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120 More Children Now Know What a Real Farm Looks Like…

Posted by tinako on May 6, 2011

…and why it matters.

I went back to the zoo again today, to give another presentation with fellow vegan Carol like we did last year. This post might only make sense if you have read last year’s.

Orangutan

Darnit, I forgot to bring my camera.  I walked past the lemurs we stood in front of last time.  They still have their 12″ weed in a pot to remind them of the natural world, but I see that their cage has been updated with a 2 x 4 foot scrap of grassy sod thrown down onto the concrete.  I saw these scraps scattered in all of the concrete-floored cages.  I didn’t see any animals enjoying them during my stay.  I saw an emu staring longingly out the back of her cage into the woods, sod scrap ignored behind her.

I found this photo from our zoo online, so you can see the orangutan’s concrete and steel “habitat.”

We were to be talking to 5th graders today, so I altered a little from last year when we had middle-schoolers.  I varied the talk a bit as class by class had their turn, and the following is what we ended up with, seeming to work very well with this age group.  I had decided these were the main points I wanted to make:

  1. Farm animals do not live on idyllic farms; they live on factory farms.
  2. Factory farms pollute.  Also, eating animals is more wasteful than eating plants.
  3. Cutting back on animal products can make a big difference for the environment, probably bigger than most other choices the kids have.  And it isn’t all or nothing.

So, like last year Carol started out asking the kids why they thought someone might want to be vegetarian, and again the kids all mentioned the “not killing the animals” issue first.  Some kids were able to come up with health, but not a single one of 120 kids thought of the environment.  So Carol talked for a minute about how wasteful eating animals is before turning it over to me.

I had copies of the same books as last year, so showed them the same images from Charlotte’s Web and Minerva Louise.  I said I loved these books and thought they were great for depicting kindness and loyalty, for instance, but they they were not very good at showing today’s farms.  I said most animals had not lived on farms like this for 50 to 60 years, and that it was important to understand that because it was hard to see how Wilbur and Minerva Louise could be threatening the environment.

Then I showed them the same three photos from last year, two of battery cage hens and this one of pigs.  I explained what the pictures showed and read the 2007 national average of animals per farm I had posted on my display board:

Old McDonald Had How Many Chickens?
Average number of animals per U.S. farm site in 2007:
Cattle    3,810
Dairy    1,481
Pigs    5,144
“Broiler” Chickens    168,000
Egg-laying Chickens    614,000
Source: Factory Farm Map

The kids were shocked at the numbers for battery cage hens: 200,000 per barn, several barns per farm, that’s over half a million hens, not the dozen we might imagine living behind the farmhouse.

Next I wanted to give them an overview of the breadth of problems factory farming contributes to, so I read from my display board again:

Modern Livestock Farming is a major cause of:

  • Water Pollution
  • Air Pollution
  • Acid Rain
  • Greenhouse Gases
  • Land Degradation
  • Loss of Biodiversity
  • Loss of Habitat
  • Killing Wildlife
  • Diseases like salmonella, e. coli, and MRSA, swine flu, avian flu
  • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Then I started tackling as many of those as I could cover, usually just a few, but I had to be flexible because we often had extra time, except for the group where after the teacher got off her cell phone, in the middle of my talk, she began loudly asking the kids who needed to go to the bathroom; after a minute of sorting out where they would meet when they came back, being seemingly oblivious to the fact that I was trying to give a talk five feet away from her, she walked off to the restrooms with half the class.  This was a teacher.  It just occurred to me that possibly it was not just atrocious manners but sabotage.

Slash and Burn

Moving on, I covered greenhouse gases first, because that is what the display had been originally designed about (“A Disregarded Truth”).  I told them about how livestock causes more greenhouse gases than transportation, then moved onto Amazon deforestation with photos like this, as well as a photo of resulting pastureland and soybean fields.  I said the soybeans were not for tofu but for animal feed.  I told the kids I’d heard sort of a sad joke, that chickens were eating the rainforest, and this is what it referred to, chickens eating rainforest soybeans.

