Cows grazing.

The Regeneration Revolution: Rising Up Against Big Meat and Factory Farms

July 14, 2020 | Ronnie Cummins

Organic Consumers Association

Under the gun, reeling from an unprecedented public health, racial justice, environmental and climate crisis, now is certainly not the time to mince words nor offer up piecemeal reforms to greenwash a failed, degenerate system. As I point out in my recent book, “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Climate, Farming, Food, and a Green New Deal,” there are no magical, easy tweaks to business, politics and consumer behavior “as usual” that can save us.

After the pandemic, lockdown and economic depression, in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter rebellion, there is no healthy, just and climate-friendly “normal” we can go back to. The old red, white and blue normal of Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton et al. was and is degenerate, racist and self-destructive, a 21st Century suicide economy that is dragging us toward climate catastrophe, societal meltdown and what Vandana Shiva has aptly described as a Digital Dictatorship.

Forget the lunatic ravings of the Trumpers, the corporate-indentured pabulum of mainstream Democrats, the business-as-usual admonitions of the Silicon Valley giants, mass media and Corporate America. We’re staring into the crosshairs of the End Times, and we need a radical reset, now, not in four years, or 10 years.

Part of the radical change we desperately need is a new food, farming and land use paradigm that is healthy, just, organic (no pesticides, chemical fertilizers, GMOs and animal drugs) and regenerative (healing, restorative, carbon-sequestering). Yes, we must replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. But unless we also move as quickly as possible to regenerative agricultural and ecosystem restoration practices that drastically reduce the fossil fuel emissions associated with production, processing, packaging and waste, and end the destruction of forests, wetlands and marine ecosystems, we are done.

Unless we move to produce food, raise animals and repair agricultural and forest landscapes in a manner that restores essential carbon, nitrogen and water cycles and draws down and sequesters billions of tons of excess atmospheric carbon in soils, trees and plants through the miracle of enhanced photosynthesis, we will perish.

Specifically, without putting an end to factory farming—which produces more than 90 percent of meat, dairy and poultry products in the U.S.—and the energy-intensive, chemical-intensive, GMO industrial grain production that props up this system, we will not be able to reverse global warming in time, much less restore the life-giving soil health, animal health and nutritional density of foods that are the cornerstone of our health, our immune systems and our ability to fight off chronic disease and infectious pathogens such as COVID-19.

We all know, or should by now, about Big Ag and Big Meat’s dirty deeds. Their “conventional” (i.e. chemical) produce, grains and “cheap” meats and animal products are routinely contaminated with toxic pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, parasites and pathogens, such as E-coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Staphylococcus and Campylobacter. Industrial meat is also loaded up with artery-clogging bad fats—too much Omega 6, not enough Omega 3—which lead to obesity, cancer, heart attacks and Alzheimer’s.

And, of course Big Meat’s toxic victuals are typically accompanied (80 percent of American consumers patronize fast-food restaurants, at least occasionally) by supersized sugary drinks and nutritionally-deficient, highly-processed foods that are high in carbs and sugar, compounding Big Meat’s  damage to human health.

The primary reason America leads the world in chronic diseases—obesity, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes kidney disease—and also leads in healthcare costs, prescription drug addictions and hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 is not because our hospitals don’t have enough ventilators. It’s because Americans eat the cheapest, lowest-grade food of any industrialized nation, with low-income households and minority communities, senior citizens and disadvantaged youth forced to consume cheap meat and highly-processed fast food every day. The collateral damage from this diet includes chronic inflammation and destruction of our gut biomes, digestive tracts and disease-fighting immune systems.

The list of reasons to end industrial factory farms covers everything from health and the environment, to preventing future pandemics—you can read our 13 Reasons to Boycott Big Meat here.

But let’s talk about solutions. There are four essential drivers of regeneration: farmer innovation, consumer awareness/behavior, political/policy change and investment practices. To get rid of factory farms, often euphemistically called CAFOs or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and Big Meat corporations, such as Tyson, Cargill, JBS and Smithfield, we need to fire up, in synergy, all four of these drivers.

Subjective (public consciousness) and objective (the severity of the crisis) conditions for fundamental system change, for revolution, have finally arrived. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the horrors of Degeneration Nation, and brought the connection between good food, good health and a non-polluted environment to new level in terms of public consciousness. At the same time outrageous and systemic police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement have brought racial and economic justice to the forefront, including health, environmental and food justice for all.

Driver No. 1: Farmer, rancher (home cook and gardener) innovation

We don’t have to invent an alternative to Big Meat, industrial agriculture and fast food. There’s already a $60-billion U.S. market for organic, grass-fed and pastured foods. What we need to do is to scale up what we already have, ten-fold.

Organic and regenerative farmers and ranchers, including a growing number in our local areas, are already producing the healthy, humane, environmental and climate-regenerating foods and beverages that we need, including meat and animal products. We simply need to buy these fresh and healthier foods and food ingredients and continue cooking at home as we’ve been doing since the emergence of COVID-19.

