By Michael Shank
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Michael Shank, of Brandon, who is adjunct faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.
It’s time for a global divestment campaign against the factory farming industry, which has now proved itself to be as harmful to human health as the fossil fuel industry. While air pollution is prematurely killing 7 million humans annually – for which fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and gas, are directly responsible – pandemics arising from industrial animal farming – e.g. factory farms, wet markets and more — are the increasing killer, taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians worldwide this year alone.
Covid-19, with cases continuing to climb in Vermont and 20 other U.S. states, is just the latest example. It’s rising at American meat-packing plants, too. These conditions are breeding grounds for pathogens and pandemics. Before Covid-19, America’s factory farms were responsible for the deadly H1N1 swine flu, which killed over 12,000 people. There’s a pandemic pattern here. And there will be more. Unless we stop packing animals into crowded confined areas throughout the country – to be slaughtered for protein or parts – and unless we stop cutting down and endangering their habitat, we will be largely ineffective in our efforts to stop infectious, animal-borne diseases like Covid-19, SARS, the swine flu, and more.
That’s why a divestment campaign is so critical – especially now, as President Donald Trump is trying to keep meat processing plants open in the U.S. where approximately 9 billion animals suffer unsafe and unsanitary conditions before slaughter and human consumption. These practices should be illegal, which is why the Animal Legal Defense Fund is fighting to change the laws – in order to protect farmed animals – which would ultimately protect humans from future pandemics.
Short of a legal sea change here, there’s a way we can turn the tide now by targeting the investment community. Here are three starting points:
First, target everyone. In building the factory farm divestment movement, it’ll be important to take a lesson from the fossil fuel divestment movement, which was led by Vermont-born organizations like 350.org and which reached a new milestone recently, moving $12 trillion in assets out of fossil fuel investments. They targeted all investors – from organizations to individuals – and left no stock portfolio and mutual fund untouched. That made a huge difference in the climate movement, and now even the big players like BlackRock are making investment shifts due to activist pressure.
In the U.S., that means targeting the five major animal agribusinesses: Tyson, JBS, Cargill, Smithfield, and Perdue. And while a handful of investors, like Boston Common Asset Management, are divesting from concentrated animal farming operators like Tyson and Smithfield, citing methane emissions and antibiotic-use as investor risks, many of these factory farming businesses lurk in the holdings of even sustainably-minded investors like Calvert (e.g. Smithfield is in Calvert’s Balanced Fund). Pulling them out of socially and environmentally sustainable investment firms will be the first step; mainstream investors are the second step. Organizations like the Farm Animal Risk and Return Initiative are addressing this investor blind spot and the financial risks that come with factory farm investments and more of this advocacy is now needed.
Second, take courage. Food-related activism is a different beast than climate-related activism. And it’ll require a different kind of courage. Fossil fuel divestment ran parallel with a global climate movement and complemented the climate talks in Paris and beyond. Factory farming doesn’t yet have that kind of global activism, which is remarkable given how many pandemics and animal products it produces, but Covid-19 might change that. Which is why increased courage will be called for; too many people are still eating factory-farmed meat. The U.S., for example, remains one of the largest meat consumers per capita in the world. An increasingly large majority of Americans say that they’re eating less of at least one meat, however, and these are numbers which a divestment campaign could increase.
Courage is required because fossil fuel and factory farmed animal consumption have been, historically, symbols of economic prosperity. The bigger your house, car, fashion closet, or burger consumption, the better off you must be. Likely, then, people will push back, claiming that food consumption is more personal, but so are many of the fossil-fueled behaviors – like what you wear, what you drive and where you vacation – that must now be divested. Most importantly, nothing can be off limits here when lives are at stake.
Third, prioritize pandemics. Factory farming is also a direct threat to the environment and to our economies, but it’s the human health threat that’ll win the hearts and minds. The fact that it’s the least efficient and most expensive way to provide protein likely won’t. The fact that it’s two-three times as expensive as plant-based proteins – and an inefficient use of cropland, grains and water for animal consumption (e.g. meat protein’s carbon footprint is 150 times as high as the plant protein equivalent) – likely won’t. The fact that all the crops feeding factory-farmed animals could be used to feed humans plant-protein – and thus easily, and nutritiously, feeding our growing population by 2050 – likely won’t.
This environmental, economic and efficiency messaging isn’t what will resonate most effectively with potential divesters, as much as it should. Pandemic prevention, however, will. Whether it’s among the undocumented population working without rights or representation at these factory farms and meat processing plants, which have been hit hard by Covid-19 cases, or among the population more generally. And if it doesn’t, that investor is putting hundreds of thousands of people directly in harm’s way.
It’s time to save some lives from the next pandemic. It’s time to divest. Check your portfolio for any of the big animal agribusinesses corporate players. If they’re in there, get them out. It’s one way you can protect yourself – and others – from the next coronavirus. It’s that simple.