Originally published March 18, 2010.
'YOU CARE more about animals than you do about people."
Advocates for animals hear this often, especially around the time of Saturday's Great American Meatout. In reality, eating animals causes a great deal more human suffering than going without. The amount of harm done to humans by the animal industry is enormous, and no other industry could get away with it. It persists only because people care more for their habits than for their neighbors.
On the broadest scale, livestock production helps fuel global climate change, accounting for anywhere from 18 percent (U.N. estimate) to 51 percent (Worldwatch Institute) of all greenhouse gases. The entire human population is also threatened by animal-derived viruses (e.g. bird flu, swine flu, SARS, tuberculosis) of which factory farms are prime incubators, says the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Among other "public health threats" the commission names is the overuse of antibiotics on healthy animals, which weakens the drugs' effectiveness for sick people. Add to this the outsize consumption of an ever-more-precious resource - fresh water - and already the livestock industry is bad for people as a whole.
Locally, the impact is more direct, the problems more acute. Air and water around factory farms are said to cause breathing problems among their neighbors. The Pew Commission stresses that the gases generated by factory farms are associated with respiratory problems like asthma for "communities proximate to those facilities, as well as populations far away from these operations."
The commission also cites "depression and other symptoms" attributed to animal-farm emissions. Manure contamination of sources of drinking water is also a danger, given the toxicity of E. coli and the potential effects of hormones in contaminated water.
But it's not all bad, the thinking goes: What about jobs?
Even that is a mixed bag. Certainly, a few get very rich off of livestock, but in general, workers are exploited right along with the animals. Dairies and slaughterhouses are often stocked with immigrants (illegal or no) who have little choice, and less voice, in their dangerous daily tasks. Injuries from corralling and dismembering large animals get downplayed, as the workers know they're dispensable - and invisible.
While slaughterhouse workers clearly have a dangerous job, dairy employees (also often illegal immigrants) fare little better. An expose in High Country News detailed the misery, injuries and inhuman treatment common in these under-$10-an-hour jobs.
Animal-industry work takes many forms: Although hundreds of children and adults were likely scarred for life by witnessing trainer Dawn Brancheau's death at a SeaWorld show, at least she died doing a job she loved. Dairy and slaughter workers encounter horrific workplace accidents (and fatalities), without the media attention.
The effect of the gruesome workplace dangers is damaging, and, as with the environmental degradation, it also washes downstream. A recent study found that even after controlling for demographics, race, unemployment and other supposed crime-related factors, a stark correlation remained: "Slaughterhouse employment increases total arrest rates, arrests for violent crimes, arrests for rape, and arrests for other sex offenses in comparison with other industries."
Yes, the killing of animals - including the "humanely raised" ones at Whole Foods - apparently leads to the killing of people, as we might expect given the many studies that show children who violently abuse animals are most likely to grow into human-abusing sociopaths.
Lastly, let's remember consumers themselves, who raise their risk of hypertension, heart disease, cancer and stroke with every bite of meat. Add to this an additional 76 million cases of foodborne illness and 5,000 deaths each year, overwhelmingly caused by fecal contamination by livestock.
All of these harms are related: Since we don't want to watch what we're paying to have happen to animals, meatpackers routinely break both humane-handling and food-safety laws. The same people who don't worry about causing animal suffering also don't give a hoot about you - only your dollars.
Living a nonviolent, compassionate life is good for us and good for the planet. Going vegan largely eliminates the bad effects listed above. Try it, and give the animals - and your fellow humans - a break.
Vance Lehmkuhl is the online editor of the Daily News.