Strip away the mythmaking and genocide erasure, and American Thanksgiving is a simple harvest festival, celebrated in various forms by cultures all over the world and across human history. This year’s harvest—threshed, picked, slaughtered, butchered, packaged, shipped, and finally cooked—takes place under particularly precarious conditions: a warming atmosphere containing a novel, deadly pathogen. As many are starting to realize, the feast isn’t a break from those realities: From green beans to gravy, it’s a product of them.
Thanksgiving, in the hearts of many American diners, isn’t Thanksgiving without the turkey. And cheap meat for all—or at least for far more people than previously had access to such luxuries—was one of the crowning achievements of American twentieth-century industrial agriculture. Yet meat farming and processing is also one of the nation’s most troubled industries.
In the past few decades, global land clearing to cultivate crops for animal feeds has decimated global biodiversity. Massive buildings crammed with hundreds of thousands of animals that serve as premier disease incubators, and cramped processing plants low on regulation, have made the industrial meat supply chain a monumental and produced a handful of near misses on the road to Covid-19. Just as monoculture of a single crop makes an entire harvest vulnerable to disease, when livestock sectors engineer the system to process billions of near-identical genetic specimens in perpetuity—99 percent of the world’s turkeys, for example, are derived from a —mass production comes with terrifying vulnerabilities. “As corporations raze forests, slaughter animals, and spew out greenhouse gases,” TNR’s Kate Aronoff in May, “they’re bringing us closer to a future that could well produce outbreaks even deadlier than the coronavirus pandemic.”
The problem is exacerbated by the meat industry’s cavalier approach to worker safety. After the avian flu H5N1 hit in 2005, federal authorities worried about another epidemic companies with employees working close together to invest in personal protective equipment. These warnings were mostly ignored. Governors and legislatures in Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin did little as slaughterhouses became epicenters of rural Covid-19 outbreaks and have ultimately contributed to an 8 percent of early coronavirus infections nationwide. 50,000 meatpacking workers have become infected, and 250, at a minimum, have died.
For the industry, there will be no lessons learned: Just as pharmaceutical companies have limited interest in developing long-term vaccine projects that don’t deliver the near-term profit of other drugs, agribusiness has no incentive whatsoever to prevent the next pandemic. In fact, pandemics can be good for business: Under no pressure from Trump’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to spend money protecting workers, and with the president designating meat-processing plants “critical,” Tyson posted in 2020 than the year before. This ruthless cycle of corporate and livestock concentration followed by both animal and human deaths will continue until penalties levied by antitrust and labor regulation outweigh the windfalls of disaster capitalism.
Environmental regulations need to be considered, as well. The uncontainable amounts of manure produced in large-scale livestock farms emit methane and nitrogen oxide, dangerous greenhouse gases; when the manure is then recklessly spread onto fields of flat, barren farmland as fertilizer, the runoff produces algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico that extinguish marine life and both streams and oceans. That’s not to mention the role livestock fecal contamination has played in recent E. coli outbreaks.
At the banquet of destruction and disorder that is our food system, meat is indeed the centerpiece. But unsustainable cultivation practices for fruits, vegetables, and grains at unprecedented scales in California’s Central Valley and the Midwestern corn belt are a problem, too. Oligarchic influence on state and federal water infrastructure is allowing wanton aquifer depletion, while overfertilization, monocropping, and impinging on embankments and river ecologies leads to soil erosion and salination. Single-crop fields, particularly when entire counties (or even states) grow only a few varieties of the same crop, are contributing to the rise of superweeds and pests. Rising temperature exacerbates drought, while flood catastrophe is already growing more frequent, and California is due for an . Agrochemicals poisoning farmworkers and their families also contaminate air and drinking water, a public expense to remove, at best, and a public health hazard at worst.
The American grain and fruit juggernaut—which also feeds the beef, poultry, and pork industry—is predicated on the use of chemicals to try to contain weeds, pests, and disease without any extra labor or ecological consideration. The keystone of that system is Roundup, enough of which is sprayed annually to cover every acre of farmland in the world with ’’’’
’operations for restrictions under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. The Department of Agriculture can retire millions of acres of land not necessary for food, in the quick stroke of a pen making incredible progress rebuilding biodiversity in prairie and desert ecosystems we all depend on. And California needs water rationing that prioritizes human subsistence over the profits of a of billionaires. The possibilities are endless and inspiring.
As megacorporations and asset managers tighten their grip on the world’s depleting resources, confronting the ugly legacy of white supremacy and returning control to communities who care about their children’s futures should in fact be one of the most urgent priorities for both the environment and food security. One day, a new generation could gather at tables to celebrate these decisions, grateful they have less to fear than we have today.