Hurricane Florence Highlights The Cruel Reality Of Factory Farming

Above Photo: Broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat) are the top agricultural commodity in North Carolina. In 2015, 823 million broiler chickens were raised in the state. (Photo credit: North Carolina Department of Agriculture)

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd tore through North Carolina, killing 74 people and causing $6.5 billion in damage. But it didn’t just destroy towns and claim human lives; it also claimed the lives of millions of farm animals. The images are impossible to forget: lifeless pigs floating in flood water, thousands of dead chickens inside a factory farm and a few live pigs huddling on top of a barn almost completely submerged under water.

Hurricane Floyd also caused 55 pig manure lagoons to flood, pushing out hog waste into nearby estuaries, which killed fish and caused algae blooms.

Now, early reports show Hurricane Florence’s similar devastating impact on animals and the environment. The North Carolina Department Agriculture and Consumer Services said Tuesday that the storm has claimed the lives of 3.4 million chickens and turkeys, as well as 5,500 hogs. About 1.7 million of those chickens perished at Sanderson Farms, the nation’s third-largest poultry producer, according to Reuters. The numbers are expected to rise.

The Associated Press says several manure lagoons have failed and are now spilling out pollution. The Waterkeeper Alliance has shared photos of manure lagoon breaches and factory farms turned into underwater tombs.

While natural disasters can spotlight and heighten the risks of factory farming to public health, the environment and animals, we’ve long known about the dangers it poses, which raises the question: Why are we raising and killing animals for food in the first place?

From overuse of antibiotics, which could render our own antibiotics ineffective, to leaking manure lagoons, to high saturated fat and cholesterol in meat, eggs and milk, animal farming is one of the most pressing global public health risks.

That’s why last year, more than 200 public health experts, environmental scientists, ethicists and others signed an open letter — featured in The New York Times — calling on the World Health Organization to take concrete steps to mitigate factory farming’s harmful effects. Some of those steps include banning growth-promoting antibiotics, stopping factory farm subsidies, educating consumers on the health risks of meat consumption and financing research into plant-based alternatives to meat.

Also, it’s well known that the meat industry is horrible for the environment. Livestock production is not only resource-intensive but a leading cause of climate change — the second-largest contributor of human-made greenhouse gases after the combustion of fossil fuels — as farmed animals emit vast amounts of methane and carbon into the atmosphere.

What’s more, it’s extremely cruel. North Carolina’s more than 850 million farmed animals — mostly chickens raised for meat — experience short, brutal lives filled with constant misery and deprivation. Nearly all of these chickens are bred to grow so large, so fast, that many cannot even walk without pain. They live in their own waste, packed into dark, windowless warehouses. And North Carolina’s pig population — about 9 million — is almost as high as its human population. Mother pigs in the pork industry are confined for virtually their entire lives in crates so narrow the animals can’t even turn around.

But the factory farm industry is inured to the abject cruelty that millions of sentient beings must endure under their watch. In a press release, Sanderson Farms described the estimated 1.7 million chickens who perished in their factories as being “destroyed as a result of flooding” — as if they were merely inanimate objects. What’s more shocking is that in the same press release, the company states, “We are fortunate that Sanderson Farms sustained only minimal damage and no loss of life as a result of the storm.” No loss of life? The company completely ignores the fact that those chickens were even alive, let alone thinking, emotional individuals, each with their own unique personalities and social systems, just like humans, dogs, cats and other animals.

But unlike companion animals, who are required by law to be part of government evacuation plans during natural disasters, farmed animals are not afforded such legal protections. Far from being protected, factory farmed chickens are arguably the most abused animal on the planet. And most people probably aren’t even aware of chickens’ incredible cognitive abilities, which rival that of dogs and cats, or that pigs are the world’s fifth-most intelligent animal.

North Carolina lawmakers have fought tooth and nail to protect factory farming corporations over their fellow citizens — often rural communities of color — who have long suffered serious health problems because they happen to live near hog or chicken farms.

Instead of protecting the factory farm industry, lawmakers should instead strengthen — not restrict — citizens’ ability to file nuisance lawsuits against polluting factory farms. Because water and air regulations on factory farms in North Carolina are so lax, suing these facilities for harming people’s quality of life and health is often their last resort. And as public health experts urged the World Health Organization to fund research into plant-based alternatives to meat, so should our federal government.

We take precautions to minimize the harm of natural disasters, but we should also proactively accelerate alternatives to our broken and inhumane food system, rather than wait for it to collapse. We hold the power to do so — now the question is, will we act?