Corporate Food Brands Drive the Massive Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

Mighty Earth

By Reynard Loki

Whole Foods bills itself as “America’s healthiest grocery store,” but what it’s doing to the environment is anything but healthy. According to a new report, the chain is helping to drive one of the nation’s worst human-made environmental disasters: the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

By not requiring environmental safeguards from its meat suppliers, the world’s largest natural and organic foods supermarket—and most of its big-brand counterparts in the retail food industry, like McDonald’s, Subway and Target—are sourcing and selling meat from some of the worst polluters in agribusiness, including Tyson Foods and Cargill. The animal waste and fertilizer runoff from their industrial farms end up in the Gulf of Mexico, where each summer, a growing marine wasteland spreads for thousands of miles, leaving countless dead wildlife in its oxygen-depleted wake.

Community members and environmental activists demonstrate outside Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, Texas, on August 2, 2018.Mighty Earth“The major meat producers like Tyson and Cargill that have consolidated control over the market have the leverage to dramatically improve the supply chain,” according to the report, which was released by Mighty Earth, an environmental action group based in Washington, DC. “Yet to date they have done little,” the report’s authors note, “ignoring public concerns and allowing the environmentally damaging practices for feeding and raising meat to expand largely unchecked.”

How animal feed moves through the meat supply chain.Mighty EarthOn Aug. 2, the day the report was released, those public concerns found a voice as citizens, environmentalists and sustainability advocates gathered outside Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, Texas, to deliver 95,000 petition signatures demanding that the company hold its meat suppliers accountable for their role in destroying the environment.

“Grocery stores like Walmart and Whole Foods and meal outlets like McDonald’s and Burger King have the power to set and enforce standards requiring better farming practices from suppliers,” states the report, which Mighty Earth says is the “first comprehensive assessment of major US food brands on their environmental standards and performance for sourced meat.”

Feeding the Nation, Failing the Environment

Ranking the largest food companies in the U.S. based on their sustainability policies for meat production, the report found that the biggest players in the food industry—including major fast food, grocery and food service companies—are failing to protect the environment from the impact of their supply chains. Remarkably, the researchers found that not a single one of the 23 major brands surveyed have policies in place to require “even minimal environmental protections from meat suppliers.”

Even more startling is that so-called “green” brands like Whole Foods that have built their reputations on providing sustainable food options have, according to the report, “failed to commit to environmentally responsible farming practices that protect drinking water, prevent agricultural runoff and curb climate emissions.”

The 23 companies surveyed were evaluated on their requirements for meat suppliers regarding where they source their animal feed, how they process their animals’ manure and how they manage their greenhouse gas emissions.

All but one of the companies scored an “F” overall for their environmental policies (or lack thereof) for meat sourcing. The only company to score better than an “F” was Walmart, which received a “D” due to its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions across its supply chain, as well as the launching of programs meant to improve the management of manure and increase the sustainability of corn and soy farming.

Soil erosion and agricultural runoff are the top sources of water pollution in the U.S.Mighty Earth

Dead Cows on Your Plate, Dead Fish in the Ocean

In oceans and large lakes across the globe, human activities are creating oxygen-depleted areas where marine life can no longer survive. These hypoxic areas, currently numbering more than 400 around the globe, are commonly known as “dead zones,” and are caused by an increase in certain chemical nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that drive the massive growth of algae, causing the spread of deadly “algal blooms.” As the algae decomposes, their biomass consumes the oxygen in the water, suffocating fish and other marine life.

Algal blooms are harmful to ecosystems because the blooming organisms contain toxins, noxious chemicals or pathogens. They also suck up all the oxygen, killing fish and other marine life.National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationIn the U.S. the largest recurring dead zone is located in the Gulf of Mexico, mainly off the coast of Louisiana, and extending east to the Mississippi River Delta and west to Texas. The Gulf acts as a massive drainage basin for polluted water containing manure and fertilizer runoff coming from the American heartland, from major beef-producing states like Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. During summer months, this area becomes a 7,000-mile-wide lifeless region—the only reminders of past life being the bodies of fish, crabs, shrimp and other marine animals that have suffocated due to a lack of oxygen. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is the second-largest human-caused dead zone in the world, after the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Oman.

The Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin drains approximately 41 percent of the contiguous United States that includes all or part of 31 states and two Canadian provinces. Map scale is approximately 2,000 miles across.Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality“Excess nutrients bleeding off fertilized crops constitute the overwhelming source—over 70 percent—of the nutrient pollution that causes the Gulf Dead Zone,” Donald Boesch, a professor of marine science and former president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told the Independent Media Institute.

In August 2017, scientists measured the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and found that it was at its largest since the mapping of the zone began in 1985—more than 8,000 square miles. But recently, scientists reported that the area is only about 40 percent of its average size. That doesn’t mean that it is no longer an issue. “Although the area is small this year, we should not think that the low-oxygen problem in the Gulf of Mexico is solved,” Nancy Rabalais, a marine ecologist at Louisiana State University and the lead scientist of the study, told The Associated Press. “We are not close to the goal size for this hypoxic area.”

