Cows: Victims of Industrial Farming and Essential Agents for Biodiversity.
Updated: Jan 25
The need to embrace the climate struggle with the protection of biodiversity is gaining more and more followers. In this context, although industrial farming has been questioned for its contribution to global warming, today, the new trend is that cows, gregarious, sophisticated, and archetypal victims of this productive superstructure, are also indispensable for biodiversity and preservation of other species.
Currently, the livestock industry is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions in the world -similar to such generated by fuel vehicles-, as half a hundred scientists stated a few weeks ago during the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid. These experts, led by Dr. Helen Harwatt, an environmental scientist at Harvard Law School, proposed that countries with medium and high incomes should agree on a "ceiling" of livestock production, essential to provide "a possibility" to meet the Paris Agreement goals of limiting heating to + 1.5 ° C.
However, as Harwatt points out, the problem is not the cattle itself, but how it is produced in rich countries, where intensive livestock farming or the so-called CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) prevail.
In this context, the production of beef is considered by some experts as one of the least efficient ways to feed humanity, for a variety of reasons, including the massive expenditure of natural resources. Thus, it is estimated that about 15,000 liters of water are needed to produce a kilo (2.2 lbs) of beef, compared to the 2,500 liters of water that are required to produce the same amount of rice. On the other hand, a large amount of land is needed to produce enough grain to feed the livestock, which does not only entail the consumption of more natural resources but also causes the dreaded effect of deforestation (fires in the Amazon?). Let's not forget that 40% of the food grown on the planet is used in animal feeding, something that will probably rise in the upcoming years.
In this sense, and regarding the production of beef in the United States, One Green Planet comments that cattle are raised with grass, but there comes a time when it is sent to a fattening farm so that they can reach the ideal weight for their commercialization. During this process, cattle are fed primarily with grain (90%) -in addition to corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and others-. Hormones and antibiotics are also given to them so that fattening occurs more quickly. These practices often have numerous adverse consequences, both in the environment and in animal welfare, which is already spurious in the context of meat production.
Although until a few years ago meat production was integrated with crop production, in a "balanced" way, this industry has undergone a transformation in which a small number of large CAFOs predominates, a situation that is verified in different markets around the world, and that probably finds its peak in North America.
Most of the problems caused by CAFOs are due to their excessive size and overcrowding conditions: they contain at least 1,000 large animals such as cows, or tens of thousands of smaller animals such as chickens, and even some of these are much larger, with tens of thousands of cows or pigs and hundreds of thousands of chickens. These establishments produce about 65% of the manure derived from animal operations in the US. -about 300 million tons per year-, more than twice the amount generated by the entire human population of that country. The management of such waste has caused severe environmental issues, however, said externalities have been diffusely faced by taxpayers.
CAFOs impose several hidden costs on society. These externalities are related to the contamination of water and air caused by deficiencies in manure management plans (cleaning and prevention), the costs borne by rural communities (e.g., lower property value) and the costs associated with the excessive use of antibiotics (eg, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, human diseases that are more difficult to treat). Besides, countries like the USA have developed policies that have tended to subsidize payments to grain producers, generating unrealistic prices for CAFOs inputs, placing them in an advantageous position compared to medium and small producers.
This productive model -protected by a cultural speech based in land ownership, anachronistic cultural conceptions about animals, and power structures present in our societies-, is not only responsible for those impacts but also for the immense suffering caused to sentient and intelligent beings, such as cows, pigs, fowl, and others. These animals are forced to live in such conditions of agglomeration and under such intense physical control over their bodies that, in some cases, they can't even turn around (gestation crates). These conditions also contribute to higher stress rates and higher chances of disease transmission. Because of this, animals must be medicated continuously -or "preventively"- causing a significant impact on their health, and indirectly while consuming their products, on the health of other animals (humans and non-humans).
Fortunately, these patterns of industrial organization do not represent the only way to "guarantee the availability of food at reasonable prices." Recent studies conducted by the US Department of Agriculture show that almost 40% of medium-sized animal feeding operations are as profitable as CAFOs in pig production, and many other studies have provided similar results concerning other alternatives, such as hoop barns, and smart grazing operations such as rotational grazing.
These alternatives are not only efficient but also friendly to the environment (in theory), since grazing allows better uptake and absorption of ammonia and animal manure, with a lower rate of release into the atmosphere and soil/subsoil contamination, concerning the treatment of depositions of animals fed with grain. Besides, these alternatives provide animals of greater ambulatory "freedom" and some chances of socialization under less stressful conditions. In this sense, some may say that these alternatives could be used to ensure certain minimum standards for respecting animals in the context of industrial farming. However, and how is -or should be- easy to realize, animal dignity is systematically violated in the context of large-scale intensive industrial production, particularly in CAFOs.
