The Politics behind America’s Industrial Meat Industry

Photo Courtesy of Gourmet

Crowded Cows
Photo Courtesy of Gourmet

Environmental regulation of the meat industry in the United Sates is largely non-existent, as government agencies have proved absent or ineffectual in addressing the harmful emissions and practices of large-scale slaughterhouses. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for the regulation of factory farms, however, it does little to prevent, limit, and rectify the toxic emissions and excessive wastes of the livestock industry. Major corporations in the meat industry benefit from the weak regulatory environment, and spend massive sums of money each year on lobbying efforts. The rise of industrial, environmentally insensitive meat production has been facilitated by particular regulations, or lack thereof, and policies, thus any major changes to the livestock industry will likely start at the level of government.

The profit centric and environmentally ignorant policies sustaining large-scale, industrial animal farming affectively began with the farm bill put forth by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Known as the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933, Roosevelt’s farm bill was part of his New Deal legislation, aimed to revitalize struggling farmers during the Great Depression. The bill provided subsidies and fueled research, which encouraged, intentionally or not, the growth of industrial agriculture. While researchers and scientists studied the most effective means of raising livestock and maximizing production, farmers reshaped agriculture with the money and research provided to them. Plainly, Roosevelt’s bill restored prices, concentrated land in the hands of the few, and perpetuated the rise of agribusiness.

World War II further solidified the industrialization of livestock production, as there was an urgent need to satisfy the skyrocketing demands for foodstuffs. However, as detailed in Maureen Ogle’s In Meat We Trust, the war drained America of its labor force, and many farms were abandoned with those remaining struggling to keep pace. Consequently, machinery replaced human labor. When the war ended, men and women flooded factories for work and, thus labor shortages in agriculture were not alleviated. The booming population, rapid proliferation of grocery store chains, and mushrooming production of assembly line goods and materials, however, encouraged farmers to channel their efforts into becoming more mechanized and factory-like. The foundation for the contemporary model of highly processed, mechanized, and cheap meat production was set and locked in place with the support of government policy, which still exists today.

The farm bill is perhaps the most significant piece of legislation in relation to industrial animal farming as it funds and sustains big agribusiness as opposed to small scale, environmentally conscious farms. Every five years legislators update the bill, pouring millions into subsidies and slashing the largest costs of industrial livestock production, specifically feed and waste management. Livestock production in the United States is one of the most heavily funded sectors of agriculture, in addition to tobacco and cotton. A 2007 Tufts University study found that factory farms saved $34.8 billion between 1997 and 2005, as they were able to purchase feed at low prices with the aid of federal subsidies. Additionally, the Food and Water Watch identified that roughly five million livestock units were added to America’s largest livestock operations between the years 2002 and 2007. The farm bill incentivizes mass production and gives meat an artificially low cost, making it easily accessible to consumers.

While the bill provides programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and funding to address the pollution caused by industrial animal farming, it lacks policies for environmentally responsible and sustainable livestock production. It fuels an industry that overlooks its pollution and climate change contribution, as it is exempt from a large portion of cleanup costs. Also, the taxpayers are held accountable for the meat industry’s harmful environmental externalities. In other words, their money is being used in programs like EQIP to alleviate or help pay for the damages caused by animal factory farms.

Although the 2014 update to the farm bill provides some funding for organic research and farmers’ markets, it primarily supports large-scale agribusiness and does little to encourage conservation or address the issue of climate change. Further, public interest groups and social movements have made strides to bring about more regulation for the meat industry. For instance, in the past 20 years activists and small-scale farmers have achieved legislative victory in Minnesota and North Carolina in regard to emission standards and waste management respectfully. Successes like these give hope that motivated and organized individuals can speak out and change the environmental behavior of the meat industry.

A more environmentally sensitive farm bill is needed to cut emissions and achieve a sustainable food system. While meat corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually lobbying for policy that will increase profits, the public also has the potential to sway and prompt reform in policy. With the effects and challenges of climate change already being felt in the form of extreme weather patterns and sea level rise among other things, it is crucial to reform the environmental footprint of the meat industry in the United States. Current policies and regulations around livestock do not reflect the severity of the environmental degradation caused by the industrial livestock sector. Hope for reform exists as law makers recognized the need to subsidize organic farming, yet to fully respond to the situation the farm bill would not provide support for unsustainable livestock production.

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