MTE5NDg0MDU1MTUzNTA5OTAzCommunications from industrial animal farmers and their trade groups often lack an important element that consumers expect and the law requires: fair play. In some cases, the industry’s words are technically accurate but still unfair or misleading. In others, they’re just plain wrong. And when people rely on incorrect or deceptive information about food, the results can be downright dangerous to their health. This shady approach to salesmanship often puts meat and dairy producers in a class of their own. Honesty only makes sense, said Mark Twain, “when there’s money in it.” When it comes to promoting animal foods, it seems dishonesty pays.

Remember the deadly strain of swine flu that raced across North America in the spring of 2009?  When the media called the disease “swine flu,” the National Pork Producers Council angrily objected, “This flu is being called something that it isn’t, and it’s hurting our entire industry. It is not a ‘swine’ flu, and people need to stop calling it that.”[1] The pork producers got help from the USDA, with Secretary Tom Vilsack telling a worried nation, “This really isn’t swine flu. It’s H1N1 virus.”[2] But it soon turned out the “swine flu” label was completely fitting. A group of experts around the world studied the origins of the flu pandemic and published their results in the June 2009 issue of Nature. The scientists concluded that the disease started “in swine,” highlighting “the need for systematic surveillance of influenza in swine.”[3]

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Sometimes the industry messaging comes in a more subtle form, or as Carl Sandburg described the stealthy movement of fog, “on little cat feet.”  When several years ago I first read about a “harvesting facility” for farm animals, it took me a moment to understand what the term meant.  To “harvest” is to gather crops; the word comes from the Old Norse “harfr” for harrow and the German “Herbst” for autumn.  I had simply never heard it applied to animals.  But of course, for those in a business that requires killing animals and selling their meat to a fickle public, “harvesting facility” and “packing house” are useful ways to describe a slaughterhouse.  In fact, the violent expressions “kill,” “slaughter,” and “butcher” no longer figure in the industry’s consumer-friendly vernacular – they’ve been replaced by the kinder and gentler “cull,” “harvest,” “pack,” and “process.”  Nonetheless, even industry veterans must sometimes remind one another of proper euphemistic usage.  Chris Raines, Professor of Meat Science at Pennsylvania State University, writes of a colleague who was advised to chop the word “slaughter,” an “unsavory term, from a presentation to vendors of livestock feed.”[4]

debeaked-chickAnother unsavory term you won’t hear much is “partial beak amputation,” the clinical name for chopping off one-third of an unanesthetized chick’s beak. The industry prefers the term “beak trimming,” which implies the severed portion was unnecessary or superfluous – like the wayward hairs one trims from a mustache or eyebrow.  Or take “forced molting,” the practice of starving hens for up to two weeks to increase laying productivity.  Causing chickens such distress that they will eat their own feathers, and sometimes killing up to one-third of the hens affected, this practice, like partial beak amputation, is routine for most laying hens in the U.S. – including those designated “cage-free.” The industry prefers the term “controlled molting,” which suggests that without the benefit of guidance, birds might just be molting all over the place. Partial tail amputation in cows and pigs, also typically performed without anesthetic, is euphemistically known as “tail docking.” Thanks to an industry striving for a kinder, gentler image, the lexicon of animal farming is rife with terms that minimize unsavory images of animals’ pain or stress and help ensure consumers don’t question or reduce their consumption of animal products.

[1] Chris Welch, “Inaccurate ‘Swine’ Flu Label Hurts Industry, Pork Producers Say,” CNN Health (April 30, 2009), accessed April 19, 2012, http://articles.cnn.com.

[2] Caitlin Taylor, “Obama Administration: Out with the ‘Swine,’ In with the ‘H1N1 Virus,’” ABC News Political Punch (April 29, 2009), accessed September 15, 2011, http://abcnews.go.com.

[3] Gavin J. D. Smith et al., “Origins and Evolutionary Genomics of the 2009 Swine-Origin H1N1 Influenza A Epidemic,” Nature 459 (2009): 112225.

[4] Chris Raines, “Slaughter, Harvest, and Implications of the New Diction” (blog) (July 19, 2011), accessed September 15, 2011 at http://meatblogger.org/2011/07/19/slaughter-harvest-and-implications-of-the-new-diction.

cowspiracy_posterAs Californians struggle through a four-year drought, lake and reservoir levels are at historic lows – and many of us are looking for ways to lower our water use. Want to save 660 gallons of water? You could quit showering for two months – if you can ignore the heartfelt pleas of friends and family begging you to resume. Alternatively, and amazingly, you could save the same amount of water by simply foregoing a single hamburger.

This is just one of the astonishing statistics to emerge from the groundbreaking new documentary film “Cowspiracy” by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. The pair set out to learn why the nation’s biggest environmental groups routinely ignore the massive environmental effects of animal agriculture. Through a series of interviews with environmental leaders that are sometimes tense, sometimes bizarre, and sometimes downright funny, a pattern of denial, fabrication and wishful thinking emerges that will leave you shaking your head and wondering who’s really calling the shots at these huge eco-charities. You might even think twice before writing another check to Greenpeace or Sierra Club.

I was fortunate to be interviewed for the film and given a chance to explain some of the hidden, or externalized, costs of meat and dairy (a topic I explore in my book Meatonomics). Although they’re busy screening “Cowspiracy” and discussing it at conferences around the country, the two filmmakers took time out from their hectic schedules to answer a few questions – like why they got involved in the project, how the environmental groups that they embarrassed are responding, and the most outlandish thing that happened during the filming.

First the basics: How did you get the idea for this film, how long did it take to make, and what sort of background in film-making did you have going into it?

Kip Andersen: After watching the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” about the catastrophic impacts of global warming, I started following all the advice of the major environmental organizations on how I could best help the planet. But when I found out that animal agriculture plays an even bigger role in environmental destruction and resource degradation than the fossil fuel industry, I was shocked that the organizations I had trusted were not talking about it. I tried emailing and calling these groups for months in order to get answers, but no one would ever get back to me. I realized that I was going to have to take a camera into these organizations’ headquarters if I wanted answers.

Keegan Kuhn: Kip asked me to be involved in this project because of my background in making documentaries through First Spark Media. I had recently just finished the feature length documentary “Turlock” and it was perfect timing to jump into another film. We worked on Cowspiracy intensively for over a year.

The filmmakers: Keegan on the left, Kip on the right.

The filmmakers: Keegan on the left, Kip on the right.

Some potential funders backed out. What impact did that have on the film-making process and on your morale? How did you fund it after that?