Nevertheless, these alternatives to CAFOs are at a competitive disadvantage not only because of the existence of certain subsidies that favor large companies, but also because these giants usually employ economies of scale to reduce their costs. Moreover, they also benefit from exclusive contracts with industrial meat producers who require a constant flow of animals for their businesses, in order to maintain high and constant production and thus maximize the relationship between costs and benefits. In this context, and often under poor or politically arranged regulations, these giants exclude medium and small producers from being a relevant part of this market, condemning hundreds of thousands of animals to even worse living conditions under which they are per se destined to live and die.
Nowadays, more producers are venturing on organic farming, a market that grows fast thanks to the demand of consumers who consider that this production method is more respectful of animals and offers foods with better organoleptic qualities. However, others think that it is an inefficient system that cannot supply the growing population of the planet. Regarding the release of greenhouse gases, some say its impact is similar to the one caused by industrial farming. For many, these facts constitute enough reasons to reduce meat consumption as the most desirable option to help curb both: climate change and the interspecies genocide to which we have subjected living and sentient beings that we have considered "inferior", under speeches that have ruled our societies since long ago.
Unfortunately, current projections indicate that worldwide meat consumption will double over the next 20 years. While this may be good news for the cultural habits of millions of people, facing that demand will push the advance of the agricultural-livestock frontier to areas of greater environmental vulnerability. This, can increase deforestation levels, soil degradation, the loss of biodiversity and the decrease of the water resource, if measures are not taken to avoid it.
Thus, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about 70% of grazing areas in Latin America and the Caribbean are under process of degradation, in different degrees. The regions most susceptible to the extension of the agricultural livestock frontier correspond to ecosystems of the Amazon in Brazil, the American Chaco in Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia, and the arid and semi-arid areas of Argentina and Chile. Therefore, some advocate for greater public and private investment in research and technological development, for harmonizing agricultural and environmental policies, and for seeking viable mechanisms for promoting and subsidizing farmers who implement environmentally friendly production systems. All of this, within the context of the conciliation of two different cultural institutions: the legitimation of non-human animal exploitation by human animals -at different levels-, and the "sustainable development".
Cows -archetypal victims of this superstructure- are lovely, curious, and as intelligent as dogs or octopuses. They can recognize up to 90 different individuals, have better and worse friends, and incur in "bullying" situations because of jealousy, which constitutes important evidence of complex cultural behaviors. Besides, they are excellent mothers, dedicating themselves to the care of their young with total commitment. In liberty, these animals can live between 25 and 30 years of age.
Moreover, Cows are also essential agents in the biodiversity of grasslands -when they are not confined in industrial facilities-. Thus, experts have pointed to the ecological need of a certain amount of livestock to help conserve the meadows, which constitutes a significant ecosystem in terms of variety of species. In this sense, according to the French biologist George Oxley who specializes in soil ecosystems, these ruminants allow the reproduction of all of the microbial and fungal life of the soil surface; “The problem is when we raise the cows in concentration camps, feeding them with proteins. As they do not know how to digest them, this can cause them to emit up to 2.5 times more methane”, he continues.
Nowadays, "dairy" cows are artificially inseminated (euphemism for raped) 60 to 90 days after each birth, forcing their milk production until they turn 4 or 5 years old. At that age, exhausted and with devastated bodies, cows are usually subjected to artificial fattening processes, to subsequently be systematically executed for human consumption. The offsprings are immediately separated from their mothers, generating high emotional distress on both.
Along with the aforementioned, calves are deprived of their breast milk (which is reserved for human consumption), and sometimes they are subjected to low iron diets in order to produce the desired "white meat", considered by many as a culinary delicatessen. These animals are executed between the first and second years of life. Male calves, on the other hand, are sold to be mainly converted into veal, being still babies.
According to the United Nations, more than 300,000,000 cows were slaughtered in 2016 for human consumption.
Farm animals are one of the least protected groups of animals in our societies, and generally, those statutes that protect animals against certain specific acts of cruelty exempts some of the violations produced within the context of this activity. Thus, customary husbandry practices such as castration without anesthesia, debeaking, dehorning, tail docking, among others, are usually exempted from anticruelty statutes. To a greater extent, several legal systems around the world regulate the breeding, transport, and slaughter of these animals, contributing to the cultural legitimation of the animal exploitation speech. This speech, which is being reproduced by a large part of the members of our societies at different levels, rises as the main obstacle to the correction of cultural habits that are responsible for irreparable damage to the environment, and to the dignity, life, and liberty of billions of non-human animals.
The change is in each one of us. Be the change you want to see.