Congrats to April M. Short, IMI Fellow and Contributor to the Emmy Award-Winning “Covenant of the Salmon People”

Covenant of the Salmon People just won a NW Emmy for Best Documentary (Cultural/Historical). The film was directed by Shane Anderson of Swiftwater Films and IMI’s own Local Peace Economy fellow, April M. Short, was a contributor to the project.

Covenant of the Salmon People is a 60-minute film that focuses of the Nez Perce Tribe. They are the oldest documented civilization in North America and they have a historical, cultural, and spiritual bond with the local Chinook salmon, which is now a threatened species. Dam construction is one of the main impediments to the tribe’s fight to save the fish population and restore the lower Snake River.

This film beautiful illustrates the invaluable work of environmental activism, as you can see from the trailer below.

Congratulations to the team for their phenomenal work.

If you are interested in learning more about the tribe’s environmental efforts, please check out their Salmon Orca Project. Visit the Covenant of the Salmon People website for more details about the award-winning film or you can watch the feature on PBS streaming.

1,3-Dichloropropene: The Dangerous, Sweet-Smelling Pesticide You’ve Never Heard Of

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

Regulatory loopholes allow more than 30 million pounds of a cancer-causing pesticide to be sprayed on U.S. crops.

By Caroline Cox

California regulators were stunned by their air monitor results in April 1990. Concentrations of a cancer-causing pesticide at schools in Merced County were so high that regulators immediately stopped any use of that pesticide in California. It’s a chemical with an unwieldy name, 1,3-dichloropropene, that you may have never heard about. But there are many reasons why you should be concerned about its use.

The pesticide, also referred to as 1,3-D, is still a problem three decades after I first wrote about it in 1992, when the detection of high levels of 1,3-D in the air of a junior high school led to serious concerns.

The use of 1,3-D in California was suspended from 1990 to 1995 but continued in the rest of the country. Since then, its use has come back with a vengeance. About 34 million pounds are used annually in the United States; about one-third is used in California. The use of 1,3-D is concentrated in the southeastern U.S., central California, and the potato-growing areas of Washington and Idaho. It is mainly used to kill nematodes, symphylans, and wireworms and control some plant diseases.

In California, the heaviest use of 1,3-D is for preparing fields to grow almonds, strawberries, sweet potatoes, grapes, and carrots. Nationally, potatoes accounted for about half of all 1,3-D used between 2014 and 2018, according to a 2020 United States Environmental Protection Agency report.

1,3-D is manufactured by just one company in the U.S., Dow Chemical, and is often sold under the brand name Telone.

Regulatory Loophole

The story of how and why regulators have allowed 1,3-D’s use to continue and even increase is a complicated one that involves politics, economics, and corporate power. For example, in 2002, California opened a regulatory loophole that allowed 1,3-D use to increase, leading to “unfettered 1,3-D access as its use spread to populated areas near schools, homes and businesses,” wrote Bernice Yeung, Kendall Taggart, and Andy Donohue in 2014 in Reveal.

“The loophole also expanded a key market for Dow, allowing it to sell millions more pounds of chemicals across a state that provides the U.S. with nearly half of all its fruits, vegetables, and nuts,” the article in Reveal added. Yet in 2016, limits on 1,3-D use in California increased again.

In 2022, the Office of the Inspector General at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that “EPA did not adhere to standard operating procedures and requirements for the 1,3-Dichloropropene, or 1,3-D, pesticide cancer-assessment process, which undermines public confidence in and the transparency of the Agency’s scientific approaches to prevent unreasonable impacts on human health.”

In other words, the agency did not do its job. This is in stark contrast to the European Union, where 1,3-D use is not approved.

Elaborating on the extensive use of the pesticide, the inspector general also stated that “1,3-D is one of the top three soil fumigants used in the United States.”

1,3-D Causes Air Pollution

1,3-D typically is applied as a liquid that is injected into the soil. It quickly becomes a gas, moves through the soil, and escapes into the atmosphere.

California is the only state that regularly monitors 1,3-D in the air around agricultural communities, but the few results that have been obtained are extremely concerning. Weekly air monitoring data that began to be recorded in 2011 and has continued as of May 2024 is available from four towns (Oxnard, Santa Maria, Shafter, and Watsonville) where the air monitors are located at schools.

In 2022, about one-third of the samples collected from these air monitors contained 1,3-D. Over the entire sampling period, the average 1,3-D concentration at the four schools was between .09 and .46 ppb. According to my calculations, this is double the safety level set by California’s scientists at the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) at the least contaminated school site and 10 times the safety level at the most contaminated school site.

1,3-D is classified as a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act and is also designated a toxic air contaminant in California. Regulators in California who modeled high detections of 1,3-D between 2017 and 2020 have found that 1,3-D can drift for more than 3 miles from where it is applied.

Clear Evidence of Significant Health Hazards of 1,3-D

Cancer

The World Health Organization (WHO) classified 1,3-D as a cancer-causing chemical (“possibly carcinogenic to humans”) in 1987. In 1989, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) evaluated 1,3-D and concluded that it was “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” California made a similar classification in 1989. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health calls 1,3-D a carcinogen.

In a 2021 review, California’s OEHHA summarized laboratory studies conducted on rats and mice in the 1980s and 1990s, showing that exposure to 1,3-D caused tumors or cancer in multiple organs: lungs, tear glands, bladder, and breasts.

Asthma and Other Breathing Problems

Regulatory agencies recognize that 1,3-D irritates the lungs. The European Chemicals Agency states that 1,3-D is “harmful if inhaled” and “may cause respiratory irritation.”

The HHS concludes that the “[i]nhalation of dichloropropenes may cause respiratory effects such as irritation, chest pain, and cough.” California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) states, “Acute or short-term inhalation exposure to high concentrations of 1,3-D results in upper respiratory symptoms in humans, including chest tightness, irritated and watery eyes, dizziness and runny nose.” Researchers at the University of California, Merced, found that tiny increases in the amounts of 1,3-D in the air (0.01 parts per billion, or ppb) increased the odds of emergency room visits for asthma from 2005 to 2011.

Genetic Damage

As with cancer, evidence that 1,3-D can cause genetic damage has been available for decades. In 1987, WHO reported that 1,3-D caused genetic damage in mice, bacteria, and laboratory-grown cells from several mammals.

In 2021, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment compiled studies of genetic damage and found evidence of it in mice, rats, bacteria, fruit flies, and laboratory-grown cells from hamsters and rats.

Environmental Injustice

California is the easiest place to evaluate environmental justice issues related to pesticides because this information is more readily available there than in other states. When I combined California’s pesticide use data for 2021 with demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau for 2020, I found clear evidence that race and income play an important role in determining who is exposed to 1,3-D.

Of the 10 counties with the highest 1,3-D use, eight were above the state average for the percent of families living in poverty, nine had median incomes less than the state average, and eight were majority Hispanic/Latinx. The bottom line is that people who live in the areas where 1,3-D is widely used are likely to be low-income and Latinx. While the same detailed data is unavailable for the rest of the country, finding similar patterns would not be surprising if such information were provided.

And there’s more to the story in California. The state has set two different safety levels for exposure to 1,3-D. One was set by the CDPR, and the other by OEHHA. Both agencies set a safety level that is supposed to limit exposures to 1,3-D according to what they believe will only cause one cancer case per 100,000 people exposed.

CDPR’s number, focused on people who live near 1,3-D applications, is set at an average air concentration of 0.56 ppb. OEHHA’s number, which applies to everyone in California and is based on health-protective science, is an average air concentration of 0.04 ppb.

As a result, people who live in agricultural areas, likely to be low-income and Latinx, can be exposed to 14 times more 1,3-D than other Californians.

Climate Change Concerns

Dow in Freeport, Texas, manufactures 1,3-D at the largest chemical plant in the Americas. The plant was built to take advantage of natural gas wells close by. I have not come across an accounting of 1,3-D’s carbon footprint, but given that it is made from natural gas, I assume that the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process is likely to be significant. Millions of pounds of this chemical are transported thousands of miles using gasoline or diesel power, adding to the carbon footprint. Finally, the application equipment used for 1,3-D is typically diesel-powered.

Crops grown without 1,3-D and other fumigants can actually reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A good example comes from research done in California almond orchards in August 2021. The scientists who conducted the study, published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, compared conventional almond orchards (commonly treated with 1,3-D) with regenerative, certified organic orchards that do not use 1,3-D or similar pesticides. The study found that organic orchards had 30 percent more carbon in their soil than conventional orchards and, therefore, helped in removing that carbon from the atmosphere and prevented climate change.

You Can Make a Difference

Like many people in the U.S., I live in a county where 1,3-D use is rare, or even zero. No crops grown near me use 1,3-D. But I also consciously choose to avoid eating food that harms people growing or harvesting such crops or those living near fields where they are grown. Fortunately, it’s easy to make a difference. I buy certified organic food as much as possible, especially potatoes and almonds.

Buying organic products is increasingly becoming a popular choice in the U.S., with more than 80 percent of Americans purchasing some organics in 2016, according to a study by the Organic Trade Association. Accessibility to affordable organics is also getting better. More and more standard supermarkets carry organics. In many states, SNAP benefits (food stamps) are doubled for fruits and vegetables, making it easier for SNAP customers to buy organics. Farmers markets, food coops, and community-supported agriculture are other options. The more we buy organic food, the less 1,3-D will be used.

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

Caroline Cox is a retired pesticide scientist. She was a staff scientist at the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides from 1990 to 2006 and a research director and senior scientist at the Center for Environmental Health from 2006 to 2020. She is a contributor to the Observatory.

Photo Credit: Austin Valley / Wikimedia Commons

Understanding Zoonotic Diseases: How Humans Get Sick From Other Animals

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

The growing emergence of diseases from animals suggests that we need to rethink our reliance on animals as a food source.

By Vicky Bond

Human and animal health are closely linked, with many diseases shared between them. As our world becomes more developed and interconnected, the proximity between wild animals and humans is shrinking, increasing the risk of disease transmission. At the same time, humans are growing increasingly dependent on animals as a source of food.

The emergence of new diseases is an unfortunate byproduct of these trends. According to the World Health Organization, most of the newly discovered diseases in humans—about 75 percent—have originated in animals in the last three decades. Scientists call these kinds of diseases “zoonotic.”