Nearly half (45 percent) of the Earth’s landmass is being farmed by the global industrial livestock system, which includes both the animals killed for human consumption and the crops used to feed those animals. The current human population, 7.6 billion, is expected to swell to 9.8 billion by the year 2050. And if most of them will be meat-eaters, the negative impact of the meat industry on marine ecosystems and coastal communities, if not addressed soon, will surely get worse. According to NASA, “The number and size of ocean dead zones is closely connected to human population density.” It’s basic math: More people means more meat-eaters, and more meat production means more and bigger dead zones.

Red circles show the location and size of many dead zones. Black dots show dead zones of unknown size. The size and number of marine dead zones—areas where the deep water is so low in dissolved oxygen that sea creatures can’t survive—have grown explosively in the past half-century.NASA Earth Observatory, 2008

More Pathogens, More Pollutants, Less Profit

Dead zones could also introduce a host of public and animal health issues. Boesch points out that “various pathogenic microorganisms can thrive” in hypoxic areas. A 2012 study published in FEMS Microbiology Ecology discovered “sequences affiliated with Clostridium,” a human pathogen that causes botulism and diarrhea, in the hypoxic zone of China’s Lake Taihu. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that algal blooms contain cyanobacteria, “which are poisonous to humans and deadly to livestock and pets.”

Renee Dufault is a former environmental health officer for the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the founder of the Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute. Dufault told the Independent Media Institute that the antibiotics and hormones injected into animals raised for food “are pollutants themselves when they are released from manure via surface water runoff into streams that may be used as drinking water supplies.”

Dead zones also have economic impacts that harm local communities. The NOAA estimates that marine dead zones cost the U.S. food and tourism industries $82 million every year.

Risky Business: Eating Meat

The main source of water contamination in the U.S. is the manure and fertilizer coming from industrial farms that grow feed to raise animals to be killed for human consumption.

The production of meat isn’t just one of the most polluting of all human activities, contaminating waterways and driving the growth of dead zones across the world; it’s literally bulldozing the planet’s landscape. By converting rainforests and prairies into industrial farms, large-scale meat producers are responsible for the widespread destruction of many of the planet’s native ecosystems, which threatens wildlife by destroying native habitats and releases stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further exacerbating climate change. Animals raised for food produce 42 percent of agricultural emissions in the U.S. Two-thirds of those gases are emitted directly by those animals in the form of belches and farts. And the majority of those emissions—around 44 percent—is methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

report released in July by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy offers some perspective: The top five meat and dairy companies, including Tyson and Cargill, emit more greenhouse gases combined than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP.

This NASA satellite image shows deforestation in the state of Rondonia in western Brazil, where land has been converted for cattle farming. In 2017, Brazil exported 1.3 million metric tons of beef to the United States, worth $6.2 billion.NASA

A Few Bright Spots

The Mighty Earth report does note a few positive developments. Of the sectors studied, the food service industry that caters meals to universities and hospitals “is doing the most to promote plant-based diets, with Aramark reporting that 30 percent of its menus offer non-meat options and Sodexo reducing beef consumption through its mushroom-blended burger initiative.” And McDonald’s states that it is moving toward 100 percent sustainably certified soy by 2020 to feed the chickens it sources in Europe. (Unfortunately, that requirement isn’t in place for U.S. suppliers.)

“Bright spots were few and far between,” the report states, “but indicate that awareness is growing and improvements are possible.”

Possible, yes. But probable? The food industry has shown a reluctance to enact sustainable practices, but has sometimes responded to consumer demand for change. “Many of these companies have set requirements for meat suppliers to improve practices around animal welfare and antibiotic overuse when the public pressured them to do so,” Mighty Earth campaign director Lucia von Reusner told the Independent Media Institute. Her organization is hoping that their report will help raise public awareness, and that in turn will spur change within the industry.

“The public is now waking up to the industry’s polluting practices and demanding improvements,” she said.

Reforming the Meat Industry

One of the biggest misperceptions that the general public has about dead zones, says Boesch, is that “there is nothing we can do about them.” He points out that, “although experience in other parts of the world shows that while it may take years for the excess nutrients to wash out of the watershed and [be] purged from bottom sediments, we can eventually breathe life back into dead zones if we reduce nutrient pollution. We are now seeing the dead zone in the Chesapeake gradually becoming less severe and smaller.”

The Mighty Earth report recommends that meat producers start employing better farming practices to help curtail the destruction. One way to reduce the need of fertilizers on crops used to feed livestock, for example, is to use cover crops, which involves planting certain species on fields that can suffocate weeds, control pests and diseases, reduce soil erosion, improve soil health, boost water availability and increase biodiversity—all of which would benefit any farm. Mighty Earth also recommends that meat producers employ better fertilizer management, conserve native vegetation and centralize manure processing.