If you’ve got an insatiable urge to go out to eat, please patronize the businesses that promote local, organic and regenerative foods. Look on the internet for new recipes or tips on how to start your own organic garden at home. Visit the website of the Organic Consumers AssociationRegeneration Internationaland to learn more. And check out this farm map for organic, regenerative and pastured meat and animal products. You’ll find links to hundreds of organic and regenerative food producers.

Driver No. 2: Consumer awareness and market demand

Since the advent of COVID-19, sales of organic food, grass-fed/pastured meat and animal products, and local produce, have accelerated, as consumers grow increasingly concerned about personal health, environmental pollution and the potential health hazards of dining out. We need to make certain these trends continue and accelerate.

The Organic Consumers Association and a growing number of grassroots organizations are urging consumers and food providers to join us in a permanent boycott of meat and animal products coming from America’s factory farms and giant, industrial-scale slaughterhouses. Our message is that Big Meat’s “profit at any cost” products and practices threaten public health, worker health, the environment, and climate stability. Big Meat’s profits derive from exploiting farmers and workers, often people of color or immigrants, and inhumanely confining, and torturing, billions of farm animals. If we want to protect our health and environment, and solve the climate crisis, we must stop buying these degenerate products, period.

At the same time, we urge consumers, restaurants and institutional buyers to seek out organic and regenerative meat and animal products, which are becoming more and more popular.

We are asking consumers to reject Big Meat’s toxic products, fraudulently marketed as “cheap” (only because consumers and taxpayers pick up the tab for the enormous environmental, climate and public health damages caused by industrial meat product) and “nutritious” (although Big Meat is routinely contaminated with pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and bad fats). Big Meat products are sold under numerous labels in Big Box stores and Fast Food restaurants, and offered up as “affordable, institutional” food in nursing homes, hospitals and school cafeterias. Our goal is to educate and mobilize the grassroots in the marketplace, and in our own kitchens, to reduce the market share and profitability of Big Meat and industrial food.

Rejecting factory farm meat and animal products, and the GMO corn, soy, antibiotics and pharma drugs that sustain these degenerate animal factories, will help protect ourselves and our families against the ravages of chronic disease, and viruses such as COVID-19, that prey on those whose immune systems have been compromised by cheap meat and poison food. It will also help substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and regenerate the natural carbon-sequestering capacity of hundreds of millions of acres of restored grasslands, rangelands and farmlands.

If a critical mass of consumers begin to consciously boycott Big Meat and factory farm foods in Big Box stores and restaurants, and spread the message through, words and actions, we will have one of the strategic drivers we need to build a local and regional food and farming system that is not only organic and climate-friendly, but also just. An equitable system that treats workers—farmers, ranchers, farmworkers, slaughterhouse workers, food chain workers—with the dignity and ensures the safety and fair income they deserve.

Driver No. 3: Politics and public policy/regime change

Farmer innovation and consumer awareness are not sufficient in themselves to transform our degenerate food and farming system. We need to vote, not only with our forks and knives and consumer dollars, but also with our votes and campaign donations and volunteer efforts in our local, state and federal elections.

We need regime change on November 4, 2020—no matter what the attempts are to suppress voter turnout—in order for all our innovation, education, organizing and protesting to bear fruit. We need to force a critical mass of elected and appointed officials, many of whom accept campaign donations from Big Meat and corporate agribusiness, to radically overhaul current food and farming policy, and guarantee healthy and nutritious food for all—including malnourished, low-income, senior citizen and minority communities.

But of course this public policy shift will be possible and practical only if middle- and lower-income consumers and senior citizens have access to and can afford healthier organic and regenerative food, produced and processed in an equitable manner.  Food justice, economic justice, worker justice and racial justice must go hand-in-hand. There’s no way to change America’s self-destructive food habits without putting more money in the pockets of those who need it most. The right to healthy food requires that U.S. workers, regardless of current employment or citizenship status, must have guaranteed, well-paid employment and/or a guaranteed wage (i.e. enough money in their pockets) as outlined in the Green New Deal, to pay a fair price to farmers and food chain workers for healthy and regeneratively produced meats, animal products, vegetables, fruits and grains.

Here are two Congressional bills we need to pass after Regime Change in November. The first bill, sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in the Senate, and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) in the House, will put a moratorium on all new factory farms (or factory farm expansion) across the nation, while providing funds and a “just transition” for producers to phase-out current factory farms.

The second bill, sponsored by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) in the House, with a companion bill in the Senate, will significantly increase funds for local meat processing facilities and other necessary infrastructure.

To meet the growing demand for healthy, grass-fed and pastured meat and animal products, we need a ten-fold increase in local food processing facilities, and a regulatory “level playing field” for small and medium-sized producers so that they can successfully drive down the market share of the Big Meat Cartel.

Of course we need more than just the successful passage of these two bills. We need a comprehensive overhaul of federal, state and local policies as called for in the Green New Deal, which now has over 100 Congressional co-sponsors. After Regime Change in November 2020, we can expect a lot more support for a Green New Deal.  

