Middle Ages.

Factory farming presents a risk in both these categories.

Sonia Shah, author of the 2017 book Pandemic, worries about viruses and bacteria alike. “When I was writing my book, I asked my sources what keeps them awake at night. They usually had two answers: virulent avian influenza and highly drug-resistant forms of bacterial pathogens,” she told me. “Both those things are driven by the crowding in factory farms. These are ticking time bombs.”

Let’s focus on avian influenza first. Bird flu is caused by viruses and it’s a massive risk coming out of factory farms (as is swine flu). That’s both because the birds in these farms are squeezed together by the thousands in close proximity and because they’re bred to be almost identical genetically. That’s a recipe for a highly virulent virus to emerge, spread, and kill rapidly.

“Factory farms are the best way to select for the most dangerous pathogens possible,” said Rob Wallace, an evolutionary biologist at the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps in St. Paul, Minnesota. To explain why, he offered a crash course in zoonotic transmission, from the point of view of the pathogen.

“If you’re a pathogen in a host,” Wallace said, “you don’t want to kill your host too fast before you can get into the next host — otherwise you’re cutting off your own line of transmission. So there’s a cap on how much of a badass you can be. The faster you replicate, the more likely you end up killing your host before the next host can come along.”

If you’re deep in the wilderness or on a small farm, you (the pathogen) are not going to regularly come across hosts, so you’ve got to keep your virulence, or harm inflicted on the host, pretty low so that you don’t run out of hosts. “But if you get into a barn with 15,000 turkeys or 250,000 layer chickens, you can just burn right through,” Wallace said. “There’s no cap on your being a badass.”

This is part of why factory farms are a bigger risk for zoonotic outbreaks than the natural world or small farms.

The biologist added that because we’re increasingly trading poultry and livestock across international borders, we’re ramping up the danger even more. Strains that were previously isolated from each other on opposite sides of the world can now recombine.

“Take influenza,” Wallace said. “It has a segmented genome, so it trades its genomic parts like card players on a Saturday night. Usually, most hands are not too terrible, but some hands come out much more dangerous. An increase in the rate of recombination means an explosion in terms of the diversity of pathogens that are evolving.”

The world has already seen a really frightening example of this. Between 1997 and 2006, highly pathogenic strains of H5N1 bird flu were linked to poultry farms in China.

“Our entire understanding of how bad a pandemic could potentially be changed in 1997 with the emergence of the H5N1 avian influenza virus. All of a sudden, there was a flu virus that was killing over half the people it infected,” Greger said.

When people became infected with H5N1, it had a 60 percent mortality rate. For comparison, experts estimate that Covid-19’s mortality rate is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 percent to 3 percent, though these estimates continue to evolve and vary widely by country and by age. (If you’re wondering why H5N1 didn’t become as big a deal as Covid-19, it’s because it mostly infected poultry rather than people; it wasn’t as good at infecting humans as the coronavirus unfortunately is.)

“These new bird flu viruses have been tied to the industrialization — the ‘Tysonization’ — of our poultry production,” Greger said, citing evidence that exporting the factory farming model to Asia led to an unprecedented explosion of viruses infecting birds and people starting in the 1990s.

It’s not only birds we need to worry about. Remember that pigs are also highly effective carriers of viruses. A decade before the swine flu struck in 2009, the Nipah virus emerged in Malaysian pig farms. It caused encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) in hundreds of people, killing about 40 percent of the patients who were hospitalized with serious neurological disease.

Factory farming and the urgent problem of antibiotic resistance

The other pandemic risk associated with factory farms has to do with “highly drug-resistant forms of bacterial pathogens,” as Shah put it — that is, antibiotic resistance.

When a new antibiotic is introduced, it can have great, even life-saving results — for a while. But as we start to use and overuse antibiotics in the treatment of humans, crops, and animals, the bacteria evolve, with those that have a mutation to survive the antibiotic becoming more dominant. Gradually, the antibiotic becomes less effective, and we’re left with a disease that we can no longer treat.