“The environmental damage caused by the meat industry is driving some of the most urgent threats to the future of our food system—from contaminated waters to depleted soils and a destabilized climate,” von Reusner said. “More sustainable farming practices are urgently needed if we are going to feed a growing population on a planet of finite resources.”

Map of nitrate levels by watersheds, 2016 overlaid with Tyson and top feed supplier facilities (View Larger Map)Unfortunately, there is little that the federal government is doing on this front. “Runoff pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from producing meat are largely unregulated in the US,” von Reusner notes. “There need to be much stronger regulations that protect our waters and climate from the meat industry’s pollution.”

Boesch notes that an action plan agreed upon in 2001 by the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force was meant to scale down the amount of nutrient pollution in the Gulf by 30 percent. But, he says the plan “lacks teeth.” Consequently, he said, “not only has the Gulf’s dead zone not shrunk, but the concentrations of polluting nutrients in the Mississippi River have not declined—and may have even increased.”

In the meantime, polluting the Gulf with meat production runoff continues apace. The 2001 federal and state action plan, which was reaffirmed and amended in 2008, hasn’t achieved its goal to reduce the hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA scientists have forecasted this summer’s dead zone to be “similar to the 33-year average Gulf dead zone of 5,460 square miles,” which the agency points out is about the size of Connecticut. “This should be getting more attention by regulators, lawmakers and industry,” said Boesch. “Unfortunately, the industry has worked with politicians to prevent regulations.”

He notes that the plan to revive the Chesapeake Bay has each state “allocated a certain amount of reduction in nutrient pollution and is under a legally binding agreement under the Clean Water Act to accomplish this by 2025.” But there is no such legal force when it comes to the Mississippi Basin states that are polluting the Gulf. Those states, says Boesch, “have never even been assigned an amount of pollution reduction for which they are responsible, much less been bound to it. The states have resisted even this first step in accepting responsibility. All efforts are strictly voluntary. So, there can be little wonder why, despite the commitment to reduce the size of the dead zone by two-thirds, there has been virtually no reduction in polluting nutrients discharged by the river after 17 years.”

While reforming the meat industry’s unsustainable practices is a way to stop the spread of dead zones, change from within isn’t coming quickly enough. That’s where consumers can play a vital role, says von Reusner. “Consumers need to demand that their favorite food companies provide more sustainable options by requiring more sustainable farming practices from meat suppliers.”

Reynard Loki is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Americans’ Appetite for Cheap Meat Linked to Widespread Drinking Water Contamination

Friday, October 20, 2017By Mike Ludwig, Truthout | Report

Scientists recently announced that the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, an area the size of New Jersey where oxygen levels are too low to sustain most forms of life, is larger than ever. For years, environmentalists have used annual surveys of the dead zone to bring attention to large amounts of agricultural pollution from the nation’s breadbasket that flows down the Mississippi River and fuels oxygen-depleting algae blooms in the Gulf.

This year, the message is hitting much closer to home, especially for those living near farmlands.

A new report from the Environmental Working Group shows that the agricultural pollution causing the dead zone is also contaminating drinking water supplies for millions of Americans with potentially dangerous chemicals. Environmental groups particularly blame large-scale meat production, which require huge supplies of industrially grown corn and soy to raise animals to satisfy the nation’s appetite for cheap meat.

The US leads the world in meat production. One-third of all land in the continental US is used to grow feed and provide pasture for animals that will be killed for meat, according to the environmental group Mighty Earth. Now that agricultural pollution’s impact on drinking water is coming into focus, meat producers such as Tyson Foods are under pressure to set standards that would require large farms in their supply chains to clean up their acts.

“People just naturally pay more attention to the pollution issue in their own backyard than they do [to] pollution issues thousands of miles away,” said Matt Rota, senior policy director at the Gulf Restoration Network, a group that works to reduce pollution in the Gulf South.

Chemicals called nitrates and other pollutants can contaminate drinking water sources when fertilizer and manure drain from poorly protected agricultural fields. Drinking water supplies for roughly 200 million Americans in 49 states have some level of nitrate contamination, but the highest levels are found in rural towns surrounded by industrial farms, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Runoff from farm fields finds its way from rural watersheds to the Gulf, providing nutrients for summertime algae blooms that force fish to migrate and kill off smaller creatures at the bottom of the food chain. The dead zone spanned 8,777 square miles off the coast of Louisiana and Texas when marine scientists measured it over the past summer.

Agricultural Pollution Is a Threat to Public Health

Nitrates are naturally found in soil and water, but high levels of exposure have been linked to birth defects, cancer and a dangerous condition known as blue baby syndrome in infants, which results from low levels of oxygen in the blood. Few water supplies in the US have levels of nitrates above the federal limit of 10 parts per million, which was set 25 years ago to prevent blue baby syndrome, but studies have found that the risk of cancer increases at levels as low as 5 parts per million.