KA:  We had applied for a number of grants and funding for making Cowspiracy. A few foundations took serious interest in the film, but after having internal meetings with their boards and looking at the potential risks of being associated with such a controversial documentary, each one of them backed out. It was disheartening and made us wonder what we were really getting ourselves into. The film ended up being entirely self-funded by a non-profit I created, A.U.M. Films.

The film should be a source of embarrassment and discomfort for many of the nation’s leading environmental organizations and government agencies, including Greenpeace, Surfrider, Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, National Resources Defense Council, the California Water Resources Control Board, and others. Executives with these organizations come across in the film as ignorant, disingenuous, or both. Have any of these organizations or their executives publicly acknowledged the film or the issues it raises? Do you think the film will someday cause these organizations to acknowledge the massive role of animal production in climate change?

KA: We were shocked by the evasive nature of so many of the executives we interviewed for the film. These are people who have supposedly dedicated their lives to protecting the environment and yet when asked simple questions about the environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture, they would consistently sidestep the question and avoid talking about the subject in every way they could.

KK: The organizations you mentioned should all be embarrassed for their failure to properly address the impacts of animal agriculture. They really should be publicly apologizing to all of their supporters who have trusted them. These groups and organizations are doing good work, but they are misleading their supporters and the public into believing the fossil fuels are the only environmental ill we face. Absolutely the fossil fuel industry is causing huge ecological devastation, but when compared to what animal agriculture is doing to the climate, water pollution, topsoil erosion, deforestation, species extinction, ocean dead zones and habitat destruction, it pales in comparison.

Some of these groups have responded since Cowspiracy premiered. Rainforest Action Network has released a series of images on social media about the impacts of animal agriculture and have advocated for eating less meat, which we are thrilled about. But sadly they still have not mentioned the impacts of cattle on the rainforests in these images or launched a campaign about livestock and their feed crops in relation to the clearing of the Amazon.

I absolutely believe that these organizations are going to have to start addressing the impacts of animal agriculture if they want to stay in business.

Keegan filming 2In the film, you interview the Markegard family, who raise grass-fed pigs and cattle in Northern California. In one particularly bizarre scene, Doniga Markegard says, “I love animals. And that’s why I’m in the meat business.” Her husband Erik agrees, “We do it because we love them.” Do you think they really believe this? If so, how would that kind of love even work? Or do you think it’s just a marketing line that they’ve been repeating for so long that it now comes naturally?

KA: I think that they undoubtedly care about the animals they raise. It shows in how they are treated and cared for, but there is a powerful disconnect between caring for them and then leading them to be slaughtered. It was very revealing when I was talking with their young daughter about the pigs she is raising, who she truly loves. She even went as far as comparing her relationship to them as like sisters. But quickly corrected herself and said “I know I shouldn’t be bonding with them.”

KK: The Markegards were a very open and kind family to us and I think they justify killing the animals they raise because their animals live so much better lives than factory farmed animals. I think they really do care deeply about the animals but that emotional disconnect is very present when it comes to killing them. But to be completely fair, this is the same exact disconnect that so many people in our society have; they claim to “love” animals and yet they eat meat every day.

One of the many challenges of any message that promotes a plant-based diet is finding acceptance in the mainstream community. How has this been going for you so far?

KA: A lot of people are waking up to the realities of environmental issues and the peril we all face together. I think because of this unifying force of ecological collapse that the issues of promoting a sustainable diet will begin to fade. The resistance that people have been met with in the past will become so much clearer in their motivations.

KK: I think the challenge that we are really facing is about information control. People can only make informed decisions about how they eat when they have the information. Luckily we are living in a time where people are desperately hungry for real information. The response we have had from truly environmentally conscious people has been amazing and I feel very strongly that with proper ambassadors for this issue we are on the right course to a sustainable future.

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What was the most bizarre or outlandish thing that you saw or heard in the course making the film?

KA: The most bizarre thing that I saw was how Rainforest Action Network did not have animal agriculture as one of the four key issues they focus on! How can one of the world’s biggest rainforest protection groups not have the #1 cause of deforestation as one of their main key issues, let alone not having it there at all? This was the case for Amazon Watch as well, I just couldn’t and still don’t understand how they think they can/could get away with that. The whole Oceana and Andy Sharpless TED talk was also perhaps the most ridiculous thing I heard over the course of filming. Oceana saying for us to eat more fish to protect the ocean is like a zookeeper saying to kill more of their animals but to just make sure to rotate killing of animals so they don’t go extinct before they are killed. They care about fisherman, not the fish inhabitants of the ocean, nor the overall health of the ocean it seems.

KK: For me, what I could not wrap my head around is how the Oceana representative said that we could sustainably take 100 million tons of fish out of the ocean every year and that it would be sustainable. Even if we allowed the ocean’s fish population to recover to pre-industrial levels, these ecosystems never evolved to handle a massive super-predator removing 100 million tons, or even 10 million tons, from the ecosystem. In a functioning ecosystem you have a feedback loop, but with human beings, a purely terrestrial species, we are essentially an alien life force mining the ocean of animals.

Is there one particular scene or interview that ended up, metaphorically speaking, on the cutting room floor that you wish could have been included in the film?

KA: The entire Howard Lyman interview I would have liked to include in the film! He is such a powerful force and everything he said was so impactful on Keegan and me. Eventually we will release his entire interview along with the extended interviews of many of the organizations featured in the film.

KK: There were a lot of stats that we couldn’t fit into the film. For example, annually more than 3.3 million tons of palm oil is fed to livestock and yet in the massive PR campaigns about the damage of palm oil from environmental organizations, there is little or no mention of this. Another figure that I wish we could have included is the fact that pigs in the US consume more fish than human beings do. It seems one of the best ways to help save fish is to not eat pigs.

Keegan filmingDo you have day jobs? If so, what are they, and do you think the film’s success will allow you to give them up?

KA: I’m a serial entrepreneur and so have a number of businesses that I run, which have allowed me to work on this film.

KK: I consider myself extremely fortunate that I have been able to make a living entirely from making films for the last 3 years. I have a production company, First Spark Media, that keeps me very busy.

What’s your favorite vegan meal?

KA: My favorite meal overall is breakfast but if I had to choose one food item it would be (right now): Nachos! I love cashew cheese and vegan sour cream on them in particular. I also love pizza and waffles (not together necessarily).

KK: All I ever want to eat is vegan Mexican food. Huaraches, tacos, nopales, etc. Flacos in Berkeley, California is my home away from home.

I was honored that you interviewed me for the film and featured some of the issues raised in my book Meatonomics. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments from friends who saw me in the film. So now I’m thinking Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. What are my chances? Should I be working a room somewhere in Hollywood right now?

