Is the meat industry destroying Earth? Two committed vegetarians come to surprising conclusions in this episode of “The Kids Are Alright” podcast.
By Sarah Mende
A cattle rancher, an environmentalist, a social scientist and the chairman of a think tank all sat down to talk meat with Thacher students Saga Leslie and Skye Neulight.
In this first episode of News-Decoder's latest podcast series, The Kids Are Alright Season Two, you'll hear a mix of opinions on the environmental impact of eating meat, the U.S. meat industry's practices and the industry's response to concerns over rising carbon dioxide levels.
Leslie and Neulight are long-time vegetarians and have boycotted the meat industry most of their lives. Both young women have grown up in California, a region prone to drought and wild fires, and are conscious of environmental issues and how their lifestyle choices affect their physical surroundings.
This expanded what I thought I knew.
The two students decided to use this podcast to explore how their backgrounds and media portrayals of the meat industry have influenced their consumption decisions and views about the meat industry.
The conversations that Leslie and Neulight had with interviewees surprised them.
“Putting together this podcast expanded what I thought I knew about animal farming by exploring multiple sides of the issue,” Leslie said.
"It's important for consumers to realize that there is a lot more nuance in these things than one might expect," Neulight said.
Don't take our word for it! Listen yourself to a range of conscientious, informed insiders on this complex topic.
Amber Miller: Welcome to The Kids Are Alright, the podcast that explores big, global issues from a young and fresh perspective.
I’m Amber Miller.
Gareth Lewis: And I'm Garth Lewis. The Kids Are Alright was produced by a team of students interested in learning more about some of the biggest issues facing the global community.
Hey, I'm Saga!
And I'm Skye.
Saga: And we are third-year students at the Thacher School in Ojai, California.
Skye: Living in the agriculturally-focused Ojai Valley, we’ve grown more and more interested in the sustainability and impacts of our food systems, and more specifically, the meat industry.
Saga: So we decided to conduct research on animal agriculture and its vast effects on the environment. Within the context of our American meat culture, before the year is out, projections put American meat production at a total of 103 billion pounds. Large-scale production like that relies on a complex, contentious system that has serious social, economic and political implications. We went out to get a better understanding of them.
So we reached out to two recent graduates, a rancher and an environmentalist. And first up, I spoke with a student at our school.
Fiona: So my name is Fiona. I am 18. I just graduated from the Thacher School and there is a program called Senior Exhibition where every senior has to pick a topic, and you spend pretty much the whole year researching it. And I chose to do the environmental costs of factory farming.
Saga: So, was there any reason why you picked your topic?
Fiona: In the modern environmental movement, it’s become really popular for people to go vegan or vegetarian, and as someone who cares a lot about the environment but also was raised eating and loving meat, I wanted to know more about why it was better to go vegetarian. So I decided to research it.
With factory farming, there’s so many facets of it. There’s the ethics and the morals. There’s the environmental costs. There’s the actual practice itself. I researched a little bit of all of those things, but I mostly focused on the environmental cost.
Saga: Awesome. So I know you mentioned to me how factory farming is related to the health of the public and stuff like that. What was something that you found was a related part of animal agriculture to public well-being. Was it detrimental? Was it not?
Fiona: So, all the environmental effects of factory farming — the factory farms themselves are called CAFOs, which stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — basically all the environmental effects of those have a direct effect on humans just because of the vast amount of waste they produce.
In order to understand what a CAFO is, you have to understand what the carrying capacity of the land is. So, if you think in the wild, if there’s a meadow and a population of deer that live in that meadow, if the population of the deer grows, they will expand outwards and take up more land so that it can continue to feed them and give them the nutrients they need while also maintaining a balanced ecosystem. So, it’s staying in balance with the carrying capacity of the land. The whole idea of a CAFO is to exceed the carrying capacity as much as possible. So it’s fitting as many animals as possible in as small a space as possible.
Saga: Could you explain what they are and why they’re used and how they they impact the environment?
Fiona: Farms in America transitioned from small, really diverse farms to huge mono-cultures. It became a lot more profitable for farmers to start thinking more like businessmen in terms of what would be most profitable, and also the demand for meat increased a lot, and CAFOs are the only way to meet that demand for meat. There is a huge input of energy to run a CAFO and huge output, and those are the two parts of the environmental effects.
