More health and wealth for farmers through plant agriculture

“What about the farmers?” More health and wealth for farmers through plant agriculture

People sometimes object that veganism disregards the livelihoods of farmers. After all, if everyone stopped demanding animal products and plant agriculture took over, what would animal farmers do?

Progress involves creating new and better jobs

Firstly, we don’t determine ethics based on economics.  War, the prison industry, and the tobacco industry all create jobs. That doesn’t mean that we should fire missiles, imprison people unfairly and promote smoking in order to create jobs. Progress always involves doing away with outdated tools, such as how horseback couriers were replaced with telegraphs, then with landline phones, then with the internet and cellphones.  At each step, some people lost jobs, but others were created so society could benefit.

Animal agriculture exploits farm workers, too

Secondly, workers endure poor working conditions, low wages and debt, and higher rates of physical and mental illness. Because they are often undocumented, they typically lack access to adequate health care and legal protection as well.

Poor working conditions

Slaughterhouse workers especially are primarily people of color and immigrants who live in low-income areas. They are often afraid to report safety concerns, injuries, illnesses and animal abuse out of fear of being fired or deported. Most dairy workers receive no holidays, overtime, sick pay, or workers’ comp. Dairy farms are often exempt from paying overtime even with 70-90 hour workweeks, as federal employment laws often don’t apply to them.

In 2016, workers at an Illinois egg production facility went on strike over complaints of unclean and unsafe working conditions; unfair pay, especially for women; lack of pay for holidays or vacations; sexual harassment and excessively long hours.

Farmers typically must take on about $1 million in debt to start a new poultry or pig farm. Because of this, 90 to 95 percent of these farmers must sign contracts to raise animals for large companies like Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods. As there is often only one company in the area, farmers usually do not have a say in who their employer is.

Physical injury and illness

Farm workers frequently face vile, dangerous conditions. They wade through the noxious-smelling warehouses laden with the much of manure and urine, even sink and get stuck. When cows get scared, such as during storms, they may run at workers and kick them. Having received little to no training and being pressured to move the cows quickly, workers often resort to violent strategies.

Slaughterhouses have some of the highest reported injury rates in manufacturing: 20-36 percent annually. Shifts are long, cold and damp. The repetitive movements lead to injuries like carpal tunnel, “trigger finger,” back problems, tendonitis, and arthritis. This is due in part to how fast assembly lines are expected to move, coupled with a lack of safety training in using dangerous slaughtering and processing machines. 

Surveys have found that two thirds of dairy workers have been injured on the job. Then, they are either forced to work through injury or illness. If they don’t, they are often fired for getting injured and being unable to work. Farm workers also have increased rates of respiratory ailments, gastrointestinal ailments, and skin infections.

Higher rates of mental illness

Slaughterhouse workers are at particularly high risk of adverse psychological health outcomes. The work is physically exhausting, monotonous, and requires managing dangerous equipment at high speeds in a cold, blood and smelly environment. Most new workers feel shocked, disturbed and repulsed initially. At the beginning, nightmares are common. After some time, they start to feel emotionally callused by the work.

The work is inherently violent, which damages their psychological well-being and can lead to cumulative trauma disorder. Violence against animals has been demonstrably linked to psychological issues in humans, namely, substance abuse, imitate partner violence and increased crime rates.

Slaughterhouse workers also are more likely to suffer poor interpersonal relations, as they fear social rejection and are more likely to emotionally withdraw or act out. Further exacerbating the issue, most slaughterhouse employees are of low socioeconomic background and lack the resources to cope with this stressful environment. Rates of depression and suicide are elevated among dairy farmers compared with other occupational groups. 

Stress of cognitive dissonance

Furthermore, many farmers and workers hold contradictory attitudes of saying they love and care for their animals, yet ultimately send them off to slaughter. This creates the weight of cognitive dissonance, which is often hard for them to handle.  

Silenced for speaking out

Big Ag is quit to shut down pushback in multiple nefarious ways.  Poultry farmer Rudy Howell, who was featured in the documentary The End of Medicine, had his contract terminated for speaking out against his company. In 2016, an Iowa cartoonist and farmer drew a comic in which two farmers are talking.

One says, “I thought there was more profit in farming.” The other says, “There is. In the year 2015 the CEOs of Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and John Deere combined made more than 2,129 Iowa farmers.” The farmer was fired after his cartoon angered an advertiser in the Farm News newspaper. The Illinois egg production factory threatened to fire all workers who went on strike.

Pushing for policy change

Finally, if we are truly concerned with farmers’ livelihoods, we should advocate for policy change rather than supporting the status quo. Transitioning the world to plant agriculture will create new and better jobs. Farmers produce what consumers demand, so they will adapt to shifting market demand.

Currently, the government provides enormous subsidies and bail outs for the animal agriculture industry. We must push for policy change to redirect government subsidies that allow the industry to produce meat cheaply. They can instead be used to transition farmers into a sustainable, ethical, health-promoting plant-based market.

Infrastructure to allow farmers to transition to plant agriculture

We need to create infrastructure to scale-up the production of plant-based products. Firstly, government must provide institutional support, such as providing subsidies for producing plants rather than animal products and creating avenues to increase public demand for the products, such as school lunch programs.

Secondly, organizations and companies must support infrastructure to help farmers transition, including training and financial support. For instance, the Swedish oat milk company Oatly launched a pilot program in 2019 to support farmers in growing oats. Dairy-free cheesemaker Miyoko’s Creamery also created an initiative to help struggling dairy farmers shift to growing plants.

More money in plant agriculture

Organizations like Farm Transformers, the Farm Transformation Institute, and Plant-Based Protein Exchange are also helping farmers transition from animal agriculture to plant agriculture. Farmers stand to benefit economically, too. As an example, the average profit per acre for pea farming in 2015 in North Dakota was $14.03 more per acre than smaller herd dairy farming.

Additionally, an analysis by the Humane Party looked at USDA reports and censuses to compare the “economic profitability of the animal-based agricultural industries and that of the plant-based agricultural industries.” It analyzed “pounds created, number of acres used, sales, expenses and profits generated” to paint an economic picture.

Their findings? Plant agriculture creates about 1.5 trillion more pounds of “product” to sell than animal agriculture. Additionally, it does so more efficiently by using 115 million acres less land. Although animal agriculture yields about $35 billion more than plant agriculture, it has about $55.8 billion more in expenses. As the report states, “plant-based agriculture grows 512% more pounds of food than animal-based agriculture on 69% of the mass of land that animal-based agriculture uses.”

Veganism doesn’t solve everything

Of course, farm workers who grow plants suffer from high rates of occupational hazards and burdens on their physical and mental health as well. Coalitions such as the Food Chain Workers are fighting to improve labor conditions for farm workers and all workers throughout the food industry.

But it is a huge step in the right direction

Yet the point is simply that we are not doing farm workers a favor by purchasing animal products. We’re only further padding the pockets of Big Agriculture. This industry deepens injustice in our society while surging full-steam ahead into the climate crisis and multiple public health crises.

But by supporting the transition to plant agriculture, we help move farm workers away from an industry that exploits both human and nonhuman animals. We support the move to a more compassionate food production system better facilitates the mental and physical health of farmers. Importantly, we also contribute to market demand for products that yield higher profits for farm workers.

Let’s direct our dollars to plant agriculture, instead – for our future and for the farmers.  

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