Treating polluted water is expensive, and drinking water utilities often use chlorine and other disinfecting treatments when agricultural pollution contaminates sources of drinking water with manure and other pollutants. When these treatment chemicals interact with plant and animal waste, they create potentially dangerous byproducts such as trihalomethanes (THMs), a group of chemicals linked to liver, kidney and intestinal tumors in animals, according to the Environmental Working Group.

The EPA sets limits on the amount of THMs allowed in drinking water, but environmentalists say those limits were based on the technical feasibility of removing the chemicals, not concerns over their long-term toxicity. In 2010, state scientists in California estimated that levels 100 times lower the legal limit would pose a one-in-a-million lifetime risk of cancer.

Nationwide, water supplies in 1,647 communities, serving 4.4 million people, are contaminated with THMs in amounts at least 75 times higher than California’s one-in-a-million cancer risk level. In 2014 and 2015, 411 of those communities had levels of THMs at or above the EPA’s limits, and two-thirds were found in five states with high levels of agricultural pollution — Louisiana, California, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas. (You can find out if THMs and other pollutants are in your water supply using this database.)

Craig Cox, the Environmental Working Group’s vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said farmers can take simple steps to reduce agricultural runoff, but too few farmers are taking action. Agricultural trade groups have considerable political clout in Washington, and farmers are exempt from many state and federal environmental regulations. A federal program pays billions of dollars a year to farmers that adopt conservation practices; however, that money does not always support the best pollution control methods.

“Decades of ill-conceived federal farm policy has been a driving factor in this situation we have today that puts millions of American families at risk of drinking tap water contaminated with these dangerous pollutants,” Cox said in a statement.

Activists Target Meat Mega-Producers

Environmentalists in the Gulf spent years fighting for tougher regulation of industrial farming to protect waterways from runoff and ultimately reduce the size of the dead zone, even filing an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to act during the Obama administration. The EPA did introduce eight policy guidelines to help states reduce fertilizer pollution in 2011, but no states have implemented more than two of them because the program is largely voluntarily, according to the Mississippi River Collaborative.

Now that the Trump administration is in charge, prospects for establishing tougher standards are slim at best.

“I don’t have a whole lot of confidence that the feds will be taking stronger steps to make sure that nitrogen pollution isn’t getting into our drinking [water] supply,” Rota told Truthout.

Unable to change farming practices with regulation, activists are now focusing on brand-name companies that buy from industrial farms. Mighty Earth recently mapped high levels of nitrates in Midwestern waterways and found that supply chains for major meat companies were responsible for much of the fertilizer pollution. Tyson Foods, which produces roughly 20 percent of the country’s meat supply through brands, such as Jimmy Dean, Hillshire Farms, Ball Park and Sara Lee, stood out from the rest, with major processing facilities in all five states that are top contributors to pollution in the Gulf.

Activists across the country are now calling on Tyson directly, demanding that the company pressure its subsidiaries and suppliers to clean up their acts. Audrey Beedle, a community organizer with the Clean It Up Tyson campaign in Louisiana, said that Tyson’s new CEO has shown interest in sustainability, and activists see an opening to hold the company to task. Unlike individual farmers, large companies like Tyson are more responsive to pressure from consumers.

“They are a household name; everybody knows Tyson,” Beedle said in an interview. “People want to know what’s in their food. They are sick of unchecked corporations.”

Activists say there are several methods farms can use to prevent agricultural runoff, including rotating crops with small grains, planting cover crops, optimizing fertilizer applications to prevent runoff and using conservation tillage practices. They are also calling for a moratorium on the further clearing of native prairie ecosystems for industrial farming.

Tyson, which runs meat packaging and processing plants, not farms, claims it’s “misleading” to single out one company when water pollution is a problem across the agriculture industry. Nearly 40 percent of corn, for example, is grown to produce ethanol, not meat. In a statement to Truthout, Tyson said that real change on this issue requires “a broad coalition of stakeholders,” and the company is working with trade associations and researchers to “promote continuous improvement in how we and our suppliers operate.”

Rota said individual farmers generally don’t want to cause problems in their own communities or downstream. He thinks they will do the right thing if they are provided with the right solutions and held accountable.

“Farmers aren’t bad people, and I don’t know of any farmer who goes out to say, ‘I’m going to pollute other people’s drinking water,'” Rota said. “But they are business people, and they need to be responsible for their businesses.”