KA: Ha ha, yeah we were really pleased we were able to interview you for the film. I think it’s really important that people realize that this isn’t just about a personal choice. As you say in the film, whether you’re an omnivore or an herbivore, we are all paying the costs of the animal agriculture.

KK: The financial price that we as a society have to pay for this industry is massive and I’m glad that we could touch on it in the film. I feel though the cost is so much higher though than even the astronomical figure of 414 billion dollars that you state. Every single day we have to pay the incalculable price of species extinction, species that have been wiped off the face of the earth forever because of this industry. We pay with the priceless lives of children who die from lack of clean water and food while it is diverted to feed livestock, destined for western plates. And ultimately we may end up paying with our own lives unless radical changes take place.

Cowspiracy is now being shown in theatrical screenings across the U.S. and many parts of the world. To attend or host a screening, visit www.tugg.com/titles/cowspiracy. The film will be available in DVD and streaming formats this fall. For more information, visit cowspiracy.com.

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scale-croppedSeveral years ago, while his peers popped No-Doz and sported fake IDs, college sophomore Mark Devries had other plans. The 20-year-old Devries spent his time and money traveling the country to conduct video interviews of philosophers, activists, and factory farmers. His efforts would ultimately become “Speciesism: The Movie,” a groundbreaking, feature-length documentary about the nature of species-based prejudice. The film was released in 2013 to glowing reviews in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media.

“Speciesism” refers to the categorical exclusion of nonhuman animals from the moral realm occupied by humans, and exclusion from the protections that realm offers. Through a number of eye-opening interviews, the film reveals that most humans hold speciesist views – and that these views typically lack a rational basis. We learn that because humans and nonhuman animals share many emotional and cognitive traits, the prejudice of speciesism is little different from racism, sexism, or other forms of discrimination among humans.

I recently caught up with Devries, now in his mid-twenties, to ask him about this remarkable movie and the inspiring story of its production. He delayed the start of law school for a year to work on the film, and while he did finally graduate, now he’s too busy traveling and screening the movie to focus on the bar exam like most law grads. Making movies instead of practicing law? It’s a brilliant, alternative legal career that many lawyers – including me – would view with admiration and envy.

Dave Simon: What led you, as a 20-year-old college student, to start making this film?

Mark Devries:  I came across some PETA demonstrations, and I became curious as to what motivated them. I started looking into it, and once I discovered factory farming, I was shocked to learn that for the most part, farms don’t really exist anymore. Instead we have these highly-controlled, sci-fi dystopias. I thought it seemed like something that should be made into a documentary.  It was only once I started filming that I came upon the much larger and deeper issue of speciesism itself.

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DS:  You mention in the film that you didn’t know anything about movie-making when you started. How did you do it?

MD:  I bought a camera, and I taught myself how to use that and the recording equipment. Then I taught some college friends how to use the equipment.

DS: Amazing. So you had a crew of friends. What was the film-making process like?

MD: I had to film sporadically while in college at the beginning, using money I earned from part-time jobs. I did a lot of filming, trying to find things out, and I made many attempts to get things on film – sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. Often we just walked up to animal facilities and tried to get into discussions with the owners, and to get them to talk about what goes on inside. Some of things they told us were quite shocking, as seen in the film. Then, perhaps a year into filming, I learned about speciesism – and that quickly became the film’s new direction.

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DS: It must have been incredibly challenging to do all this while in college. Did you ever consider dropping the project?

MD: I almost gave up many times.  As a college student, I didn’t have much money, and I was spending everything I had to take these regular excursions to investigate factory farms and conduct interviews.  I also used practically all of my free time on this, so it was exhausting.

DS: There’s an intense scene in the film in which your father describes living with chronic pain. You mention it was the first time he ever discussed his pain with you. What was it like for you to film this scene?

MD: I was honored that my father was willing to discuss it. While shooting the scene, I was thinking that his experience would make a real difference in opening peoples’ minds and hearts to what nonhuman animals experience. Audience members tell me that until watching this scene, they had never thought of nonhuman animals experiencing pain in the same ways humans do, so it have been a very effective part of the film.

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DS: You interview, or try to interview, a number of factory farmers in the movie. Did you learn anything important from these interviews (or attempted interviews)?

MD: More than anything else, I was floored by the cavalier attitude of the farmers who finally let us onto their property.  That seemed to perfectly illustrate the level of desensitization to suffering that exists in today’s meat industry.

DS: What effect do you think the movie has had so far in raising awareness of speciesism and its consequences?

MD: I am thrilled to say that it has completely exceeded my expectations.  I hear all the time from people who say that the film dramatically affected them, and I hear even more often from animal advocates who gave or showed the film to friends or colleagues and it persuaded them to go vegan when nothing else worked for years. One of the best uses of the film is for animal advocates to show it to others, host a screening of it, or post a link to it on their website. With so many people showing it at home or school, and giving DVDs to others, we’ve reached thousands upon thousands of viewers. For those who want to hand it out, we provide packs of multiple DVDs at reduced prices – we charge the lowest we can afford and still meet our operating expenses. [Note: see below for info on buying DVDs at a 50% discount.]

DS: How did making this movie change you?

MD: I wasn’t vegan when I started the movie. I became vegan about halfway through, after I had spent time talking with philosophers like Peter Singer and Tom Regan. They argue for fundamental changes in our view of nonhuman animals, on the grounds that not taking nonhuman animals seriously is a form of prejudice similar to racism and sexism. This moved me from thinking of the topic as an issue of sentiment – whether or not we have kind feelings towards other animals – to seeing it as a serious ethical issue on par with the other major ethical and political issues of our time.

Tagline Post THREE“Speciesism: The Movie” is now showing in screenings around the country. To find or arrange a screening near you, buy DVDs for yourself or others, or learn more about the movie and the issues it covers, visit SpeciesismTheMovie.comSpecial bonus: use coupon code meatonomics for a 50% discount on any purchase.

Curious about the bizarre economic forces in the meat and dairy industries? Check out Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much, and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter.

 

By Robert Goodland[1]
 

Climatic change is fearsome.  The National Academy of Sciences published a study in 2013 explaining how 1,700 American cities – including New York, Boston, and Miami – will become locked into some amount of submersion from rising sea levels unless expensive new dykes and levees can hold back the rising waters.  In fact, the International Energy Agency has warned that major action by 2017 may be the last real chance to reverse climate change before it’s too late.