The Green New Deal Resolution introduced in the U.S. House and Senate on February 7, 2019, includes the following specific references to food, farming, and land use:

“ . . . working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible, including—by supporting family farming . . . investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health . . . building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food . . . removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reducing pollution, including by restoring natural ecosystems through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage, such as preservation and afforestation . . . restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems through locally appropriate and science-based projects that enhance biodiversity and support climate resiliency . . .providing all people of the United States with access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.”  

The brilliance of the Green New Deal is that it is bold and radical enough to actually address the overall climate/public health/environmental crisis (zero net emissions by 2030), but populist and broad enough in scope to also address the nation’s economic, social and racial justice crisis. In this way, the Green New Deal, unlike previous stand-alone climate proposals, has the potential to gain the support of the broad majority of middle class, working class and lower-income communities, who are seeking good jobs, economic security, universal health care, affordable educational opportunities and social justice, as well as a stable climate and clean environment.

Driver No. 4: Public and private investment

Following the successful example of the climate movement, we need a U.S. and global campaign to divest from climate and ecosystem-destructive factory farms and industrial agriculture.

Beyond divestment, we need the reinvestment of public and private funds in a healthy, climate-friendly organic and regenerative food system. We will need not only $1 trillion in public money to transform our food system, as outlined by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in his Green New Deal plan, but also another trillion dollars in private “impact” investments over the next decade.

We need a massive shift in local, regional and global investments away from degenerative energy, food, farming and land use practices, exemplified by “blue chip” investments in the stocks of the Fortune 500 corporations, to renewable and regenerative practices. Given the enormity of our world-changing endeavor, we’re not going to be able to adequately fund a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy and regenerative practices over the next 25 years with just government bonds, loans, subsidies and investments. And of course we’re not going to be able to move away from degenerative practices with just non-profit grants, grassroots crowd-funding and our own meagre revenue or savings—not matter how hard we try.

To move toward a new regenerative system will require not just government support, but also massive amounts of private investment capital. As Michael Shuman puts it, conventional investors are “overinvesting in Wall Street and underinvesting in Main Street.”

Big Meat and factory farms sow injustice and inhumanity

From the farm or ranch to your plate, the driving force of Big Meat is to maximize profits, no matter what the cost to the producer, the food chain worker, the environment or the animal.

Big Meat fixes prices so that the rancher or small farmer, or even the feedlot or CAFO operator, receives little or no profit for their labor, much less an incentive to pay their workers well, to graze or pasture their animals in a regenerative manner so as to restore the rangelands or pasturelands that once sequestered carbon, infiltrated rainwater and promoted biodiversity.

Instead of being raised humanely, naturally grazing cows are locked up in feedlots and stuffed with GMO grains, injected with synthetic hormones and antibiotics, and forced to eat and defecate in intensive confinement with hundreds or even thousands of other hapless creatures.

Workers in beef or dairy feedlots and other CAFOs, many of whom are migrants or minority workers, are routinely overworked, underpaid and exploited.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 thousands of slaughterhouse workers have been forced to work in close quarters with slaughter lines running at breakneck speed. As a result, thousands of slaughterhouse workers have been infected and hospitalized, with more than 150 dead thus far. In addition, slaughterhouse workers have inadvertently spread their COVID-19 infections to their families and thousands of others in the rural communities in which they live.

Sens. Booker and Warren recently called for a Congressional investigation into Big Meat’s practices during the pandemic. In a press release, the Senators explained why Congress should demand answers from the country’s largest industrial meat producers:

“United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are opening an investigation of Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill and Smithfield Foods after reports that the meatpacking companies, while threatening the American public with impending meat shortages and jacking up prices, exported a record amount of product to China. The companies used the COVID-19 pandemic — and warning of shortages — as cover while they endangered workers, dramatically increased prices for American consumers, and successfully lobbied the President to sign an executive order designating their plants as critical infrastructure and allowing them to continue operating in an unsafe fashion.”

It’s time to stop buying and consuming food products that we know are bad for our health, bad for the environment, bad for small farmers, bad for food chain workers, bad for animals and bad for the climate.

Those of us who hate factory farms and love animals need to stop fighting among ourselves about whether to eat meat or not. Americans need to boycott all factory farm meat and animal products, and purchase only meat and animal products that are raised organically and regeneratively.

We are what we eat. We must get rid of Big Meat, CAFOs and giant slaughterhouses. We must put the Earth’s billions of confined farm animals back outside on the 8 billion acres of pastureland and rangeland, grazing and foraging, where they belong.

The next time you pull out your wallet at a grocery store, or contemplate eating out rather than cooking at home, think before you act. Boycott Big Meat and industrial food, today and every day. Join us in building up an organic and regenerative food system. The hour is late. But we still have time to turn things around.

Ronnie Cummins is co-founder of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and Regeneration International, and the author of “Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Food, Farming, Climate and a Green New Deal.” To keep up with OCA’s news and alerts, sign up here.