There are so many animals there that there is no way they could possibly grow all the food they need, so they need to get their feed from a wide variety of places, so that’s greenhouse gases — a lot of them to transport the feed to the farm. And they [cows] need a high-protein diet in order to grow fat and to grow fast. A high protein diet consumes a lot of resources The average cattle CAFO, just one, produces 344 million pounds of manure per year. Farm animals in the U.S. -- this fact blows my mind! Farm animals in the U.S., just the U.S., produce 130 times more waste than the entire human population combined!
Saga: Oh my god! So, a lot of people, including me and Skye are vegetarian partly in support of the environment. Is it an effective solution to the huge issue that you’re saying is caused by animal agriculture on sustainability, and is this effective?
Fiona: So, if everyone in the world could go vegan, that would be awesome. That would solve so many of our problems, but that’s not going to happen because meat and dairy is delicious.
Realistically, that’s not something to ask of a large mass of people. But one thing that is easier to do is just to ask people to reduce the amount of meat they eat. You could, like, one day a week -- like we literally just don’t have the space to produce more than we already are now, and what we are producing right now is consuming resources without replenishing them, so we’re like, using a bunch of topsoil in a way that is unsustainable. We throw that word around a lot when we’re talking about sustainability, but if you just break it down, it’s like, “unable to sustain this practice,” we just physically can’t.
Saga: So after Fiona, we decided to interview Carolita Landers, a recent animal science graduate, who we thought might have a perspective that’s different from the mainstream due to her hands-on experience with all sorts of farms -- bigger operations, smaller family farms -- and with it, an understanding of the smaller details only really seen in their day-to-day operations that might not usually be portrayed in the media. And so I’ll hand it off to Skye.
Skye: Could you describe your studies and what they involve, for people who don’t necessarily know what animal science entails?
Carolita: Colorado State University, where I went, the nature of animal science degree involves studying all fundamentals of animal livestock for human consumption and its byproducts. It entailed animal rearing, nutrition, facility dynamics, genetics, economics, business modeling. My CapStone specializations were in cow-calf operations, which is the part of calf-rearing -- before they get to a feedlot -- intended for beef consumption. So it’s kind of like the main beginning structure of the life cycle. A lot of them will go into a feedlot or some of them will be put on a grass-feed operation before they go to a feedlot, and then they go to a packing plant. But the cow-calf operation is kind of where it all starts.
Skye: I know that we sent you that quote from the article that said, “The majority of Americans object to standard factory farming practices but only after they’re told what those practices are.” What are your thoughts on factory farming? Are you more or less in favor of it? Where do you stand on the issue now?
Carolita: I definitely had a lot of opinions on the industry going into it. And a lot of those opinions did a whole 360-degree change. I am way less critical, if not critical at all, of the industry anymore because I know exactly.... I’ve met the ranchers who just give their whole lives to providing food for people, like, as an example, a lot of people criticize the practice of separating calves in dairy hutches, where they’re housed individually like that. But from an owner’s perspective, it’s to reduce biological hazard. So a lot of the time, that’s always deemed as cruel and they’re really sad and things like that, but it actually is for the better of the animal. And a lot of the time, without that information or with the research or knowledge behind it, can be taken a really wrong way.
Skye: What practices surprised you?
Carolita: I was really surprised by how disconnected people are from their food. It’s a lot of stuff that people scrutinize and know absolutely nothing about, so that was really hard for me to cope with.
People can be vegan or vegetarian or do whatever they want, but my problem with that sometimes is that people will go that route but on the basis of misinformation.
People are so far removed from the food industry these days that if you’re going to make that much of a drastic change -- and preach about it -- make sure you have your facts straight and maybe go visit a cattle ranch or go see for yourself how the industry works actually before you make that decision.
Skye: If there’s one thing we can take away, it’s that meat production requires a substantial amount of energy and resources. And if you’re wondering what you can eat without feeling guilty, two recent graduates recommend visiting your local ranch to learn more about where your beef comes from and the impact it has on the environment.
Our reporters did just that. Next up, Saga speaks with Wes Myers, a third-generation cattle rancher in central California. Here’s Wes to tell us more about running the Flying M Ranch.
Wes: What we do is we bring in heavier amounts of cattle, they’re actually wider cattle, they’re stockers -- we're in the middle of the cattle supply chain. So we don’t produce the calves, we buy the calves. They come off the cow, and then we fatten them up and we sell them to the feedlots and the packing houses, which then in turn sell them to the end user. So, it’s kind of a modular industry, and we’re right in the middle.
