It’s no surprise when pro-industrial agricultural organizations fight to keep the status quo. Yet, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) capitulated in July to trade organizations like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and their political representatives, retracting an endorsement of Meatless Mondays, a controversy began. The Meatless Mondays debate however isn’t the only example of how big animal agriculture is on the defense. In recent months similar controversies involving the National Pork Producers Council and the Animal Agricultural Alliance, while less publicized, seem to illustrate that big animal ag is losing their footing and plan to fight big time for their position.
Meatless Mondays, an initiative of the nonprofit, Monday Campaign, Inc., and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, embrace the idea of skipping meat once a week in favor of vegetarian options. Proponents of Meatless Mondays argue that the production of meat, especially beef, produces harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change. Moreover, advocates claim that going meatless once a week may reduce one’s risk of chronic preventable conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and obesity. In fact, this grassroots movement has grown so explosively in recent years that currently thousands of corporate cafeterias, restaurants, and schools participate in the challenge, weekly.
On July 23, the USDA published an interoffice newsletter on its Web site that catalogued environmental initiatives at the department’s Washington headquarters. The USDA Greening Headquarters Update–as it was titled–highlighted topics ranging from waste minimization and recycling to energy and food service updates. Among the suggestions for reducing environmental impact was a call to participate in “Meatless Mondays” by choosing among the many meat-free dishes available in the department’s cafeteria.
“According to the U.N. animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change. It also wastes resources. It takes 7,000 kg of grain to make 1,000 kg of beef. Beef production requires a lot of water, fertilizer, fossil fuels, and pesticides. In addition, there are many health concerns related to the excessive consumption of meat,” the food service chapter stated.
Two days after the USDA’s remarks went viral, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA)—an organization that aims to increase profit opportunities for cattle and beef producers—spoke out. NCBA’s President J.D. Alexander said that the declaration calls into question the USDA’s commitment to cattlemen, farmers, and ranchers across the nation. Alexander went further to say that the USDA’s backing of Meatless Mondays is an “animal rights extremist campaign” to ultimately “end meat consumption.”
The New York Times Opinion columnist Mark Bittman refuted Alexander’s statement in an article published on July 31. Bittman defended the USDA’s support for Meatless Mondays and said that the agency did not intentionally defame the cattlemen’s industry.
But, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and Congressman Steve King echoed Alexander’s sentiments, publically boycotting Meatless Mondays, and issuing a statement declaring it “Meat Monday.”
“I will eat more meat on Monday to compensate for stupid USDA recommendation about a meatless Monday,” Grassley said.
“Heresy! I will have double rib-eye Mondays instead,” King chimed.
In response to the USDA’s statements, Johns Hopkins Dean Michael J. Klag sent a letter on July 27 to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, President Obama, and members of Congress, expressed disappointment with the agency for failing to uphold their responsibility to represent all sectors of agriculture along with promoting a healthy diet.
“The Center for a Livable Future and I believe that this response to criticism by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has squandered an opportunity to deepen ongoing discussions about food issues and the public’s health in a meaningful way,” Klag wrote.
This isn’t the only story though. Recently similar cases have emerged that illustrate how big animal agriculture is losing its footing and fighting back.
For instance, early August in the National Journal, the National Pork Producers Council—a group that conducts public policy outreach on behalf of American pork farmers—callously came out in support of gestation crate confinement of pigs.
“So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls… I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around,” the Council’s communications director said.
Another case occurred in late July of this year. The Animal Agriculture Alliance—a coalition of farmers, ranchers, and scientists, who seek to increase transparency between consumers and animal agriculture—terminated its 25-year relationship with Bank of America due to the bank’s burgeoning alliance with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a group which aims to end animal cruelty.
Statistics show that each year, HSUS allocates thousands of dollars towards legislative and legal campaigns that challenge conventional farming. Unnerved, the American Agricultural Alliance subsequently asked the bank to sever its ties to the animal rights group. However, Bank of America’s Agribusiness Executive indicated to Alliance CEO Kay Johnson Smith in a phone conversation that the bank would not discontinue its HSUS affinity card program.
To mitigate the controversy, a bank executive said that the company does not endorse HSUS but rather gives the group $60 for each affinity card as a “fee” for bringing in new clients. Yet, the American Agricultural Alliance was still in disbelief.
According to HSUS Food Policy Director Matt Prescott, the American Agricultural Alliance has never had a grip on reality.
“The Alliance is a radical, pro factory-farming organization that is either completely out-of-step with Americans’ values on how animals ought to be treated, or perhaps simply chooses to ignore those values at the request of its corporate funders,” Prescott said in an email.
It’s for certain that the tide is changing in the United States regarding animal agriculture. Now is the time for leaders in the American Agricultural Alliance to recognize that there are negligent pro-industrial agricultural folks who willfully harm their livestock. The fact is simple: without organizations like HSUS, the meat industry and factory farming in general would continue to strive to maximize output at animals’ expense.
Given how backwards the meat industry has become—sacrificing humane treatment in favor of profit—it’s no wonder why the USDA is now touting efforts like Meatless Mondays. It’s a shame though that the USDA capitulated so quickly to meat lobbyists’ complaints. The agency should look towards substantiated science as well as health benefits rather than giving in to public opinion and industry greed.
Photo: Axe on chopping block, by Shutterstock