A concise look at the real cost of things and foods that are produced industrially so we can buy them cheap; and the solutions we can look out for and support.
The ways in which our lifestyle poisons and destroys life are sadly too many to cover thoroughly here. As this website is focused on solutions, I am listing them here in a very minimal format, with referrals to specialized websites for more depth.
Intensive Animal Farming
Also known as industrial livestock production (!) or factory farming, this is today the source of 98% of the meat or other animal products we eat, and accompanied by intensive pollution and unbelievable cruelty out of sight of the public. Most horrifying is the mindset by which living sentient beings are seen and treated as disposable commodities, to the point of referring to the practices as “growing poultry” and similar.
- Animals are kept indoors under artificial light, fed antibiotics to ward off diseases caused by the cramped conditions, and hormones to speed their growth (also so they can be fed less and still reach their market weight). They are given feeds rather than their natural food. Slaughter is violent and usually preceded by long stressful journeys packed in transport.
- Laying chickens are kept in tightly packed cages (smaller than an A4 page) for the length of their useful life (they are killed when too old to lay). Being unable to move, they suffer acute frustration and have to be kept in low-light condition to stop them vent-pecking. They are also de-beaked so they don’t peck at each other grievously in their cramped conditions (the concern being mostly financial loss). This is done by trimming the beak with a hot blade or infrared, a painful and shocking operation that can result in chronic pain and is sometimes done several times in the bird’s lifetime. Artificial light is used to ensure egg-laying year-round. Force-molting, by denying all food for 7 to 14 days, is also practiced to “reinvigorate egg production” (the alternative being to slaughter the now useless hens). Male chicks (for the egg-laying types) are of no interest and therefore “culled” after hatching. The methods for this include “cervical dislocation, asphyxiation by carbon dioxide, and maceration using a high-speed grinder.”
- To produce foie gras, geese and ducks are force-fed for 17 to 30 days before slaughter. This involves keeping them away from their pond-based and social environment to hold them in individual cages where they cannot stand, turn around or flap their wings. A tube 20-30cm long is forced down into the birds’ oesophagus, through which feed is forced or pumped into their stomach. The liver is enlarged up to 10 times its natural size, making breathing difficult, though many die of stress and/or injuries while being force-fed.
- Factory pigs are not allowed access to a mud wallow which is their natural cooling mechanism; temperature regulation is used to prevent them dying in the warehouse-like structures in which they are confined. Pregnant sows are kept in gestation crates which are cages not large enough for them to turn around or lie down comfortably, and as a result suffer tremendous stress and discomfort. Piglets are castrated, their teeth are clipped, their tail docked and ears notched without pain killers; some piglets die of shock in the process, while weaker ones are simply killed at birth.
- Farmed fish are kept in concentrations never seen in the wild (less room than a bathtub per fish), causing sickness and injuries due to rubbing together and the the sides of their cages. The drugs used to keep them healthy inevitably spread into the environment.
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Aside from the horrific treatment of the animals themselves, factory farming is a major player in general pollution and climate change:
- 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions are due to livestock and their byproducts. In contrast, the combined exhaust of all transportation globally is responsible for only 13% of greenhouse gas emissions.
- A 2,500-cow farm generates as much waste as a city of over 400,000 inhabitants — except that waste is not treated.
- Animal feed production causes deforestation and loss of habitat, bringing about species extinction; unsustainable pressure on land; use of pesticides and herbicides with the loss of biodiversity they cause; use of fertilizer that results in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution
- Reducing our consumption of animal products is indispensable. No amount of legislation will change factory farming as long as the demand is so high. We do not need as much “animal protein” as we like to think. Historically, meat or fish or even eggs were never eaten in such quantities anywhere (except the Arctic when plants were unavailable): such recent eating habits were created by factory farming, which made meat cheap by mass-processing living beings. Merely reducing your intake reduces the demand that causes the problem. Eliminating animal products altogether (going vegan) is to take this to its full extent, but it does not suit all body types and is especially problematic with young children. It also raises other problems, as products sold as vegan substitutes often have a heavy footprint of their own.
- Sustainable farming is closer to traditional farming. It involves much smaller numbers of animals, who live a seasonal free-ranging life with access to their natural food source (grass-fed cows, rooting pigs), and a real relationship between people and their flocks. Farmers’ markets are the places to find such producers and source cruelty-free meat and dairy. (If it seems strange to put “meat” and “cruelty-free” in the same sentence, let us remember that death is written into Life, and that every lifeform must consume other lifeforms. Indigenous and traditional lifestyles teach us that we can do so with moderation, respect and gratitude, although this is light-years away from our current indifference and the suffering we sponsor.)
- Depending on where you live, other local solutions may present themselves. For instance, in the UK, herds of wild deer in Scotland need to be managed and culled due to the absence of their natural predators (wolves). If this is not done, the deer multiply beyond what the habitat can support, and end up dying of starvation, a horrible death. The meat from the culled animals is sold as venison and arguably the most ethical type of meat on the market, at least until wolves are reintroduced (one can dream).
Mining is not just for precious metals and stones: all metal that is not recycled, is extracted from the Earth. So are minerals such as cobalt, key element of lithium batteries that power our smartphone and laptop batteries, and extracted at the cost of human lives. The damage caused by mines is mostly out of the public eye, but it is extensive:
- Contamination of ground and surface water from arsenic, sulfuric acid and mercury, as well as heavy metals (lead and cadmium), but even the simple runoff of rock debris has devastating effects on the local vegetation.
- Impact on the biodiversity is far greater than the area of the mine itself, due to loss of habitat, poisoning, noise, acidification, temperature modification… It’s enough for micro-organisms in the water to be killed by pollution, for an entire ecosystem to collapse. Closure of a mine is no guarantee of a return of biodiversity.
- Cobalt is a key mineral for making the lithium-ion batteries that power our smartphones (5-10g cobalt), laptops (30g) and electric cars (up to 15kg). While demand is soaring due to these devices booming, 60% of the world’s cobalt comes from mines in Congo, where it is hand-dug by workers (including children) with no health or safety precautions, for $2-3 on a good day. Injury and death are frequent, and whole communities are exposed to high levels of toxic metals due to mine activity, as a result developing serious diseases. More in this thorough investigation by the Washington Post.
- Everyday metals: Opt for recycled metals, for instance recycled aluminium foil, which is made using only 5% of the energy required for making it from raw material, with no mining involved (More on this in Plastic and Other Packaging). Metal recycling is profitable and therefore, generally very well organized, so it’s just a question of identifying brands that are committed to using recycled metals.
- Cobalt: Hold on to your phone and/or laptop for as long as you possibly can, rather than buying the latest model every year. Thy are useful (for some of us, indispensable) items that replace a whole suite of other items and publications, so they do reduce waste by their very nature, but not if they’re treated as fashion items to be disposed of after a short while.
Far worse offenders are electric cars, each of which requires several thousand times the amount of cobalt in our devices — and yet the only alternative at present is returning to petrol-fueled vehicles. There is no perfect solution here, at least until a battery is developed that does not require such mining; meanwhile we can increasingly demand accountability from companies for their entire supply chain.