Letter to My Niece

Lissa Einhorn

My lovely 15-year-old niece, Lissa, e-mailed me recently:

Dear Auntie Kama,

My final for my biology class is an environmental issue. We have to research one topic and then make a survey, do an action plan, and then write a reflection. My topic is how the poor treatment of farm animals effects (affects?) the health of the humans who eat them. Daddy said I should look at your site so I did. It was helpful and if you find anything big out that you think I could use in my project, let me know. Thanks!!

I don’t know how or why she chose this topic, but needless to say, I was a proud auntie. Coincidentally, I had just finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma for Kids: Young Readers’ Edition, which is a great distillation of the big ideas in the original, presented to kids in an appropriate way without sugarcoating the issues. It’s even a great read for adults who find the original too long and demanding.

Lissa and I talked on the phone and I told her I would send her more information. I kept having an imaginary conversation with her in my mind and finally wrote her this letter, instead of just a bunch of links, just so the voices in my head would stop:

Dear Lissa,

You’ve probably already discovered this in your research, but the treatment of farm animals affects human health in several ways. We’ve already talked about the difference between factory farms and small family-owned farms. But remember that 98% of our meat supply comes from the factory farms.

Factory farm animals are fed hormones and antibiotics to make them grow faster and keep them free from the disease that their filthy, overcrowded living conditions create. Chickens are fed arsenic (a poison) to stimulate their appetite so they’ll get fatter faster.

This stuff doesn’t just disappear. It becomes part of their bodies. Humans ingest it when they eat the meat.

Hormones have been linked to several different cancers (not the one Grandpa Marty died from, though), and have also been thought to cause early onset of puberty in girls, (though this has not been proven). Hormones are hormones, after all!

The problem with antibiotics is that when overused they lose effectiveness (the bacteria starts to outsmart the drugs), so now when humans get certain illnesses they can’t be treated. And we don’t even know the extent of the problems with arsenic.

There are three more biggies. E. coli, campylobacter, and mad cow disease are terrible illnesses that have been linked directly to factory farms. All are caused by animals being fed an unnatural diet.

Lissa, I think you are very brave for looking at this issue. It can be extremely disturbing and upsetting to think about, especially before dinner! I am sorry that my generation is handing your generation such a mess of a planet. We have made a lot of very bad choices. I think the only way you and your friends can make things better is to learn why things are so messed up in the first place, and that’s exactly what you’re doing with this project. That’s what I’m trying to do with the blog, too, and I promise to keep trying so that you guys have a better world than the one we have now. I have great faith in you!

Your Auntie

P.S. I would never tell you what to eat; I think that is one of the most personal decisions a human makes. I do believe, though, that we need to dramatically reduce our consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy, and try hard to buy it from local farms that are treating their animals well. It takes more work to find food from good sources, and it’s more expensive. But there are some things we can’t put a price on (like our health)!