As humans navigate the growing risk of zoonotic diseases, it is essential to understand how reversing our dependence on meat, dairy, and other animal products can help have a positive impact on our health and that of the planet, while ensuring a better life for the animals.

What Is a Zoonotic Disease?

A zoonotic disease is a disease that transfers from an animal population to humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, zoonotic diseases are caused by germs such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. Many different types of zoonotic diseases cause human illnesses that range from mild to life-threatening in severity.

It is estimated that six out of ten known infectious diseases that have been reported globally have spread between animals and humans, according to the World Health Organization—and zoonoses are only becoming more frequent.

What Causes Zoonoses?

Humans worldwide live near wild and domesticated animals, largely thanks to our food system’s reliance on industrial animal agriculture. As we navigate the challenges posed by this “unsustainable agricultural intensification”—that is “[destroying] the natural buffers that protect humans from viruses circulating among wildlife,” according to the United Nations—health experts say it has become crucial to understand how zoonotic diseases can spread.

Direct Contact

Diseases can pass from animals to humans who come in direct contact with them by touching an infected animal, for example, or being bitten by one. Zoonotic diseases usually spread through direct contact with an infected animalʼs bodily fluids, such as urine, blood, saliva, feces, or mucus.

Indirect Contact

Humans can also become infected in an animalʼs habitat or living quarters. For example, zoonoses can spread to a human while cleaning out an aquarium or chicken coop or while handling a petʼs food and water dishes. On industrial chicken farms, birds live in squalid conditions with the floor drenched in urine and feces, leading to the ideal conditions for animals to get sick.

Vector-Borne

In epidemiology, a “vector” usually refers to insects, arachnids, and other small organisms that spread an infection from one host to another.

An infected tick, for instance, can attach to a human and transmit Lymes disease. This is also why mosquito bites can potentially cause severe illnesses like the Zika virus, malaria, and yellow fever.

Foodborne

Foodborne diseases, or food poisoning, can be caused by eating raw or undercooked animal products. Eggs and chicken are among the most common sources of food poisoning. Salmonella and campylobacter—from raw eggs and chicken—are common zoonotic diseases. Chickens are among the most widely farmed land animals in the U.S. and worldwide. The U.S. raised more than 9 billion chickens for meat in 2020 alone.

Waterborne

Consuming water contaminated with harmful bacteria can cause illness in humans. For example, lakes, rivers, and streams contaminated with animal waste might have elevated levels of E. coli bacteria—found in the fecal matter of warm-blooded animals.

  1. coli contamination is one reason why factory farms can have devastating impacts on neighboring water bodies. If ingested by humans, the contaminated water can cause anything from minor stomach discomfort to serious health problems or even death.

How Do Zoonotic Diseases Spread Between Animals and People?

There are many ways for zoonotic diseases to spread between animals and people. However, public health researchers have found a common thread through many of the primary drivers of zoonotic diseases. Namely, factory farming and the consumption of animals around the world are sharply driving up the risks that could cause the next significant outbreak.

Farming and Ranching

By a conservative estimate, the agricultural industry has been responsible for around half of all new zoonotic diseases since 1940, according to a November 2022 paper in Science Advances. Epidemiologists say that percentage is probably higher. Nearly every aspect of intensive animal farming contributes to conditions ideal for spreading disease—overly stressed animals, who often live in sordid conditions and are crowded into tight spaces with one another, regularly come into contact with human workers.

Intensive animal farming creates a perfect storm for spreading zoonotic disease.

Wildlife Trade

In addition to animal agriculture, both the legal and illegal wildlife trade—which refers to the global commerce of non-domesticated animals and plants—are serious drivers of zoonotic disease.

A 2021 study published in Current Biology found that more than 25 percent of the mammals in the wildlife trade host 75 percent of all known zoonotic diseases. Because the complex process of transporting these animals results in “upward of 1 billion direct and indirect contacts among wildlife, animals, and domestic animals,” the studyʼs lead author, K. Nagaraju Shivaprakash, concluded that “[W]ildlife trade… is [conceivably] a significant factor in the global spread of zoonotic and emerging infectious diseases.”

Animal Captivity

Holding animals in captivity and exploiting them for human entertainment poses many ethical and moral problems. Animals in captivity also pose public health risks. Petting zoos and other animal exhibits where humans can directly touch captive animals are particularly concerning. Between 1990 and 2000, more than 25 zoonotic outbreaks were linked to animal exhibits, according to 2007 figures provided by the CDC.

Insect Vectors

There are more than a billion insects for every human on Earth. While these tiny beings are essential to our survival, some can also carry deadly diseases.

Ticks, fleas, and female mosquitoes (male mosquitoes don’t bite) can cause various illnesses, most of which are now treatable. However, one of the worst pandemics in history, the Black Plague, has been traced back to infected fleas.

Deforestation and Habitat Destruction

Deforestation and habitat destruction—primarily driven by the agriculture industry—pose serious environmental risks. When wild animals see their habitats destroyed, they have no choice but to uproot and search for a new home. As they make these journeys, they are more likely to “bump into” other animals, increasing the chances for a once-contained disease to spill over to another population.

Climate Change

For reasons similar to habitat destruction, scientists say climate change is already increasing the chances of humans experiencing more frequent zoonotic pandemics. “Using recent estimates of the rate of increase in disease emergence from zoonotic reservoirs associated with environmental change, we estimate that the yearly probability of occurrence of extreme epidemics can increase up to threefold in the coming decades,” warns a 2021 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Animal agriculture contributes more global greenhouse gas emissions than the transportation sector.

The resulting extreme heat at the equator caused by global warming has many species racing toward the poles for more hospitable climates. This has prompted once-remote animal species to travel great distances, likely increasing their chances of contact with humans and other animals and potentially spreading disease.

Contaminated Food and Water

Food or water that has been contaminated by a bacterium, virus, or parasite leads to tens of millions of annual food poisoning cases and more than 1,000 deaths in the United States alone, according to the CDC.

Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness-related deaths in the U.S. After that, salmonella, C. perfringens, and campylobacter are the next most fatal pathogens. “Campylobacteriosis is the most commonly reported gastrointestinal disease” in the European Union, with more than 129,000 cases reported in 2021, which is a 5.6 percent increase compared to 2020.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control found that chickens and chicken meat accounted for roughly 20 to 30 percent of these human infection cases.

How Are Zoonoses Classified?

Public health experts classify zoonoses by their root cause. In other words, the disease pathogen could be a bacterium, a virus, or something else.

Bacterial Zoonoses

Bacterial zoonoses are diseases caused by single-cell microorganisms found almost everywhere on Earth and inside the human body. Most bacteria are harmless or even helpful, and relatively few cause disease.

Viral Zoonoses

Viral zoonoses are diseases caused by viruses, which are infectious microbes made up of DNA or RNA surrounded by a “protein coat.” They can infect humans, other animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria.

Parasitic Zoonoses

Parasitic zoonoses are diseases caused by parasites that attach themselves to or are found inside a hostʼs body. Parasitic diseases can spread from animals to humans through the consumption of raw or undercooked meat or by consuming food or water contaminated by an infected animalʼs stool.

Fungal Zoonoses

Fungal zoonoses are diseases caused by fungi, spore-producing organisms such as molds, yeasts, and mushrooms. Fungi can cause topical infections on a person’s body (such as skin rashes and brittle nails) or inside the body (such as infections of the lungs or bloodstream).

Rickettsial Zoonoses

Rickettsial zoonoses are diseases caused by an unusual type of bacteria that can live only inside the cells of other organisms. Rickettsial infections are usually transmitted to humans through bites from vectors such as ticks, lice, fleas, and mites.

Chlamydial Zoonoses

Chlamydial zoonoses are diseases caused by a family of bacteria called chlamydiae, one of the most common infectious agents affecting humans. One type of the bacteria is frequently transmitted in people as a sexually transmitted infection—and is often referred to colloquially as chlamydia. Another version, however, affects domesticated birds and can spread to humans when handling their birds or cleaning out their cages.

Mycoplasma Zoonoses

Mycoplasma zoonoses are diseases caused by an atypical family of bacteria that are harder to kill through antibiotics. Mycoplasma pneumoniae can infect the human respiratory system—a mild form of pneumonia is often called “walking pneumonia”—and spreads through tiny droplets from coughs and sneezes. There have also been reported cases of this sort of bacteria spreading from animals to humans.

Protozoal Zoonoses

Protozoal zoonoses are diseases caused by protozoal parasites and often spread from companion animals to their owners. Many humans are protected from these types of diseases by strong immune systems. However, immunocompromised pet caretakers are at a much higher risk.

Acellular Non-Viral Pathogenic Zoonoses

Acellular non-viral pathogenic zoonoses refer to diseases caused by very unusual and not well-understood pathogens, such as prion, a misfolded protein. Prion is believed to be the cause of neurological disorders such as mad cow disease and similar diseases affecting the brains of humans.

Zoonotic Disease Examples

Avian Influenza

Avian influenza, or bird flu, is a viral disease that primarily affects wild waterfowl and domesticated poultry. As of April 10, 2024, more than 85 million poultry have been affected by a bird flu outbreak, the majority of which were egg-laying hens raised in cramped cages. While it has infected humans in rare cases, given the ongoing, severe outbreak in both wild and domestic bird populations, public health experts are concerned about more potential spillover events in the near future.

Due to the sheer number of birds we factory farm, we are dramatically increasing this risk. Keeping birds in closed confines, filthy conditions, and continually stressed is the perfect environment for bird flu to flourish.

Salmonellosis

Salmonellosis is caused by an infection from salmonella bacteria, which live in the digestive tracts of birds and other animals. Humans risk infection if they do not practice good hand-washing habits and consume raw eggs, unpasteurized dairy products, or undercooked meat.

Psittacosis

Humans can contract psittacosis from infected pet birds, such as parrots and cockatiels, or domesticated poultry, such as chickens and turkeys. The illness is usually quite mild and relatively brief in humans.

Rabies

Rabies is a viral disease that can affect any mammal but is most associated with bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and dogs. Rabies is usually transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected animal. The infection affects the central nervous system and is nearly always fatal once symptoms are present.

