3 Brothers Died in a Manure Pit. It's Time to Show We Care | Opinion

Three Ohio brothers in their thirties died of asphyxiation while working in a manure pit last month. Alluring headlines beguile readers like looky-loos at the scene of a wreck. We slow down to see the carnage—gasp, press the gas, then move along with our day.

Until another headline grabs our attention—horrific scenes in Afghanistan, a relentless pandemic, a catastrophic fire, quake or flood. The current news cycle hurts like a stomach punch, over and over again. And the more we learn, the more our weary mind swirls between anger, sorrow and despair.

We understandably feel helpless about so much in our world, but this much is true: We can prevent people from dying in manure pits, and by doing so, change so much more.

These deaths are avoidable because although jarring, they're not caused by a "freak accident"—they're a foreseeable consequence of brewing and breathing the gases from millions of gallons of urine and feces strewn with growth hormones, cleaning chemicals, blood, stillborn animals, random body parts, pus and vomit. Factory farms produce over a billion tons of this waste each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that over the decades, the fumes have repeatedly caused the loss of practically "entire families."

The volatile mix is so toxic it can kill you within a few seconds.

And it's not just a danger to farmers. Sometimes the waste leaks into neighboring soil and groundwater—or it's sprayed into the air landing on nearby homes and laundry draped on the line to dry. In the most recent tragedy, the waste was kept in a giant concrete pit so deep that an emergency crew had to lower ladders and rope to recover the bodies.

While we all agree it's a horrific way to die, there's no such consensus to make the avoidable cause end. The disconnect between what's on our plate and how it got there is almost palpable.

It's time to connect the dots.

The standard American diet fosters catastrophes far beyond the death of these three men. And amid the raging pandemic, when those who have the least chance of surviving COVID-19 are those with underlying health conditions, now's the perfect time to evaluate if it's necessary to consume any animal products at all.

Farm and land
A farm is pictured. Tim Graham/Getty Images

The American Medical Association doesn't think so. It urged the USDA to stop pushing meat, citing the blatant bias that animal products are "promoted in federal nutrition policies even though they are not nutritionally required." Meat is packed with saturated fat and cholesterol, and is void of any heart-healthy fiber—and it gets worse. Many types of meat are classified by the World Health Organization as a "Group 1" carcinogenic—within the same category as asbestos and cigarettes.

The massive consumption of animal products isn't just impacting adults; kids are suffering, too.

Despite living in a country with an abundance of fresh produce, a mere 7 percent of high school students meet the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for fruit, and only 2 percent eat enough vegetables. Thanks to poor eating habits, 25 percent of children ages 5 to 10 have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or other early warning signs of heart disease, with obese children exhibiting signs of heart disease as young as 8 years old. This may not have the same visceral effect of men dying in a manure pit, but it should pull on your heartstrings just the same.

And if we want kids to have a planet to live on as they age, we better act fast. Toxic run-off from factory farms has created hundreds of "dead zones" snuffing out life in our lakes, bays and coastal waters. Earlier this summer, Ohio officials discovered dairy cows standing in a foot of waste overflowing into a stream that was "completely black with manure" for an entire mile.

In the United States alone, 56 million acres of land are used to grow feed for animals, while only 4 million acres produce plants for people to eat; in terms of using our limited resources wisely, raising animals for food is nonsensical. And knowing our food system is responsible for more than one third of all greenhouse gas emissions—of which up to 80 percent is from raising animals as food—makes swapping out animal products for plant-based fare all the wiser. With today's selection of tasty alternatives, it couldn't be easier.

And if you crave social justice, as we all should, skipping animal products helps alleviate inequities, too. While marching for equal rights implies you care, ditching cheeseburgers and bacon shows you care even more.

Forty-five percent of front-line meat-processing workers in the United States are low income, 80 percent are people of color and 52 percent are immigrants—and they work in an industry plagued with horrific and often underreported injuries. Amputations, broken fingers, second-degree burns, carpal tunnel syndrome, head trauma and even lung cancer are just some of the consequences of chopping up animals at a high speed to produce unhealthy food no one really needs.

We may never know how long the brothers languished in the pit before they died—but we do know what they died for—and sadly, it's something we'd be far better off without. May their untimely deaths give us pause and help us understand the vast impact of our food choices, because we must do more than gasp at a headline; it's time to change our diet—it's time to show we care.

Jackie Day is the author of The Vegan Way: 21 Days to a Happier, Healthier Plant-Based Lifestyle That Will Transform Your Home, Your Diet and You (St. Martin's Press/Macmillan). She is currently writing a book on school food.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.