The price difference between organic, cage-free chicken breast and its neighboring “natural” chicken breast is bound to result in raised eyebrows when you’re standing in the meat section of your favorite grocery store. While it may be cheaper to go the non-organic route, you’ll be paying for that chicken in other ways.
If it isn’t marked otherwise on the packaging, that chicken, pork or beef that you buy came from a factory farm with abysmal living conditions. Highly intelligent pigs are shoved together in cages by the thousands, where they resort to biting off one another’s tails due to stress; after birth, calves are immediately taken from their mothers, who can then be pushed to their milk-producing limits; and male chicks are killed simply because they lack the ability to produce meaty breasts.
Not to mention the fact that such living conditions are making the environment and us sick, no thanks to the mass amounts of manure that are produced, containing potential contaminants, such as nitrogen, antibiotics, growth hormones and E. coli. This animal waste is typically held in large ponds, where it can leach into soil and water systems, destroying ecosystems from runoff, or it is sprayed into the air to evaporate, contributing to pollution and serious respiratory problems such as asthma. In addition, the methane and nitrous oxide that come from these animals in extremely concentrated forms contribute to climate change. And of course, the deforestation that occurs to make room for these grazers in the first place directly contributes to climate change because of the huge loss of trees that would normally absorb dangerous greenhouse gases.
Such sickening conditions have serious ramifications because factory farms create the perfect recipe for an epidemic. The stress of the animals, combined with unsanitary conditions, weakens their immune systems, making them more susceptible to disease. In addition, the antibiotics that are fed and injected into these livestock can create resistant bacteria, which can then wreak havoc among a single animal species that lacks diversity. These factory farms can quickly turn into virus farms, because if a virus, such as Nipah, is introduced, it can spread like wildfire due to the close proximity of the animals before jumping across farms and to humans.
Meanwhile, although they’re being raised to become food, pigs, cows and chickens living on organic farms tended to by caring farmers have the freedom to graze on grass and bugs and enjoy healthy and happy lives, just as they should. Organic livestock live in safe, cage-free environments, where they are fed organic feed and not injected with synthetic growth hormones or antibiotics, as organic standards regulate. Most organic farms are small or midsize operations, meaning their animals can receive more individualized care without being crammed together in tight quarters. And often, organic farmers who raise animals also farm produce, using the manure from their animals to naturally fertilize their large gardens, creating a sustainable lifestyle.
By buying organic, you are supporting the notion that animals deserve to have a high quality of life, one that doesn’t lead to climate change and the next big killer disease. And that is an ethical choice that you make every time you stop by that meat section—or better yet, peruse your local farmers’ market—with a new recipe in mind.