Episode five of the fourth season of Vice begins by presenting a rather alarming fact: processed meat, one of the largest staples of the average diet in the developed world, has been classified by the World Health Organization as a Class 1 Carcinogen, putting it in the same cancer-causing group as asbestos, tobacco, and diesel exhaust. Given the recent attention given to the dangerous effects of chemicals present in most preserved foods (i.e., most foods at the supermarket), this should probably come as little surprise. The proliferation of processed meat as the number one agricultural industry in the world, however, makes the capacity for such a wide-scale provision for harm rather astonishing.
As the Vice team demonstrates, despite the modern meat industry’s classification by health experts as a worldwide disaster, the model’s only expanding. The meat industry machine grows, seeking new ways to provide more meat faster to the world, with increasingly damaging effects not just on consumers, but the world they live in, including threatening the single most important resource on earth: water. Covering the dual crises of worldwide meat and water supplies, Vice dissects the ways in which these two industries are inherently bound, and how a lack of responsibility in one is a double jeopardy for the planet.
The episode opens with correspondent Isobel Yeung interviewing Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University, who has developed one of a number of potential alternatives for mass produced meat: a process for creating beef patties from stem cells instead of ground beef. The process takes about seven weeks, which, Post explains, is much faster than processing a cow. Hiven the current volume of cattle, he explains, alternative meat methods are a must for investment.
“The demand for meat is going to increase,” he says “and there’s no way with the current livestock production method that we can match that demand. If we could all agree to not eat meat for five days a week,” he adds, “everything would be fine. But we’re not doing that.” This is, admittedly, an extremely implausible goal for the modern world, especially one that has required a quadruple increase in meat production since the 1960s. Post’s comments are also a shocking analysis of just how much the modern world would need to cut back to subsist on the livestock currently available.
In response to such a skyrocketing demand, the modern meat industry has been forced to become more streamlined, speedy, and efficient. Unfortunately, this means a system with less and less accountability as budgets are cut, and a barbarous slaughterhouse industry designed to process one cattle every 30 seconds.
Exploring a modern slaughterhouse in Brazil, Yeung takes the viewer through a sight that would make even the most hardcore carnivore queasy: cattle systematically killed via bolt gun and thrown down a hatch, skinned corpses being sawed in half, cattle skins removed of all interior (including flapping, boneless faces), and a long river of blood flowing beneath it all. Perhaps the only thing more unsettling than these sights of the modern machine is the realization that it doesn’t work. Ultimately, it’s doing significantly more harm than good, both to people and the Earth.
Yeung interviews Ken Cook, an environmental expert, who outlines just how much the industry is stressing the planet’s resources.
“Seventy percent of land devoted to agriculture on the planet is devoted to meat production,” he says. “That’s almost a third of the entire surface area. That many acres producing red meat, pork, chicken is completely unsustainable. There isn’t enough land, there isn’t enough water, there isn’t enough to air to absorb the CO2. Where we’re cutting corners is where we have environmental catastrophes.”
Cook paints a picture of an Earth completely taxed of its natural resources by human expansion and endeavors. While the consequences of narrow-sightedness and structural convenience have been fears surrounding the industry since its inception, including its effect on climate change, Vice illustrates how directly the meat industry’s corner cutting is currently threatening both Earth and humanity in very observable, yet overlooked, ways.
One particularly disgusting example is in the disposal of animal waste. Interviewing Larry Baldwin, a member of the Waterkeeping Alliance in North Carolina, Yeung shows the viewer one common way of doing so: pouring the waste directly into adjacent lagoons.
“People would be outraged even at the suggestion that’s the way we handle human waste,” says Baldwin. “What’s the difference?”
Flying over neighboring fields in a helicopter, Baldwin shows Yeung a series of up to 12 brown-tinted lagoons within a few miles of one another. “It’s all urine and feces,” he explains. “And not all of that is getting absorbed into the ground.”
Following up on the ground, Yeung interviews Kemp Burdette, the Director of Cape Fear River Watch, who explains how real a threat such pollution is to surrounding streams leading into Cape Fear, a river out of which a fifth of North Carolinians get their water. “You see nitrogen and phosphorus levels off the charts. Bacteria levels off the charts. It’s raw feces If you’re a fisherman, or a swimmer, if you’re throwing the ball for your dog, you have to deal with dangerous levels of bacteria.”
Given the outrage of other recent water crises, such as those of Toledo, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan, such a practice should resonate on a national level. The tragedy of such pollution is how ingrained it has become within a system on which the world has become increasingly dependent. Americans have become all too familiar with the consequences of narrow-sightedness surrounding natural resources, and the widespread death and illness that can result, and practices such as these should be deemed no less severe. The question then becomes, where has the attention been?
