The shocking violence and suffering behind the global meat industry

The global meat industry is not only disastrous for the planet’s climate, it’s a human rights calamity. It doesn’t have to be like this.


The meat industry relies on people not being able to see how it operates. From animal welfare in farms and slaughterhouses, deforestation and fires in the Amazon rainforest – the more we know about how meat gets made, the harder it is to love.

But the industrial meat system doesn’t just commit crimes against nature – it’s responsible for serious crimes against people too.

Industrial meat farming has been linked to land grabbing and violence against Indigenous Peoples. Cattle ranches and meatpacking facilities worldwide are known hotspots for modern slavery. Now coronavirus outbreaks are adding to the industry’s troubles.

Here’s the full story on human rights and the meat industry, adapted from this Greenpeace report.

Indigenous Peoples’ lands are stolen or destroyed for meat

For centuries, farmers have stolen land and wrought violence on Indigenous Peoples in Brazil and across the Americas to raise cattle. Now, soya grown to feed animals in the global industrial meat system is also to blame for land grabs.

Meat companies have been caught buying cattle from companies that established illegal farms within protected Indigenous lands or on ‘extractive reserves’ in Brazil. These are lands reserved by law for sustainable hunting, fishing or harvesting of wild plants.

Bolsonaro’s government has legitimised more than a hundred farms established illegally inside Indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon. Many of these illegal farms are created by farmers burning rainforest – a practice which the president actively encouraged in 2019.

Meat and dairy animals around the world are fed by soya that comes from South America. And it also matters how this soya is exported.

Because of soya, a number of new transport arteries are being cut into the Amazon – sometimes for roads, and sometimes for river-destroying dams to create industrial transportation waterways. These also violate Indigenous land rights – and are terrible for the climate.

Meat, modern slavery, and murder

Workers on cattle ranches in Brazil are sometimes held in modern slavery, according to numerous investigations and cases.

Modern slavery includes forced labour in undignified working conditions (such as without proper shelter, toilets or drinking water) – or being held in debt bondage, with money being taken as payment for food and equipment.

In the last 25 years, more than 50,000 people were reportedly rescued from slave labour in Brazil. Most of the new offenders on a database of slave labour operations – called the ‘Dirty List’ – are farmers or cattle ranchers.

In one case, inspectors rescued 20 people from a farm where workers were found to be toiling from 5am to 5pm and sleeping in straw huts or under trees, and bathing in a dirty local stream.

And one major meat company was linked to a brutal 2017 massacre of nine men in a remote area of the Amazon state of Mato Grosso, according to an investigation by Greenpeace Brazil.

Working conditions in meat-packing facilities are dire – and deadly

Meat processing has long been recognised as a highly dangerous job with high risk of accidents, injuries and illness.

Major Brazilian meat processors JBS, Minerva and Marfrig have illegally failed to report work-related illnesses in order to avoid paying sick pay.

Migrant and Black, Latino and other ethnic minority workers in particular are often underpaid and exploited. Safety information may not be translated into migrant workers’ native languages.

In Germany, where up to 80% of meat industry workers are migrants, workers are hired through agencies and subcontractors on terms resembling modern slavery. The government insists it is working hard to tackle the issue.

The Covid-19 outbreaks in slaughterhouses around the world

The coronavirus spreads easily in meatpacking facilities. This is thought to be because they are cold and damp environments – with loud machinery that encourages workers to shout or talk loudly to each other.

In the US, several meat processing plants were forced to close following Covid-19 outbreaks. Meat lobbyists then persuaded the government to use the Defense Production Act to keep meat plants open. Following this order, US counties with major meat processing plants had double the rate of infection compared to the national average.

There have also been several outbreaks in European countries’ meat facilities, including in the UK and Germany. At least 37 Covid-19 clusters were reported across Europe between March and late June 2020, with over 4,000 workers becoming infected.

These outbreaks of Covid-19 at meat processing plants around the world led one expert to say that workers are treated as being ‘as expendable as the things they’re slaughtering’.

Coronavirus in meat processing plants on stolen Indigenous land

The meat processing industry is also partly to blame for high coronavirus infection rates among Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples, particularly in the southern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

The state has seen many decades of violent conflict between the second-largest Indigenous People in Brazil – the Guaraní-Kaiowá, numbering 51,000 – and farmers on their ancestral lands.

Local meat-processing plants have spread Covid-19 to some Indigenous communities via their Indigenous employees. In May, the General Assembly of the Guaraní-Kaiowá issued a statement saying that Covid-19 was ‘not only a health crisis, it is the genocide of our people, whose treatment is racist and inhumane.’

It continues: ‘it has been 520 years of massacres and diseases, brought to us during our violent experience of colonisation in Brasil. We are left with few of our elders, the guardians of our traditional knowledge.’

What the system could look like instead

It really doesn’t have to be this way.

If the massive companies at the top of this pyramid of human misery were forced to ensure better conditions in their supply chains, industrial meat need not be the human rights disaster it is currently.

The worn-out argument that countries like Brazil need these industries for ‘development’ is simply wrong. In fact, Amazon communities are able to make much greater profits by working with the naturally sustainable local ecology, not against it.

The numbers speak for themselves. The highly-nutritious açai berry alone generates over $1 billion a year for the economy of the Amazon, creating livelihoods for more than 300,000 producers in the region.

Our industrial food system devalues land, nature, people and essential food workers – and this has only worsened by coronavirus. Better working conditions and more considered agroecological farming methods would lessen the likelihood of future pandemics.

Reforming the global meat industry would be a crucial first step towards securing Indigenous Peoples’ rights. It would also enable the Amazon rainforest to continue to sustain itself, its wildlife – and all life on Earth.

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