The Food Supply Chain System is Vulnerable
America’s meatpacking plants endure some of the highest rates of workplace injury of any U.S. job sector. COVID 19 has introduced yet another occupational hazard. These crowded facilities have become frighteningly successful vectors for COVID-19 contagion.
On Sunday April 26, a news release entitled, ‘A Delicate Balance: Feeding the Nation and Keeping Our Employees Healthy’ appeared as a full-page ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It was also widely posted on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Written by John H. Tyson, Chairman of the Board of Tyson Foods, the statement, declared, “In small communities around the country, where we employ over 100,000 hard-working men and women, we’re being forced to shutter our doors. This means one thing – the food supply chain is vulnerable. As pork, beef, and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain. … Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation. Millions of animals – chickens, pigs and cattle – will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities. The food supply chain is breaking.” And with that, Southern and Midwestern farmers began euthanizing livestock.
Two days after the publication of Tyson’s letter, President Trump declared that meatpacking plants were “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act of 1950 and prohibited their closure.
While this was happening, vegetable farmers were forced to let their crops rot in the fields or plow otherwise harvestable food into the ground. Dairy farmers, already grappling with low prices, found themselves dumping more than 3.5-million gallons of milk every day (estimate from Dairy Farmers of America). And everywhere, food pantries, facing unprecedented demand, were running out of food. This clearly reveals just how vulnerable, and how unjust, our food supply system can be. It also emphasizes the need to fix it.
Zoonosis – Diseases Transmitted to Humans from Animals
Lots of diseases, including most pandemics, (e.g. H1N1 [swine flu], H5N1 [bird flu], Ebola, Lyme disease, malaria, rabies, ringworm, West Nile virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome [SARS], HIV/AIDS) originated in animals.
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which infected roughly 1/3 of the world’s population of 500-million people, killing an estimated 50-million, including 675,000 Americans, is believed to have originated on a pig farm. That was long before CAFO factory farms existed.
CAFOs – Confined Animal Feeding Operations
CAFO farms can generate a myriad of environmental and public health problems. CAFO manure contains potential contaminants including plant nutrients (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus) and pathogens (e.g. E. coli, growth hormones, antibiotics, animal blood, silage leachate). The volume of waste produced depends on the type and number of animals farmed. A feeding operation with 800,000 pigs can produce over 1.6 million tons of waste a year. That amount is one and a half times more than the annual sanitary waste produced by the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (GAO, 2008).
The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2000 National Water Quality Inventory found that 29 states specifically identified animal feeding operations (AFOs), not just CAFOs, as contributing to water quality impairment (Congressional Research Service, 2008).
In order to protect their livestock from diseases that might kill entire populations, resulting in huge profit losses, CAFO farmers commonly treat their animals with antibiotics. And poultry fed antibiotic-feed show significantly higher weight gain than those fed non-antibiotic feed (Settle et al. 2014). Animals growing at a greater rate than they would otherwise, reduces operating costs and increases profit.
But use of antibiotic feed is threatening human health. Every year 2 million people experience serious illness due to untreatable bacterial infection and 23,000 die because the bacteria that made them sick is antibiotic-resistant (Young 2013). When antibiotic-resistant bacteria spreads to a large group of people and cannot be treated, we have what is known as a superbug. And many scientists believe that superbugs are the inevitable consequence we will face, if CAFOs continue to use antibiotics indiscriminately in the feed of the nation’s largest source of meats.
Then there’s the animal cruelty issue, which I won’t get into here, other than to say that 9-billion animals, including 8.8 billion chickens are raised and killed on large, overcrowded U.S. CAFO farms every year (Humane Society of the United States).
Locally Sourced Meat – A Better Alternative
There’s a better way to keep your freezer full: meat CSAs. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm programs directly connect farmers to consumers. You know right where your food is coming from. You’re supporting local farming families that raise top-quality pastured and grass-fed livestock; working with nature, rather than against it. Pasture-based farming improves animal health, maximizes cost-efficiency, and minimizes farm pollution. You reap the rewards by purchasing affordable, quality meats (and eggs) produced using sustainable farming practices.
You buy a share and you pick it up when it’s ready. It’s that simple. And most farms offer share sizes to fit everyone’s needs. You can receive meat on a regularly scheduled timetable or one-time-only.
To learn more or find pretty much every type of locally grown and/or prepared food imaginable (and more) visit adirondackharvest.com/browse or contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office.
Photo: Kate Mountain Farm
Thx Richard, CSEs in the north country, not just for meat are a valuable and supportive system to support local producers.
“In small communities around the country, where we employ over 100,000 hard-working men and women, we’re being forced to shutter our doors. This means one thing – the food supply chain is vulnerable.”
Hardworking men and women working for the corporations whose sole purpose is the earning of profits! Too often those hardworking men and women are just mere numbers and their safety is not a priority as I have been reading quite frequently since this pandemic started. Support local….Yes!
“Two days after the publication of Tyson’s letter, President Trump declared that meatpacking plants were “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act of 1950 and prohibited their closure.”
But of course. Money first. Who cares if Covid-19 overwhelms the workers and kills however many….. we need to make money and keep the economy going!
“9-billion animals, including 8.8 billion chickens are raised and killed on large, overcrowded U.S. CAFO farms every year.”
Imagine being of the mind to being able to work at these farms! To witness the slaughter day in day out. I couldn’t do it. It takes a certain kind to be able to live with this!
I think, Charlie, the the “certain kind” are in many cases poor people, often undocumented, who do this work because they need the money and it is all they can get. They work in dirty, unsafe and overcrowded conditions because they have to, not because they want to. I wouldn’t want to do it, and I wouldn’t want to pick strawberries all day either. Local is definitely best.
It is most often the poor Sula yes, but that we have come to this (not that it’s anything new), to put money first! Money over human lives, money over ecosystems, money over all the things that really matter the most! The nursing home death rates from Covid-19 is a prime example of money first! We have lost thousands of our elderly because “money first.” I just don’t get this ‘Proud to be American’, or the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogans that is so prevalent these past four years. I still would like to know what everyone means by great. Great for who? What?
Large scale and “factory” animal agriculture is one of the most destructive and abusive industries in the world. In addition to all of the reasons cited in this article, it is also a major contributor to climate change, water scarcity, habitat destruction… the list goes on and on.
Local farming is unquestionably a better alternative and if you have a choice between supporting a large industrial animal operation or a local animal farmer, the latter is clearly the more ethical, more sustainable choice. However, I caution against assuming local animal farming solves the issues mentioned here. These problems are inherent in raising animals for food, and while scaling down to the local level decreases these problems, it does not eliminate them.
Animal production still takes anywhere from 2 to 28 (!!) times more resources (land, water, chemicals/medicines, etc.) and contributes somewhere around 5 times more greenhouse gases than crop/vegetable farming. Those ratios do not change when they are done locally. And while animal care is almost certainly better on most small, local farms – especially when compared to large factory farms, where the cruelty and suffering is hard to even comprehend – unfortunately, the “localness” of a farm does not always guarantee the farm owners are good animal stewards or that the animals are treated kindly. As someone who has been involved in providing shelter to animals seized from local and “hobby farm” cruelty cases, I can attest to this personally.
The answer, for those who care about these issues and are looking to support more sustainable and ethical food production, is to reduce your meat consumption – if even by just a little bit – and support your local vegetable and fruit farmers. There are plenty of awesome fruit and vegetable farmers right here in the Adirondacks! We are lucky to have so many options.