The Terrifying True Tales of the Modern Food System

This Halloween, we don't need to look to horror movies to feel terrified. There's plenty to be afraid of when it comes to industrial agriculture. From the horrible conditions faced by farm workers and animals to the very real dangers that factory farms impose on public health, the realities of our industrial food sytem can sometimes seem like the stuff of nightmares. Below, find a few instances of these dangers and the protagonists of the fight for a better food future.

Danger for Farm Workers

Farm workers endure some of the most dangerous working conditions in the country. Farm workers face much higher rates of on the job fatalities than police officers or construction workers. Immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to injuries on farms where they may have been given minimal training or have limited experience. In one grisly example, an immigrant laborer's tractor recently tipped over into a manure pit, leading to his death. In 2015, there were 6,700 injuries and 43 deaths on dairy farms alone.

Injury isn't the only threat to immigrant farm workers. Farm workers must also face President Trump's threats of deportation. And if these deporations drastically increase, it may undermine the stability of our the food system. In Idaho, for example, 85 to 90 percent of on-site dairy workers are not born in the US.

Trading Prison for Hazardous Farm Work

In Oklahoma and surrounding states, some people facing prison terms for non-violent crime and/or struggling with addiction can accept a sentence to "the Chicken Farm." Run by the Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR) organization, "the Chicken Farm" provides little to no pay and claims to offer addiction recovery programs. However, some former workers in the CAAIR program complain of "slave camp" conditions and suffer through dangerous and grueling tasks. Despite these claims, the CAAIR program is expanding and courts continue to send defendants into the program.

Exposure to Risky Chemicals

Farm workers - and the general public - face the very real dangers of our food system's rampant pesticide use. On the farm, workers can be exposed to high doses of pesticides from their direct work or from pesticides drifting from nearby fields. Organophosphate pesticides, such as chlorpyrifos, can affect the nervous systems of insects and mammals, including humans. Low doses can cause headaches and dizziness, and higher doses can cause vomiting, stomachaches, diarrhea and even death. This past spring, for example, five farm workers in California sought medical treatment for exposure to chemicals that drifted from another field. According to the Environmental Working Group, consumers also face pesticide exposure due to residues on the produce they buy.

The Rise of "Superbugs"

Perhaps scarier than pesticide exposure, antibiotic resistant bacteria pose a terrifying public health threat. These "superbugs" are bacteria that can cause serious, sometimes fatal diseases that are resistant to antibiotic treatments. One cause of antibiotic resistance is the widely adopted practice of routinely using antibiotics to keep the livestock living in factory farms from getting sick and to promote their growth. Bacteria routinely exposed to these antibiotics can become resistant to the drugs' effects over time. If pathogenic bacteria make the leap from the animal to humans, treating infected people with antibiotics may become much more difficult and treatment options may become more limited. For example, recently a type of pneumonia has been found in China that is easily spread, drug-resistant and deadly.

Abusive Conditions for Animals

Animals also face chilling conditions on factory farms. Laying hens are often held in tiny cages and hogs are similarly confined to small pens during long stretches of their lives where they may not even be able to turn around. Chickens raised for meat are often kept in overcrowded indoor facilities where ammonia from poultry litter can make the air dangerous to breathe. Feedlot beef cattle are held in concentrated operations where they can stand for days in their own excrement. Chickens face having their beaks trimmed and pigs may have their tails cut off or "docked." Cows may be branded, dehorned or have their bodies otherwise altered. Check out the Meatrix to find out more about the way animals are treated in factory farms. 

Our Food System Doesn't Have to Be a Horror Show!

Fortunately, there are plenty of incredible farmers and advocates who choose to support a  better way of farming. Looking for where to find the food produced by these farmers? Animal Welfare Approved provides a certification process to ensure the highest standards in raising farm animals. There are also many other food labels to look for that help consumers eat more sustainably. Numerous farm workers groups, like the Food Chain Workers Alliance, advocate for safe farming and meat handling practices.

Concerned buyers can also become better informed about where their food comes from and get to know some actual animals by going to farmers' markets and looking for farms open to visitors. For instance, a farm sanctuary in Iowa was recently profiled for their work caring for castoff animals, which now represents one of dozens of similar farms across the country.

Just because things are scary now, doesn't mean they can't change for the better!