Rising sea levels

Elsewhere, the last chance for major action is said to be 2020.  Even with that more generous timeframe, it’s too late to reverse climate change by replacing fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy infrastructure.  That’s because doing so is estimated to require at least 20 years to implement at the necessary scale.  Indeed, large-scale implementation of renewable energy infrastructure was the general basis for the Kyoto Protocol when it was drafted in 1990.  But the Kyoto Protocol did not yield a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as intended; to the contrary, global greenhouse gas emissions have risen shockingly by 61% from 1990 to 2013.

Gestation_crates_5Now, there seems to be only one remaining pragmatic way to reverse climate change before it’s too late – and that’s by taking quick and large-scale actions in food, agriculture, and forestry.  When Jeff Anhang and I estimated in 2009 that at least 51% of human-induced greenhouse gas is attributable to livestock, we calculated that replacing 25% of today’s livestock products with better alternatives could almost fully achieve the objective of the Kyoto Protocol.

However, as greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric carbon have continued to rise, now almost 50% of today’s livestock products must be replaced with better alternatives by 2017 – or by 2020 at the latest – in order to achieve the objective of the Kyoto Protocol and avert catastrophic climate change.  No other pragmatic worldwide action to reverse climate change has been proposed by anyone.

One reason why worldwide action is needed is that climate change is one of a relatively small number of environmental issues that are transboundary.  This means that greenhouse emissions and atmospheric carbon don’t respect borders – so a molecule of carbon dioxide emitted in China can affect someone anywhere in the United States just as much as it will affect someone in Beijing.

CO2 Emissions By Country in Metric Tons as of 2010 (Source: US Dept of Energy)

The transboundary nature of climate change means that everyone in the United States could go vegan with virtually no climatic benefit if the consumption of livestock products continues to increase in China and elsewhere.  In other words, it’s as important to be concerned about what happens with food and climate change elsewhere as it is to be concerned about what happens with food and climate change in the United States.

In fact, the average global concentration of atmospheric carbon continues to increase after it recently rose above 400 parts per million, far above the safe level of 350 parts per million.  The only known way to draw down atmospheric carbon on a large scale in a relatively short timeframe is by growing more trees, which is uniquely possible through our recommendations.  That’s because replacing a substantial amount of today’s livestock products with better alternatives will free up a vast amount of land to permit large-scale reforestation and greenhouse gas sequestration – at the same time as it will massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions attributable to livestock production.

The dual benefits of reducing emissions and absorbing atmospheric carbon on a large scale at the same time are the key aspect of what makes our recommendations the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change before it’s too late.

0611_soy_foodsTo be clear about what we mean by “better alternatives” to livestock products:  We mean everything from grain-based meats to soy milk, nut butters, as well as whole grains and legumes.  This is because any food that comes directly from a plant rather than from livestock will generally be responsible for a much lower level of greenhouse gas emissions than are livestock products.

We recommend against framing what’s needed as less “meat” and less “milk,” in part because producers of vegan foods often use terms such as “grain-based meat” and “hemp milk.” Moreover, dictionaries define “meat” and “milk” as essential food products that include vegan versions.  So we suggest that it is not the soundest of strategies to cede the terms “milk” and “meat” to livestock producers, and to press people to sacrifice those items.  Indeed, the livestock industry perceives that consumers see milk as such an essential beverage that some livestock producers have filed lawsuits to prevent vegan food producers from using the term “milk.”

One of the reasons to focus attention on livestock and feed production is that such production is estimated to occupy 45% percent of all land on earth – that’s all land, both arable and non-arable, including ice caps and mountaintops.  Most of the land used for livestock and feed production was once forested, and can be forested again.  In fact, there is documented potential for agricultural change to bring atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial revolution levels within five years.

Farm

To provide as much scientific information on this as possible, we’ve developed a website where we’ve posted updated versions of our assessment and links to many prominent citations of our work (and our site has attracted a lot of attention since its high-profile launch, which was reported on by Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday campaign).

533px-Sheep,_Stodmarsh_6For decades, activists have urged that people reduce their consumption of livestock products in order to reduce environmental impacts in general, to be more compassionate to animals, and to improve human health – yet global consumption of animal-based foods has risen dramatically, instead of falling.

In contrast, emergencies normally motivate major action – and since major action to reverse climate change is said to be needed by 2017 or no later than 2020, activists may find it most compelling and effective to cite reversing climate change as the key goal for people to act upon.  Indeed, there is surely no more compelling motivation to act than the knowledge that replacing livestock products with better alternatives may be the only pragmatic way to stop catastrophic climate change from imperiling much of life on earth.

[1] The late, renowned ecologist Robert Goodland served as Lead Environmental Adviser at the World Bank Group, after being hired as its first full-time professional ecologist. Among his many accomplishments, Dr. Goodland co-authored (with Jeff Anhang) the ground-breaking study finding that livestock is responsible for at least 51% of human-induced greenhouse gases. This article is excerpted and edited from the last public presentation made by Dr. Goodland (in September 2013).

 

Masson headshotJeffrey Masson has written nine books on animals, including the bestsellers When Elephants Weep (1996) and Dogs Never Lie about Love (1998). His books The Pig Who Sang to the Moon (2004) and The Face on Your Plate (2010) are quoted in Meatonomics for their evocative descriptions of the emotional lives of pigs, chickens and other animals.

Masson’s latest book is Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us about the Origins of Good and Evil (Bloomsbury, 2014). In Beasts, Masson pursues the theme that humans are the only animals who engage in cruelty and systematic killing of their own kind, and he explores the disturbing ramifications and possible causes of these unique traits. I interviewed Masson about the book and his views on evil, altruism, why he went vegan, and what’s next on his writing plate.

Dave Simon: In addition to being a prolific writer with a number of bestsellers under your belt, you are also a scholar of such diverse fields as Sanskrit and psychiatry. How did your background in these areas inform your writing of Beasts?

Jeff Masson: Sanskrit was no help!  Actually, neither was psychiatry, except that while I reject much of Freudian psychoanalysis (even though I was trained as one), some ideas of Freud, especially around denial, seem to me apposite when it comes to our extraordinary ability to ignore other people’s suffering.  But for that insight, one does not need psychiatry.

DS:      One of the main themes of Beasts is that humans are the only animals who engage in cruelty – and the only ones who routinely kill one another. The book offers a couple of possible explanations for these unique traits: first, the development of agriculture gave humans a reason for violence because it gave us material goods to protect, and second, human intelligence uniquely shows us that killing an enemy better serves our gene-propagation goals than merely subjugating him. Ultimately, however, it seems you don’t find either of these explanations completely convincing or conclusive. Do you have a personal theory for why humans are uniquely predisposed to cruelty and intraspecies killing?

