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Never a Better Time to Reinvent Society

The smartest protection against a virus is also our golden opportunity to fix food and energy.

Thinking beyond this pandemic, we have a onetime opportunity to fix society’s most damaging systems, in particular, the energy and agricultural sectors. To reinvent them could give us a strategy to confront the biggest threats to humanity, along with a bonus of addressing inequity and poverty to boot. We cannot afford to waste this never-to-be-seen-again opportunity.(1)

We see our fragile food system hit as the coronavirus has forced closures of several major meat processing plants with high infection rates among workers. These were not safe places to work in before a viral pandemic. Now the dangers are harder to hide.

Meat Processing

Meat production demands that low-paid workers endure stressful, shoulder-to-shoulder conditions along with the numbing stress of constant slaughter. According to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), animal processing is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. We largely leave these jobs to the most disadvantaged, those with the fewest options, including temporary, migrant and immigrant workers.(2)

Thousands of meat processors have been sickened with the virus. It’s impossible to stay six feet apart on these animal de-assembly lines, where workers stand arm’s length apart on both sides of a conveyer belt. In South Dakota by mid-April one fifth of the state’s diagnosed cases (80) came from one facility, Smithfield in Sioux Falls, one of the largest pork processing plants in the country.

Meatpacking workers are disproportionately black and brown, and are also more at risk for illness and death from infection due to social inequity to begin with. They have little choice but to go back to work.(1, 4)

Protection from Veggies

Feeding the billions of agricultural animals each year utilizes fertilizer, a lot of it—the number one source of water pollution, soil runoff, and coastal pollution. Sadly, it’s all not necessary, as there is no nutritional need for meat. It does not promote human health, and in fact is associated with all of our chronic killers, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity; exactly the health conditions that make us susceptible to the worst effects of viral infections (including death), and thereby increase the strain on our health system. (3, 5) We can address that for free.

To improve our odds with this and any infection we need a steady stream of vegetables for protection. Their antioxidants inhibit cell damage, their fiber protects our gut and immune system, and their nutrients maintain our health, benefits of which animal foods do not offer. Why are we not promoting produce against viral intruders? This is the manna; our answer from heaven. Instead, we are paying a high price for cheap meat, (and dairy) with our taxes and our health.

We’re Paying for It

Government subsidies keep meat and dairy cheap, and the same can be said for our affordable gas and oil, with hundreds of billions of subsidy dollars funneled into both fossil fuel and animal agriculture. (6-8) We are supporting these industries with our tax dollars resulting in costly outcomes, even though we have better options at our fingertips.

Let farmers lead the innovation, and let us offer a safety net of subsidies going to them—the ones nurturing their soil and experimenting with clean renewable energy. They’re the ones interested and knowledgeable, with many diving in to improve operations for their land and communities. Supporting their success is the key to our sustainability.

Plant-Pivot – Farmers Seizing the Moment

There are many recent examples of farmers pivoting away from wasteful animal agriculture, such as poultry operations repurposed to grow hemp, mushrooms or lettuce, and dairy operations morphing into berry farms.Farmers have converted from producing chicken to plant-based chicken alternatives, as well dairies producing nut milk. This plant-based pivot has spawned new manufacturing partnerships supporting meat alternatives and plant-based cheese.The possibilities are as plentiful as the farmer’s imagination.(9-14)

The flip side to this innovation can be seen in our large animal operations, CAFOs, (confined animal feeding operations) that require huge energy expenditures, (for heating, ventilation, cooling, housing, feed, transporting, and mechanized manure management), and end with a toxic manure mix. Is it worth the costs, which include a significant contribution to global warming? (Manure is one of the biggest anthropogenic sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.) These operations carry huge environmental costs hidden to most of us, save the neighbors subjected to their pollution, but in every case can be repurposed for good. Now is the time.

Now is the Time to use precious farmland to feed people directly –more resource-efficient than feeding animals to feed to consumers. Time to spread the benefits from cover crops such as lentils instead of the soil-depleting practice of pesticides and fertilizers, to regenerate soil, keep it in place, and sequester carbon instead of emitting it into the air as carbon dioxide, (a greenhouse gas that warms the planet). We can feed a nation with health-promoting plant protein that can build an immune system strong enough to withstand a virus and fight inflammation; bonus: saving the forests otherwise cut down for beef, all by choosing to eat plants over animals. (15)

Energy: We Can Run for Awhile, but We Can’t Hide

In terms of energy, rethinking coal, oil and gas becomes more costly the longer we postpone the inevitable, and we have precious few years left to pivot before ramifications leave us with an earth too hot to sustain us and our dwindling biodiversity. (16) There will never be a more opportune time, as the cost of solar and wind energy now comparable to fossil fuel. (17, 18)

Jobs; Lots of Them

Why not employ a country to build the infrastructure for a better future—power stations running on clean energy and a national blanket of charging stations for electric vehicles. Those now desperate for work can build wind turbines and solar panels all over the country, install them, maintain them, and integrate them into a sustainable power grid. This promises more jobs than gas and coal, which are largely automated; it’s a dying industry begging for a way out. Now’s the time for transition.(19)

Spiral Up Now— Incentivizing Change

Government can help by passing bills already in the works to incentivize change, particularly the bipartisan Energy and Innovation Act, H.R.763 which would put a price on carbon and allocate it directly to taxpayers. This fee transfer would not only compensate consumers for the increased cost of carbon-heavy goods, but will incentivize the world to transform, no taxes involved.

