When you search for “solutions to environmental racism,” credible sources enumerate important parts of the solution: educate yourself, amplify the voices of those who are impacted, write to your representatives, speak out against corporations and boycott products from offending industries.
But they don’t tell you clearly the most tangible action you can take. Unless you already know about the environmental impact of industrial animal agriculture, you might not realize that consuming animal products directly supports corporations that egregiously harm communities of color and low-income groups.
No one seems to talk about the fact that pollution from factory farms constitutes environmental racism. Yet this is an urgent issue, as the physical and mental health of predominantly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and low-income groups is at stake.
What is environmental racism?
Environmental racism refers to “the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race.”
BIPOC and people of lower income are disproportionately likely to live in environmentally hazardous neighborhoods, subject to the pollution of poorly regulated industries.
Factory farms, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), produce millions of gallons of waste that pollute the air, water and land in the marginalized communities in which they are placed. According to the National Center for Biotechnology, factory farms should be considered neighborhood-level chronic stressors. Living near industrial facilities negatively impacts both physical and psychological well being.
Pollution from factory farms can cause inflammation of the nervous system, negatively impacting children’s brain development and reducing its ability to protect itself against toxins. Air pollution from factory farms also increases risk of developing upper and lower respiratory tract diseases, like asthma, chronic bronchitis, COPD and others.
It can even lead to increased risk of heart disease due to inflammation of the heart, such as heart attack, stroke, arrhythmias, heart failure and high blood pressure. The elderly and those with preexisting health conditions are particularly at risk.
Prolonged exposure can damage reproductive health, through decreased fertility, cancer of the reproductive system and negative gestational outcomes like lower birth weight and premature birth. Surprisingly, it can also lead to an increased risk of diabetes, even for those without a family history of it.
Mental Health Impacts
Factory farms harm not only residents’ physical wellbeing, but their mental health as well. Residents are forced to endure negative environmental traits (like industrial pollution, hazardous waste and noise) and typically lack positive amenities like parks, trees and open spaces. According to survey data, people living near factory farms are more likely to have a sense of personal powerlessness.
The brain’s reaction to the toxic chemicals produced by the animals’ waste also increases the risk of depression. Finally, inflammation of the nervous system can also lead to increased anxiety in some people. This is a result of air pollution’s effect on circulatory system cells, which can cause narrowed blood vessels, higher blood pressure and restricted blood flow to tissues.
Documentaries about the impact of factory farming on local communities
In recent years, two notable documentaries have brought this issue to public attention. Right to Harm (2019) reveals how factory farming devastates public health across rural America and how rural communities are fighting back against Big Ag. The film tells the story of five rural communities who push for state agencies to finally regulate industrial animal agriculture.
The Smell of Money (2022) also puts faces and personal stories to the concept of environmental racism. It shines light on the mostly Black, low income residents of Duplin County, North Carolina where Smithfield operates a massive pig farm. For years, the factory has sprayed untreated wastewater into the air and water, leading to respiratory illnesses and severely reduced quality of life for residents. It highlights the human rights issues of factory farming while also addressing the environmental impact, antibiotic resistance crisis and animal rights violations.
Solutions to Environmental Racism
So, what’s one of the most tangible solutions to environmental racism that individuals can contribute to? Adopting and advocating for a vegan lifestyle. By doing so, we stop supporting an industry that hugely contributes to environmental racism.
At the end of the day, we vote with our dollar. If we’re seeking solutions to environmental racism through indirect actions like writing to our representatives, yet buying bacon at the grocery store – we’re funding the very cause we’re working against. If we instead transition to a vegan lifestyle and encourage others to do so as well, we are implementing real, direct solutions to environmental racism.
Let’s put our money where our mouth is.