JM:     It is one of the great unanswered questions.  For me, it is not just agriculture that is to blame, but the domestication of animals.  I think that was a terrible moment in history, for it allowed us to give rein to a kind of cruelty toward other animals that is absent from all other animals.  We are simply the most violent animal on the planet.  But you could ask why, given the opportunity, do we engage in this level of awful behavior?  I am afraid nobody knows the answer.  I do not believe it is part of human nature.  I think it is, like war, something we learn.

DS:      Because evolution favors the fittest, it’s tempting to think of the universe as a harsh, violent place where weakness is punished and kindness and compassion have a role only when they serve to advance gene propagation – such as a mother nurturing an infant. Beasts discusses several possible explanations for altruistic behavior. Are human compassion and altruism inherently self-interested in the sense that their goal is merely to advance the giver’s interests? Moreover, if these traits could stem from purely selfless objectives, wouldn’t that actually contradict our genetic wiring?

JM:     Altruism, too, is something we learn.  It is, alas, extremely easy to raise a child to be brutal and sadistic.  It is much harder to raise them to be selfless and compassionate.  But it can be done.

DS:      You point out, somewhat startlingly, that humans have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the origin of agriculture and domestication of animals. Spiritualist Eckhart Tolle has said, pointing to a different kind of collective, mental illness, that human societies “engage in behavior that would be immediately recognizable as psychopathic in an individual.” Is one possible explanation for our violent behavior that we suffer from collective mental illness? If so, how can we treat it?

JM:     Is our species psychopathic?  Interesting question.  Consider the fact that no other animal in the wild develops what we humans call “mental illness.”  This suggests something artificial has happened to our species.  But what is it, when did it happen, and how can we rid ourselves of it, are questions of enormous importance, but very difficult to answer.

DS:      You quote Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, who said people initially denied the Holocaust was underway because the information suggested “a massacre of such vast proportions, of such extreme cruelty and such intricate motivation that the public was inclined to reject” the reports. Is it possible that similarly, the sheer enormity of the scale of factory farming’s violence against animals is what prevents most people from acknowledging or confronting it?

JM:     Yes, I would love to have met Primo Levi and have asked him this very question.  I saw a book yesterday about having pigs in your backyard.  At first I thought, “how nice,” people want to live with pigs as with dogs, as friends.  Then I saw a chapter entitled “Saying goodbye,” naturally about slaughter.  I was horrified.  What is wrong with us?  How can we raise pigs (or any other animal) as friends and then decide we want to eat them instead of befriend them?  Imagine if we raised children in this way, to be killed and eaten.  It completely baffles me that EVERYONE does not see this!  Why not?  I just don’t know but it makes me very sad.

DS:      I remember the moment I decided to go vegan – it was while watching An Unnecessary Fuss, an undercover video about head-injury testing on baboons. If you could point to a primary catalyst that led you to veganism, what would it be?

JM:     For me it was visiting farms, chicken farms, dairy farms, pig farms, and duck farms.  When I saw the obvious suffering of these animals, I just could not believe I had not seen it before (see above about denial!) and could not participate in such suffering by drinking milk, or eating eggs, let alone flesh of another being.

DS:      Since your 1984 book on psychiatry, The Assault on Truth, you’ve written nine books on animals. In explaining your shift in focus, you told another interviewer, “It was very hard to make a living, and I thought, ‘As long as I’m not making a living, I may as well write about something I really love: animals.’ ” Where does your love for animals come from? And, as a number of your animal books have done well commercially, is it fair to say that making a living as a writer is working out better for you now than it once was?

JM:     My love of animals goes way back.   I can remember being a total animal lover at 6.  I was also a vegetarian from the time I was born until I went off to college (what happened then I don’t understand – but I got back on track later).  Yes, I had two major best-sellers, both When Elephants Weep and Dogs Never Lie About Love sold well over a million copies each, primarily, I believe, because both books validated what people already believed.  That commercial success was not repeated with any of my other books, however

DS:      What’s your next book or other project?

JM:     I am now writing a novel about the Holocaust, called Evian, 1938. 

For more information about Jeffrey Masson and his work, visit www.jeffreymasson.com.

SalmonIf you eat fish for the health benefits, then you likely value salmon for its Omega-3’s and its supposed ability to boost brain function.  In that case, sorry for the bad news, but recent research shows there’s a shadowy dark side to the salmon’s light, silvery façade.

My book Meatonomics (Conari Press 2013) explores the hidden forces at play in Americans’ high levels of consumption of fish and other animal foods.  Salmon is particularly troubling because research shows that our obsession with this and other fish is causing real-time, catastrophic declines in marine ecosystems. This article explores these and other problems with salmon, giving you five reasons to drop-kick the fish the way you might a false lover.

  1. Salmon’s “Health Benefits” are a Fish Story

Studies often praise salmon’s health benefits. But that’s just because salmon is healthier than other animal-based foods, particularly red meat. However, when research compares salmon to truly healthy alternatives like plant-based protein, which has no cholesterol, the fish comes up as short as a ship’s flag at half-mast. Nutritionist John McDougall, MD, for example, warns salmon is “half fat” and says eating it increases the risk of obesity and type-2 diabetes. And the USDA says ounce for ounce, salmon contains just as much cholesterol as hamburger.

But wait – what about those healthy Omega-3’s everyone seems to crave? Unfortunately, research finds fish-based Omega-3’s inhibit the action of insulin, thereby increasing blood sugar levels and aggravating diabetes. Another study shows fish-derived Omega-3’s increase the volume of colon cancer metastasis by a massive factor of 1,000 when compared to a low-fat diet. And forget salmon if you’re worried about bone density: the fish’s highly-acidic flesh speeds calcium loss and contributes to osteoporosis and kidney stones.

  1. Down on The Farm, Things Are Even Worse

800px-Lachsfarm2Of course, we’ve been talking about wild salmon, which is far healthier than its farmed cousin. But if you eat farmed salmon, you’re really asking for trouble. Farm-raised salmon contains unhealthy levels of contaminants like PCBs, dioxins, and other chemicals that cause cancer and developmental problems in kids. One study says “young children, women of child-bearing age, pregnant women, and nursing mothers” should avoid farmed salmon if they’re “concerned with health impairments such as reduction in IQ and other cognitive and behavioral effects.” Which makes one wonder: who isn’t concerned about such things?