The first segment ends on a more encouraging note, with a demonstration of an alternative, environmentally prosperous method of raising cattle called Rotational Grazing, in which cattle are rotated from one field of grass to another from week to week in a large circle, with extinguished fields growing again while new ones are eaten. Cow manure helps fertilize the new fields, and the cycle continues.
It’s only through conserving and recycling resources, explains such a farmer, Joe Salitan, that cattle farming can be secure.
“A system that depletes your resource base will eventually crash and burn,” he explains. “Industrial scale farming has separated the animal from its feed. So the whole system that’s supposed to be integrated becomes a segregated system of liabilities.”
Salitan’s analysis is one that should be obvious to just about anyone with a basic understanding of an ecosystem. Yet, rotational farming is a more costly and timely method, despite its benefits. In an economized world, cost-effectiveness trumps this basic rationale and forward thinking, even given the frightening results right below our eyes (and noses). It’s the inherent tragedy of the modern food industry, with more toxic and harmful food being the most affordable, and the product of a system with rippling environmental consequences.
“That’s how we’re able to get a dollar burger at McDonald’s,” explains one farmer.
The second half of the episode explores a new worldwide era of drought, unlike anything the world has scene before. Correspondent Vikram Gandhi stands in the barren Tulare Valley in California, a state which has seen many of its normally luscious regions turn bone dry. It’s a phenomenon that comedian Keegan Michael-Key humorously described at an Obama speech at the White House as “looking like a damn Mad Max movie”. For a state that provides food to the entire world, and nearly half the fruits and vegetables across the US, this crisis is nothing short of an emergency. A farmer explains to Gandhi that until 2015, the Tulare Valley has always had a summer crop. California, for the first time, has had to enact water rations in some regions.
Part of this plight is related to the maxed-out food industry: the need to grow more crops both for human and cattle consumption. This has led to mass extractions of water from deep wells of water within the US, such as the Ogalla Aquifer in the high plains regions. Unfortunately, with rising droughts, such water extraction is the only alternative for struggling farmers.
“I don’t like to hear that, that farmers are losing their crops,” explains Steve Arthur, the owner of an oil drilling company now specializing in water-drilling wells. “If they want to stay in business, they have to drill a well.”
Unlike the food industry, however, which is just squeaking by, the water industry is on the precipice. Even farmers utilizing a drip system, the most efficient system for watering crops, still isn’t enough.
As Vice illustrates, this crisis isn’t limited to the United States. In Sao Paolo, Brazil, the water shortages have led to riots. Citizens have had to resort to collecting rainwater on their roofs just to have water to bathe and drink. The reservoirs have dried up so much that workers have had to pump it uphill just to reach intake pipes.
As climatologist Antonio Nobre explains to Gandhi, a good part of the problem is, like the meat business, a lack of industrial oversight, particularly in the mass deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, which plays a part in an ecosystem that provides water in ways most don’t realize. In this case, it’s the transport of water vapor rising from the Amazon River, formed from the air pressure created by trees:
“As air masses go over the Amazon, they generate a river. It’s a flying river. In Amazon, we have lost 47% of the forest. Basically it spells doom for the whole planet. If the Amazon goes, then the Congo Goes, then Southeast Asia, all the tropical belt forest goes. We have a global civilization, the Earth, and we’re screwing it.”
The most startling comment regarding this increase in drought, however, comes in terms of the ways such shortages will affect global politics and the economy in the future. Footage shows stock market workers running back and forth following water’s value, and of experts discussing how important an investment water will become. Perhaps most frightening of all is the concept of mass collection of remaining water-saturated land by investors.
“We will see the emergence of hydro-geopolitics,” says one expert. “We’ll see strategizing for water, it will become the central resource that we covet, that we fight to protect. Where are we gonna be in 50 years? We will be in the post apocalypse. The post-apocalypse will have happened.”
Perhaps that Mad Max parallel isn’t so far-fetched. One can just imagine a hand on a water lever, high above a scorched earth.
In highlighting these two vital, intertwined crises, Vice again provides the startling on-the-ground coverage and visuals that have gone underreported elsewhere. Despite the undeniable, vital importance of both these resources, so much of it has been invisible beneath the draw of the next potential profit in the grander socioeconomic machine. Vice highlights the inherent pressures of two systems attempting mass distribution with mass convenience, in a vastly growing, economically crippled world, creating a vast machine with a great amount of rust in its cogs. Yet, the answer to saving the planet may rely on remembering those little facts we learned back in grade school, from those wall charts of the ecosystem.