A farmer tends to his hogs in Polo, Illinois, on January 25.
 Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The CDC warned in a major report last year that the post-antibiotic era is already here: We’re living in a time when our antibiotics are becoming useless and drug-resistant bugs, like C. difficile and N. gonorrhoeae, can all too easily decimate our health. Every 15 minutes, one person in the US dies because of an infection that antibiotics can no longer treat effectively.

Yet we continue to dole out too many antibiotics, driving the resistance. Animal farmers use antibiotics copiously on livestock and poultry, sometimes to compensate for poor industrial farming conditions.

“With more spontaneous mutations,” he explained, “the odds increase that one of those mutations will provide resistance to the antibiotic that’s present in the environment.” Those resistant bacteria could become strains that spread all over the world. “That’s the biggest human health risk of factory farms.”

In fact, factory farming presents us with a double bacterial risk. Say a bacterial outbreak emerges among chickens. The poultry can pass that bacteria on to us humans, causing serious infection. We’d normally then want to use antibiotics to treat that infection, but precisely because we’ve already overused antibiotics on our farmed animals, the bacteria may be resistant to the antibiotic. If the infection happens to be one that transmits well between people, we can end up with an untreatable bacterial pandemic.

When asked how he’d compare the pandemic risks posed by factory farms with those posed by China’s wet markets carrying live animals, Lawrence said, “With factory farming, the opportunity to start a viral pandemic may be less, but the opportunity for acquiring an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection is greater.”

Factory farms also put their workers’ health at risk — including from coronavirus

Another distressing reality of factory farming is the way it tends to treat not only animals but also human workers as widgets in a large machine.

The mistreatment of laborers was a problem long before Covid-19, but the current pandemic has thrown the problem into especially sharp relief. We’re seeing a jump in the number of coronavirus cases among workers at meat plants in the US. Hundreds of people have tested positive at Cargill and Smithfield plants, in states from Pennsylvania to South Dakota. A few have died.

NPR reported that in one case, a city mayor had to actually force Smithfield to close a plant: “The count of positive coronavirus tests among employees at the Sioux Falls plant reached 350. It represented almost 10 percent of all workers at the plant, and 40 percent of all Covid-19 cases in South Dakota.”

The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, accounts for 40 percent of all coronavirus cases in the state.
 Stephen Groves/AP

Laborers in meat plants are typically stationed very close together along processing lines, which makes social distancing all but impossible. Some workers have staged walkouts over the working conditions.

“The companies need them to be present, but Covid-19 is killing them. And it’s obvious why: They have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their coworkers while the rest of us are six feet apart,” said Leah Garcés, the president of Mercy for Animals.

Knowing that the country’s meat is being produced on the backs of laborers who are mistreated, we’ve got to ask: Is it really worth it? For Garcés, the answer is clear. “It’s a ridiculous sacrifice to make for a chicken,” she said.

How can we build a better food system post-coronavirus?

In the US, where meat has become entwined with national identity and the average citizen consumes more than 200 pounds of meat a year, most people are probably not going to give up meat entirely. So it’s worth asking: Is there a way to do livestock farming that diminishes the threat of zoonotic disease? And perhaps, in the process, also diminishes other problems with industrialized farming, like the impact on climate change and cruelty to animals?

The answer is yes. We can absolutely have a meat production system that is better for human health, the climate, and animal welfare — if we’re willing to abandon factory farming.

“The de-intensification of the livestock industry would go a long way toward reducing pandemic risk,” Greger said. “I mean decreasing long-distance live animal transport, moving toward a carcass-only trade, and having smaller and less-crowded farms. Basically, the animals could use a little social distancing, too.”

