As we move past summer solstice into harvest and an autumn respite from the heat, something about this time of year makes us pay attention to the cycles of death and decay. We march toward Halloween, a specter of ghouls and spirits, and allow ourselves to dance around the darker parts of life, from graveyards to crypts. When it comes to farming, we dance around the reality of slaughter too.
My hometown is the egg capital of the world, nicknamed “Chickaluma,” famous for its butter and eggs parade. It’s well-known that around the middle of the afternoon, coastal winds carry the smell of manure across the town. The smell still has little effect on me as a regular feature of my rural childhood.
Long before I understood the environmental effects of agriculture, I understood animals. Growing up surrounded by dairies and chicken coops, I spent hours walking through woods and pasture. I got to know the trees, the wildlife, the water, the curves of the landscape, the soaring birds above and, yes, the cows and chickens, sheds, and fence line boundaries. It was an ecosystem, at least in my mind, but it was one that existed without the realities of death. It didn’t occur to me that farmers killed the wildlife I loved. And I didn’t think about slaughterhouses.
The Center is one of the few leading environmental nonprofits that boldly takes on slaughterhouse pollution. All animal agriculture ends in slaughter, and although it’s rarely discussed as part of the wool, dairy, or even meat industries, the thousands of slaughter facilities that are operating now in the United States have an enormous impact on wildlife and waterways.
The Center has long fought slaughterhouse pollution. In court we challenge failures to protect workers, animals and the environment. Recently, following successful litigation brought by the Center and key allies in the 4th Circuit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it will update water-pollution control standards for the slaughterhouse industry. Meanwhile we continue to fight efforts to waive line-speeds and otherwise weaken environmental regulations on slaughter pollution.
Slaughter facilities release more than 55 million pounds of toxic substances directly into waterways. A U.S. slaughterhouse may produce as much nitrogen as untreated sewage from a city with 14,000 people. They top the charts as point sources for phosphorous and nitrogen. This nutrient pollution impairs water quality, creating dead zones and harming aquatic wildlife like eels, mussels, crabs and crayfish.
Processing living farmed animals into meat products not only causes enormous pollution and wastes water but also disproportionately affects marginalized communities. Employees doing the difficult and extremely dangerous work of slaughter are also often Black, Indigenous, Latino, immigrant or from low-income households, susceptible to inhumane workplace violations. Facilities that discharge into waterways are often built near vulnerable, low-income areas. The resulting air and water pollution leads to serious health problems. Residents may be unable to even open windows or go outside.
The horrors of slaughter are rarely discussed when industrial, corporate agriculture dresses itself up in pastoral descriptions of happy grass-fed livestock and family farms. But we need to take off that mask and reveal the realities of meat production from start to finish. We can’t avoid the less comfortable aspects of death as we map out what sustainable food systems may look like. It’s only in facing how we responsibly approach death that we can sustain an ethical, ecological, healthy life.
Learn more on our new webpage and check out our downloadable slaughterhouse factsheet.
For the wild,
Jennifer Molidor, Senior Food Campaigner
Population and Sustainability Program
Center for Biological Diversity