Burning Manure Mountain at Nebraska Feedlot

Then I showed two photos that covered air & water pollution and greenhouse gases all at once.  This is my favorite to show to kids.  I say, “Doesn’t this look like a lovely scene?  I might hang this on my wall.  It seems to be some gentle cattle with the snowy Rocky Mountains behind them.  But this is actually the edge of a feedlot,” and I show them two photos of feedlots.  “Can anyone guess what these mountains really are?”  No one could.  “They’re mountains of poop!  Not only that, they’re on fire!  Mountains of flaming poop!”  Fifth graders found this very interesting.  I went on to explain that there are so many animals in the feedlot that there is no good way to dispose of their manure, so it piles up in this mess.  It washes down to pollute the land and water, it puts out ammonia and hydrogen sulfide to contribute significantly to acid rain, which damages aquatic ecosystems, kills fish, and damages forests, among other things.  Finally the poop mountains, in addition to stench, put out methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which along with cow burps and farts makes them a significant contributor to global warming.

Pig Manure Lagoon

This is the second picture, and I would say, “this looks like any pond you might find on a farm.  You’d expect to see ducks on it.  But there’s a sign posted there and it says, ‘Keep Out, Polluted Water.’  You don’t want to swim in this pond, because it’s a pig manure lagoon.  Now, Kodak can’t run a pipe out the back of its factory and pour raw sewage or other toxic pollution into a pit, but farms do not even need a permit to do it as long as they don’t intend to dump in a stream.  But these lagoons leak all the time, have killed millions of fish, and farm runoff is the main reason why 60% of American streams are polluted.”

Then I would talk about the waste of energy using this graphic from Marc Bittman.  Maybe it was because it was later in the talk, but this did not seem to interest the 5th graders as much as the middle-schoolers last year.  Click to enlarge.

I wanted to make the point that what we eat is a really important environmental decision in comparison with so many of the efforts we hear about all the time, like driving too much and turning off the lights, so I talked about this graphic on my display: its-not-the-bag.  I made sure to say that I wasn’t belittling the other choices we are urged to make for the environment, just pointing out that what we eat, though we hardly ever hear about it, belongs at the top of that list.

Lastly, I made the point that while the two of us are vegan, the kids did not need to be vegan to make a difference, and that any amount of meat they cut down would help the problem.

Carol asked if any of the kids thought they might like to choose less meat after hearing what I had said, and most kids raised their hands.  She handed out some materials, mostly PCRM’s Kids Get Healthy booklet, which looked really nice.

Carol told me a fellow vegan had asked her, “They let you talk about vegetarianism to 5th graders?”  She answered, “So far!”

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4 Responses to “120 More Children Now Know What a Real Farm Looks Like…”

  1. […] is a major cause of: Water Pollution; Air Pollution; Acid Rain … … Read the original: 120 More Children Now Know What a Real Farm Looks Like… « The … ← Q&A: What is the effect of the air and water pollution caused by […]

  2. Rob said

    I’ll bet there were some wide eyes in that class! Well done. I wish that I had known about these things earlier in life, and you’re helping with that. If McDonalds can spend billions marketing to children then it seems only fair that a healthier alternative get some time with the kids too.

    I’m not an educator, but I’m sure that lessons have to be crafted specially for certain learning levels and age groups. I wouldn’t know where to begin tailoring adult messages for children; glad you’re familiar with that kind of thing!

    • tinako said

      Fortunately 5th grade is right between my two children right now, and I have volunteered for years in a school with this grade, so I knew just where to put the message and feel I was entirely appropriate. Otherwise I would not have felt confident.

      Wide eyes indeed. Not a single child indicated he/she knew anything about this beforehand.

  3. […] I updated this display for schoolchildren last year, I wanted to make it about more than global warming, so I removed a page about What Are We Eating […]

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