Cat Scratch Disease

Cat scratch disease is a bacterial infection. It can spread to humans when a cat licks an open wound or scratches a person deep enough to break the skin. The infection can cause redness around the site of the wound, swollen glands, and flu-like symptoms. While the symptoms are usually mild, in rare cases, the infection can become serious if it spreads to other organs.

Malaria

Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite that spreads to humans through mosquito bites. If it is left untreated, malaria can be fatal, especially in children under five. The disease is most commonly found in countries near the equator, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania.

Zika Virus

Mosquito bites are the most common cause of the Zika virus. However, it can also be passed from a pregnant mother to her child or through sexual contact. The virusʼ symptoms usually include mild rash and illness. However, it can cause serious congenital disorders in newborns.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne zoonoses in the U.S. It is caused by infected blacklegged tick bites. While relatively easily treatable, if left untreated, Lyme disease can result in prolonged pain, stiffness, and swelling, as well as memory problems and difficulty concentrating.

Bubonic Plague

Responsible for the most infamous pandemic in history—known as the Black Plague or Black Death—the bubonic plague still crops up in some cases worldwide. However, outbreaks of this bacteria-borne zoonotic disease can be controlled with antibiotics.

Swine Flu

Also known as the H1N1 flu, swine flu is caused by an influenza virus that began infecting humans in 2009, causing a pandemic in humans, pigs, and birds. Pigs with swine flu may develop symptoms ranging from fever, coughing, and sneezing to depression and a lack of appetite. Humans can get sick from being near pigs on farms or at county fairs.

COVID-19

Scientists agree the COVID-19 pandemic originated from a nonhuman animal. However, there is yet to be a definitive conclusion about the source. According to WHO, the leading theory is that the COVID-19 virus originated in bats and spread to humans via another animal.

Who Is at Risk of Zoonotic Diseases?

As the far-reaching effects of COVID-19 have taught us, no one is immune from getting a zoonotic disease. However, various risk factors can put certain people at higher risk of infection than others.

According to the CDC, children under five, adults more than 65 years old, those with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women are at heightened risk of serious illness from zoonotic diseases.

What Can You Do to Protect Yourself from Zoonotic Diseases?

Animals are all around us, whether they are buzzing around us outdoors, wandering through our backyards, or even living inside our homes. This means there is always a chance of a bacterium, virus, or other pathogen jumping from an infected animal to one of us.

The CDC has laid out a practical list of ways to protect ourselves from preventable zoonotic diseases:

  • Wash your hands after touching animals or animal products. Soap and running water for 20 seconds is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of germs. If soap and water arenʼt available, using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol is the next best thing.
  • Avoid tick, flea, and mosquito bites outdoors by wearing bug spray and long-sleeved clothing and paying attention to CDC health warnings in your area.
  • If you have companion animals in your home, educate yourself about what diseases typically affect them and how to keep them healthy.
  • Be wary of animal exhibits and petting zoos.

However, the rise of industrial animal agriculture over the 20th century has transformed our food system into one in which thousands of animals are packed into dense, unclean living quarters—creating conditions ripe for disease. While taking individual precautions to avoid contracting zoonoses is essential, the threat remains high unless we collectively change our relationship with nonhuman animals.

Preventing Zoonotic Disease Globally

Public health experts agree that the world needs to address the primary root cause of emerging zoonotic diseases: animal consumption. A 2022 research article in the journal Science Advances explains that changing how we raise animals for meat is insufficient to stem the accelerated rise in these diseases.

Intensive agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, which drives the global spread of disease. To further increase productivity, animals are increasingly kept in more intensive systems, but this process involves confining animals—and their waste—together into tight spaces. Not only is this inhumane, but in such large numbers and under so much stress, it also greases the wheels for the spread of disease.

Research shows that slowing the spread of zoonotic diseases will require reducing global reliance on animal products as a food source while accelerating forest conservation efforts worldwide.

Ending Intensive Animal Agriculture

Much work remains to end intensive animal agriculture and make the world a safer place for humans and nonhuman animals.

We must hold corporations and elected officials accountable for how their actions affect nonhuman animals’ well-being and public health. Governments must stop subsidizing animal agriculture and instead support more sustainable farming practices.

More awareness is also required to educate people about the atrocities inflicted on animals to support intensive farming and to highlight the overall environmental and health benefits of moving toward a plant-based diet.

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

Vicky Bond is a veterinary surgeon, animal welfare scientist, and the president of The Humane League, a global nonprofit organization working to end the abuse of animals raised for food through institutional and individual change. She is a contributor to the Observatory. Follow her on Twitter @vickybond_THL.

Photo Credit: Matthew T Rader / Wikimedia Commons

Trump Loyalists Preview Strategies to Upend 2024 Election

Click here to read the article on the Bucks County Beacon.

Not just challenging voters’ credentials in battleground states. But attacking every step in running elections.

By Steven Rosenfeld

As the 2020 presidential election entered its final stretch, Christina Bobb was not just covering it as a TV newswoman for the pro-Donald Trump One America News Network (OANN). The tall, dark-haired, clear-speaking ex-marine and lawyer was working to overturn it.

Bobb believed that Democrats and election officials colluded to fabricate thousands of voter registrations, illegal voters, forged ballots, and finessed the vote count until Joe Biden was the victor in 2020’s battleground states.

Yet it was Bobb and Trump loyalists who were feverishly plotting and pushing to alter the presidential election’s outcome, as she detailed in her 2023 book, Stealing Your Vote: The Inside Story of the 2020 Election and What it Means for 2024.

Publicly, Bobb kept reporting for OANN. Under the radar, she “joined” Rudy Giuliani and others in Trump’s orbit who pursued ways to nullify the results. She wrote that she was on the call with Trump when he urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes.” Bobb said that she coordinated “the litigation efforts in Arizona, Michigan, and New Mexico,” including, apparently, a slate of fake Electoral College members who forged and sent paperwork to Congress certifying that Trump had won Arizona.

In April, Bobb and 17 others were indicted on multiple felonies in that electoral hijacking scheme by Arizona Attorney General Kristin Mayes, a Democrat. Only weeks before, on the same day Trump secured the 2024 Republican nomination, Bobb was named the Republican National Committee’s senior counsel for election integrity. Beyond the surreal twist that a politico indicted for attempting to overturn a swing state’s presidential vote will now lead a national party’s efforts to police elections, Bobb’s book previews the lawfare and conspiratorial mindset that is already shadowing 2024’s presidential election.

In her book, Bobb complained about “inflated” voter rolls, “ballot trafficking,” and “ballot harvesting,” which are conspiratorial pejoratives that imply fabricating voters, forging ballots, and stuffing ballot boxes. As States Newsroom reported in April 2024, the RNC and its allies have already sued in five states—including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Nevada—to challenge their voter rolls’ accuracy, and, in turn, voters’ credentials. In Georgia, a Republican bill empowering mass challenges of voter registrations was signed into law on May 7. (The American Civil Liberties Union has vowed to sue to block last-minute voter purges.)

Bobb’s book also targeted the way that elections are run. She disparaged “centralized” counting operations (“makes cheating easier”) and complained of local election officials “removing” Republican workers and restricting GOP’s observers (“so that they could cheat”). She said that Democrats will spread “misinformation” (“an information war against the American people”), run “out the clock” after Election Day, and collude with the media to change “the Narrative.”

“The media and the Left insist that there were no crimes committed, and they love to point to the courts, claiming that all charges of criminal activity have been proven wrong,” she wrote of 2020. “The real story, however, is quite different.”

The real story of 2020’s finale, contrary to Bobb’s assertions, was that Trump loyalists would not accept his defeat and were running blind. They presented their “evidence” to courts overseen by Democratic and Republican judges and lost every substantive legal challenge. Their evidence—sworn statements by individuals who claimed they had witnessed misdeeds and voter fraud—was not deemed credible and was rebutted by factual evidence provided by experienced and informed experts.

Nonetheless, Bobb’s belief that hidden hands are again plotting to steal votes is not just taken as an article of faith in Trump circles. It is emblematic of a new development in the GOP’s “election integrity” circles, which Mimi Marziani, a political science and election law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, recently characterized as “throwing the kitchen sink” at elections officials, the courts, and the public.

In recent years, these self-taught grassroots Trump activists—who distrust almost everyone who has run an election, including Republicans—have discovered the details of election administration. These are the often-repetitive steps, procedures, and technologies used in elections. The activists assume the worst will happen at any point. They distrust almost everything about every stage in the process.

As Marziani recently told Votebeat’s Texas reporter, “They’re not actually trying to have a different person elected… They’re trying to set some sort of precedent to destabilize free and fair elections.”

“If someone really wants to interfere with our elections, they will find a way to accomplish that,” wrote Erica in April, the curator of the Election Education channel on Telegram, a platform favored by Trumpers. “The security measures the election officials repeat over and over are a false sense of security when we can’t verify any of them for ourselves.”

Telegram’s ‘Election Education’

That online comment hardly seems threatening. But what I found on the channel, which leaders of national groups seeking to defend 2024’s elections said they had not seen via emails, was stunning. Bobb’s book puts forth broad conspiracies and talking points. The Election Education channel has weaponized the details beyond anything I have seen.

I have studied and covered voting rights, election administration, voting system technology, election procedure, and disinformation for two decades. This winter, I worked for nearly two months as a county election official during California’s presidential primary, where I had an up close look at many of the practices targeted by Bobb and her fellow travelers. I understand the frustrations of not getting timely, easily understood explanations and evidence about what happened in any close election. I’ve faced many tight-lipped officials as a journalist.

But the Election Education channel is a repository that catalogs the fine print of running elections and sows doubt about almost everything. It is filled with scores of graphic charts that put forth almost every imaginable conspiracy. It makes hundreds of blunt accusations that are difficult to unwind and begin to respond to—because running an election isn’t so simple.

The graphics include topics such as: “Ballot Harvesting Hot Spots,” “Known Election Fraud Maneuvers,” “Election Observer Tips,” “Take-Aways from 2020 Elections,” “What Could Possibly Happen to a Mail-In Ballot?” “Bring Election Accountability to Your Local Elections Office,” “Why Aren’t Change of Addresses Being Updated in the Voter Rolls?” “Our Elections are Under Attack!” and “Voter Authentication Not Required When Voting by Mail.”