Greger said we should abolish confinement practices like gestation crates, where pigs are kept in spaces so small they can’t even turn around. “Even measures as simple as providing straw beddings for pigs can cut down on swine flu transmission rates,” he noted, “because they don’t have the immunosuppressant stress of living on bare concrete their whole lives.”

We also need to reintroduce more biodiversity into our farms. Raising animals that are slightly different from each other genetically (rather than selecting for specific genes) will build in immunological firebreaks to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases, Wallace said, adding, “On a very practical level, I would farm completely the opposite of how they’re doing it now.”

By “they,” he means factory farms. There are plenty of farmers who already prefer other methods, like regenerative agriculture, but who may lack the support they need to execute them because agribusiness has a lock-hold on many rural communities.

“There’s a lot of farmers who completely understand how the system works and object to it but just can’t get off the treadmill,” Wallace said. He suspects the pandemic is giving the issue new salience.

It may also shift mindsets around existing plans to stop factory farming, like the legislation proposed by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to impose a moratorium on the US’s biggest factory farms and phase them out altogether by 2040. In March, as the Covid-19 pandemic gained traction, the conservative magazine National Review carried a piece arguing that “if you reflect on this issue with an open mind, you’ll agree that ending factory farms is a good idea — even if Cory Booker thinks that it is.”

Moving away from industrialized farming can reduce the likelihood of a zoonotic outbreak, but to really remove the threat, Greger said we should be accelerating the movement toward plant-based meat, milk, and egg products.

Americans were already getting excited about plant-based products before the coronavirus came along, and there’s reason to think the pandemic will drive even more interest, both because the traditional meat supply chain is now under some strain and because of a growing awareness that factory farming is a pandemic risk.

Impossible Foods announced on April 16 that it’s expanding sales of its meatless burgers to 750 more grocery stores in the US. “We’ve always planned on a dramatic surge in retail for 2020 — but with more and more Americans eating at home, we’ve received requests from retailers and consumers alike,” said the company’s president Dennis Woodside in an emailed statement. “Our existing retail partners have achieved record sales of Impossible Burger in recent weeks.”

From Garcés’s perspective, increased public awareness of the link between factory farms and pandemics is a silver lining to the horrible Covid-19 pandemic. “In my whole career, I’m not sure we’ve had a better chance than this to have the eyes of the nation and the world on the way we’re using animals in our food system and the risk that puts to us as a species,” she said.

“We’ve been ringing the alarm bells for a long time. My deep hope is that now people will make the connection — factory farming is a catastrophic risk to our species — and that this permanently changes our behavior in the long term.”

WA Wolf Count Up, But Species Isn’t Out of Woods Yet

Nine Washington state wolves were removed because of conflicts with livestock in 2019. (WDFW/Flickr)
Nine Washington state wolves were removed because of conflicts with livestock in 2019. (WDFW/Flickr)

April 23, 2020

SEATTLE — Washington state’s wolf population is on the rise, according to a new count, but conservation groups say the species still has a long road to recovery.

Wolf numbers increased to at least 145 in 2019, up from 126 in 2018.

Zoe Hanley, Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, says that’s good news but wolves aren’t out of the woods yet.

She says one concerning point in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s report is that nine wolves were removed because of their interactions with livestock or livestock depredation, and most conflicts occurred on public lands.

“It’s disappointing to see lethal removal in the same locations every year,” she states. “Wolves should have the right of way on our public lands.”

Defenders of Wildlife notes that in Oregon, where wolf management is similar, the state did not remove any wolves for interacting with livestock and depredation numbers were down 43% last year.

Hanley says there needs to be more proactive prevention methods in place, such as moving cattle away from high-use wolf areas.

Still, Hanley says it’s encouraging to see wolves recovering in the state.

“Wolves are extremely resilient and they’re so valued for their really positive impacts to the ecological systems and also the way that humans have a great way of relating to them, so we’re really excited that they’re coming back,” she states.

Wolves remain sparse in the western part of Washington, where they still are federally listed as endangered.