  1. Salmon Takes a Walk on the Not-So-Wild Side

If the concept was unclear before, now you know: farmed salmon is bad news. The problem is, sticking to wild-caught salmon is easier said than done. With armadas of commercial fishing ships scouring the oceans, largely unregulated and driven by huge government subsidies, the last few decades have seen many of the planet’s wild salmon habitats decline or collapse like tents in a storm.  As a result, producers increasingly turn to aquaculture to meet demand, and today, four out of five forkfuls of salmon eaten in the U.S. come from fish farms. With numbers like these, it’s no big surprise that a New York Times investigation found three-quarters of fish stores pawning off farmed salmon as wild-caught. One store in the sting had the nerve to charge $29 per pound for farmed salmon falsely labeled as wild.

Could this happen to you?  Is it possible it already has?  Yes and yes. Fish farmers feed red foodstuffs to salmon to turn their flesh pink, which makes it impossible for consumers without a lab or a sophisticated palate to tell the difference between wild and farmed fish. Worse, it’s not just fish distributors and retailers who deceive us – the fish do it themselves. One alarming study found that as a result of farmed fish escaping into the wild, up to 40% of supposedly wild-caught salmon studied were actually of farmed origin.

  1. Salmon for the People Means Less for the Animals

600px-Bald_Eagle-27527-13There’s a lot of competition for food in the wild, and when humans eat salmon, we make it harder for other species to eat.  Salmon is a “keystone species” – that is, it has a disproportionately large importance on its environment compared to its abundance. In regions where predators rely on salmon for their own survival, decreases in the salmon population cause predator populations to decline. Thus, in the Pacific Northwest, one of a number of regions where wild salmon populations are struggling because of over-fishing and other human-caused problems, the sharp drop in salmon numbers is causing populations of bears, orcas and eagles to die off. With one-third of the world’s commercial fishing grounds already in a state of collapse, and the rest headed there by mid-century, one person’s whimsical enjoyment of an occasional salmon steak can literally mean the difference between life and death for another animal.

  1. Farming Only Makes Overfishing Worse

Zalophus_wollebaeki2Some urge fish farming as the solution to the problems of overfishing, but aquaculture only aggravates things. Salmon are predators who must eat other fish to survive, and it takes up to five pounds of prey fish like anchovies and herrings to produce one pound of salmon.  As fish farmers around the world scoop up prey fish to feed their farmed animals, this lop-sided math is damaging prey fish stocks everywhere. One sobering report finds that aquaculture’s insatiable demand for prey fish is responsible for declining populations of whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, tuna, bass, salmon, albatross, penguins, and other species. “We have caught all the big fish and now we are going after their food,” said Margot Stiles, the report’s lead author. The result, said Stiles, is “widespread malnutrition” in the oceans.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

breaking-upIt can be hard to drop a food you’ve loved for years, but sometimes you’ve got to read the writing on the seawall.  People don’t need salmon or any other fish to survive. In fact, by avoiding fish and other animal foods, millions of vegans around the world lead uber-healthy lives with negligible levels of cancer, diabetes and heart disease compared to the rest of the population.  Looking for Omega 3’s?  Try cholesterol-free plant sources like flax, hemp, soy and walnuts. Of course, fish get all their Omega-3’s from aquatic vegetation like seaweed, which is another great source of these beneficial fatty acids. With a little willpower, you can dump salmon.

bee in the sand

There’s a beautiful beach called “Crystal Cove” near my home, so close that my partner Tania and I, who consider it our personal sanctuary, walk on the shore several times a week.  (This stretch of coastline is one of the best things about Orange County, California, a place so conservative and corporate-friendly that voters here rejected a GMO labeling initiative by a two-to-one margin.)  In the past year, however, we’ve seen something strange on the beach along with the starfish, anemones and shorebirds: dying bees.  Sometimes there are none.  Other times they’re present by the dozens, wriggling in circles in the wet sand at the water’s edge like drunken, disoriented little aviators.  Eventually, they get tired and simply expire.  You can pick them up, barely alive, and move them inland to a safe place, but it makes no difference.  They’re fatally lost, they can’t find their hive, and they’ll be dead in a few hours.

749px-Anthidium_February_2008-1“Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) refers to the mysterious disappearance of millions of US honeybees over the past half-century – and at an alarmingly accelerated rate since 2006.  I don’t know for certain whether dying bees at the shore are casualties of CCD, and the academics I asked didn’t know either.  But it sure seems likely, especially since CCD is such a generalized concept that almost anything might fit the category.  Which brings me to the main point of this post: the evidence shows that CCD is yet another unfortunate, costly result of Americans’ extraordinarily high consumption of meat and dairy.

mcdonalds-Big-MacIn my book MeatonomicsI show that our nation’s obsession with animal foods – leading us to consume more meat per capita than any other country on the planet – costs us more than $400 billion yearly in hidden, or externalized, costs.  The expenses related to these bee die-offs are also significant, which is why the agriculture industry and the US Department of Agriculture take CCD seriously and are devoting resources to addressing it.  One-third of the food we eat depends on honeybee pollination – giving those pollination services an estimated value of $215 billion worldwide.[1]  In 2008, there were just 2.4 million honeybee colonies in the United States, down from 5.9 million in 1945.[2]  These massive colony losses have already raised honey costs and beehive rental costs, hurt some beekeepers’ incomes, put others out of business, and threatened to disrupt the production of crops worth $15 billion.[3]

Let’s consider how bees are dying, then look at why meat and dairy are to blame.  One leading explanation for CCD is that the prevalent use of pesticides on crops is killing the little pollinators.[4]  When exposed to toxins, bees become disoriented and die within twenty-four hours.  The bee deaths at the beach, of course, fit this pattern like a honeycomb fits a hive.

800px-Corn_field_ohioAnother theory for the bees’ disappearance is that with vast amounts of US cropland now dedicated to monocrops like corn and soybeans, foraging bees cannot find sufficient nutritional or seasonal variety to meet their needs.[5]  Moreover, bees get important immune-boosting benefits from consuming a variety of pollen types, and when they consume only one type, these benefits are diminished.[6]

A final hypothesis says that bees are dying because the pollen of GMO plants is altering the DNA of bees or of bacteria that live in bees’ guts.  One researcher who studied this phenomenon found that genetic material transferred to bees from GMO corn may have “altered the surface of the bee’s intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow parasites to gain entry.”[7]

764px-Honey_bee_on_a_dandelion,_Sandy,_Bedfordshire_(7002893894)Of course, it could even be a combination of all three of these factors.  After all, bees evolved to consume healthy pollen from a variety of natural plants, not toxic pollen from pesticide-soaked, genetically modified, monocrops.  So the triple-whammy theory makes sense too.