The channel’s messages are not unique in Trump land. They are signs of our polarized, tribal, and political times. The channel’s curators believe they are educating Trump’s base. Their most popular posts are regularly seen by tens of thousands of viewers, according to Telegram’s counter. But they are blissfully unaware of what they do not know. In contrast, the longer I have been around elections, the more I have realized how much more there is to know.

For example, below the assertion that anyone who wants to interfere will find a way is a chart entitled, “Election Fraud Work-Arounds: The Art of Cheating Without Getting Caught.” It is one of 50 graphics posted so far in 2024, has been viewed by 26,000 people, and bluntly lists a half-dozen scenarios to cheat to “Pass Post-Election Audits,” “Pass Logic and Accuracy Tests,” “Add Late Ballots to the Count,” and “Use Uncertified Systems.”

These technicalities are steps that occur during the set-up and running of elections. Like all propaganda, their assertions start with a thread of truth. A factual process or procedure or an election record or computer system is cited. But the messages and messengers invariably go on to assume that specific steps will be secretly sabotaged.

For example, under “Add Late Ballots to the Count”—which implies that Democrats or colluding officials are stealing votes—are six conspiratorial scenarios. One might “alter or don’t require [a] USPS [Post Office] time stamp.” One might “use ‘blank’ ballots later to vote” or “backfill the votes via adjudication [a process where officials review ballots if there’s more than one vote in a single contest to ascertain the voter’s intent].” One might “alter chain-of-custody records [concerning the handling and inventorying of ballots].” One might exploit the “ballot curing period [when voters can correct mistakes or return to an election office with more identifying information] to insert votes” or “use early votes to calculate how many more ballots are needed to win.”

Accusations like these sow doubts. It is virtually impossible to factually respond to people who say that no matter what evidence is presented, that something invisible is happening elsewhere to corrupt the process. But that’s their mindset.

“Election fraud does not require the assistance of election staff,” said a chart entitled, How an Election can be Stolen without Poll Worker’s Knowledge. “Poll workers can do everything right and still have the election stolen from them. There are people in this world who will stop at nothing to gain or maintain power.”

How Impactful Might This Be?

As a longtime journalist, I don’t criticize individual citizen activists. But I can’t help but notice the blind spots in this movement and its methodology.

Bobb’s assertions and Election Education’s graphics are not just overclaiming and propagandist. They are also not fully knowledgeable about their topics and targets. One can notice what is not mentioned. They never say how many voters or votes might be affected in their latest conspiratorial scenario. They never mention what steps, security measures, bureaucratic redundancies, observer scrutiny, and time crunches would prevent their feared subterfuge from pragmatically occurring. They are self-taught and unaware of their shortcomings—unintentionally, or perhaps more cynically, they are aware and don’t care.

This winter, I learned things as an election official that I had not known until I worked on the inside. Election administration is not easily understood nor is it often well-explained. That encourages propaganda. But an absence of understanding does not mean the process is implicitly corrupt and untrustworthy. Today’s voting systems are not black boxes. They are filled with data and voter- and ballot-centered evidence that is—and can be—repeatedly verified.

But Trump’s base doesn’t want to believe that he lost in 2020 and might lose again in 2024. That mindset raises some big questions about their latest messaging. Will efforts such as the Election Education channel’s targeting and disparaging of the process’s fine print and the officials who run elections lead to protests and unrest this fall? There are only several dozen swing counties in all of the swing states. It doesn’t take more than a few dozen protesters to show up at a single site, call the media, and be noisy and disruptive.

But succeeding as a propagandist is not the same as being better-informed and smarter about the electoral process. Nor does it mean Trumpers will be pursuing better-informed legal challenges after Election Day—should a statewide or federal election come down to a margin of several thousand votes.

When asked about potential impacts in 2024, several former officials who are involved in defending elections said that they had not heard of the Telegram channel. One was wary of giving the channel too much attention, as GOP activists have a history of hyping their vigilantism and then barely showing up on Election Day, and afterward.

Apparently, the channel is being tracked by some disinformation watchers. The channel’s curator has posted that one contractor working with election officials has tagged some of its posts. But that surveillance only seems to stiffen the belief of Trumpers that Democrats and many officials are plotting against them. And they think they know how.

On April 28, Election Education asked readers how they thought 2024 would be stolen. “What is your theory on how elections are stolen in your neck of the woods? We know they are all possible, but curious what you think the biggest factor is,” it said.

Nearly 4,800 people replied. That’s more respondents than most national polls. “Mail-in ballots,” replied 30 percent. “Machine vote flips,” said 22 percent. “Injecting votes using dirty voter rolls,” said 17 percent. “Machine is set for certain outcome,” said 10 percent. Their answers were seen by 16,500 viewers.

A few days later, a new graphic appeared. “They are INFLATING the voter rolls because they know we have been STUDYING the MACHINES! Do NOT get BLINDSIDED.” Below, it said, “Remember, there are multiple ways they can accomplish their goal of stealing an election.”

Click here to read the article on the Bucks County Beacon.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, The Washington Monthly, and many others.

Photo Credit: Tyler Merbler / Flickr

Zombie Tests: Is the SAT Back From the Dead?

Click here to read the article on the Fair Observer.

As some elite colleges resume SAT requirements in admissions, will we ever see an end to the outdated practice of weeding out prospective students on the basis of race, gender, and class?

By Sonali Kolhatkar

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, higher education institutions throughout the United States started adopting a progressive standard of education that advocates had demanded for decades: they began dropping standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT as requirements for admissions. As was the case with so many other pandemic-era societal adaptations—government economic relief that lowered poverty rates, a pause in student loan repayments, free vaccines, an end to public library late fees—this offered an opportunity for a grand experiment in promoting equality.

The move to drop the tests can actually be traced to a time before the pandemic, but it was accelerated by students being unable to travel to testing sites during the lockdowns. Further, the mass racial justice uprising of summer 2020 pressured elites into embracing ideas rooted in equity.

Many celebrated the spurning of tests as the right direction for institutions that have ensured the maintenance of white supremacist patriarchy since their inception. But as elite universities such as Yale, Harvard, and Caltech recently reneged on the promise of leveling the playing field by returning to test requirements, are those celebrations premature?

Research has confirmed over and over that requiring students to take the SAT or ACT weeds out women, people of color, and other marginalized groups. As a physics and astronomy undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, I participated in efforts in the early 1990s to address how such tests undermine women’s entry into STEM fields. I was a perfect example: a straight-A student whose academic record had only one stain: a mediocre SAT score which severely narrowed my college options.

Robert Schaeffer, director of public education at FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which is one of the leading advocacy groups against required SAT and ACT testing, told the 19th, “Despite the fact that young women get lower scores on the test than young men, they earn higher grades when matched for identical courses in college than the boys.”

Although the SAT has evolved significantly over the years, its origins in racist beliefs are telling. The test’s precursors, the Army Alpha and Beta tests, were analyzed and championed by Carl Brigham, a psychology professor at Princeton University and a eugenicist who believed that testing offered unbiased and scientific proof of white superiority.

Black and Latino students routinely score lower on the SAT’s math section compared to whites and Asians. This is not evidence of a racial difference in educational ability and intelligence as Brigham might have liked to believe. Rather, it is evidence of racial bias in the test.

There is a similar bias based on class. Wealthier students routinely do better on the test than low-income students. This is no surprise given the lucrative industry built on test preparation, helping students navigate the notoriously tricky test in exchange for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The fact that SAT scores are used to determine many a student’s eligibility for scholarships further entrenches class bias.

Indeed, because of the SAT’s racial and class bias, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2019 that officials at the University of California were convinced “that performance on the SAT and ACT was so strongly influenced by family income, parents’ education and race that using them for high-stakes admissions decisions was simply wrong.”

By 2021, in response to a lawsuit brought by the Compton Unified School District, the entire UC system permanently dropped tests as requirements for admissions. The move seemed to herald a new era in higher education, and indeed, data from the few years that this experiment has been in place shows promise in opening up higher education to historically excluded communities.

But, as advocates of racial, gender, and economic justice painstakingly chipped away at the exclusivity of higher education, conservatives predictably pushed back. A wave of right-wing attacks in recent years has taken aim at affirmative action admissions policies, the teaching of Critical Race Theory, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) campus initiatives.

It was only a matter of time before elite institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Caltech did a backflip on their commitment to equity by reverting back to SAT requirements. Opinions of elite commentators such as New York Times Education Editor David Leonhardt helped validate this decision. Leonhardt wrote, “Standardized tests have become especially unpopular among political progressives, and university campuses are dominated by progressives.” 

He highlighted a 2023 paper by an organization called Opportunity Insights to justify reinstating test requirements. The paper concluded that “SAT/ACT scores and academic ratings are highly predictive of post-college success.” It was precisely the ammunition elite institutions were waiting for. Harvard specifically cited the paper in its reversal on testing.

But, according to FairTest’s Schaeffer, the conclusions that Opportunity Insights comes to are flawed. He told the New York Times, “[W]hen you eliminate the role of wealth, test scores are not better than high school G.P.A.” The organization, in a report responding to Leonhardt and Opportunity Insights, accused researchers of omitting student demographics such as “family income, parental education, and race/ethnicity.” They found that when accounting for these critical demographic markers, the SAT fails to predict academic merit and that students’ grade point averages (GPA) in high school are better markers.

Aside from GPA, public school educators have backed the idea of “Performance Based Assessments” (PBA) as a better alternative to the SAT. Such assessments measure the totality of students’ expertise, achievements, and ideas. They are, by design, complex and varied—just as human beings are—and are based on interaction and collaboration—just as society functions in real life.

The SAT is largely a multiple-choice test. It is an individualistic assessment designed for an individualist mindset and is therefore an exceedingly narrow measure of a person. Aside from its essay section, each question has only one correct answer embedded in an array of wrong answers. There is no room for complex thinking and ideas. According to FairTest, “Using the SAT as the gatekeeper for higher education turns out to test one thing above all else: existing station in life.”

Standardized tests, and the idea that universities may revert back to using them, are a source of undue stress on students and their families. Thankfully, thousands of universities and colleges remain test-free or test-optional. Ultimately, only a tiny sliver of the nation’s students are able to attend the institutions that steadfastly cling to elitist practices. If anything, the decision by some to insist on outdated racist, sexist, and classist standards is a further indication of how irrelevant they are to modern American society.

