The recent shared Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and to the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change revealed the UN’s important function as a world body to provide educational leadership in major challenges facing our planet. Another related but less publicized UN report issued in November 2006 was titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow — Environmental Issues and Options” by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN. The report presents an in-depth scientific analysis of the impact of agriculture on the ecology of the planet.

But first, some background on changes in agricultural practices in the last several decades.

The growth of corporate agriculture

The increasing concentration of agricultural capital to fewer owners has followed the normal evolution of monopoly capitalism. In the 1930s, 24 percent of Americans worked in farming; in 2002 it was 1.5 percent. In the United States, four companies produce 81 percent of cows, 73 percent of sheep, 57 percent of pigs and 50 percent of chickens. Industrial farming, or “factory farms,” account for most livestock “production.” For example, of the 95 million pigs slaughtered in the U.S. in 2002, 80 million were raised on factory farms.

Sentient beings face factory-farm horrors

Livestock are highly evolved animals that share with humans the same emotions of fear, anxiety, joy and stress with nervous systems that cause pain very much as ours do. On the factory farm, they are merely production products for profit.

Pigs live in crowded hog confinement barns. Most of a sow’s life is in a 2 foot by 7 foot “gestation crate,” in which the animal is only able to sit or lie down, but not turn around. Piglets are fed physically separated from her in “farrowing crates.”

From ammonia burn to debeaking

According to United Poultry Concerns, there are no federal laws regulating poultry raising, transport or slaughter in the U.S. or Canada. The U.S. raises and kills 9 billion “broiler” (baby) chickens each year for food. Forced overgrowth of muscle tissue (meat) causes birds to suffer from severe lameness and pain, from gastrointestinal and blood diseases and chronic respiratory infections.

During their 45 days life, broiler chickens are crowded in filthy unchanged litter with several flocks of 20,000 or more birds in a single closed shed, often sickened by salmonella bacteria which can remain in the meat — a common cause of food poisoning. Ammonia fumes often become so strong that the birds develop a blinding and painful eye disease called “ammonia burn.”

After transport for up to 12 hours in jammed crates, chickens are shackled upside down on conveyor belts by poorly paid farm workers with speed-ups of as many as 40 chickens per minute. With broken bones and tendons the terrified animals are given electric shocks before beheading and entering the “scald tank.”

Each year in the U.S., over 300 million debeaked hens are jammed in wire cages for one or two years for egg production. There are eight or nine hens per cage in sheds holding 50,000 to 125,000 birds. Being cooped for life without exercise while constantly drained of calcium to produce egg shells, laying hens develop osteoporosis (cage layer fatigue) from which many hens die.

The lives of factory-farmed cattle are also gruesome. One need only drive through Colorado, Nebraska or the many other major cattle states and witness the powerful odors (mostly ammonia) from the feedlots of cattle crowded into enclosures to fatten before slaughter, standing in a wet mush of urine, feces and mud.

Impact on ecology, climate change

The UN report documents the significant effect of livestock production on the earth’s ecology. The meat industry is “one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems” and “urgent action is required to remedy the situation” according to lead author H. Steinfeld.

Livestock produce 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions measured in carbon dioxide equivalents; that is more than is produced by the total world transportation systems. Of the total greenhouse gas emissions derived from human activities, livestock accounts for 9 percent of carbon dioxide; 65 percent of nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide per ton and may last as long as 150 years in the atmosphere where it depletes the ozone layer; 37 percent of methane and 64 percent of ammonia, which can react to form acid rain.

Carbon dioxide is still the leading greenhouse gas, since there are 220 times more tons of carbon dioxide than methane in the atmosphere, and about 1,000 times more carbon dioxide than nitrous oxide.

Pesticides, toxins abound

The extreme overcrowding and unhealthy conditions in factory farms requires extensive use of pesticides, antibiotics and chemicals to combat the spread of diseases and of hormones to increase the yield of product. Pesticides have been found in over 90 percent of wells and streams in the U.S., with 37 percent attributable to factory farms with their 25 million gallon lagoons of toxic sewage.

Roxarsone, an arsenic-containing additive in chicken feed, is used to promote growth and kill parasites. The April 9 issue of Chemical and Engineering News (American Chemical Society) reported it could pose health threats to humans. Arsenic has been linked to several forms of cancer, heart disease, declining intellect and diabetes. While Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest poultry producer stopped using it, the article claimed it continues to be fed to about 70 percent of the broiler chickens raised each year.

Consequences of antibiotics overuse

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, eight times more pounds of antibiotics are used in American livestock than are used in human medicine. Overuse of antibiotics has resulted in selection of bacteria resistant to one or more antibiotics. Recent news reports claimed that the number of “staph” infection deaths in the U.S. from an antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, strain MRSA, is greater than deaths from AIDS. One in 10 pneumococci, which are responsible for many pneumonias, is resistant to most antibiotics, few antibiotics work against A. baumannii, which has infected many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, forcing amputations in some cases, and gonorrhea and tuberculosis are making comebacks for the same reason.

Some alternatives

Factory farming is growing dramatically to meet the increased demands for meat and the big profits of a small number of giant corporations. It is a cruel industry for the animals and for the workers (many are immigrants) who are exploited to do the dirty work and be exposed to the many toxins.

In reaction to factory farming, there has been an explosion of alternatives, including organic/free-range farms, “buy local” movements and books/magazines/web sites that promote conscious, healthy choices and lifestyles.

One simple choice would be stop eating meat! Buy organic eggs and milk from “free range” chickens and cows. Many studies have concluded that vegetarians live years longer. Those years can be used productively to make a better world. We need you.

Those healthy choices also challenge the relentless drive to increase profits in capitalist production. While hunger continues and increases in our country and the world, corporate food producers dump their products to keep the prices high instead of feeding the hungry. NAFTA allows this dumping at low prices in the underdeveloped Latin American nations, driving their small farmers out of business. Many of these

ruined farmers then become exploited immigrant workers in the U.S. agriculture industry, which was responsible for their loss of jobs in their native country.

Finally, we must recognize the interdependence of all life requires us to oppose the indiscriminate destruction of plant and animal life, which threatens human society, the ecology of the planet, and our respect for all living things. These facts give reason to join the movements challenging these profit-before-people corporate practices and make a better world a healthy choice for all.

David Kennell, kennell, is professor emeritus of molecular microbiology at Washington University School Medicine in St. Louis.