Inhumane, unregulated animal agriculture practices in India extract a heavy toll on us, and the environment
The poultry industry has grown unregulated such that it impacts the weakest sections of society: residents near these farms, the environment and the birds themselves.
Animal agriculture is at an all-time high worldwide. In the last 50 years, the number of people on the planet has doubled; however, the amount of meat we eat has tripled. A closer look at the figures is staggering. There are over seventy-nine billion land animals in the world that are being raised for the sole purpose of being on someone's plate. It's almost impossible to calculate the number of fish caught for food as sea life is measured in tonnage.
Most of that growth in production is taking place in the developing world, which is estimated to account for about 78 percent of the increased meat production between 2011 and 2020. Most of this growth will be in the form of industrial farm animal production (IFAP). These IFAP systems, more commonly known as 'factory farms', are home to tremendous animal suffering and inhumane practices.
Food security is often incorrectly used to justify the inhumane confinement of animals on IFAPs, while in reality, the industrialisation of animal agriculture jeopardises food security by degrading the environment, threatening human health, and diminishing income-earning opportunities in rural areas.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), India has 404,583,000 egg-laying hens and 2,483,019,000 birds raised for meat each year. The majority of these birds are raised in factory farms. Egg and chicken meat production have undergone a huge change in the past 50 years. It’s gone from being a family-run backyard business to a huge agro-industry. While one would expect the accelerated production to ameliorate malnutrition and undernutrition in the lowest income quintile, it has not; people in this bracket were still consuming fewer than 10 eggs per capita by the start of the 21st century.
Approximately 60 percent of underweight children are from the lowest wealth quintile. In the 1990s, the poultry industry continued to grow as did the urban-rural and inter-income-quintile inequalities. From these figures above, it is clear that this exponential growth in the poultry industry and this cutting of corners to make eggs and meat as cheap as possible has not benefitted the poorest of the poor. The industry has externalised the costs of cheap eggs and meat onto the environment, the animals and public health.
The environmental cost
Poultry facilities are largely found in rural settings, where the vicinity is impacted by the variety of emissions that they release — from offensive odours to the continued use of pesticides and the presence of pests, flies among them. So, it isn't all that surprising then that a spate of litigations before the National Green Tribunals sought the closure of poultry facilities near residences or institutions. For example, The Tribune reported that a poultry farm adjacent to the Government Middle School, Zirakpur, Punjab, made it impossible for the students to consume their mid-day meals or study because of the nuisance created by the swarm of flies from a local poultry facility.
The CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) submitted a report to the Animal Welfare Board of India highlighting that poultry production is associated with a variety of environmental pollutants. It highlighted odour as a key issue that is generated from "fresh and decomposing waste products such as manure, carcasses, feathers, and bedding litter." It stated that farms attract flies, rodents and other pests that create local nuisances and carry diseases.
The vast majority of antibiotics manufactured today are given to livestock. This widespread use of antibiotics on factory farms is leading to more and more antibiotic-resistant superbugs which already kill between 500,000 and 700,000 people a year. Unchecked, the global toll could rise to 10 million by 2050. By 2050, these superbugs could cost the world $100 trillion.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare released the National Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance (NAP-AMR) 2017–2021. This specifically highlighted the usage of non-therapeutic antibiotics in poultry farms. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) too published a detailed study on the 'Spread of Resistance from Poultry Farm to Agricultural Fields' due to antibiotic abuse in poultry farms. This report has established that antibiotic use in livestock production impacts public health regardless of whether or not we consume poultry products due to the use of litter with antibiotic residue as manure on agricultural (plant) farms.
Neglected animal welfare standards
Chickens destined for the egg industry are artificially incubated and hatched by the thousands at commercial hatcheries. Since male chicks will not mature to lay eggs, and because they will not grow to a size selected for meat production, they are killed soon after hatching. Crores of male chicks are killed by the commercial egg industry annually, they are ground up alive, crammed in barrels and sealed to die of suffocation, or just burnt alive. Day-old female chicks are transferred from commercial hatcheries to layer farms.
At the age of approximately 16 weeks, these hens are transferred into small, barren wire cages called battery cages. The name 'battery cage' comes from the arrangement of cages placed side by side, like battery cells. A layer farm contains cages, in many rows, one on top of the other. The cages are so small and so many hens are crammed into them that the animals are unable to even spread their wings even once in their entire lives. The average hen has 450 square centimetres of area — less room than on an A4 size paper, in case you were wondering. The hens can express no natural behaviour in their entire lives.
Broiler birds are bred to, in as short a time as possible, gain the maximum amount of weight. The industry selects breeds and strains that have the highest possible feed conversion ratio. This quick growth of muscle on an undeveloped bone structure leads to many health issues for the birds.
It is essential that the guidelines and licensing provisions made by the Central Pollution Control Board for poultry farms see an overhaul, making them more suited to the climate emergency of our times. There needs to be complete prohibition on non-therapeutic antibiotics to both layer and broiler birds and an appropriate enforcement mechanism for the same. Furthermore, the Law Commission in July 2017 in its 269th Report, studied the issues of both broilers and egg-laying hens and suggested two sets of draft rules as minimum enforceable standards for both industries. These rules must be notified and implemented by the Government. The recommended rules for egg-laying hens, detail that hens shall not be confined in a manner that prevents them from lying down, standing up, fully spreading both wings without touching the side of an enclosure or other egg-laying hens, or turning in a complete circle without any impediment and without touching the side of an enclosure. They provide for sufficient space for all hens to perch, a nest box, litter to allow pecking and scratching and access to feed freely. The poultry industry needs a composite act to regulate all these aspects.
The poultry industry has grown without any regulation to check its impact on the weakest sections of society, be it residents in the farm’s vicinity, the environment, or the birds themselves. While it may seem that regulating the industry comes with a financial cost, the health of those who live around the farms, protecting the environment and adhering to basic animal welfare standards is worth that cost.
Urban India can — and must — absorb a slight increase in the cost of eggs and meat. It is only fair for us to pay for what we consume and not externalize the same on the vulnerable. For rural India, the government can encourage backyard poultry farming as a way to augment rural incomes through self-help groups and address malnutrition amongst the lowest-income quintile. This would strengthen the rural economy and increase self-reliance.
The author is an advocate who worked on the Public Interest Litigation seeking to phase out the usage of battery cages in the Delhi High Court and is a Member of the Maharashtra State Animal Welfare Board.
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