Soaring Meat Production Threatens Global Environment, Warns Report

By August 27, 2014

The world is eating too much meat, and that’s bad news for the earth’s forests, arable land, and scarce water. That’s the conclusion of a report released yesterday by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

Global production of meat hit a new high of 308.5 million tons last year, up 1.4 percent, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the report notes. “In response to growing purchasing power, urbanization, and changing diets, meat production has expanded more than fourfold over just the last five decades. Even more startlingly, meat production has grown 25-fold since 1800,” says a news release accompanying the report, entitled “Peak Meat Production Strains Land and Water Resources.”

While average consumption of meat in 2013 reached 42.9 kilograms per capita, many people still consume far less, which means production growth is unlikely to stall soon. People in developing countries are eating less than half the quantity of meat consumed by those in developed nations—33.7 kg. as compared to 75.9 kg., the report points out.

Not surprisingly, Asia, home to the fast-growing, populous countries of China and India, has already become the world’s largest meat-producing region. In 2013, it produced 131.5 million tons of meat, about 43 percent of world output. Europe, by contrast, accounted for 58.5 million tons, North America, 47.2 million, and South America, 39.9 million. “China single-handedly accounted for nearly half of global pig meat production,” the report says.

Raising all that livestock requires lots of land and water. More than two-thirds of all agricultural land is used for animal pasture, with an additional 10 percent used to grow feed grains consumed by meat- and dairy-producing animals. Agriculture overall consumes about 70 percent of the world’s fresh water; a third of it goes to grow feed grain. Particularly resource-intensive is beef production: Raising cattle requires up to five times as much land as that needing to produce pigs or chickens—for the same amount of protein.

“Industrial methods in the livestock sector cut down forests to expand grazing lands and use large quantities of water. Production uses grains (such as corn or soybeans) for animal feed and relies on heavy doses of antibiotics in animals,” writes Worldwatch Institute Senior Researcher Michael Renner. “Limiting these environmental and health impacts requires not only a look at how much meat people eat, but also at the kind of meat that they consume worldwide.”

We’re Eating Pangolins Off the Face of the Earth

We’re Eating Pangolins Off the Face of the Earth

While we’ve been focused on the poaching crisis that’s threatening the future for charismatic animals like elephants, rhinos and tigers, another species now faces the threat of extinction thanks to human appetites and could disappear before most people even hear of it.

The pangolin, which includes eight species who live in Africa and Asia, are unique little creatures in a number of ways. They’ve been described as walking artichokes and because they’re insectivores they’ve been dubbed “scaly anteaters.” These toothless animals are also the only mammal covered in true scales, which are made of keratin, and the the fact that they walk like a miniature T. rex only adds to their charm.

Unfortunately, these curious creatures are being hunted to the brink for both their meat, which is considered a delicacy by the affluent, and for their scales, which are believed to have medicinal properties.

Even with protection and international trade bans in place, pangolins are still widely traded illegally on the black market. Just days ago, 1.4 tons of pangolin scales were seized by officials in Vietnam and are believed by customs officials to have come from as many as 10,000 animals.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group, more than one million pangolins are estimated to have been taken from the wild over the past decade alone, which has made them the most illegally traded wild mammal in the world.

Until this week, only two species had been listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as endangered, while the remaining four were listed as threatened and species of least concern. Now they’ve all been upgraded over concerns that their populations are plummeting. Chinese and Sunda pangolins are now listed as “Critically Endangered,” while the Indian and Philippine pangolins are “Endangered” and all four species in Africa are listed as “Vulnerable.”

In an effort to get immediate conservation work going, the Pangolin Specialist Group also published a new action plan this week, ‘Scaling Up Pangolin Conservation,’ that outlines steps that need to be taken now to to stop the illegal trade and keep pangolins from disappearing forever.

Among many measures it hopes to see completed, the group has recommended stronger tracking of pangolin parts, more studies to get a better understanding of pangolins and their movements in the wild and working with local communities to ensure they don’t have to turn to poaching to survive.

What the group believes is the single most important step to conserving these species is reducing the demand for their meat and scales in China and Vietnam, which it hopes to do through awareness campaigns and by engaging the conservation community to help spread the word and change opinions.

“In the 21st Century we really should not be eating species to extinction – there is simply no excuse for allowing this illegal trade to continue,” Professor Jonathan Baillie, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group and Conservation Programmes Director at ZSL, said in a statement.

For more info on how to help pangolins, visit

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The Economic Case for Taxing Meat


By Charles Kenny March 31, 2014

As tax season ramps up, we’re bound to hear proposals aimed at making the revenue system simpler and more efficient. A perennial is the “sin tax.” Rather than tax earnings—when we really want people to earn money—why not tax things we don’t want people to do? Add duties to cigarettes, alcohol, and carbon dioxide to slow people’s smoking, drinking, and polluting, and you’ll do them and the world a favor while raising revenue for schools, hospitals, and roads. But why stop there? It’s time to add one more sin to the list of habits that should be taxed: excessive meat consumption.

Meat has always been part of the human diet. Few dishes are as wonderful as a bolognese sauce made with a combination of pork, lamb, and beef. But taxing pigs, sheep, and cows is essential to contain the spiraling costs associated with massive meat eating.