Click here to read the article on the Fair Observer.

Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.

Photo Credit: davidjlee / Flickr

The Great Archaeological Discovery of Our Time

Click here to read the article on the Fair Observer.

An interview with renowned archaeologist Gary M. Feinman on the emergence of a global data set from our past that humanity can use to prosper—and avoid the biggest mistakes.

By Jan Ritch-Frel

The motives that drove archaeologists of the past included a thirst for glory, a taste for treasure, and a desire to enshrine a new political era with the legitimacy of the ancient past.

Gradually, over the decades leading closer to ours, the discipline matured, gaining an ethical framework, and started asking questions about the societies and lifestyles of the people who had left their traces behind. Archaeologists began to compare their evidence to how we live now and increasingly started hunting for the origins of modern-day problems, from plagues and warfare to inequality. Archaeological research spread beyond the palaces and cities of a few civilizations to six continents, and the rapid growth of evidence in human origins produced a global outlook and a 6 million-year-long clock to record the gradual changes in the human story that led us to the present.

The diligent research of tens of thousands of archaeologists carefully documenting the past all over the planet has accumulated and crossed a new threshold leading to big implications: It’s socially useful information that we can plug into improving our lives.

Our sample size of this greater past dwarfs by many magnitudes what we thought history used to be. Thanks to advances in technology, the data about the human story can integrate and interact with the records we keep today.

Many modern human problems are the result of “evolutionary mismatch”—our lifestyles are at odds with the biological capacities we developed and relied on for millions of years to get here—and range from heart disease to various forms of addiction and ADHD. A synthesis of human origins research and our new understanding of human biology presents a powerful perspective and roadmap for dealing with some of our biggest challenges.

By combining that synthesis with the archaeological record’s increasingly detailed knowledge of human settlement and state formations, from its origins to the present, we can build from a universalizing framework and global data set. This approach can better integrate the wider body of Indigenous knowledge and worldviews than the Western-based historical models and understanding of the human story that continues to hold sway.

One of the first to see the scale of this opportunity is archaeologist, researcher, and professor Gary M. Feinman, MacArthur Curator of Mesoamerican, Central American, and East Asian Anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Feinman and a growing cast of colleagues have turned stereotypes about Mesoamerican societies on their heads—many were cooperative, relatively egalitarian—and they developed an impressive array of frameworks that allow us to compare different aspects of societies from various times and places, including ours.

Feinman has been a prominent advocate for developing better models to interpret the past and for the synthesis of information across time periods and regions of the planet. We are stronger when we can draw from a broader set of parameters, counterexamples, and nuances that prevent the common human instinct to take off on flights of fancy.

I thought readers could benefit from sharing our conversation about the great archaeological discovery of our time: the realization that this new data set is a powerful engine for the betterment of humankind.

Jan Ritch-Frel: Let’s start with a great essay you wrote in 2023, “Learning from History, If We Dare.” You wrote of a “treasure trove of information that just may guide us toward better futures.” We’re in an era, thanks to accumulations of evidence and technology, where humanity has a critical mass of history at its fingertips that it has never had before. Why is this significant?

Gary M. Feinman: As deep-time historians, we have finally gotten the volume and multiple scales of data that permit comparisons across different cultural periods, over long spans of time, and diverse social formations. In a real sense, through archaeology, we can now begin to assess a truly global historical record that is not narrowly restricted to just literate societies or the European past. For a long time, the classical Mediterranean world or medieval Europe—both known from texts—were used as proxies for humanity’s past. Now, we know that is not appropriate, as our past as a species has neither been uniform nor linear.

At the same time, we now have models that help us identify and point ourselves toward understanding what underpins good governance, collective and cooperative behavior, as well as the causes of economic inequality and their alternatives. The social sciences have finally discarded 200-year-old approaches to understanding the past, such as the idea that the nations of Europe are the pinnacle and end-point product of steady human progress. A historical framework pegged to that framework makes useful comparisons across history almost impossible.

Ritch-Frel: Do we have many examples of our leaders and governing circles daring to learn from anything other than cherry-picked history?

Feinman: The problem is that for centuries, scholars interested in drawing lessons from the historical past have looked principally to the classical world, Europe’s recent past, or progressivist models that made unwarranted assumptions about human nature writ large. Many leaders who saw history through a straw have paid a heavy price.

More problematic are the scenarios that presume humans are perpetually selfish or that our leaders are always despotic or militaristic. These scenarios ignore the nuances of human nature, which include both the potential for selfishness and the ability to cooperate with non-kin at scales unsurpassed in the animal kingdom. Human behavior is always contingent on context, and alone, it cannot account for human history. Rather, we must look for the parameters, patterns, and variability in institutions and behavior that account for humanity’s differences, diverse pasts, and changes.

Contrary to prevailing opinion, there is no end to the debates and lessons we can learn from history. Technologies change, but the basic socioeconomic mechanisms and relations that underpin human institutions have broad commonalities and structures. We know this in regard to scale and now another key dimension: the degree to which power is concentrated and distributed.

Of course, pure reliance on education and exposure to democratic institutions and good governance is not enough for these things to take hold. How institutions are financed makes a big difference, and if that does not change, then political realities will not either.

Ritch-Frel: Since we’ve never had so much history to learn from and make use of before, the reality is that the mechanisms for initiating better use of a more comprehensive history have to be produced. What are some of the key starting points?

Feinman: We first have to recognize that when explaining humanity’s past, history itself matters. The path dependence, or sequence of changes, and existing structures matter. In other words, the social sciences are historical sciences—like biology—but without general laws or mechanical explanations like there are in physics. Even though there are no universal laws of history, we can identify useful probabilities.

How do we do that? First, a comparative study of the past has to allow for variation in sequences, speed of development, and change. Then, as we compare different regional sequences of history, we can study the relations between historical factors and key variables under different parameters. One great advantage of history and archaeology compared to the recent past is that we know the outcomes. We already know what happened, and that gives us the opportunity to understand why.

As we build our understanding of humanity’s global past, the strength of the relationships we see between institutions and factors such as population growth, nucleation, and scale will become stronger. Only through a broad comparative lens, made possible with archaeological data, can we construct a genuinely global archive of histories and heritage.

Then there’s the social modeling question—a lot of historical error has been produced by seeing events as driven solely by the elites. High status generally may come with more clout than others have, but in social formations, there are many other groups and forces that have a hand in determining how events unfold. If we’re interested in greater accuracy, we will include the vantages of the wider population and daily life.

Institutions are part of this mix: They perform functions based on earlier embedded history that people have to contend with and sometimes reform.

Most human settlements and social formations are open—population flow and change are near-continuous. This means that membership and affiliations in our communities and “societies” are generally in flux and have mechanisms that reflect that.

Cultural groups are not homogeneous, and cultural traits do not shift in unison. Some aspects of culture, like worldviews or visions of the universe, resist change. Others, such as how people organize politically or what they do for a living, may shift more readily.

This is where it becomes so critical that we can study the past in both granular and scaled-up ways, using a range of new technologies we have available, from isotopes and DNA to satellite mapping.

The methodology of many research disciplines that use individuals as their key metric has continuously let us down the more our questions scale up—this applies to both behavioral ecology and classical economics. They are useful but conceptually inadequate when it comes to explaining the diversity and complexity of the deep past.

Ritch-Frel: Regarding the educational process for future leaders, where would you start?

Feinman: We need a curriculum for future leaders that broadens their perspective on human behavior and the global past. If we’re going to enjoy the benefits of history, behavior in the contemporary West should not be isolated or considered distinct from the rest. A proper dose of a synthesis of anthropology, archaeology, and history will temper the curricula that prepare future leaders in ways that dampen modernist and Eurocentric biases.

The famous Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) courses at Oxford and Cambridge, which have produced almost all the UK prime ministers for many decades, and the Grand Strategy courses taught at the elite campuses of the United States, are deeply imbued in these theories and presumptions.

Ritch-Frel: Do you think the PPE and the Grand Strategy crowd know they’re holding onto an obsolete and reductive bag and will embrace history and biological sciences, or will this have to be a knife fight in the alley?

Feinman: In so many ways, recent policies and beliefs regarding inequality, globalism, democracy, and migration have been birthed from disciplines like economics, politics, and law, which are grounded in Eurocentric ideas and assumptions. These biases are not surprising since Western social scientific thought grew hand in hand with Euro-American colonialism and contemporary paths of economic development.

But now, our mission is to disentangle and refine our conceptual frames, drawing on and broadening it based on what we have learned. The data we have collected in archaeology, anthropology, and history demand an episode of “destructive science,” a new conceptual development that aligns with what we know, in which we expand and integrate theoretical ideas drawn from economics and politics. And we can temper them with the diversity in practices and institutions that have been documented by archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists.

Click here to read the article on the Fair Observer.

Jan Ritch-Frel is the executive director of the Independent Media Institute and a co-founder of the Human Bridges project.

Photo Credit: chensiyuan / Wikimedia Commons

Michael Hudson’s Hidden History of Debt

We’re honored to publish Michael Hudson’s research on the origins of Ancient Near Eastern banking and finance, and the civilizations that emerged out of them in the Observatory.

If you haven’t raced to read it already, if the topic sounds a little out of your interest zone, think again. The systems of finance and banking that much of the world uses on come out of this period and region—and the history has not been properly pieced together until now.

Hudson’s synthesis of the ancient history of debt is priceless—whether your aspiration is to know the economic history of the West, to mildly reform, or perhaps even revolutionize the world around us. We made a guide to give you a starting point. Don’t let your lack of knowledge about the origins of debt stop you—there hasn’t been a mortgage loan officer, World Bank director, or Treasury Secretary who knew much about economics of the ancient past before Hudson started researching it either.

Hudson’s work joins that of other pioneering authors in the field of human prehistory, anthropology in the Observatory’s Human Bridges area. One of the best things to happen in US culture in decades is the growing popular interest in the ancient past. Naturally, for millions in the United States, the first stop on the education journey has picked up with the Roman republic and its descent into empire.

