Dan Murphy: The Big Question

CAFOs are accused of contributing to both air and water pollution. ( FJ )

It’s time to address the issue that hangs over all of animal agriculture: Would it defuse activist opposition if livestock production were structured differently from the system(s) now in place?

Allegations of abuse have been animating the pro-vegan movement for as long as I’ve been reporting on the business of animal husbandry — and that’s been since Pappy Bush was in the White House.

As vice president.

But what’s notable from a strategic perspective is how activist tautology has morphed over the last 10 years or so, from an obsession with the alleged horrors of confinement and slaughter, which deserve the same condemnation as the Holocaust, to feigned alarm over the imminent destruction of the planet because too many cows are eating too much corn.

That’s partly the result of the very real, very urgent threat presented by ever-worsening climate change, but then a shift in tactics also leverages such developments as the Meatless Mondays campaign and neatly parallels the emergence of alt-meat products positioned as “solutions” to global ecological crises, which, it should be noted, are driven largely by world’s continued dependence on fossil fuels, coupled with rampant deforestation in support of the very crop production touted as a replacement for raising livestock.

The critical issues

Even a cursory review of activist rhetoric identifies three key issue areas that provide the primary traction for veganistas:

1). Cultivation of feed corn and soybeans. The use of farmland, water, energy and petrochemical inputs used to grow feed crops for raising poultry and pigs and for finishing cattle is at the core of criticism directed at so-called Industrial Agriculture. The argument is that such resources are inefficiently diverted from growing crops that would otherwise directly enter the human food chain.

According to activist logic, all those resources could and should be used to produce plant-based ingredients for people, rather than animals, which would alleviate food insecurity, improve public health and mitigate environmental damage due to the intensive farming practices associated with a monoculture system of farming.

2). Deforestation to support livestock. Much of the harshest criticism directed at animal agriculture concerns the slashing-and-burning of tropical rainforests in Latin America and South Asia. Truth is, much of that removal and/or destruction is done to support increased production of sugar cane, soybeans and palm oil, the latter two prized as cash crops for export and subsequent processing for use in a wide variety of food formulations, including production of vegetarian analogs.

Obviously, the dramatic reduction in rainforest acreage around the globe is exacerbating the dynamics of climate change. Rainforests are massive carbon sinks, they produce immense amounts of oxygen and they provide a stabilizing effect on regional weather patterns critical to agriculture around the world.

3). Concentrated production systems. Large facilities, whether hog barns, cattle feedlots, diary operations or egg and poultry production facilities, are accused of contributing to both air and water pollution, due to the size and scale of the operations — not to mention accusations of animal abuse due to overcrowding and the very existence of confinement itself.

While animal activists continue to demonize producers over the alleged suffering and abuse they insist is endemic to concentrated livestock production, that line of attack has been relegated to the back seat in terms of anti-industry messaging. The primary argument against CAFOs now revolves around the ecological damage such operations are alleged to cause to surface and groundwater, as well as negative impacts on air quality and noise pollution.

Those three extended talking points comprise the core of the case being made against meat, poultry and dairy production, the equivalent of a legal brief, if you will, in support of the remedy proposed by activists: total abolition of animal agriculture, coupled with a wholesale shift worldwide to plant-based foods as the foundation of human nutrition.

The question that looms over that hypothetical scenario is whether there are other options to the vegan diet, ones that would address the concerns of environmental activists, while maintaining the economic contributions, the nutritional value and yes, the ecological benefits of raising food animals.

Of course there are, just as there are other options for the way that healthcare is delivered, the way that transportation is structured, the way that education is conducted.

The only uncertainty is whether the leaders and investors in animal agriculture are ready and willing to pursue those options.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.