This bill, along with farmers and energy producers using this unprecedented time to restructure, can change our trajectory from spiraling towards uncontrollable climate change and food insecurity, to a blueprint of sustainable systems.(15)

There is no better time to revitalize a country of communities with a plant-strong agricultural system, clean energy jobs, fresh air, and a plan to change society. Let not miss this freedom train.

Written by Kathy Pollard, M.S.

References

  1. Agricultural Fairness Alliance. Food and Farmer Inequity. 2020. https://www.agriculturefairnessalliance.org/food-inequity
  2. National Safety Council. Study of severe injury data finds poultry and meat workers at high risk. May 4, 2017. https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/15617-study-of-severe-injury-data-finds-poultry-and-meat-workers-at-high-risk
  3. World Health Organization. Myth busting, pre-existing conditions: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters#:~:text=People%20of%20all%20ages%20can,and%20good%20respiratory%20hygiene.
  4. The Gazette. Meatless May? Latino civil rights group launches meat boycott as coronavirus hits plant workers. May 12, 2020.  https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/health/meatless-may-latino-civil-rights-group-lulac-launches-meat-boycott-as-coronavirus-hits-plant-workers-20200501?fbclid=IwAR0KeA22j4ZYgl2VpUIewnnAwcnuLoHmBj9akg7X8bLLvhOp9oqbzP7LzSs
  5. Battaglia Richi, E., B. Baumer, B. Conrad, R. Darioli, A. Schmid, and U. Keller, 2015: Health Risks Associated with Meat Consumption: A Review of Epidemiological Studies. Int J Vitam Nutr Res, 85, 70-78.
  6. Global Fuel Subsidies: International Monetary Fund. Global Fossil Fuel Subsidies Remain Large: An Update Based on Country-Level Estimates. https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WP/Issues/2019/05/02/Global-Fossil-Fuel-Subsidies-Remain-Large-An-Update-Based-on-Country-Level-Estimates-46509.  May 2, 2019.
  7. Removing the Meat Subsidy: Our Cognitive Dissonance Around Animal Agriculture. https://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/removing-meat-subsidy-our-cognitive-dissonance-around-animal-agriculture
  8. International Energy Agency. Fossil fuel consumption subsidies bounced back strongly in 2018. 13 June 2019. https://www.iea.org/commentaries/fossil-fuel-consumption-subsidies-bounced-back-strongly-in-2018
  9. Puska P. 2011. Lessons from North Karelia. Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases Seminar, Helsinki.
  10. Civil Eats. The Plant-Based Movement to Transition Farmers Away from Meat and Dairy Production. January 13, 2020. https://civileats.com/2020/01/13/the-plant-based-movement-to-transition-farmers-away-from-meat-and-dairy-production/
  11. Forbes. Poultry To Plant-Based: Animal Farmers Are Now Working With Vegans To Get Out Of The Meat Business. Jan 14, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jennysplitter/2020/01/14/poultry-to-plant-based-some-animal-farmers-are-working-with-vegans-to-get-out-of-the-meat-business/#25b47ff0738f
  12. Ecowatch Why Some Farmers Are Ditching Livestock and Growing Plants Instead. Apr. 22, 2020. https://www.ecowatch.com/farmers-plant-transition-2645785977.html
  13. In Defense of Animals. Meet 7 Meat and Dairy Farmers Who Switched to Plants Instead! July 25, 2019. https://www.idausa.org/campaign/farmed-animal/latest-news/meet-7-meat-and-dairy-farmers-who-switched-to-plants-instead/
  14. VegNews. New proposed legislation aims to help at-risk farmers switch from animal to plant-based agriculture. MAY 12, 2020. https://vegnews.com/2020/5/new-proposed-legislation-aims-to-help-at-risk-farmers-switch-from-animal-to-plant-based-agriculture
  15. The Conversation. It’ll be hard, but we can feed the world with plant protein. August 15, 2019.  https://theconversation.com/itll-be-hard-but-we-can-feed-the-world-with-plant-protein-121816
  16. Ripple, WJ, et al. World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency.American Institute of Biological Sciences. 05 November 2019.  https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/1/8/5610806
  17. Bloomberg, cost of renewables; https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-11-07/wind-and-solar-power-have-become-amazingly-affordable
  18. Forbes linked, Cost of renewables https://www.forbes.com/sites/dominicdudley/2019/05/29/renewable-energy-costs-tumble/#6846077be8ce
  19. Environmental Defense Fund. Clean energy is building a new American workforce. January, 2018. https://www.edf.org/energy/clean-energy-jobs
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