Saga: We know that there’s a lot of different labels and ways that consumers are looking to buy organic or grass-fed, stuff like that. So could you explain a little bit about where your beef fits into that?
Wes: We’re not doing organic. We’re doing natural. And what that means is no antibiotics and no hormones. So non-hormone treated cattle. The pluses to it are that you get an animal that’s free of any growth hormones and free of antibiotics. The downside to it is that they do not convert the grass into edible beef as efficiently, and you have higher morbidity and higher mortality, so that’s what makes the meat more expensive.
Saga: Where do your cattle go after you raise them? And you mention that you outsource them to feedlots. How does that work?
Wes: Beef is an interesting product because when you go over to Taco Bell, you can get beef or you can go to a high-dollar steakhouse and you can get beef. So, as you can imagine, when you have an industry that’s flooded with this product, beef, there’s a lot of different grades of it that go different places. And because of that, we’ve started partnering with packing houses, where what we do is we’re taking in their cattle on a partnership, and we fatten them up, and depending on how efficient and how good we are, we get a percentage of whatever -- a price per pound on game -- and then they go back to the original owners, which are normally the packing houses. So what we do is, they will buy calves straight from ranchers. They’ll wean them off. They’ll ship them to us. We will take care of them, and then we’ll send them up to their feedlot when they’re all fat from our grass.
Saga: We were researching these big companies like Tyson and Cargill and Smithfield and noticed that on their websites, they do make these environmental claims. Would you agree with or disagree with the statistics that they have up on their website and their claims for, I guess, being environmentally conscious are more for the appeal of the consumer? Or is this something that they’re actually doing?
Wes: I definitely think it’s something they’re actually doing, and also think it’s for the consumer, but with an asterisk. I think that a lot of the beef, like for example the stuff we are doing -- the natural beef -- or the organic beef, I think that’s purely consumer. I would argue that every one of those big boys that have their own property or that are running ranches or leases, I think they’re very in tune with the sustainability, so to speak, of those properties. When you have a ranch or a piece of property, your productivity depends on how you treat it in the years before and years after. From a financial standpoint, to treat it in a responsible and sustainable manner because you want to have that grass production -- and proper grass production -- for those animals to gain what they need to gain. So, I definitely think that those bigger companies are much more in tune with it than smaller companies, and they have sustainability people there which just focus on that. The nice thing about ranching, that I like, is the challenge -- you have to have both. You can’t be sustainable economically in agriculture if you’re not also sustainable from an environmental standpoint, because if you don’t take care of the ground, it won’t take care of you.
Skye: So we talked to Tom Burke last, an environmentalist based in London, to wrap things up with a more global perspective and get a bit of an idea of where politics fits into this whole equation.
Tom: My name’s Tom Burke. I am the chairman of an environmental think tank called E3G, which stands for “third generation environmentalism.” I’ve been an environmentalist working on environment in non-governmental organizations, in business and in government for -- god, I don’t know, 40-odd years -- too long to think about. The organization I work for focuses especially on climate change, but I’ve really dealt over the years with a large number of organizations. I used to run Friends of the Earth in Britain and then another environmental organization called the Green Alliance. I’ve worked in the Foreign Office on climate diplomacy. So I have a lot of experience with different approaches to the problem.
Skye: As you know, our focus with this interview and this dive into climate change is specifically on animal agriculture, so what have been your experiences with that? And how does it compare to the other issues that are talked about in climate forums?
Tom: There are four major components of the problem, four things we have to deal with if we want to solve it. We’ve got to decarbonize power. We’ve got to decarbonize transport. We’ve got to decarbonize heat and cooling -- basically what keeps people warm or cool depending on where they are -- and we’ve got to decarbonize agriculture. We’re doing quite well on power. And we know how to do on transport. But I think we’re not really well placed yet on agriculture.
Skye: So in our research, we were looking through some of the top producers, specifically of beef, but they control most of the meat industry worldwide. If you go on their websites, they all have pages about sustainability, and it seems like they’re donating massive sums of money to, you know, reforest Brazil or to contribute to some sort of sustainability efforts. What are your thoughts on this?
