I'm in a crap place these days...my grandfather passed away on January 10, and that's shaken me up pretty well. Other stuff is going on, too - some good, some challenging....but all of it is leaving me pretty low. I keep trying to write about it, but I just get so tired of feeling like all I ever do is whine and bitch, so I never post anything. At some point, I imagine I will, but for now, it's easier to ramble on about something else. Feelings are confusing and frustrating; green activism, particularly food activism, is less so - and what does that tell you about the shit in my head, eh??
So, TreeHugger asked the question "Is Eating Meat the Best Way to Fight Factory Farms?" The various conversations around this topic bring in a lot of perspectives, because this is an incredibly complicated question to ask. Personally, though, I think even that complicated question is an oversimplification. Let me explain.
First off, there are two major reasons to oppose CAFOs (which I'm separating from factory farming, because factory farming also includes non-meat crop farming...which is awful, too) and consider going veggie: either for what I'll call Compassionate Reasons or Environmental Reasons. (I am choosing to ignore religious/spiritual reasons, even though there's some overlap, just for the purpose of keeping this relatively quick.)
If you're doing the compassion thing, the major concern is usually animal cruelty: animals in CAFOs live pretty awful lives. Overcrowded into standing-room-only cages and pens, fighting with their brethren for food and water and space. Poultry birds are debeaked so they can't peck each other. Excrement fumes and dust are inhaled by the animals with every breath, requiring prophylactic antibiotics to prevent illness. Some animals never see sunshine, or eat anything approaching an actual plant. And all of that's not even looking at how factory farmed animals are slaughtered....to put it mildly, it's not done kindly. (And, as someone who grew up seeing livestock and wild game slaughtered, I believe it can indeed be done kindly and ethically.)
If those are the reasons someone opposes factory farms, then eating grass-fed/small farm/ethically-raised-and-slaughtered meat is a much better option (though it's been my experience that many of these folks just oppose eating animals in general), since the animals usually have less horrible lives that end with much less misery. So, yeah, if your goal is to put CAFOs out of the business of torturing animals for us to eat....then yeah, eating meat from small farms with ethical agricultural practices is a good way to vote with your dollars - it more directly gives huge corporate meat producers a profit incentive to change their ways. If you stop eating meat altogether, they may not even notice; if you give their competition a bump, they're more likely to see it and maybe consider trying to get your money.
The other major reason for opposing CAFOs is the environmental one. CAFOs, in addition to all the awful crap already mentioned, also wreak total havoc on the environment. I don't just mean the shit lagoons that stink up the neighborhood and necessitate all that over-medicating the livestock....I'm talking about soil and groundwater contamination (not only with poo and bacteria, but also with those antibiotics I mentioned), I'm talking about waterways flooded with waste, I'm talking about massive fish kills, I'm talking about huge amounts of methane and carbon dioxide produced en masse by confined livestock. Beyond that, CAFOs are an integral part of the overall factory farm system, driven by petrochemically-supported monocrop operations that produce bumper crops of corn and soy that have to go somewhere....like, say, the mouths of food animals in CAFOs. The system as a whole is a major contributor to greenhouse gases, the oil industry via petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, and climate change overall.
If those are someone's reasons for opposing CAFOs, then it's still true that eating ethically produced meat would be a good step to take. The mechanics of a CAFO are not such an issue for small farms, since the volume of waste is significantly smaller.
However, both of these perspectives miss a bigger issue: even ethically produced meat can be problematic, environmentally speaking. The bottom line is that meat - regardless of how it's produced - requires more resources than plants do. More water, more time, more energy....and if you're trying to find the most environmentally conscious way of eating, meat is likely to be a small part of it, simply because eating vegetarian has the smallest footprint. Even if you don't "eat local," a vegetarian diet uses less water and less oil, and produces fewer greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
Also, as it becomes clear that global hunger is definitely going to be a huge issue (hello, food riots), the plain fact is that feeding food plants to animals instead of hungry people...is not exactly groovy. (Ditto putting food plants into gas tanks, ethanol!) If people ate less meat, that would mean fewer crops would go to feed livestock, meaning they could be shifted towards solving that hunger crisis thing.
So...if the point is to stop CAFOs, yeah, I guess eating ethical meat could be more helpful than skipping meat entirely. But if we think just a smidge bigger, to the overall global environemtal and sociopolitical issues that loom large now and will only become more and more critical, the truth is that eating less meat overall - if not going totally vegetarian - is the best choice for the health of the planet.
Of course, that's on a broad, global scale, and the other truth is that there are tons of complicating factors of economics, physical and mental health, etc. that make it tricky for lots of people to go veggie, even if they wanted to. As in most things, there is no such thing as One Size Fits All.
Loud-mouthed liberal feminist. Anarchist knitter. Tequila-drinking artsy-smartsy fat chick. Bluesy folk-rock singer-songwriter. Rebel with too many causes. Quirky eclectic pagan poet. Paradoxical intuitive smartass. Sarcastic brainiac insomniac. You know, for starters.