Foodprints for the Future

As ‘The Jungle’ marks its anniversary, factory farming remains our 21st century nightmare

Over a century ago, a young muckraking journalist wished to inspire a socialist revolution over the “veritable fortress of oppression” that was industrial capitalism. Instead, he inspired revulsion over what we eat. 

“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Upton Sinclair famously said, regarding his 1906 novel The Jungle.

The Jungle follows a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, whose American Dream is quickly chewed up and spit out by Chicago’s meatpacking industry. Tragedy after tragedy strikes Jurgis, who loses his family, hope and dignity to the industrial machine of the city’s urban jungle.

But it wasn’t Jurgis’s personal struggle that outraged the public most — it was the novel’s grotesque depictions of meatpacking, such as this one: “The meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one — there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.”

The novel famously sparked the United States’ first food and safety laws, the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, which laid the groundwork for future consumer protection legislation.

But today, Sinclair’s vision of a more humane meat industry is far from realized. Though we may no longer sweep poisoned rats into our sausages, the same factors Sinclair detailed in early-20th-century meatpacking — ruthless efficiency, industrialism and, above all, profit — drive today’s factory farms, now more than ever.

The Jungle is alive and well in the factory farm industry of the 21st century.

Factory farming accounts for nearly all meat production in the United States, and its footprint is growing: In the 15-year period between 1997 and 2012, factory farming rose 20%. In nearly the same time, the number of dairy cows on factory farms increased by 120%, with hogs increasing by 70% and broiler chickens by 80%.

These increased numbers are pushing the planet to its breaking point: While meat in the time of The Jungle sickened workers and consumers, today it’s poisoning our planet. In fact, industrial animal agriculture is a huge contributor of some of the world’s biggest environmental problems.

Animal agriculture accounts for anywhere between 14.5–18% of global greenhouse gas emissions (that’s as much as every plane, train, automobile and ship on Earth). What’s more, the meat industry accounts for about 70% of agriculture land usage, causing  deforestation, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and water contamination. The wastewater and agricultural runoff from factory farming also create ocean dead zones, devastating ecosystems and biodiversity both by land and by sea.  

Still, our appetite for cheap meat has barely wavered since Sinclair’s time — only about 4% of Americans identify as vegetarian or vegan today, per recent polling by Earth Day Network and the Yale Program for Climate Change Communication.

Perhaps our American love affair with cheap meat is aided by the separation between Americans and their meat.

In The Jungle, when Jurgis and his family tour one of the pork-packing buildings, they are forced to face the meatpacking industry, and all the brutality that comes with it, for the first time:

“Now suddenly [the machine] swooped upon [the hog], and had seized him by the leg. Relentless, remorseless, it was; all his protests, his screams, were nothing to it — it did its cruel will with him, as if his wishes, his feelings, had simply no existence at all; it cut his throat and watched him gasp out his life.”

All Jurgis can mutter is, “I’m glad I’m not a hog!” Like meat-eaters today, Jurgis’s awkward jokes establish emotional distance between consumers and their food, enough distance to blindly accept the harsh reality of animal agriculture and all that it entails, including its contribution to a more polluted and warmer world.

Just over 100 years later, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer echoes similar sentiments in his 2009 book Eating Animals: “Having little exposure to animals makes it much easier to push aside questions about how our actions might influence their treatment.”

These two books, separated by more than a century, demonstrate that preference may uphold the entire existence of factory farming in the U.S. (and, increasingly, around the world): Despite all we know of the perils of factory farming — the suffering the animals go through, the stress it puts on our planet — is our only justification for this industry taste?

Sinclair seems to suggest as much toward the end of The Jungle: “Meat is obviously more difficult to produce than vegetable food, less pleasant to prepare and handle, and more likely to be unclean. But what of that, so long as it tickles the palate more strongly?”

Habits are hard to break, and meat has long been a staple of the American diet. But now we know about meat’s impact on our environment. To ignore these impacts is to adopt irresponsibly wishful, even willfully ignorant, thinking. And whether we act on our stomach — or our hearts, as Sinclair wished when he wrote The Jungle — we must act.

“We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference,” writes Foer. “We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into popular consciousness.”

On today’s anniversary of the publication of The Jungle, consider plant-based foods — foods with much lower carbon footprints than factory-farmed meat — for a more just and sustainable future. Learn more at Earth Day Network’s campaign Foodprints for the Future.