But a careful study of this phenomenon reveals that the surging interest in our past extends far deeper, all the way into human origins— chiefly it’s because we’ve reached a critical mass in archaeology and sciences that allows a deeper and fuller reach into an increasingly global data set about the human past.

In the case of Hudson’s research, we see the gradual development of a core economic thought matrix and social mechanisms that led us to today, and the alternative directions we could have taken along the way. Until recently, economic history before the European Renaissance was an interesting curiosity, but not something that economists or their critics factored into their research.

The news all around us carries the premise that new technological products will deliver humankind into a new era, solve our problems, point us to opportunities.

They just might. But it’s a more likely bet that the history we never had before in such vivid and useful detail—of the rise of early states over the past 10,000 years, and the six million years we spent getting to that point—will enable us to reconsider the ways we live today, and all the pointless suffering we inflict on each other because we thought we had to.

More to come!

—Jan Ritch-Frel and the rest of the editors building the Observatory.

Photo Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons

The Right’s Long Game to End Public Education

The following is an excerpt of an article that was originally published on the Progressive.

Click to read the full article online.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona finally said the quiet part out loud.

On February 13, President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, did something Democratic officials seldom do in public: He spoke the truth about what’s behind the relentless attacks on public schools by rightwing advocacy groups and their financial backers.

As HuffPost reported, one of the topics that came up during a meeting between Cardona and Black journalists that took place at the Department of Education, was the recent wave of new laws passed in mostly red states that target programs in K-12 schools and institutions of higher education that address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Advocates for DEI programs say they are needed to ensure positive academic, health, and social outcomes for students who often face discrimination and fewer educational opportunities due to their race, class, religion, gender, or ability level. Opponents say they shame white students and cause “reverse discrimination.”

Cardona called new laws passed by Republican state lawmakers to eliminate DEI programs “a deliberate attack on efforts to try to make sure schools are inclusive, welcoming places for all students—in particular, students from different backgrounds.”

But more than just defending schools for embracing DEI, Cardona went further to call out the intention behind these attacks on the programs, calling them “very deliberate attempts to seek division in our schools so that a private option sounds better [emphasis added] for parents.” 

“Every year, there’s something to stoke division in an attempt to disrupt our public schools and decrease the confidence in our public schools,” he said. “Four years ago were the masks. [Critical race theory] was a year after that. [Now,] DEI, [and] banning books.”

The serial crises that groups like Moms for Liberty and the Heritage Foundation string together year after year to inflame the populace with fear and suspicion about public schools have been the subject of extensive reporting.

But when major news outlets report on these outbursts of rightwing rage, the articles tend to focus solely on the legitimacy of specific grievances rather than considering whether the attacks themselves could be a tactic in a much longer game.

[…]

Read the rest of this article on the Progressive.

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education / Flickr

How Long Has Humanity Been at War With Itself?

Click here to read the article on Asia Times.

Is large-scale intra-specific warfare Homo sapiens’ condition or can our species strive to achieve global peace?

By Deborah Barsky

The famous American astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” But can we ever know the history of human origins well enough to understand why humans wage large-scale acts of appalling cruelty on other members of our own species? In January 2024, the Geneva Academy was monitoring no less than 110 armed conflicts globally. While not all of these reach mainstream media outlets, each is equally horrific in terms of the physical violence and mental cruelty we inflict on each other.

Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, are known to partake in violent intra-specific skirmishes, typically to preserve privileged access to resources in response to breaches in territorial boundaries. But only humans engage so extensively in large-scale warfare. 

Do massive acts of intra- or interpopulational violence conform with Darwinian precepts of natural selection, or is this something we do as a competitive response to the stresses of living in such large populations? Looking back in time can help us find answers to such questions. Evidence preserved in the archeological record can tell us about when and under what conditions the preludes to warlike behaviors emerged in the past. Scientific reasoning can then transform this information into viable hypotheses that we can use to understand ourselves in today’s world.

As archeologists continue to unearth new fossil evidence at an increasing rate, so too are they piecing together the human story as one of complex interactions played out by (a growing number of) different species of the genus Homo that lived during the tens of thousands of years preceding the emergence—and eventual global dominance—of our own species: Homo sapiens. In fact, scientists have recognized more than a dozen (now extinct) species of Homo that thrived over the millennia, sometimes sharing the same landscapes and occasionally even interbreeding with one another. Millions of years of hybridization is written into the genomes of modern human populations.

Although we know very little about what these paleo-encounters might have been like, progress in science and technology is helping archeologists to find ways to piece together the puzzle of interspecific human relationships that occurred so long ago and that contributed to making us who we are today. In spite of these advances, the fossil record remains very fragmentary, especially concerning the older phases of human evolution.

First consider Homo, or H. habilis, so-named because a significant increase in stone tool-making is recognized following its emergence some 2.8 million years ago in East Africa. The evidence for the beginnings of this transformational event that would set off the spiraling evolutionary history of human technological prowess is relatively sparse. But such ancient (Oldowan) toolkits do become more abundant from this time forward, at first in Africa, and then into the confines of Eurasia by around 1.8 million years ago. Throughout this period, different kinds of hominins adopted and innovated stone tool making, socializing it into normalized behavior by teaching it to their young and transforming it into a cutting-edge survival strategy. We clearly observe the positive repercussions of this major advancement in our evolutionary history from the expanding increases in both the number of archeological sites and their geographical spread. Unevenly through time, occurrences of Oldowan sites throughout the Old World begin to yield more numerous artifacts, attesting to the progressive demographic trends associated with tool-making hominins.

Tool-making was a highly effective adaptive strategy that allowed early Homo species (like H. georgicus and H. antecessor) to define their own niches within multiple environmental contexts, successfully competing for resources with large carnivorous animals. Early humans used stone tools to access the protein-rich meat, viscera, and bone marrow from large herbivore carcasses, nourishing their energy-expensive brains. The latter show significant increases in volume and organizational complexity throughout this time period.

But were these early humans also competing with one another? So far (and keeping in mind the scarcity of skeletal remains dating to this period) the paleoanthropological record has not revealed signs of intraspecific violence suffered by Oldowan peoples. Their core-and-flake technologies and simple pounding tools do not include items that could be defined as functional armaments. While a lack of evidence does not constitute proof, we might consider recent estimates in paleodemography, backed by innovative digitized modelization methods and an increasing pool of genetic data that indicates relatively low population densities during the Oldowan. 

Isolated groups consisted of few individuals, organized perhaps into clan-like social entities, widely spread over vast, resource-rich territories. These hominins invested in developing technological and social skills, cooperating with one another to adapt to new challenges posed by the changing environmental conditions that characterized the onset of the Quaternary period some 2.5 million years ago. Complex socialization processes evolved to perfect and share the capacity for technological competence, abilities that had important repercussions on the configuration of the brain that would eventually set humanity apart from other kinds of primates. Technology became inexorably linked to cognitive and social advances, fueling a symbiotic process now firmly established between anatomical and technological evolution.

By around one million years ago, Oldowan-producing peoples had been replaced by the technologically more advanced Acheulian hominins, globally attributed to H. erectus sensu lato. This phase of human evolution lasted nearly one and a half million years (globally from 1.75 to around 350,000 years ago) and is marked by highly significant techno-behavioral revolutions whose inception is traced back to Africa. Groundbreaking technologies like fire-making emerged during the Acheulian, as did elaborate stone production methods requiring complex volumetric planning and advanced technical skills. Tools became standardized into specifically designed models, signaling cultural diversity that varied geographically, creating the first land-linked morpho-technological traditions. Ever-greater social investment was required to learn and share the techniques needed to manipulate these technologies, as tools were converted into culture and technical aptitude into innovation.

In spite of marked increases in site frequencies and artifact densities throughout the Middle Pleistocene, incidences of interspecific violence are rarely documented and no large-scale violent events have been recognized so far. Were some Acheulian tools suitable for waging inter-populational conflicts? In the later phases of the Acheulian, pointed stone tools with signs of hafting and even wooden spears appear in some sites. But were these sophisticated tool kits limited to hunting? Or might they also have served for other purposes? 

Culture evolves through a process I like to refer to as “technoselection” that in many ways can be likened to biological natural selection. In prehistory, technological systems are characterized by sets of morphotypes that reflect a specific stage of cognitive competence. Within these broad defining categories, however, we can recognize some anomalies or idiosyncratic techno-forms that can be defined as potential latent within a given system. As with natural selection, potential is recognized as structural anomalies that may be selected for under specific circumstances and then developed into new or even revolutionary technologies, converted through inventiveness. Should they prove advantageous to deal with the challenges at hand, these innovative technologies are adopted and developed further, expanding upon the existing foundational know-how and creating increasingly larger sets of material culture. Foundational material culture therefore exists in a state of exponential growth, as each phase is built upon the preceding one in a cumulative process perceived as acceleration.

I have already suggested elsewhere that the advanced degree of cultural complexity attained by the Late Acheulian, together with the capacity to produce fire, empowered hominins to adapt their nomadic lifestyles within more constrained territorial ranges. Thick depositional sequences containing evidence of successive living floors recorded in the caves of Eurasia show that hominins were returning cyclically to the same areas, most likely in pace with seasonal climate change and the migrational pathways of the animals they preyed upon. As a result, humans established strong links with the specific regions within which they roamed. More restrictive ranging caused idiosyncrasies to appear within the material and behavioral cultural repertoires of each group: specific ways of making and doing. As they lived and died in lands that were becoming their own, so too did they construct territorial identities that were in contrast with those of groups living in neighboring areas. As cultural productions multiplied, so did these imagined cultural “differences” sharpen, engendering the distinguishing notions of “us” and “them.”

Even more significant perhaps was the emergence and consolidation of symbolic thought processes visible, for example, in cultural manifestations whose careful manufacture took tool-making into a whole new realm of aesthetic concerns rarely observed in earlier toolkits. By around 400,000 years ago in Eurasia, Pre-Neandertals and then Neandertal peoples were conferring special treatment to their dead, sometimes even depositing them with other objects suggestive of nascent spiritual practices. These would eventually develop into highly diverse social practices, like ritual and taboo. Cultural diversity was the keystone for new systems of belief that reinforced imagined differences separating territorially distinct groups.

