September 28, 2016

Panel discusses factory farming

Panelists (left to right) Chris Petersen, Sonja Trom Eayrs, Jeff Johnson, Colleen Carpenter and Christina Meyer-Jax

“Factory Farming in Minnesota: Time for a change?” attracted more than 120 people to St. Catherine University’s Rauenhorst ballroom last week. The panel discussion offered personal insights into industrial livestock production, as well as tips to support animal welfare and eat more mindfully.

Jeff Johnson, event organizer and St. Kate’s associate professor of philosophy, was among the five panelists. He was joined by Christina Meyer-Jax, assistant professor of nutrition science; Colleen Carpenter, associate professor of theology; Sonja Trom Eayrs, a lawyer and farmer’s daughter; and Chris Petersen, a family pig farmer and member of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.

Trom Eayrs spoke about her parents and their family farm, and the legal battles they are embroiled in to prevent a large-scale hog farm from building a new feedlot near their home in rural Dodge County.

“How do you live with the overpowering stench?” she asked. “If you can imagine a skunk; magnify that by 100, and even the dogs vomit.”

According to her, there are 18,000 feed lots — an animal feeding operation that’s used in intensive animal farming prior to slaughter — in Minnesota. This is the manure equivalency to that of 50 million people, she noted, which means “nitrates, Ecoli and other contaminants in our water,” she said.

Peterson, a self-confessed “bacon lover” who’s been raising pigs since he was 14 agreed with her about the environmental impact of factory farms. “Independent
family farmers, we’re a dying breed,” he said. “I don’t want to see Minnesota become another Iowa. Iowa is saturated with factory farms.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture is the biggest source of pollution of lakes and rivers. Peterson went on to say, with two laminated maps dotted in red, in his hands: “We’re in the bottom in water quality… there were 650 impaired water ways in my state last spring, now there are 752…”

Meyer-Jax, a dietitian, addressed meat consumption in terms of “demand versus need. She said 68 percent of protein consumed in the United States comes from animal sources.

“The global demand for meat continues to rise,” she said. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, global beef consumption is climbing from 64 million tons in 2005 to 106 million tons in 2050.

“I do enjoy meat. I was raised in a good Irish-Catholic family,” she noted, “and what I learned is that you don’t always need what you want. The way that we’re
eating meat in industrialized nations is not sustainable.” Meyer-Jax advocated for “diversity in food” — try plant-based proteins, she said, “90% of us don’t
get enough vegetables.”

Don’t like greens? Then eat more quinoa, trout, herring and mussels.

These proteins, she said, are “most responsible for the environment” and “the most bioavailable (or best absorbed and used) in the human body."

The evening ended with a Q-and-A. Here’s two questions from that segment, and answers from the panel:

How can and should we change?

“We have to start with the idea that we are all connected,” said Carpenter. “Say grace before meals, and take the time to think about the people who prepared your food, the farmers and the animals, and how we’re all connected.”

What is the best thing an average person can do to take the pressures of our meat production and to factory farming?

“Every time you put that fork into your mouth, you can make an active choice,” said Trom Eayrs. “I want to know: where was this raised — factory farm or family farm?”

Johnson replied: “There are two ways to think about this: Think about animals as having personalities, cares and concerns, or think about them as being tools and commodities. Reflect on where you are on that spectrum and do research on farms — big and small — and be ready to ask yourself: ‘does that align with my values.’ It’s your call.”

The audience included students from Johnson’s ethics class, both of Meyer Jax’s courses (“Food Systems and Policy” and “Current Issues in Foods & Nutrition”), Professor Nancy Heitzeg’s “Global Search For Justice: Environmental Justice” class, and a number of other St. Kate’s courses.

“It was a great discussion,” said Jaimee Leibfried ’17, who attended the event with her sister, Heidi, who’s in high school, and roommate Breanna Hofmeister ’17. “It’s good to hear people who like meat being against factory farming. My sister and I are vegans, and it’s really hard to talk about how factory farms treat animals with our family members who are not aware of what’s going on.”

Hofmeister knows firsthand the effects of industrial livestock production. Her family, including both sets of grandparents, have a history of farming “but they can’t afford to keep up with their farms because they can’t afford to compete with the factories,” she says.

“It was good to see the panelists teaming up to offer these different perspectives, and to come together to try to help,” she added. “But I wish there was someone in factory farming who was also here tonight. It’s important to hear all sides of an issue.”

By Pauline Oo