Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Hey people. I'm M-teen, here to provide a little environmental (or 'green' as the cool kids are calling it these days) context to the St. Lou Jew. This first post explores the wonderful world of meat. Yum.

Have you ever thought about where the meat you buy in the grocery store comes from, or how those animals were raised? If you’re like the majority of people, you probably haven’t. And why would you? In modern urban life, there isn't really much need to. You pick up a package of chicken breast or a piece of steak or and you’re on your way. We're removed from the production of most of our food, and in many ways this is a good thing. We’re not all forced to live agrarian lives and grow our own food, which would prevent us from spending our careers and our time doing some of the amazing things humans have figured out how to do.

But when it comes to meat, this distance – both physical and psychological – is actually sheltering us from a nasty reality that will shock, anger and sadden you. Yeah, it may be more comfortable to not examine the ways our meat is produced too closely, but I think we have an obligation to.

Picture this – a system of producing meat that confines thousands of chickens in cages so closely together that they can’t stretch their wings or turn around; that feeds cattle a diet unnatural to them mixed with hormones and antibiotics; that creates literally tons of fecal waste so toxic (because of all those antibiotics and hormones in it) that it pollutes streams and threatens our drinking water with E-coli when it spills into the water; that produces an odor so strong people living nearby can smell it from a distance...

It sounds nightmarish, doesn’t it? I wish it weren't true, but that’s the reality of the factory farming system that produces the majority of the meat that people eat. I’m not exaggerating in order to scare you; there is countless pieces of evidence and stories to show it.

I’m prone to be interested in environmental issues, which includes a variety of topics. But the reason the issue of CAFOs, as they’re called (short for confined animal feeding operations), is so frightening to me is that it’s actually a culmination of so many issues. The problems produced by CAFOs are truly devastating – to the animals that live in those wretched conditions, to the surrounding environment that gets polluted, to human health which is put at risk, and to the people in surrounding communities who are forced to live with them every day. It is a moral problem, a social justice problem, an environmental problem, and a systemic problem.

You probably haven’t heard the term CAFO, and neither had I until about a year ago. The more I read and learned, the more upset I found myself becoming. As Jews, I think we are raised with a strong set of values and morals, especially social justice. The Jewish faith teaches us to be compassionate to our neighbors and to follow the golden rule...I know I wouldn’t want to be treated the way a CAFO treats its’ neighbors.

Even if we city dwellers don’t have to live by one of these CAFOs, we eat their products, and therefore are contributing to the system that sustains them. I can only imagine how awful it must be to live one, but if you want to find out how bad it really is, just ask one of the many people in rural parts of Missouri that do. And this is not a unique problem; CAFOs are widespread throughout Missouri (and other states), where they operate largely unregulated.

It’s true that factory farming has transformed meat from a luxury item to something that many can afford to eat regularly. But at what cost? Cheaper isn’t always better. As a consumer, and as a Jew, I would urge you to really think about this issue, and about how that package of chicken you’re buying got to be in the supermarket. It’s easy to be disconnected from the food we eat and buy, but as they say, ignorance is bliss...

I’m clearly not an expert on all this, so if you’re curious to learn more, I recommend starting with this one page document on the public health concerns of CAFOs and this executive summary of a report gives a really good overview. That just scratches the surface of this widespread and complicated issue – for more, try the Issues section of Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.

Then hopefully you’ll be motivated to look for alternatives to this madness; healthy, sustainable one’s. Local harvest is a great site for finding vendors and restaurants for organic produce and naturally-raised meat. It definitely takes thoughtfulness and some extra effort to find alternatives, but that shouldn’t stop us.


Zuz said...

Hey M-teen, totally agree that a little extra effort shouldn't stop us from doing what is right. What would it take for CAFO's to stop being the norm and for naturally-raised meat to become mainstream? Is it on the same level with alternative energy?

M-teen said...

There are a lot of rural groups that are engaged in an active fight against CAFOs. There are even lawsuits to stop them from building anymore. Unfortunately, this system is so entrenched that it will take a lot of leadership from the government agencies that regulate them...

It seems like there is movement to change the practices, like Prop 2 that just passed in Cali, which requires caged animals to have enough room to move around. That sounds like a small thing but it's actually MONUMENTAL because it will make it much more expensive for CAFOs to operate.

The other thing to help make naturally-raised meat more common is to buy it. It is a bit more expensive, but I try to think of it in terms of what your $ is supporting.