I have mixed feelings when it comes to meat. I grew up on a family farm where my parents raised cattle, hogs and chickens, most of which ended up on someone’s plate (including ours). While I understand people who consider that inhumane, I continue to believe those animals led relatively happy lives in our creek pasture, roomy shed and – for the chickens – in our grove and coop.
My family continues to purchase meat from single producers as much as possible, including through my parents’ farm connections. Local farmers’ markets and even grocery stores make it increasingly possible to know your meat sources by their names (personal, not corporate). Still, the vast majority of us Americans buy our meat from “industrial” agriculture, which has vastly increased productivity of animal protein but raised major concerns about animal welfare, the environment, public health and the quality of life in rural communities.
In 2008, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production issued a landmark study that looked at problems associated with industrial food animal production. Its key recommendations included a ban on the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in food animal production, implementation of a new system to deal with farm waste, phase-out of the “most intensive and inhumane production practices,” and aggressive enforcement of existing anti-trust laws. Many in the agricultural community and in Congress hailed the recommendations as a catalyst to correct unsustainable and unsafe big-ag practices.
Unfortunately, little has been done in the five years since. In fact, according to a new report by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, the negative effects of industrial farm animal production have only deepened.
“There has been an appalling lack of progress,” stated Robert Lawrence, M.D., the center’s director. “The failure to act by the USDA and FDA, the lack of action or concern by the Congress, and continued intransigence of the animal agriculture industry have made all of our problems worse.”
Coincidentally, 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the Meatless Monday Campaign, for which the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future serves as scientific adviser. The campaign, now active in 29 countries, asserts that skipping meat one day a week “is good for you, great for your nation’s health, and fantastic for the planet.” More than 100 schools, food service companies and restaurants in the U.S. now offer Meatless Monday options. (Fun fact: The campaign was founded by Sid Lerner, one of the original Mad Men of Madison Avenue, best known for his “squeeze the Charmin” toilet paper campaign. Bring back memories for anyone?)
While I praise the Meatless Monday Campaign, the Johns Hopkins Center and the Pew Commission for their important work in reducing our indulgent 270-pounds-per-year meat consumption, I feel we have a long, long way to go to reverse the damage we’re doing to our bodies and environment. If you haven’t seen it, and even if you have, a viewing of Robert Kenner’s 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.” will underscore that for you. (In addition to its disturbing images of mass-produced livestock and poultry, the movie shares even more disturbing facts such as how hobbled the USDA is in regulating the meat industry and the fact that the Food and Drug Administration conducted only 9,164 food safety inspections in 2006, compared to 50,000 in 1972.)
How do you feel about meat consumption? What actions can we take to make its production better for all creatures?