Anatomically modern humans (H. sapiens) appeared on the scene some 300,000 years ago in Africa and spread subsequently into lands already occupied by other culturally and spiritually advanced species of Homo. While maintaining a nomadic existence, these hominins were undergoing transformational demographic trends that resulted in more frequent interpopulation encounters. This factor, combined with the growing array of material and behavioral manifestations of culture (reflected by artifact multiplicity) provided a repository from which hominin groups stood in contrast with one another. At the same time, the mounting importance of symbolic behaviors in regulating hominin lifestyles contributed to reinforcing both real (anatomic) and imagined (cultural) variances. Intergroup encounters favored cultural exchange, inspiring innovation and driving spiraling techno-social complexity. In addition, they provided opportunities for sexual exchanges necessary for broadening gene pool diversity and avoiding inbreeding. At the same time, a higher number of individuals within each group would have prompted social hierarchization as a strategy to ensure the survival of each unit.

While much has been written about what Middle Paleolithic inter-specific paleo-encounters might have been like, in particular between the Neandertals and H. sapiens, solid evidence is lacking to support genocidal hypotheses or popularized images of the former annihilating the latter by way of violent processes. Today, such theories, fed by suppositions typical of the last century of the relative techno-social superiority of our own species, are falling by the wayside. Indeed, advances in archeology now show not only that we were interbreeding with the Neandertals, but also that Neandertal lifeways and cerebral processes were of comparable sophistication to those practiced by the modern humans they encountered. Presently, apart from sparse documentation for individual violent encounters, there is no evidence that large-scale violence caused the extinction of the Neandertals or of other species of Homo thriving coevally with modern humans. That said, it has been observed that the expansion of H. sapiens into previously unoccupied lands, like Australia and the Americas, for example, coincides ominously with the extinction of mega-faunal species. Interestingly, this phenomenon is not observed in regions with a long record of coexistence between humans and mega mammals, like Africa or India. It has been hypothesized that the reason for this is that animals that were unfamiliar with modern humans lacked the instinct to flee and hide from them, making them easy targets for mass hunting.

If large-scale human violence is difficult to identify in the Paleolithic record, it is common in later, proto-historic iconography. Evidence for warlike behavior (accumulations of corpses bearing signs of humanly-induced trauma) appear towards the end of the Pleistocene and after the onset of the Neolithic Period (nearly 12,000 years ago) in different parts of the world, perhaps in relation to new pressures due to climate change. Arguably, sedentary lifestyles and plant and animal domestication—hallmarks of the Neolithic—reset social and cultural norms of hunter-gatherer societies. Additionally, it may be that the amassing and storing of goods caused new inter-relational paradigms to take form, with individuals fulfilling different roles in relation to their capacities to benefit the group to which they belonged. The capacity to elaborate an abstract, symbolic worldview transformed land and resources into property and goods that “belonged” to one or another social unit, in relation to claims on the lands upon which they lived and from which they reaped the benefits. The written documents of the first literate civilizations, relating mainly to the quantification of goods, are revelatory of the effects of this transformational period of intensified production, hoarding and exchange. Differences inherent to the kinds of resources available in environmentally diverse parts of the world solidified unequal access to the kinds of goods invested with “value” by developing civilizations and dictated the nature of the technologies that would be expanded for their exploitation. Trading networks were established and interconnectedness favored improvements in technologies and nascent communication networks, stimulating competition to obtain more, better, faster.

From this vast overview, we can now more clearly see how the emergence of the notion of “others” that arose in the later phases of the Lower Paleolithic was key for kindling the kinds of behavioral tendencies required for preserving the production-consumption mentality borne after the Neolithic and still in effect in today’s overpopulated capitalist world.

Evolution is not a linear process and culture is a multifaceted phenomenon, but it is the degree to which we have advanced technology that sets us apart from all other living beings on the planet. War is not pre-programmed in our species, nor is it a fatality in our modern, globalized existence. Archeology teaches us that it is a behavior grounded in our own manufactured perception of “difference” between peoples living in distinct areas of the world with unequal access to resources. A social unit will adopt warlike behavior as a response to resource scarcity or other kinds of external challenges (for example, territorial encroachment by an ‘alien’ social unit). Finding solutions to eradicating large-scale warfare thus begins with using our technologies to create equality among all peoples, rather than developing harmful weapons of destruction.

From the emergence of early Homo, natural selection and technoselection have developed in synchronicity through time, transforming discrete structural anomalies into evolutionary strategies in unpredictable and interdependent ways. The big difference between these two processes at play in human evolution is that the former is guided by laws of universal equilibrium established over millions of years, while the latter exists in a state of exponential change that is outside of the stabilizing laws of nature.

Human technologies are transitive in the sense that they can be adapted to serve for different purposes in distinct timeframes or by diverse social entities. Many objects can be transformed into weapons. In the modern world plagued by terrorism, for example, simple home-made explosives, airplanes, drones, or vans can be transformed into formidable weapons, while incredibly advanced technologies can be used to increase our capacity to inflict desensitized and dehumanized destruction on levels never before attained.

Meanwhile, our advanced communication venues serve to share selected global events of warfare numbing the public into passive acceptance. While it is difficult to determine the exact point in time when humans selected large-scale warfare as a viable behavioral trait, co-opting their astounding technological prowess as a strategy to compete with each other in response to unprecedented demographic growth, there may yet be time for us to modify this trajectory toward resiliency, cooperation, and exchange.

Click here to read the article on Asia Times.

This article was produced by Human Bridges.

Deborah Barsky is a writing fellow for the Human Bridges project of the Independent Media Institute, a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution, and an associate professor at the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, with the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). She is the author of Human Prehistory: Exploring the Past to Understand the Future (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Photo Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum / Wikimedia Commons

The Animal Feed Industry’s Impact on the Planet

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

The diet of factory-farmed animals is linked to environmental destruction around the globe.

By Vicky Bond

In some parts of the continental United States, you might drive through a nearly unchanging landscape for hours. Stretching for miles and miles, vast swaths of soil are dedicated to growing crops—corn, grains, fruits, and vegetables that make up the foundation of our food system.

The process seems highly efficient, producing enormous quantities of food every year. But only a small percentage of these crops will go toward feeding humans. According to a 2013 study conducted by researchers at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota and published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, a mere 27 percent of crop calorie production in the United States actually feeds humans. So what happens to the rest?

Some crops are used for the production of ethanol and other biofuels. But the vast majority—more than 67 percent of crop calories grown in the U.S.—are used to feed animals raised for human consumption.

Rather than feeding people, these crops feed the billions of chickens, cows, pigs, and other animals who live and die on factory farms. And that’s a problem.

The issue is that feeding humans indirectly—essentially, making animals the caloric middlemen—is a highly inefficient use of food. “For every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork, or 3 of beef,” writes Jonathan Foley, PhD, executive director of the nonprofit Project Drawdown, for National Geographic. “Finding more efficient ways to grow meat and shifting to less meat-intensive diets… could free up substantial amounts of food across the world.”

This shift in growing and consuming food more sustainably has become especially important, with up to 783 million people facing hunger in 2022, according to the United Nations. Research indicates that if we grew crops exclusively for humans to consume directly we could feed an additional 4 billion people worldwide.

Farming has always loomed large in American politics, history, and identity. But the idyllic farming we may imagine—rich piles of compost, seedlings poking through the soil, and flourishing gardens of diverse fruits and vegetables—has transformed into factory farming, a highly industrialized system far removed from earth and soil. Animal feed is essential for the sustenance of this industry—supplying the cattle feedlots, broiler chicken sheds, and egg factories that increasingly make up the foundation of our food system.

What Factory-Farmed Animals Eat

Take a moment to picture a farm animal enjoying dinner. Are you imagining a cow grazing on grass or perhaps a chicken pecking at the ground, foraging for seeds and insects? In today’s factory farming system, the “feed” these animals eat is far removed from their natural diets. Rather than munching on grass or insects, most animals on factory farms eat some type of animal feed—a cost-effective mixture of grains, proteins, and often the addition of antibiotics designed to make them grow as quickly as possible.

The ingredients in animal feed don’t just matter to the animals’ health. They also impact human health—especially since the average American consumes 25 land animals yearly. Researchers have noted that animal feed ingredients are “fundamentally important” to human health impacts. As author and journalist Michael Pollan puts it: “We are what we eat, it is often said, but of course that’s only part of the story. We are what what we eat eats too.”

So, what are the main ingredients used in animal feed today?

Corn and Other Grains

In 2019, farmers planted 91.7 million acres of corn in the U.S. This equals 69 million football fields of corn. How can so much land be devoted to a single crop—especially something many people only eat on occasion?

The answer is that corn is in almost everything Americans eat today. It’s just there indirectly—in the form of animal feed, corn-based sweeteners, or starches. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer, consumer, and exporter of corn. And a large percentage of all that corn is used for animal feed, supplying factory farms across the country.

While “cereal grains”—such as barley, sorghum, and oats—are also used for animal feed, corn is by far the number one feed grain used in the U.S., accounting for more than 96 percent of total feed grain production. Corn supplies the carbohydrates in animal feed, offering a rich energy source to increase animals’ growth.

Unfortunately, what this system offers in efficiency it lacks in resilience. Numerous researchers have expressed concern about the vulnerability of the food supply that is so reliant on a single crop. “Under these conditions, a single disaster, disease, pest, or economic downturn could cause a major disturbance in the corn system,” notes Jonathan Foley in another article for Scientific American. “The monolithic nature of corn production presents a systemic risk to America’s agriculture.”

Soybeans

When you think about soybeans, you might imagine plant-based foods like tofu and tempeh. However, the vast majority of soybeans are used for animal feed. Animal agriculture uses 97 percent of all soybean meal produced in the United States.

While corn is rich in carbohydrates, soybeans are the world’s largest source of animal protein feed. Similar to corn, Americans might not eat a lot of soybeans in the form of tofu, tempeh, and soy milk—in fact, 77 percent of soy grown globally is used to feed livestock, and only 7 percent of it is used directly for human consumption, states a 2021 Our World in Data article—but they do consume soy indirectly through animal products like meat and dairy.

Soy production comes at a high cost to the environment. It is heavily linked to deforestation, driving the destruction of forests, savannahs, and grasslands—as these natural ecosystems are converted to unnatural farmland—and “putting traditional, local livelihoods at risk.” Critical habitats, like the Cerrado savannah in Brazil, are being razed to clear space for soybean production to meet the global demand for animal feed. More than half of the Cerrado’s 100 million hectares of native landscape has already been lost, with livestock and soybean farming being major contributors to this destruction.

