The US produces 12 million metric tons of beef annually, making it the world’s largest beef producer. To support these production levels, US producers raise 31 million beef cattle, the vast majority of whom are raised industrially, including many raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) spread across the country.
To meet the challenges of housing and feeding so many intensively-farmed animals, the industry relies on a combination of pharmaceuticals and cheap feed crops—such as corn and soybeans—to maximize the efficiency of their operations. In particular, the shift to high-calorie, cheap corn and soybeans to feed animals has been a game-changer for the meat and dairy industry across the globe. Rather than providing grassland for cattle to graze outdoors, grain-based compound feed allows industrial cattle producers to raise many more animals in indoor confinement.
To maximize the yields of crops used as animal feed, pesticides are used liberally. A 2022 report by World Animal Protection and the Center for Biological Diversity shows that 235 million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on soy and corn crops used as feed for farmed animals in the US. The investigation examined the use of seven major chemicals primarily used on industrial corn and soybean crops (including glyphosate, atrazine, paraquat, dicamba, 2,4-D, neonicotinoids, and bifenthrin), detailing their contribution to environmental damage, the decline of human and non-human health, and significant negative environmental impacts.
“It is not surprising that the increased use of toxic pesticides on corn and soy has coincided with increasing meat and dairy production,“ says Cameron Harsh, Programs Director, World Animal Protection, US. “Treating farmed animals like commodities for mass production has driven the development and expansion of a system that exploits natural resources and animals at all stages,” says Harsh.
Along with China, India, and Brazil, the US is now among the top ten pesticide-consuming countries in the world. Contrary to claims that genetically engineered crops can be grown using fewer pesticides, studies have warned that the emergence of pesticide-resistant weeds is driving US feed crop farmers toward “a costly herbicide and insecticide treadmill.” With the global market for the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used in feed crop protection poised to reach close to $81 billion by 2028, the use and abuse of pesticides has become an unseen cost of our unsustainable and ever-increasing demand for meat and dairy products.
Pesticide Use is Driven by Unjust Food Systems
The process of converting corn and soybean crop-based animal feed to meat is highly inefficient. For example, only 17–30 calories of beef are generated for every 100 calories of soy and corn that confined cattle consume. But these high-calorie, cheap, easily stored crops are produced in vast quantities across the US and are heavily government subsidized. As a result, soy and corn have become the industry norm for animal feed in CAFOs.
Globally, 80% of soy production and 61% of global corn production are used as farmed animal feed. In the US, over 70% of soybean and one-third of corn crops harvested are used as animal feed, supporting the yearly slaughter of over 10 billion farmed animals each year.
The US is the largest producer, consumer, and exporter of corn in the world. Of the over 90 million acres of corn harvested annually in the US, roughly one-third is used as animal feed, a little more than one-third is used as biofuel, and the remaining roughly one-third goes toward other uses which include high fructose corn syrup and other products for human consumption. Producing calories in the form of corn and using animals to convert them into food calories drastically reduces the amount of food produced per acre for human consumption. One acre of an average Iowa cornfield produces over 15 million calories per year but using those calories for biofuels and animal feed yields only 3 million calories of animal products as food.
The US is also the second largest producer of soy in the world. However, as with corn, the vast majority of US soy is used for animal feed rather than for human consumption. Poultry is the number one farmed animal sector consuming soy, followed by hogs, dairy, beef, and aquaculture.
To meet rising demand for meat and dairy products, genetically engineered corn and soy resistant to industrial agrichemicals have been planted in the US since the 1990s. These genetically engineered crops can withstand application of chemicals that kill weeds and insect pests, allowing for blanket spraying. Over the years, however, this approach has led to the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds, which in turn has required increased application of glyphosate and numerous other pesticides, thereby setting off a vicious cycle of events with detrimental impacts. And while the liberal use of pesticides is now ubiquitous in large-scale animal feed crop cultivation, it is estimated that less than 0.1% of conventionally applied pesticides reach targeted crop pests. A large portion of applied pesticides seep into the soil, leach into the water table, and contaminate agroecosystems indiscriminately.
Pesticide Impacts on Marginalized Communities
In the US, 90% of pesticide use happens in the food and agriculture system. While the general population in the US can become exposed to agricultural pesticides and residues through diet and use of contaminated water, farm owners, farm laborers and their families are particularly vulnerable to direct pesticide exposure and its downstream effects. An estimated 44% of farmworkers worldwide experience symptoms of unintentional, acute pesticide poisoning, reporting headaches, nausea, dizziness, and rashes within 48 hours after contact with agrichemical pesticides.
Due to the demographics of US farm labor, occupational exposure to pesticides in the agricultural industry disproportionately affects BIPOC[i] workers—particularly, Latinx[ii] workers—and communities of low income and wealth. On farms across the US, 83% of workers identify as Hispanic or Latinx. Pesticide use is disproportionately heavier in US counties with higher Latinx populations. These communities are already made vulnerable to occupational hazards and economic exploitation in agriculture by a long history of systematic oppression and structural racism.
