The Covid-19 outbreak laid many problems of this world bare. On one hand, it showed how much humans pressure wildlife out from many areas. Everywhere around the world, wildlife returned to cities and urban areas as soon as we retrieved to our homes. Livestock in industrial livestock farming, however, often had a very different destiny. Millions of animals, mostly chickens and pigs, were killed within the last months. These unbelievable steps were taken due to “disruptions in the supply chain”. This happened mainly in the United States, but also in Europe.
The killing of millions of animals is supposedly necessary, because industrial meat production is completely aligned to be as cheap as possible. This means that animals are only allowed to live for the minimum time necessary to get them to a weight that is sufficient for slaughter. While they are raised in one place, younger animals are somewhere else to take over their space as soon as the current batch is processed. During the Covid-19 outbreak, many big slaughter houses had to close temporarily. Due to inhumane working and living conditions, they became epicenters of infections. This meant that many animals ready for slaughter could be not be processed. However, the new batch of animals designated for the same space was already outgrowing its former space.
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Millions of dead animals
For some farmers, the only feasible solution was the mass killing of their animals on the farm. Because this process disqualifies the meat for any kind of use as food, it all went to waste. Industrial meat production is completely focused on raising animals as quickly as possible on as few space as possible with minimal costs. This means there is few flexibility when the constant system of artificial insemination, rapid weight gain and slaughter is disrupted. Even though farmers are trying to slow down reproduction and weight gain, this only have limited impact. The only measure with enough impact is killing whole batches of animals and thus removing them from this system. The killing is done with a variety of methods, many of them cruel.
A special case is the Dutch mink industry. The Netherlands is one of the few Europpean countries, where minks are still bred to produce fur. Soon after the Covid-19 outbreak, tests shows that the virus can also transmit to minks. Hence, the authorities and farmers took the same action that is usual for disease outbreaks in livestock – the ‘cleaning’ of all affected farms. This means that all animals from a farm, where a case has been detected, are killed and burned. In the case of the Dutch mink industry, the transmission risk to humans and the plans of the Dutch government to phase out fur farming until 2024 lead to drastic measures. The mink fur industry is being shut down immediately. Out of 800 000 captive minks in the country, 600 000 have already been killed.
Double standard in livestock farming
This reveals a massive bias surrounding livestock breeding in our society. It has long been known that intense livestock farming is destroying our environment and climate. 71% of farmland in the EU is used to feed livestock. The animals produce so much manure that the nitrogen contained in it even gets into protected areas. On the other hand, a third of all food gets thrown away. And even without the current situation, millions of animals live in horrible conditions. They are constantly stressed, because they do not have enough space. Diseases can only be contained with regular large-scale treatments with antibiotics. Reproduction and growth rates are artificially increased to a level that harms the animals. Millions of male chickens and calves are killed at birth, because they are not needed. While this topic flares up again from time to time when is a new scandal pops up, few real change has been made so far and media attention decreases quickly again after each scandal.
A topic that often gets more attention in local media is livestock predation by large carnivores. Every single kill of a wolf is accompanied by demands for killing this wolf. Some even predict the end of pasture farming in wolf territories. And some media outlets are quick to describe livestock predation by wolves as cruel, horrible or disturbing. They paint large carnivores as aggressive attackers. Simulteanously, solutions to this problem are often ignored. Livestock protection has proven effective to keep safe sheep and other animals safe and allows appropiate conditions.
Real reforms are necessary
The different coverage of the two topics shows a clear bias. The current culls cost the lives of millions of animals. To kill that many sheep or other livestock, all wolves around the world would take centuries. Of course that does not mean that we should accept that large carnivores kill livestock. Livestock protection offers an effective protection for grazing livestock.
Tackling the real issue of modern livestock farming is not easy. We have to realize that we cannot seperate livestock farming from environmental and climate issues; that the meat we buy in the supermarket has massive impact on our planet. Only a reform of our livestock farming system can create a sustainable future. Politics, farmers and costumers have to agree that saving our planet is more important than cheap meat. Only that can prevent another mass culling like the current one and it enables farmers to live in coexistence with large carnivores and protect their animals from threats.