It seems indisputable that CCD is a consequence of industrial agriculture, but what does this have to do with meat and dairy?  That’s easy: most of the crops we grow in this country are fed to livestock.[8]  Thus, the top three US crops are corn, soybeans, and hay. Farm animals eat 70 percent of the soybeans, 80 percent of the corn, and virtually all of the hay.[9]  Moreover, 94% of US soy is GMO, as is 88% of US corn.[10]

Thus, the picture that emerges is this: most US cropland is dedicated to GMO monocrops being raised to feed livestock.  And the research shows that it is precisely these crops that are killing bees.  So it is fair to conclude that animal agriculture is largely responsible for the massive bee declines associated with CCD.

800px-Fresh_cut_fruits_and_vegetablesWhat can we do about it?  For starters, we can consume less meat and dairy and eat more organic fruits and vegetables.  This switch alone would go a long way toward helping restore the natural and variegated sources of healthy pollen that bees need.  I propose some other solutions to this and other problems of animal agriculture in my book – so for more details, check out Meatonomics.

 

[1] Dennis vanEngelsdorp et al., “A Survey of Honey Bee Colony Losses in the U.S., Fall 2007 to Spring 2008,” PLoS ONE 3, no. 12 (2008).

[2] Ibid.

[3] George Raine, “Many Causes Blamed for Honeybee Die-off: Colony Collapse Disorder Could Cost $15 Billion,” San Francisco Chronicle (June 1, 2007).

[4] Pettis J, vanEngelsdorp D, Johnson J, Dively G. Pesticide exposure in honey bees results in increased levels of the gut pathogen Nosema. Naturwissenschaften. 2012;99:153–158.

[5] M. Spivak, E. Mader, M. Vaughan, N. H. Euliss Jr., 2011.- The plight of the bees.- Environmental Science and Technology, 45: 34-38.

[6] Alaux C; Ducloz F; Crauser D; Le Conte Y. 2010. Diet effects on honeybee immunocompetence. Biology Letters.

[7] Gunther Latsch, “Collapsing Colonies: Are GM Crops Killing Bees?,” Spiegel Online (March 22, 2007).

[8] Edgar G. Hertwich et al., “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials” (report, Working Group on the Environmental Impacts of Products and Materials to the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, United Nations Environment Program, 2010), 80.

[9] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Major Crops Grown in the United States”; Lester Brown, “Soybeans Threaten Amazon Rainforest,” Grist (2010).

[10] Ryan Beville, “How Pervasive are GMOs in Animal Feed?,” GMO Inside Blog (July 16, 2013).

Check out the new animated video of Meatonomics! It’s a graphic, two-minute overview of the book suitable for foodies of all ages. (And if you like it, please share!)

Meatonomics

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a bad case of multiple personality disorder, and just like Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in the movie “Fight Club,” the agency’s alter egos regularly duke it out.  In one corner is the USDA, charged with protecting consumers.  In the other corner is … the USDA, dedicated to helping industry.  Yet when consumer protection and industry promotion go toe-to-toe, the results can be bizarre and dangerous for consumers. 

In my book Meatonomics (Conari Press, 2013), I show how the USDA’s built-in conflicts of interest threaten Americans’ health and well-being through inadequate food safety, misleading product labeling, and confusing or inaccurate nutrition advice.  This article looks at five ways the USDA regularly fails to safeguard consumers and keep us informed.  Regardless of your diet or politics, this routine and risky government bungling is something you cannot afford to ignore. 

800px-Meat_hanging_in_cooler_room-011.      Faulty Food Safety Measures

The USDA is responsible for inspecting meat to ensure it’s safe to eat.  But audits find that misguided USDA inspection efforts permit the regular presence in meat of dangerous toxins or pathogens like arsenic and E. coli, with the latter found only by “happenstance.”

2.      Sketchy Labeling Enforcement

500px-USDA_organic_seal.svgLabeling standards can be misleading and subject to industry influence.  Thus, more than 300 inorganic substances – including artificial colorings and flavorings – find their way into foods certified by the USDA as “organic.”  In one example reported in The Washington Post, staff at the USDA staff decided that baby formula containing synthetic fats could not be called organic because the synthetic fats are often made with hexane, a neurotoxin. However, after an industry lobbyist contacted a USDA deputy administrator to advocate his clients’ position, the agency bureaucrat overruled her staff and allowed the questionable baby food to sport the organic label.

3.      Dietary Advice Brought to You By McDonald’s

McDonald's_-_BarraShoppingIndustry players move around the agency with ease, exerting tremendous influence on nutrition policy.  Case in point: two-thirds of the panelists who drafted the USDA’s latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans had ties to industry, including McDonald’s, Dannon, and others. As a result of this commercial influence on federal nutritional policy, the Harvard School of Public Health rejects the USDA’s dietary advice as the product of “intense lobbying efforts from a variety of food industries.”

4.      Conflict and Confusion in Nutrition Recommendations

800px-Domino's_Pizza_In_Spring_Hill,FLAThe USDA’s battling campaigns in nutrition and marketing often confuse consumers.  Thus, the USDA’s nutritional arm says we should “ask for … half the cheese” on pizza to reduce our saturated fat intake.  But at the same time, the USDA’s promotional arm helps dairy farmers sell more cheese.  A program under USDA oversight teamed with Domino’s Pizza to create and market a pizza with much more cheese than normal.  With six cheeses on top and two more in the crust, a twelve-inch “Wisconsin” pizza contains 39 grams of saturated fat, roughly double the USDA’s recommended daily saturated fat maximum of 20 grams.

5.      Anything to Sell More Product

800px-2pigsSometimes the agency gets the facts wrong in ways that help industry and put consumers at risk.  During the 2009 swine flu epidemic that killed 12,000 Americans, the pork industry asked the USDA for help diffusing a major sales problem – people were buying less pork because they didn’t want to get sick.  Despite strong evidence that swine flu originated in pigs, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told Americans in a press conference that the disease is unrelated to pigs and would henceforth be called “H1N1 Virus.”  But research published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature a few months later showed – surprise – that swine flu actually started in pigs.

What Can We Do?

800px-Krispy_kreme_assortThe USDA’s heavy conflict of interest in nutritional matters has led to calls for change.  Former U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL) said in 2003 that USDA dietary guidance “probably has more to do with diabetes and obesity than Krispy Kremes.” But Fitzgerald got little traction with his proposal that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services take over USDA’s responsibility for nutritional advice.

American consumers deserve better.  We deserve dietary advice, labeling standards, and food safety programs that are objective and based on science rather than on industry lobbying.  Two in three adult Americans are overweight, and one in three has heart disease (including hypertension, or high blood pressure).  Our government should act to reverse this epidemic of illnesses of indulgence, not help industry sell us even more of the very foods that are hurting us.