Tom: Well, it’s not simple. What might look like a lot of money to you may be peanuts to them, so you need to compare what they’re spending on that with what they’re spending on other things. On the other hand, there are loads of people in those companies who really are trying to do the best they can. So it’s not as simple as some journalist would have you think-- you know, corporations bad, uh, us guys good. It’s not that simple. We’re not gonna feed eight billion people without big corporations, we’re just not gonna do it. There are eight billion people on the planet. We’re gonna need a lot of big institutions that have very big capabilities to be able to help us solve that and meet those needs. But you can be a lot more transparent about what the corporations are doing and you can hold them accountable through public policy much more than we do, and the idea that they somehow have a right to do whatever they like, well, they only have a right if we give them a right. They don’t have the right intrinsically -- they’re not human beings. So there’s a bargain to be struck about the role of the corporation, and that means you’ve got to elect politicians who are up for it, making sure that corporations have a social purpose as well as an economic purpose.
Skye: This is a little bit about our generation and what young people can do. Do you have any things to keep in mind as we’re sort of designing what the future might look like and creating new things that are ethical and help bridge people together, specifically in regards to climate change?
Tom: At the end of the day, you know, you want to make the world go round differently and you discover money makes the world go round.
You’ve got to focus on what you can do in your capital and how you can change the policies in the capital, so that the space in which you can create an agreement gets bigger. And part of the way you do that, you build from the bottom up. In a sense, all politics -- there was that famous American congressman who once said “all politics is local,” and there’s some truth in that. Now you can interpret that in lots of different ways, but you start where you are. You start with the people around you, the institutions around you, and you work with them to get there. You’re not alone in trying to do this. An awful temptation in this area is to think you’re the only person worrying about this. I promise you, I promise you, there are millions and millions of people like you your age -- you’re seeing that with Greta Thunberg at the Fridays Movement -- there are millions and millions of people, not just millions and millions of teenagers, there are really millions and millions of people of all ages trying to solve this problem. And if you want to make the world go round differently, you need to be engaged in different conversations.
So talk to people. And you have all kinds of potentials that are instinctively and intuitively comfortable for you that are much less comfortable as people get, you know for older people.
Just because you have all that tech that we’re currently using and all those possibilities to just get good at the ability to connect. That’s the kind of thing that, in a way, I’m looking to your generation to help with.
Saga: Going into this podcast, I think we had a really different understanding of the meat industry than we do now. You know, as vegetarians and relatively environmentally conscious people, I think we had kind of adopted this media perspective of the meat industry itself that sort of just showcased all this horrible stuff that was going on behind closed doors.
Skye: Definitely, and I know that going into it, I thought that I was informed and I thought that there was a lot of stuff that I knew, and specifically it was coming from all these documentaries that I had watched that honestly felt a lot more like entertainment than nonfiction -- and were really focused on the conspiracy. And you know, we got the problematic side and there are a lot of very legitimate environmental impacts and detriments that we heard about from Fiona and a little bit from Tom as well, and they gave us a very in-depth understanding of the scope and the breadth of the those. But I think that we got a totally different perspective when we talked to Carolita and Wes, and that came up actually, it was kind of funny, when we were interviewing Carolita. We sent her this whole list of questions, and all of them were sort of implicitly biased against the meat industry. And it was very clear that we thought there was an issue with it and that it was innately wrong. And you know, it took us until about half way through the interview for us to realize that she was taken aback, kind of, by the stance that we were pushing on her.
Saga: Which was something that we didn’t even expect going into it!
Skye: Yeah, not at all. And I think that was a really transformative moment for us to realize that knowing as much as she did and being as close with the farmers as she was, that she didn’t see an issue with the industry.
Saga: Same thing with Wes. I visited his ranch. I knew him as a rancher. And he’s just, I just know him as a very conscientious farmer. And he is. And when I asked him about how he produces his meat, I was very surprised by the fact that he mentioned Cargill. Not only did he mention it, he was endorsing it. A very, very large, one of the top four meat producers in the country. And I was very surprised. And the fact that he didn’t really know what a factory farm was. I realized that there’s much more of a blurred line between good and bad in the meat industry. And that there’s a lot more nuance involved in it than we really expected. There’s no evil. There’s no purely evil, and there’s no purely good answer to it.
And I think that that kind of makes things messy when consumers are asking, “What do I have to feel guilty about, and what should I not feel guilty about?” And I think that guilt is a really difficult thing to kind of, you know, measure your impact with because it’s very personal and it’s very internal. And something about it kind of implies taking the blood off your hands and lifting that burden off yourself.
Skye: That’s right, and I think looking forward, it’s important for consumers to realize that there is a lot more nuance in these things than one might expect. And, you know, that means being educated, but not just educated but understanding a variety of perspectives and knowing that nothing can be truly good or evil.