When it comes to gorging on meat, Americans remain at the top of the global league tables. U.S. consumption of beef per person has actually declined over the past few decades, from 52 kilograms a year in 1970 to 41 kilograms in 2008. But chicken consumption approximately tripled over that period, to 44 kilograms per person, and overall meat consumption climbed from 105 to 122 kilograms a year—considerably more than the average personal weight (although some of that meat is thrown away or eaten by pets). By comparison, Indians consume less than 5 kilograms of meat per person.

Story: Keeping the Mystery Out of China’s Meat

But as the rest of the world gets richer, it’s closing the gap with the U.S. The Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that in 2012, 966 million pigs, 1.5 billion cattle, and 22 billion chickens were roaming (actually, mostly not roaming) the world’s farms. For cattle, that’s five times the number in 1890 and for pigs about a tenfold increase, according to Clive Ponting’s Green History of the World. That’s one factor behind the growing global obesity epidemic: a British study comparing meat eaters and vegetarians found average differences in weight between meat eaters and vegans of 5.9 kilograms in men and 4.7 kilograms in women—and a recent U.S. study also suggested that meat consumption was positively linked to obesity.

At the other end of the consumption scale, all that meat production also makes for more expensive staple foods for the world’s undernourished. About one-third of the world’s cropland is given over to growing feed for animals. Including pastureland, livestock production occupies 30 percent of the land surface of the planet. Some of that land could be used instead to cultivate crops for human consumption. If you are concerned that growing corn for ethanol is raising food prices, you should be even more concerned by the larger impact of factory livestock farming.

Beyond meat’s impact on malnutrition, the livestock industry presents a growing global threat in its relationship with infectious disease. Domesticated animals have been the incubators of many of the world’s greatest killer diseases, from smallpox through measles to tuberculosis. The recent emergence of swine and bird flu suggests an increasing risk of pathogens jumping from the planet’s burgeoning domestic animal population to humans. We’ve added to that risk by regularly feeding factory animals antibiotics. Eighty percent of all antibiotics consumed in the U.S. are used on animals. This widespread use has been linked to the rapid emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which kills 18,000 people a year in the U.S.

Story: Farm Bill Stinks for the Meat Industry, and That’s Not Entirely Bad

Greater meat production also has negative environmental effects. Livestock accounts for about 8 percent of global human water use (the proportion is a little higher in the U.S.) Wheat takes about 1,000 to 2,000 cubic meters of water per ton of crop; rice takes approximately double that. Taking into account the water demands of feedstock, cattle take between 13,000 and 20,000 cubic meters per ton of beef (although chicken does considerably better at around 4,000 cubic meters per ton). Land-based meat production is also a big factor behind declining fisheries worldwide. Millions of tons of fish each year are crushed into fish oil and dry feed to be fed to farmed fish as well as to pigs and chickens. And the effluence those animals produce creates “dead zones” in rivers and coastal areas.

Meat-eaters versus carnivores: Is your diet killing wolves?

Most most large land carnivore populations are in decline. A report from Oregon State University suggests that livestock production is partly to blame.

By             , Staff writer / January 10, 2014

A gray wolf poses for a photo at  the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn., in 2004. Twenty-three wolves were killed in the Upper Peninsula during Michigan’s first wolf hunt in four decades, the state reported on Jan. 1, 2013.  Dawn Villella/AP/File

The world’s fanged animals are rapidly losing ground to humans, reports a study in the journal Science, thanks in part to the spread of livestock farming.

Of the 31 largest species of land carnivore (including the Giant panda, a rare herbivore in the Carnivora order), 23 are in population decline, the authors report. One, the red wolf, is critically endangered, and eight more are considered likely to go extinct throughout all or most of their natural range.

“Globally, we are losing our large carnivores,” says William Ripple, an Oregon State University ecologist who was the paper’s lead author.

Human infringements on these animals are numerous – including the fur industry and many forms of traditional medicine – but the report gives a special nod to “human carnivory.” To support a global rise in per-capita meat-eating, livestock farming continues to expand, shrinking and fragmenting natural habitats in the process. And when cramped predators adapt by preying upon livestock, some ranchers go to extreme measures to keep them away, such as strapping pouches of neurotoxins to the necks of grazing lambs, or calling upon the United States Department of Agriculture to shoot down predators from government helicopters.

“Global livestock production continues to encroach on land needed by large carnivores, particularly in the developing world, where livestock production tripled between 1980 and 2002,” reports the study.

But if our very food production brings us to blows with other meat-eaters, surely we need the land at least as much as they do. Why should we privilege wolf and puma habitat over farmland?

“Human tolerance of these species is a major issue for conservation,” says Mr. Ripple. “We say these animals have an intrinsic right to exist, but they are also providing economic and ecological services that people value.”