“Most soybean-driven land conversions in Brazil have happened in the Cerrado,” said Karla Canavan, vice president for commodity trade and finance at World Wildlife Fund, in 2022. “The corridor [Cerrado] is like an inverted forest that has enormous roots and is a very important carbon sink. … Unfortunately, more than 50 percent of the Cerrado has been already converted into soybean farmlands.”

It’s a common misconception that plant-based soy products like tofu drive global deforestation. In reality, the vast majority of soy is used for animal feed. To fight this tragic habitat destruction, it’s far more effective to replace meat with soy-based alternatives.

Animal Protein and Waste

Editor’s note: The following section contains graphic descriptions that may disturb some readers.

It’s not just plants like corn and soybeans that go into animal feed. The factory farming industry has a long history of feeding animals waste and proteins from other animals. In 2014, outrage ensued when an investigation by the Humane Society of the United States revealed that pig farmers were feeding animals the intestines of their own piglets. At a huge factory farm in Kentucky, workers were filmed eviscerating dead piglets and turning their intestines into a puree that was being fed back to mother pigs.

This wasn’t even an isolated atrocity. The executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians in 2014 commented that the practice was “legal and safe” and was meant to immunize the mother pigs against a virus called porcine epidemic diarrhea, according to the New York Times. Pigs aren’t the only animals who are effectively turned into cannibals by the factory farming industry.

Farmers were only prohibited from feeding cow meat to other cows following concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes on its website that BSE may have been caused by feeding cattle protein from other cows. The practice was banned in 1997—but, notably, only because of the risks to human health and not out of concern for the cows.

Antibiotics

Another key ingredient in animal feed likely doesn’t come to mind when you think about animal nutrition. This ingredient is antibiotics, commonly used in the food given to animals across the country.

On factory farms, animals are confined in extremely crowded, filthy facilities—the perfect conditions for spreading illness and disease. Not only do antibiotics allow animals to survive the conditions in these facilities but they also encourage animals to grow unnaturally large and fast. Drugs are administered through food and water, starting when the animals are just a few days old.

The meat industry’s excessive antibiotic use has directly been linked to antimicrobial resistance (AMR), a massive threat to human health. As bacteria are killed off, the surviving that remain gradually learn how to survive the attacks, becoming resistant to antibiotics over time.

AMR means that conditions that should be easy and affordable to treat—like ear infections—can become life-threatening. It’s “one of today’s biggest threats to global health, food security, and development,” according to the World Health Organization, states a News-Medical article, and it’s projected to kill four times as many people per year as COVID-19 did in 2020, according to the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy.

Additives and Preservatives

Along with the mixture of corn, soybeans, and a cocktail of antibiotics, animal feed may also contain a plethora of additives and preservatives. The Code of Federal Regulations provides a long list of additives legally permitted in animals’ food and drinking water. These include “condensed animal protein hydrolysate” (produced from meat byproducts of cattle slaughtered for human consumption), formaldehyde, and petrolatum—to name a few.

Unfortunately, many of these additives and preservatives have been linked to adverse human health impacts. For example, formaldehyde, which is classified as a known human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program, is commonly used in animal feed to reduce salmonella contamination. In 2017, following concerns about farmworkers being exposed to the harmful substance, the European Commission voted to ban feed producers from using formaldehyde as an additive in animal feed.

Animal Feeding Operations

To understand the true impact of animal feed, we must look at animal feeding operations. Of all the animals in our food system today, 99 percent live on factory farms—enormous, vertically integrated operations designed to make as much profit as possible (at the expense of animals, people, and the environment). The transition to using animal feed has been closely intertwined with the transition to this type of large-scale factory farming.

The official term for a factory farm is concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFO. As the name implies, these operations are laser-focused on feeding large numbers of animals until they reach “slaughter weight,” after which they are killed and turned into products.

The faster an animal reaches slaughter weight, the more quickly the industry profits. So factory farms have dialed in on the most efficient way to feed animals in the shortest amount of time. Rather than grazing on pasture, animals are confined in stationary cages or crowded sheds and given feed that will increase their growth rates—even while it hurts their health.

Take cows, for example. Along with sheep and other grazing animals, they are known as “ruminants”—because they have a rumen, an organ perfectly designed to transform grass into protein. But the industry feeds cows corn instead of grass because it brings them to “slaughter weight” much faster than grazing. Sadly, this high-starch diet can disturb a cow’s rumen, causing pain with severe bloat, acidosis (or heartburn), and other types of stomach upset.

When it comes to feeding animals on factory farms these are some key industry terms to know:

  • Growth rates: This is the rate at which an animal grows or how quickly the animal reaches “slaughter weight.” Sadly, most factory farm animals are bred to grow so quickly that their health suffers. Chickens raised for meat frequently develop bone deformities, muscle diseases like white striping, and heart problems. Many chickens have difficulty walking, or even just standing due to painful lameness as a consequence of their fast growth rate.
  • Feed conversion ratio: This is the ratio between the amount of feed an animal eats and the amount of body weight that an animal gains. In other words, a feed conversion ratio is the industry’s effort to feed animals as little as possible to make them grow as quickly as possible.
  • Selective breeding: This is the practice of breeding two animals to produce offspring with a desired trait. For example, the poultry industry breeds birds who quickly develop outsized breast muscles. In the meat industry, selective breeding is generally used to optimize both feed conversion ratio and growth rates.

Animal Feed Industry Impacts

Overall, factory farming is incredibly resource-intensive and harmful to the environment. From agricultural runoff to water waste and pollution, CAFOs are responsible for some of humanity’s worst climate impacts.

“Livestock farms generate about 70 percent of the nation’s [United States] ammonia emissions, plus gases that cause global warming, particularly methane,” according to the Public Broadcasting Service. The practice of growing crops for animal feed is one of the worst drivers of environmental destruction—leaving biodiversity loss, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions in its wake.

Deforestation

Growing crops necessary to feed huge numbers of animals to support human meat consumption requires vast amounts of land, which results in massive deforestation. Forests worldwide are systematically being cleared and replanted with monocrops (such as the corn and soybeans mentioned earlier) to meet the demand for animal products—and therefore, animal feed.

Brazil, for example, is the world’s biggest beef exporter. In the Amazon rainforest—nearly two-thirds of which is part of Brazil—crops for animal feed are one of the primary drivers of deforestation, damaging an essential habitat for countless species. Deforestation rates have averaged nearly 2 million hectares yearly since 1995 in the Amazon, or about seven football fields every minute.

Meanwhile, farmland expansion accounts for 90 percent of deforestation worldwide, “including crops grown for both human and animal consumption, as well as the clearing of forests for animal grazing,” according to a July 2022 article in Sentient Media.

Deforestation eliminates one of our best defenses against climate change as healthy, intact forests provide a crucial ecosystem service: carbon sequestration. Forests safely store more carbon than they emit, making them powerful “carbon sinks” critical to maintaining a stable climate. When we destroy forests for farmland and other uses, we remove that carbon sink and release all the carbon into the atmosphere that had been stored there.

Biodiversity Loss and Extinction Threat

Naturally, deforestation goes hand in hand with biodiversity loss—of which animal agriculture is also a key driver. A 2021 study found that land use conversions to support the “global food system” are a primary driver of biodiversity loss. Tragically, researchers project that more than 1,000 species will lose at least a quarter of their habitats by 2050 if meat consumption continues at the same rate.

At the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal in December 2022, delegates warned that if our land-intensive eating habits don’t change, more and more critical species will go extinct. As author and journalist Michael Grunwald points out in the New York Times: “[W]hen we eat cows, chickens, and other livestock, we might as well be eating macaws, jaguars, and other endangered species.”

Water Use

Along with vast amounts of land, growing crops for animal feed requires enormous quantities of water. In the U.S. alone, more than 60 percent of freshwater was used to grow crops in 2012, and around 2.5 trillion gallons per year of water was used for animal feed in the same year. Corn, soybeans, and the other grains used in animal feed require about 43 times more water than grass or roughage, which animals could access if they were allowed to graze.

Soil Degradation

The intensive farming practices required to grow vast amounts of crops—like corn and soybeans—even take a toll on the soil.

Healthy soil contains millions of living organisms, which naturally replenish and recycle organic material and nutrients. Soil filters water, stores carbon, and allows for carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles that are critical for life on Earth.

But intensive farming practices, like growing “monocultures” (huge amounts of one crop like corn or soybeans), can degrade soil and deplete critical nutrients. Not only do these farming practices prevent soil’s natural processes but they can also reduce the amount of carbon stored in soil—a huge problem in the face of climate change. Intensive agriculture, closely intertwined with factory farming, damages the soil beyond repair.

Change Is Possible

The impacts of our animal-based food production system are far-reaching and complex. The intensive farming practices that supply animal feed for factory farms are destroying our water, air, and soil—and harming countless animals raised in food supply chains. But there is hope. It’s not too late to build a better food system from the ground up.

The movement to build a healthier food system is growing every day. Around the world, people are advocating for systemic change—from plant-based food options to better treatment of farmed animals. In fact, according to a March 2022 article in Phys.org, “switching to a plant-based diet in high-income nations would save an area the size of the EU worldwide.” Moreover, if just one person follows a vegan diet, an average of 95 animals will be spared each year, according to the book, Ninety-Five: Meeting America’s Farmed Animals in Stories and Photographs.

Concerned citizens and consumers can also hold corporations accountable for animal abuse and environmental degradation—by pressuring companies to adopt more sustainable practices. Already, several large meat producers and fast food and supermarket chains have stopped keeping pigs in gestation crates after people expressed “disgust” at the practice. According to the New York Times, “[T]he tide is turning because consumers are making their preferences known.”

Click here to read the article on the Observatory.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life.

Vicky Bond is a veterinary surgeon, animal welfare scientist, and the president of The Humane League, a global nonprofit organization working to end the abuse of animals raised for food through institutional and individual change. She is a contributor to the Observatory. Follow her on Twitter @vickybond_THL.

Photo Credit: Albert Bridge / Wikimedia Commons