How the Global North’s industrial meat habit is fueling climate injustice. 

31st Aug 23 by Teigist Taye

The environmental and social cost of producing factory farmed meat is immense, and is borne unequally by already vulnerable communities.

Emissions from industrial meat and dairy are heating up our planet. By 2030, the livestock sector will be burning through about half the amount we can safely emit to stay within 1.5 degrees of global heating. Similar to our historically outsized role in fossil fuel use, the Global North is eating more meat and dairy and emitting more greenhouse gases than its fair share. In 2020, high income countries had an average yearly meat consumption of 90.4 kg per person. The lowest income countries only consumed 11.9 kg of meat yearly per person. The impacts of climate disaster will be felt unevenly, with countries in the Global South– which eat far less industrial meat and dairy– bearing the brunt of collapse.

While the Amazon wildfires in 2022 put animal agriculture’s climate impact in the headlines, frontline communities, often BIPOC (Black, Indigenous ad People of Colour) and working class people in the Global North and South, are still harmed at almost every stage of the industrial meat and dairy supply chain. 

Our steaks are torching the Amazon and endangering Indigenous communities

“Today the Amazon is becoming a wood stove,” says Yoka Manchineri, an Indigenous nurse in the Brazilian state of Acre. The Amazon has been burning for some years now, and these fires are almost exclusively man made. What was once lush green vegetation, and home to Indigenous peoples and unparalleled biodiversity, is now trapped in a cycle of fire, beef, and greed– wiping out acres of ancient trees, and leaving Indigenous communities choking on the smoke.

Manchineri’s community in Acre has seen an increase in respiratory illnesses over the past couple of years, where the risk they face from the COVID-19 pandemic is compounded by their proximity to the Amazon fires. “Forest fires affect both our respiratory health as well as food safety,” she tells Mongbay News, “because we survive with nourishment from nature.”

First come the fires, and then the cattle are brought in. Meatpackers in Brazil and the USA often source their cattle from ranchers who require vast amounts of land to graze their cattle.  In fact, the largest meat packer in the world, JBS, has admitted to sourcing cattle from illegally deforested land in the Amazon. Brazilian NGO Imazon estimates 90% of deforested Amazon land is occupied by cattle pastures. 

Under former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s regime, land-grabbers and illegal ranchers were given free reign to sweep through the rainforest with little regard for the Indigenous peoples residing on their ancestral lands. Alongside risks to their health, illegal cattle ranching subjects Indigenous communities to the violence of displacement. Often, these communities fight back. The Mura Mura people of the Amazon take up bows and clubs and head into the jungle to defend their home against loggers. “We are sad because the forest is dying at every moment.” Handerch Wakana, a member of the tribe, tells Reuters, “We feel the climate is changing and the world needs the forest.” 

What begins in the Amazon ends in the supermarket: an investigation by Mighty Earth showed that chicken and pork products sold in Tesco supermarkets in the UK were linked to deforestation in the Amazon  and a recent Global Witness report also showed British supermarkets Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Iceland and ASDA were stocking beef produced by JBS. While consumers in the Global North enjoy artificially cheap meat prices, it’s important to bear in mind that if the end consumer isn’t bearing the full cost of this product, other people and other ecosystems, often those in already vulnerable situations, likely are. 

Our steaks are produced in hazardous working conditions

Andre Ngute, a meat packer working in a Tyson Foods plant in Iowa, sustained a deep gash on his right arm while working elbow to elbow on the factory floor. When the pain on his arm wouldn’t go away after a week, Tyson Foods refused to cover any medical costs beyond providing him with bandages as, per company policy, he hadn’t been working at the plant long enough to have earned coverage. “I never went to the hospital” Ngute writes, “because I was afraid of the bills.”

Health and safety negligence is an industry-wide issue. Last year, we learnt that some of the people cleaning JBS meat packing plants in the USA were children. Over one hundred children, aged 13 to 17 years old, were cleaning razor-sharp saw equipment, mopping up toxic waste and working overnight shifts. At least two of these children were known to have suffered “caustic chemical burns”. Although JBS has since ended its contract with that particular sanitation service, hazardous work conditions and labour law violations are not uncommon in meatpacking plants. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that a worker in the meat and poultry industry lost a body part or was sent to hospital for in-patient treatment about every other day between 2015 and 2018 – higher injury rates than occur in sawmills, industrial building construction, and oil and gas well drilling.

Meatpackers were especially at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, where working in closely packed, confined environments made them more likely to get sick. An estimated 86,000 meatpackers caught COVID-19 in the US, and 423 died from the virus in the first year of the pandemic. Tyson Foods failed to close plants where there was an outbreak of the disease and – according to ProPublica – it did not implement the recommended safety measures after the outbreaks began. In Shelby County, Texas, over half of the reported COVID infections were associated with Tyson’s meat plant employees, resulting in a rate of infection four times higher than the state average. Furthermore, a lawsuit for the wrongful death of a Tyson employee due to the disregard of COVID-19 safety measures also alleged that a plant manager organised a betting pool on how many employees would contract the disease. 

In the UK, around 70% of workers in meatpacking facilities are migrants. Despite exposure to the same health and safety risks as their local counterparts, migrant workers are often paid less and trapped in exploitative contracts through subcontracting agencies.

The abundance of cheap meat in the supermarket is coming at the expense of these workers. With each price slash, meal deal and bulk buy, our retailers are telling these companies that their harmful business models are okay– and we are silently agreeing, as long as we have something affordable to slap over the barbecue come summertime. 

Our steaks are coming at the expense of communities living near factory farms

In Eastern North Carolina, pigs outnumber the mostly BIPOC residents 35 to 1. Living next to the pig farms hasn’t been easy for these communities. “We had wells, but the wells [were] contaminated from the hog farm,” says Delores Miller, who lives by one of these farms. “The smell, you can’t hang your clothes out, you can’t do nothing in the yard, and we won’t even talk about the yellow flies.” 

Animal waste from factory farms is stored in massive open-air pools, or sprayed onto the surrounding environment as “fertiliser”. The waste frequently seeps into the ground and surrounding bodies of water. The smell is often unbearable. Residents living close to these factory farms have reported higher levels of asthma; eye, nose and throat irritation; elevated blood pressure; and chest nausea– problems which get worse with the odour.  

At home, factory farms in the UK are dumping manure and carcasses into waterways, and emitting noxious fumes into the air.  For Nathan Jubb, an angler living by the river Wye in the UK, the once crystal-clear waters look gravely unwell. “This river looks so ill,” he tells the BBC “and I’m getting ill thinking about it, I really am.” The waste from the intensive chicken farming near the river Wye catchment has been seeping into the water, creating a “wildlife death trap” and posing risks for local residents who used to swim and fish in the waters. 

While these hazards are rarely felt from the cool embrace of the Tesco aisles in large cities, rural communities are grappling with the true costs of our country’s appetite for factory farmed meat.  

What next?

The environmental and social cost of producing and consuming factory farmed meat at this scale is immense, and is borne unequally by already vulnerable communities. The evidence is clear: high income countries must reduce their meat consumption, if we are to have any real hope of achieving climate justice. That is – reaching our climate goals, while accounting for and redressing the disparate harms related to climate disaster faced by communities around the world. This responsibility to act cannot rest on the consumer alone, however. In the midst of a global cost of living crisis spurred on by corporate greed, governments and retailers need to recognize the role they play in shaping demand for industrial meat and dairy. By using their power to radically restructure the current landscape, they can ensure that eating a variety of nutritious, healthy and culturally appropriate food –outside of industrial meat and dairy offerings– is an accessible option for all. 

What can you do next?

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