According to these scientists, there is every reason to protect carnivores – and not only the species, but the individuals themselves. For one thing, animals’ intrinsic value may dwell in individuals’ capacities for pain, pleasure, learning, and social relationships, all qualities which these megafauna have in spades.

“Because we’re aware and self-aware, we have a well-being that can be helped and harmed by our actions,” explains Bill Lynn, a research scientist at Clark University‘s George T. Marsh Institute, who is an expert on ethics and predator management.  “With respect to carnivores, they too are aware and self-aware. They, too, have a well-being that can be helped or harmed by our actions.”

“Thus,” adds Mr. Lynn, “how human beings relate to wildlife and the environment, are of direct moral concern.”

Many large carnivores are also considered to be keystone predators, who play crucial roles within their ecosystems – roles that are shaped by the size, metabolic demands, sociality, and hunting tactics, of each individuals.

“Each one of them becomes more important because there’s fewer of them,” explains Ripple.

The gray wolf, for example, whose fate has become the subject of ongoing policy debates after its extirpation from much of Western Europe, the US, and Mexico, is the top US predator of deer, after humans. In North America‘s now-wolfless areas, deer populations are nearly six times higher than elsewhere, which has led to drastic changes in plant communities, as well as increases in automobile collisions. And sea otters have been shown to keep North American kelp populations healthy and well distributed, by limiting the growth of sea urchin colonies.

Both of these ecological functions – protecting woodland foliage and aquatic kelp – are vital for keeping the earth’s carbon sequestered safely in plant tissues (and out of the atmosphere), notes the study, suggesting that charismatic carnivores actually play a vital role in keeping global warming at bay.

In view of this and other important “ecosystem services,” the authors have called for the creation of a Global Large Carnivore Initiative modeled after an existing European initiative which aims “to maintain and restore, in coexistence with people, viable populations of large carnivores as an integral part of ecosystems and landscapes.”

Such a body could establish carnivore reserves, suggests Ripple, and improve the enforcement of international wildlife laws.

“Ideally, discussions regarding potential decreases in both human fertility rates and per-capita meat consumption would be part of a long-term strategy for overcoming these concurrent challenges,” suggests the report. “It will probably take a change in both human attitudes and actions to avoid imminent large-carnivore extinctions.”

“These are some of the world’s most revered and iconic species. Ironically, they are also some of the most threatened,” says Ripple. “I think in the end, to preserve these large carnivore species, it comes down to humans having tolerance to live with them.”

Time to Reinvent the Species Again

by Jim Robertson

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, there’s one thing about Homo sapiens that can’t be denied: the species has come a long way from its primate origins—but that’s not necessarily a good thing. From a peaceful plant-eating past, hominids have clawed their way to the top of the food chain, and now the planet’s atmosphere, climate and web of life are all suffering for it.

We’ve evolved so far from the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees and gorillas, that now they’re just a curiosity—side show freaks—to be gawked at between bars or in tiny “habitats” at the neighborhood zoo.

They’re just animals, why should we respect them as our kin? Did they rise from their simple roots, eating from the bottom of the food chain, to become the most successful big-game hunter of all time? Do they carry out wars on a global scale that threaten the very existence of life on Earth? Have they changed the climate for the worse and caused the current extinction spasm? No, only humankind can claim all those achievements.

HumanWeapons_170And we owe it all to eating meat. The transformation from peaceful plant eater to weapon-wielding predator may have made us top dog, but, as they say, it’s lonely at the top. Not only is meat-eating hard on human health, but the carnivorous ways of such a rapidly growing population of conscious-less killers are taking the planet down with them.

We re-invented ourselves once as a species when we climbed down out of the trees and set out across the savannas, spear in hand, in search of “game.” Now it’s time to re-invent ourselves again, for the good of all. It’s not written in stone that humans have to destroy the Earth and all its inhabitants. Reinvention is aspota1 simple laying down our weapons and returning to a more sustainable place lower on the food chain. Trading in our collective ego trip and symbolically returning to the trees may go against human nature, but it’s preferable to self-imposed extinction.


Nothing to Be Proud Of

Being born human is nothing to be automatically proud of. For all you knew, you could just as easily have been born a poodle or pit bull, a parrot, or a penguin, a pig, a platypus or a polar bear. If you ever saw your undeveloped embryo, you’d swear it was a chicken or fish, or a pollywog for that matter—but certainly not the crown of creation.

Call it luck or chance, or even fate (depending on how you feel about who or what you turned out to be), but don’t think it a miracle. Surely God has better things to do than personally see to it that you joined the billions of other humans on the planet on a one-way journey to find a meaningful life.

For most of us, the world would be better off if we hatched out prematurely, at say, the gilled or amphibian stage. If all a person does with their oversized brain is eat hot dogs and memorize baseball statistics, they might as well have been born a carp or a newt—some species evolutionarily locked into a repetitious and relatively mundane way of life.

