I am fortunate enough to live on Jeju Island in South Korea, a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its beautiful scenery of rolling hills, ancient forests, and rugged coastlines. Traveling around Jeju, the low stone walls lining each street and dividing any open space into now-empty small fields act as a constant reminder of how radically farming has changed on the island. As recently as 50 years ago, large scale farming scarcely existed; insead, the landscape was dotted with uncountable numbers of small family farms where residents kept one or two cows or pigs, which were treated like treasure and were eaten on special occasions to supplement a plant and seafood-based diet. These days, however, small, intimate farms can only be found in history textbooks and museums. As people’s diets changed and demand for cheap meat soared, even a paradise like Jeju island could not escape the arrival of intensive animal farming.
Intensive animal farming is defined as a production approach towards farm animals that aims to maximize profit and accounts for a staggering 70% of the 75 billion animals farmed worldwide each year. Soft, natural soil is replaced with filthy, cold cages; the warmth of the sun is replaced with harsh and confusing artificial lights; and tender grass is replaced with hard-to-digest grain in order to increase their growth rate and maximize production output. The only time animals can encounter nature is when they are loaded onto trucks headed for slaughterhouses; they travel long periods of time in overcrowded conditions without rest, food, or water and often suffer injuries.
There are only two animals known to practice farming: humans and ants. While primitive and miniscule ants provide their “livestock”—aphids—with freedom to roam and graze and value and protect them, we humans, the most intelligent and dominant species on earth, are squeezing our animals into confined cages and raising them in inhumane ways that treats them as mere commodities.
The abuse is not limited to animals as our environment also suffers from intensive animal farming’s shortcomings. The industry has a huge impact on the water supply: producing one kilogram of beef takes an estimated 13,000 liters of water, which is more than the average American uses in 200 showers. Furthermore, according to the USDA, animal waste can contaminate water supplies; for example, in a 2011 incident, an Illinois hog farm spilled 750,000 liters of manure into a creek, killing over 110,000 fish. Farming-related deforestation contributes to global warming and farm animals themselves are significant sources of greenhouse gases: in 2010, global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and deforestation were the same as emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and heat.
Most importantly, intensive animal farming can be detrimental to our own health. Overuse of antibiotics in our food supply at factory farms can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as MRSA, and their transfer to humans through food, soil, and water contamination. Zoonotic diseases such as Swine Flu and Avian Flu are more likely to develop in factory farms due to overcrowding of animals, and poor sanitation and waste management. On many factory farms, slaughtered animals are often treated with antimicrobial rinses such as chlorine in order to prevent diseases such as salmonella and campylobacter. While the USDA has approved chlorinated meat for human consumption, rather than fighting the side effects the more practical solution would be tackling the root cause—the system itself.
Given the costs of intensive animal farming, we must ask the question: “Is there an alternative?” I say there is; the solution is ethical animal farming, where the scale of operation is smaller, animals are not permanently confined, and have access to the natural environment. Scientific studies suggest that this provides various benefits to animals, such as reduced stress and reduced aggression.
This method of animal farming benefits not only animals, but also humans. According to Jamie Oliver, a renowned British chef and restaurateur, higher-welfare cows produce higher-quality meat with better marbling. Studies show that meat from pasture-reared cows is not only lower in saturated fat—which is linked with cardiac disease and obesity—but also has high levels of nutrients such as vitamin B, Omega 3, and beta carotene, all of which offer health benefits.
Given the downsides and risks to both animals and humans from intensively farmed meat, why does it still exist? The reason is that intensive animal farming is necessary in order to affordably satisfy the current demand for meat. However, I think we have to ask ourselves: do we really need this much meat? Humans are omnivores and a plant-based diet supplemented with small amounts of meat and seafood is perfectly adequate and healthy. Historically this kind of diet was common, especially on Jeju where traditionally meatless foods such as galchiguk and my personal favorite, seonggeguk were eaten often, with meat being a rare luxury.
Humans have made many innovations throughout history, recognizing our own flaws and correcting them. But we need to recognize that not all of these innovations have been positive, and that sometimes we should turn back the clock to correct a mistake like factory farming: after all, progress doesn’t just run in a single direction. By pushing for small social and cultural changes and looking for inspiration from diets of the past—especially those from areas like Jeju which did not traditionally rely on meat—we can reduce our meat demand. This in turn will allow us to build a future where factory farming is no longer necessary, and where places like Jeju can once again play host to happy, healthy livestock, living enriching lives in lush green fields.