How the Meat Industry Thrives on Environmental Racism

It’s no secret that animal agriculture is a horribly cruel, inefficient, and resource-intensive way to produce food for the growing human population. It pollutes our environment while consuming huge quantities of water, grain, petroleum, and pesticides. It also subjects animals to extreme confinement, mutilations without painkillers, and ruthless slaughter.
But industrial animal farms aren’t just awful for animals and the planet; they’re also a serious public health and environmental justice issue for nearby communities. In order to transform our food system for animals, the planet, and people, we must acknowledge that the meat industry has a long history of racial discrimination.
More often than not, factory farms are built near low-income communities and communities of color. “Environmental racism” is the term used to describe the disproportionate impact of pollution and other environmental hazards on people of color. North Carolina is one of the clearest examples of this. In 2016, the Environmental Working Group released a collection of maps and data revealing that the environmental cost of North Carolina’s 6,500 factory farms disproportionately affects vulnerable communities. In reference to industrial farming operations, Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director at North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, explains:
We call the problem environmental racism—we say that because we feel like there is no mistake that these companies targeted the communities they did. They did it because they perceived the communities to have the least amount of political and economic power to fight them.
Word has it that pigs outnumber people in North Carolina, and Black communities near factory farms experience devastating groundwater and air pollution, including disease-causing microbial contamination. In Duplin County, hogs significantly outnumber people—roughly nine pigs to every one human resident.
Neighbors living near factory farms complain that farmers spray feces and urine into the air to “dispose of” the waste. These farms emit so much harmful gas that residents suffer a host of ailments.
People who live near or work at factory farms breathe in hundreds of gases, which are formed as manure decomposes. For instance, one gas released by the lagoons, hydrogen sulfide, is dangerous even at low levels. Its effects—which are irreversible—range from sore throat to seizures, comas and even death.
Unfortunately, not everyone can choose where they live. Many people are rooted in their community by friends and family, and it would be wrong to assume that they could just move to another place. No one chooses a neighborhood because they want to live near a factory farm or slaughterhouse.
Sen. Cory Booker, whose father grew up in North Carolina, explains:
I saw firsthand in North Carolina how corporate interests are disproportionately placing environmental and public health burdens on low-income communities of color that they would never accept in their own neighborhoods. In North Carolina, large corporate pork producers are mistreating small contract farmers and externalizing their costs on to vulnerable communities, polluting the air, water, and soil, and making kids and families sick while reaping large financial rewards.
With the largest concentration of hog farms in America, North Carolina is a stark example of this injustice. However, this isn’t limited to North Carolina. Communities of color around the country and the world are disproportionately impacted by farms. A 2002 study examined more than 60 factory farms in Mississippi and found that most were located in low-income areas with a high percentage of people of color.
In order to demand meaningful changes in our food system, we must understand how systemic racism has thrived in the meat industry and how animal agriculture still benefits from this discrimination.
By choosing equitably produced plant-based foods, we can stand up for vulnerable communities and spare countless animals a lifetime of misery. Learn more about plant-based eating by downloading our FREE Vegetarian Starter Guide today.