The US EPA currently allows the use of 85 pesticides that have been phased out or banned in the EU, China, and Brazil, increasing risks to the health of US farm workers. In 2018, the agriculture sector applied 4.2 million pounds of the pesticide paraquat chloride (paraquat) on corn and soybean crops across the US. Increasingly used to combat the growth of glyphosate-resistant weeds, paraquat is classified as highly hazardous to human health and was banned in the European Union as early as 2007. As of 2020, it has been banned in 53 countries worldwide. In 2021, a class action lawsuit was filed against a major manufacturer of paraquat, alleging that exposure to paraquat has led to hundreds of agricultural workers developing Parkinson’s disease. After considering banning the aerial spraying of paraquat in 2021, the EPA has continued to allow paraquat use with additional safety measures.
There are currently 31 pesticide manufacturing facilities across the US that the EPA has reported to be in “Significant Violation” of environmental laws that include the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Disturbingly, an average of 44% of the residents within a mile of the 31 pesticide manufacturing facilities had incomes less than two times the federal poverty level, compared to the national average of 28%.
In addition to pesticide exposure during farming activities, BIPOC communities and other marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by the manufacturing, storage, and disposal of agricultural pesticides. Black and Latinx US residents living below the poverty line are twice as likely to live within a mile of a hazardous chemical facility.
Pesticide Use and Airborne Pollutants
In addition to the use of herbicides and other crop pesticides in feed crop production, the animal agriculture industry applies pesticides to treat insect pests that are present in CAFOs. These include stable flies, blow flies, cattle grubs, scabies, mites, cattle lice, and ticks. In the US alone, 99.8% of all feed yards apply insecticides directly to cattle and feed yard surfaces. The resulting 669,000 kg of airborne insecticide-laden particulate matter generated from one cattle feed yard contained enough insecticides to kill over a billion honeybees daily. Studies indicate that the risks posed by the aerial transport of insecticides emanating from beef cattle feed yards have not been adequately considered and are therefore far less likely to be regulated.
CAFOs are housed disproportionately in low-income, rural areas of the US. Air pollutant emissions from CAFOs in the US do not always have an odor but carry significant health effects for surrounding communities. However, emissions from CAFOs are unregulated due to a controversial 2005 EPA amnesty deal allowing CAFOs to avoid pollutant standard-setting, monitoring, and enforcement under the Clean Air Act; the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act; and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. Under the continuation of the amnesty deal, the vast majority of the 250,000 CAFOs across the US housing 8.7 billion animals continue to be exempt from reporting their air emissions to the EPA.
In December 2021, the EPA reduced the cost to register new pesticides, making it easier for companies to gain approval for new compounds. In early 2022, the Center for Biological Diversity announced its intent to sue the EPA for approving 300 pesticides over the past six years without fully considering potential harm to endangered species. The EPA subsequently announced plans to assess the harm new pesticides may inflict on endangered species and critical habitats before approving their use. However, the more rigorous assessment will only apply to new pesticides and will not impact pesticides already approved for use.
Pesticide use is inseparable from industrial animal agriculture. Pesticides are an integral part of producing the volume of industrial feed crops necessary to support US industrial animal farming. In the US, 99% of farmed animals live in CAFOs and are fed industrially produced grain and compound feed grown with agricultural pesticides, allowing more than 10 billion industrially raised animals to be killed each year for US consumption.
The harms and injustices connected to pesticide use in animal feed production offer a clear example of the harm caused by a food system that prioritizes agribusiness profits over human, animal, and environmental well-being. The systemic linkage between pesticides and animal farming makes pesticide an important topic for cross-movement collaboration to end the unprecedented harmful exploitation of human and non-human sentient beings through industrial animal farming.
Current industrial animal agriculture necessitates pesticide use, but a food system based around industrial animal production is neither necessary nor inevitable. The majority of pesticide use in the US food system could be made obsolete by shifting prioritization from industrial animal products to sustainable, plant-forward and plant-based human diets. Beans and many other legumes and grains have the potential to ensure global food security without the exploitation of farmed animals or the large-scale production of industrial feed crops. Reducing or replacing demand for meat and dairy foods from industrial animal farming would provide the dual benefit of alleviating the need for high volumes of industrial soy and corn, and dramatically reducing the use of agrichemical pesticides throughout the US food system.
A version of this post appeared previously at Sentient Media on June 15, 2022.
[i] Stray Dog Institute uses the term BIPOC to recognize the lived histories of oppression and resistance experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. Additionally, the language of this term reflects the specific historical social context of the United States and may not accurately reflect current or past racial and ethnic descriptions elsewhere. We recognize these drawbacks and use the term BIPOC only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Middle Eastern, North African, East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander communities in the US. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.
[ii] Stray Dog Institute uses Latinx as a gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” or “Latina” to refer to persons of Latin American heritage living in the US. We use this term although we recognize that it simplifies and homogenizes important cultural variations, and individuals may have their own preferred terminology. We honor the importance of the diverse lived experiences of oppression and unique cultural histories of Latin American countries, regions, and peoples.
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