Every day is Earth Day

This past Earth Day we examined our impact on the planet and made personal resolutions to help make the environment cleaner and improve the treatment of animals. Some of us vowed to be more consistent recyclers; others pledged to plant trees in their neighborhoods. What many of us have yet to discover is that one of the most important actions we can take for the planet has to do with our food choices.

Most animals raised for food are forced to live inside massive industrial warehouses. These animal factories are leading polluters of our rivers, lakes and streams. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that hog, chicken and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states. In fact, 2.7 trillion pounds of manure is generated by livestock operations each year. This huge amount of waste is often concentrated around each of the farms, causing nearby residents to suffer from the nauseating stench stemming from the air and waterways.

Animals are, by far, the biggest losers in the growing epidemic of industrial farms. Most egg-laying hens are restricted to overcrowded cages that are too tiny for them to even spread their wings. They’re often starved for up to two weeks to shock their bodies into another egg-laying cycle. These birds are never able to partake in natural behavior, breathe fresh air or even go outside.

The chickens raised for meat are selectively bred and given loads of antibiotics to reach market weight as quickly as possible. This process takes only 45 days, nearly twice the speed as in the 1950s.

Forced rapid growth is responsible for an immense amount of suffering, including heart problems and painful leg disorders. These chickens, like their egg-laying counterparts, never escape the stench of their own feces, nor do they step foot outside.

Pigs are also intensively confined in factory farms. Both pregnant and mother pigs are held in crates that are too narrow for them to turn around in, while their piglets have their tails cut off and are castrated, both without painkillers.

Factory farms are so abusive that the European Union is already phasing out many of the most egregious practices used in American agribusiness today. Prominent U.S. legislators have also spoken out against the cruelties inherent in factory farming. Senator Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) said on the floor of the U.S. Senate, “Egg-laying hens are confined to battery cages. Unable to spread their wings, they are reduced to nothing more than an egg-laying machine.”

He went on to say, “These creatures feel; they know pain. They suffer pain just as we humans suffer pain.”

On the other side of the aisle, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Matthew Scully, has proposed a “Humane Farming Act” which would call for massive farming reforms, including bans on battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates. He states that, “Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship.”

Right here at USF, students can help animals raised for food by urging dining services not only to offer more vegetarian meals, but also to stop purchasing the most abusive animal products.

Though this might seem daunting, USF will not be alone in this effort. With the help of The Humane Society of the United States, students are working to reform the dining facilities at more than 80 universities, including Yale, Penn State and Cornell. Also, their efforts are already succeeding: Just this month, students at George Washington University persuaded their school store to stop carrying eggs from caged birds.

USF should and can be the next university to make this far-reaching commitment to help laying hens. Such reforms at university dining facilities would go a long way toward phasing out the most egregious practices of abuse in animal agribusiness. It’s hard to imagine a better way to celebrate Earth Day.

Josh Balk is the outreach coordinator for The Humane Society of the United States.