The only thing that makes human beings any better than some sort of a lowly (but not necessarily loathsome) scavenger is the ability to improve their behavior and evolve beyond their destructive urges. For example, I used to eat meat and enjoy fishing. More on that in an upcoming post…


Backyard Butchering: Loving Animals to Death

Yesterday I received the following comment to my post, All Meat is the Product of Cruelty and Exploitation… “How can you argue with those whose response is: ‘In the natural world animals kill other animals for food and in a most painful and cruel way and if I choose to raise my animals on my own property allowing them to live in a free and natural manner just as they would live in the wild that only differs in that they have shelter from the elements should they choose to use it and they are not kept in pens or tied but in large open barns and that at some point they will be killed as quickly and humanely as possible to be eaten by my family and the excess sold to others. I love animals but choose to eat them as well. I believe that how I treat them and kill them is better than they would live in the wild and their deaths much less horrible than being ripped apart alive as is the case in the wild’. What can you say to that?”

…to which I replied: First of all, it sounds like someone has been watching too many “nature” programs that revel in prolonged scenes of wildlife predation. Most cases of natural predation happen much faster; in many cases the prey are killed instantly.

In my book, Exposing the Big Game, I wrote about a wolf kill I witnessed in Yellowstone: “Suddenly they tore out after a young mule deer who had risked leaving the cover of the forest for the lure of an open meadow. The inexperienced doe didn’t stand a chance against the incredible, greyhound-like speed of the determined wolves. One quickly caught her by the hind leg, bringing her down, and a split second later the other had her by the throat. In less than a heartbeat, a living, breathing deer was reduced to a lifeless carcass.” Not a pretty sight, but much more the norm than the horrible scenarios depicted for entertainment on cable T.V. shows.

The hypothetical argument you spelled out (above) begins by raising the naturalist fallacy, which I covered in the post, Top Ten Retorts to Hunters’ Fallacies (just substitute hunter for animal farmer/rancher):

# 9) Animals kill other animals, so we can too.
That’s an example of what’s known as the naturalistic fallacy—the notion that any behavior that can be found in nature is morally justifiable. But wolves and other natural predators need to hunt to survive, humans don’t—for them it’s nothing more than a thrill kill. Human beings have moved beyond countless other behaviors such as cannibalism or infanticide, so why can’t some people tear themselves away from hunting?

A quote from author Robert Franklin Leslie adds to this:
“It is not important that a hawk takes a robin, that a bear robs a grouse nest. That is Nature’s own salient way even if we don’t understand it…Wilderness life has gone on that way since the beginning, and the prey has withstood the predation. But when man steps in…the very soul of Nature cringes for having endowed one of her creatures with intelligence disproportionate to responsibility.”

Backyard animal farming is nothing but the revival of Old World animal husbandry, from which modern-day factory farming is an unfortunate upshot. Both the factory farmer and the backyard butcher breed animals for the sole purpose of killing them when the time is ripe. They don’t raise the animals just because they love them and want to give them a good life, and raising them does nothing to eliminate any suffering that might go on in the wild between natural predator and prey (unless a person’s intent is to eliminate all natural relationships between wild animals, and there would be a lot of suffering on the predator’s part as the human strives to eliminate them).

Killing farmed animals “quickly and humanely” is easier said than done. At some point the animal knows that the human they trusted intends to hurt or kill them, as they probably would have seen it happen to one or more of their herd-mates. And the act of ending a healthy animal’s life so you can eat their flesh is cruel no matter how you slice it, especially since people do not have to eat meat to live a long, healthy life. And in fact, a lifetime of meat-eating is unhealthy for the human primate. Also from the Top Ten list mentioned above:

8) Humans are carnivores, look at our canine teeth.
Human teeth are designed primarily for chewing plant-based foods, like our primate cousins do. Humans “fangs” are teensy compared to those of gorillas, who are strict vegetarians and only show them to appear fierce. Also, our intestinal tract is long to allow for the slow digestion of high-fiber foods, while true carnivores have short intestines as needed to process meat and dispose of the resulting toxic wastes quickly.

7) Wild game (or free-range) meat is health food.
All animal flesh is rife with cholesterol throughout, and the protein in animal flesh is acidic, causing bone calcium losses as it is metabolized. According to the American Dietetic Association, a diet high in animal products has been linked to obesity, diabetes, colon and other cancers, osteoporosis, kidney stones, gallstones, diverticular disease, hypertension and coronary artery disease. New studies have found that another culprit in causing heart disease may be a little-studied chemical that is burped out by bacteria in the intestines after people eat meat.

Again, wolves and other predators need to eat meat to survive—modern humans do not. Natural predators don’t hate their prey, but they don’t pretend to love them either.

Forget the 4-H Club—you can’t really claim to “love” an animal you plan to someday kill, butcher and consume.