Senator Fitzgerald had the right idea, even if he lacked the votes to get it done.  We must keep pushing lawmakers to disentangle the USDA from policy-making in nutrition, labeling and food safety, and leave it to its main goal of helping farmers. And in the meantime, treat dietary advice from the USDA as you would investment advice from a car salesman: with caution.

For more information, get the book Meatonomics.

fishfarm1If you eat seafood, unless you catch it yourself or ask the right questions, the odds are pretty good it comes from a fish farm. The aquaculture industry is like a whale on steroids, growing faster than any other animal agriculture segment and now accounting for half the fish eaten in the U.S. As commercial fishing operations continue to strip the world’s oceans of life, with one-third of fishing stocks collapsed and the rest headed there by mid-century, fish farming is increasingly seen as a way to meet the world’s growing demand.

In my book MeatonomicsI look at the latest data on fish farming and explore whether it’s really the silver bullet to solve the Earth’s food needs.  Can marine farms reliably satisfy the daily seafood cravings of three billion people around the globe? 

This article looks at aquaculture and its long-term effects on people, fish, and other animals. With this industry regularly touted as a paragon of food production, whether you eat seafood or not, you should know these nine key facts about farmed fish.

1.  Farmed fish have dubious nutritional value.

Here’s a frustrating paradox for those who eat fish for their health: the nutritional benefits of fish can be greatly decreased when it’s farmed. Take omega-3 fatty acids. Wild fish get their omega-3’s from aquatic plants. Farmed fish, however, are often fed corn, soy, or other feedstuffs that contain little or no omega-3’s. This unnatural, high-corn diet also means some farmed fish accumulate unhealthy levels of the wrong fatty acids. Further, farmed fish are routinely dosed with antibiotics, which can cause antibiotic-resistant disease in humans.

1453-1248991854OsWo2.  Fish farming robs Peter to pay Paul.

While some farmed fish can live on diets of corn or soy, others need to eat fish – and lots of it. Tuna and salmon, for example, need to eat up to five pounds of fish for each pound of body weight. The result is that prey (fish like anchovies and herring) are being fished to the brink of extinction to feed the world’s fish farms. “We have caught all the big fish and now we are going after their food,” says the non-profit Oceana, which blames aquaculture’s voracious hunger for declines of whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, tuna, bass, salmon, albatross, penguins, and other species.

3.  Fish experience pain and stress.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of many a catch-and-release angler, the latest research shows conclusively that fish experience pain and stress. In one study, fish injected with bee venom engaged in rocking behavior linked to pain and, compared to control groups, reduced their swimming activity, waited three times longer to eat, and had higher breathing rates. Farmed fish are subject to the routine stresses of hyperconfinement throughout their lives, and are typically killed in slow, painful ways like evisceration, starvation, or asphyxiation.

998-12370543041UbT4.  Farmed fish are loaded with disease, and this spreads to wild fish populations.

Farmed fish are packed as tightly as coins in a purse, with twenty-seven adult trout, for example, typically scrunched into a bathtub-sized space. These unnatural conditions give rise to diseases and parasites, which often migrate off the farm and infect wild fish populations. On Canada’s Pacific coast, for example, sea lice infestations are responsible for mass kill-offs of pink salmon that have destroyed 80% of the fish in some local populations. But the damage doesn’t end there, because eagles, bears, orcas, and other predators depend on salmon for their existence. Drops in wild salmon numbers cause these species to decline as well.

5.  Fish farms are rife with toxins, which also damage local ecosystems.

You can’t have diseases and parasites infecting your economic units, so operators fight back by dumping concentrated antibiotics and other chemicals into the water. Such toxins damage local ecosystems in ways we’re just beginning to understand. One study found that a drug used to combat sea lice kills a variety of nontarget marine invertebrates, travels up to half a mile, and persists in the water for hours.

6.  Farmed fish are living in their own feces.

That’s right, fish poop too. Farmed fish waste falls as sediment to the seabed in sufficient quantities to overwhelm and kill marine life in the immediate vicinity and for some distance beyond. It also promotes algal growth, which reduces water’s oxygen content and makes it hard to support life. When the Israeli government learned that algal growth driven by two fish farms in the Red Sea was hurting nearby coral reefs, it shut them down.

7.  Farmed fish are always trying to escape their unpleasant conditions, and who can blame them?

In the North Atlantic region alone, up to two million runaway salmon escape into the wild each year. The result is that at least 20% of supposedly wild salmon caught in the North Atlantic are of farmed origin. Escaped fish breed with wild fish and compromise the gene pool, harming the wild population. Embryonic hybrid salmon, for example, are far less viable than their wild counterparts, and adult hybrid salmon routinely die earlier than their purebred relatives. This pressure on wild populations further hurts predators who rely on fish like bears and orcas.

8.  Also at Work: the Twisted “Jevons Paradox.”

This counterintuitive economic theory says that as production methods grow more efficient, demand for resources actually increases – rather than decreasing, as you might expect. Accordingly, as aquaculture makes fish production increasingly efficient, and fish become more widely available and less expensive, demand increases across the board. This drives more fishing, which hurts wild populations. Thus, as the construction of new salmon hatcheries from 1987 to 1999 drove lower prices and wider availability of salmon, world demand for salmon increased more than fourfold during the period. The net result: fish farming cranks up the pressure on already-depleted populations of wild fish around the world.

9.  When the heavy environmental damage they cause is taken into account, fish farming operations often are found to generate more costs than revenues.

One study found that aquaculture in Sweden’s coastal waters “is not only ecologically but also economically unsustainable.” Another report concluded that fish farming in a Chinese lake is an “economically irrational choice from the perspective of the whole society, with an unequal tradeoff between environmental costs and economic benefits.” Simply put, aquaculture drives heavy ecological harms and these cost society money. In the U.S., fish farming drives hidden costs of roughly $700 million each year – or half the annual production value of fish farming operations.

lookn-at-youNow What?

With its long trail of diseases, chemicals, wastes, and suffering, and the heavy pressure it puts on wild populations through parasites, escapes, and higher demand, the sustainability of fish farms emerges as a fish story. And by the way, farmed or wild, fish are only “healthy” when compared to high-fat foods like red meat. But wild fish is no great nutritional treat either: pound for pound, salmon has just as much cholesterol as ground beef, and virtually all wild fish contains highly-toxic mercury.

Here’s one solution to the farmed fish dilemma: vote with your pocketbook and eat less seafood or give it up completely. Get your omega-3’s from flax, hemp, soy, or walnuts – all without cholesterol or mercury. And just maybe, as George W. Bush hoped in a moment of unintended comedy, “the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”

For more information and additional solutions, get the book Meatonomics.