I Don't Like Green Eggs And Ham!

The Earth Pledge Foundation has asked Americans to consider, on Earth Day, the meaning of "sustainable cuisine." Arguably, the most sustainable food is the hot dog, since that's where all of the stuff that would otherwise go to waste ends up. It's like the Indians and the buffalo--they used everything. Buffalo hot dogs might be the best bet because, among all ungulates, buffalo use the prairies without destroying them. But most hot dogs are neither dogs nor buffalo but hogs, and, nowadays, that means industrial pork, which is one of the most unsustainable foods on earth.

North Carolina's hogs now outnumber its citizens and produce more fecal waste than all the people in California. Some industrial pork farms produce more sewage than America's largest cities. But while human waste must be treated, hog waste, similarly fetid and virulent, is simply dumped into the environment. Stadium-size warehouses shoehorn 100,000 sows into claustrophobic cages that hold them in one position for a lifetime over metal-grate floors. Below, aluminum culverts collect and channel their putrefying waste into 10-acre, open-air pits three stories deep from which miasmal vapors choke surrounding communities and tens of millions of gallons of hog feces ooze into North Carolina's rivers.

Such practices have created a nightmare that seems like something out of science fiction--but in this case, the effect is all too real. In North Carolina, the festering effluent that escapes from industrial swine pens has given birth to Pfiesteria piscicida, a toxic microbe that thrives in the fecal marinade of North Carolina rivers. This tiny predator, which can morph into 24 forms depending on its prey species, inflicts pustulating lesions on fish whose flesh it dissolves with excreted toxins. The "cell from hell" has killed so many fish--a billion in one 1991 incident-- that North Carolina used bulldozers to bury them beneath the rancid shores of the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound. Scientists strongly suspect that Pfiesteria causes brain damage and respiratory illness in humans who touch infected fish or water. Two years ago Pfiesteria sickened dozens of people, including fishermen, swimmers and state workers.

Industrial farming is also for the birds. Some corporate poultry farms crowd a million beakless chickens in cramped dark cages, soaking up antibiotics and laying their guts out for the duration of their miserable lives.

Corporate farming isn't just bad for chickens and hogs--and the environment. It is destroying family farms. According to Sierra magazine, billionaire chicken barons and billionaire hog tycoons have used their market power to drive a million family farmers out of business, including virtually every independent egg-and-broiler farmer in America. Each corporate farm puts 10 family farmers out of business. The same process of vertical integration has put the final nail in the coffin of Thomas Jefferson's vision of a democracy rooted in family-owned freeholds. Industrial meat moguls site their stinking farms in the poorest communities and pay slave wages to their minuscule work force for performing one of the most dangerous and unhealthy jobs in America.

Massive political contributions by billionaire agricultural barons allow them to evade laws that prohibit other Americans from polluting our waterways. Agricultural run-off now accounts for more than half of America's water pollution. Last year Pfiesteria outbreaks connected with wastes from industrial chicken factories forced the closure of two major tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay and threatened Maryland's vital shellfish industry. Drugs and hormones needed to keep confined animals alive and growing are mainly excreted with the wastes and now saturate local waterways. Such discharges foster the growth of the drug-resistant superbugs and threaten the disruption of human and animal endocrines.

Moreover, our pork and poultry are unsavory. Factory-raised pork is soft and bland. Corporate chicken is spongy. Americans have forgotten they're not supposed to be able to cut chicken with a fork.

Americans can still find networks of family farms and farmers who raise their animals to range free on grass pastures. They feed them natural feeds without steroids, sub-therapeutic antibiotics or other artificial growth promotants and treat their animals with dignity and respect. These farmers bring tasty, premium-quality meat to customers while practicing the highest standards of husbandry and environmental stewardship.

Sustainable meats taste the best. This is a case where doing right means eating well. Like other Americans, I've reconciled myself to the idea that an animal's life has been sacrificed to bring me a meal of pork or chicken. However, industrial meat production--which subjects animals to a life of torture--has escalated the karmic costs beyond reconciliation.

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