Transcription of the episode “Consumption as ethics: Talking with students about food”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome¬†to Ethical Schools!

Amy H-L: [00:00:19] We recently spoke with Monica Chen, executive director of Factory Farming Awareness Coalition. Last time we spoke about school meals, their origins, and the industry pressures that shaped them. Today, we’ll focus on factory farming and FFAC’s ethics-infused programs for high school and college students, especially those created specifically for distance learning. I have privilege of working with Monica as an FFAC director. