Do you ever buy eggs, milk or meat based on the label depicting happy, pasture-raised animals enjoying the green grass and sunshine on a family farm? In some parts of the world, including small portions of the US, farmers do still raise livestock in humane conditions in which the animals have access to the outdoors, drink fresh water, and eat green grass. However, as the documentary on the consolidation of farms, the Meatrix, illustrates, this is quickly becoming a thing of the past. This shift, on a global scale, has created a host of environmental issues resulting from increased use of GMO animal feed and major land-use changes.
With the rapid rise of industrial animal production, an increasing number of livestock once raised traditionally on pastures are now raised in feedlots or “landless,” high-density Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). These factories hold thousands of animals in inhumane conditions of indoor confinement and are environmental nightmares. Due to a loophole in US environmental regulations, CAFOS are classified as farms, not factories, which means they are exempt from many (needed) penalties or regulations. CAFO animals are given feed formulated to artificially speed up their growth and get them essential nutrients at a very low price for operators, thanks to hefty government subsidies for soy and corn. As a result, a large percentage of grains grown in the US are used in animal feed, with 47% of soy and 60% of corn produced in the US being consumed by livestock.
The US, Brazil, and China are world leaders of commercially produced animal feed–and these countries are also some of the largest producers of genetically modified (GMO) crops. Ninety percent of the world’s soy is used to feed animals. According to the National Corn Growers Association, about 80% of all corn grown in the US is consumed by global livestock, poultry, fish, and fuel production. Corn ethanol used for bio-fuels is distinctly different than animal feed production. Roughly 40% of US corn crops are used for ethanol, diverting food to a different category of beast – the internal combustion engine driving our trucks and cars. One tank of corn ethanol in an SUV could feed a person for an entire year.
The American commodity feed industry is responsible for over a fifth of the global feed market: the US accounts for 22% of global output according to the International Feed Industry Federation. Other major GMO producing countries in South America and Asia are also accountable for large contributions to commercial animal feed production.
These animal feed commodities, often GMO, are cultivated in vast monocultures and with heavy use of fertilizers and herbicides. Recent studies have shown that chemical additives in feed likely accumulate in animal tissues, potentially exposing consumers to unwanted chemicals such as veterinary drugs and heavy metals. This toxic livestock feed gets imported in large quantities (at least in Europe and most parts of Asia) from countries as far away as Argentina and Brazil.
This has serious consequences in terms of land-use change in those feed-for-export production countries. Brazil, the world’s largest beef exporter, has cleared vast amounts of Amazon rainforest to make way for this multi-billion dollar industry; it’s responsible for between 70-80 percent of forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon. Between 2004 and 2005, around 1.2 million hectares of soy was planted in the Brazilian Amazon. Most of this forest clearance was illegal, and the demand for soy continues to drive deforestation today.
The majority of soy grown in the Amazon goes straight to China. According to a 2014 research paper titled “the Brazil-China Soy Complex,” by the mid-1990s, China switched from being a net exporter of soy to a net importer. By the early 2000s, China’s soy imports overtook even those of the EU. And by 2005, China was importing half the world’s soy. Between 2000-2008, Brazil’s soy exports to China increased nine-fold and by 2011-12, over 80% of Brazilian soy was imported by China.
As meat consumption rises in other countries, ie. China, they can’t meet the demand with their current free-range systems; it’s estimated that 75% of the increase in global meat production between now and 2030 will come from factory farms in developing countries. This is a frightening reality to consider given that over 99% of farm animals in the US are already raised in factory farms. If this model expands to the rest of the world, future generations will be served a heaping portion of environmental and social justice problems.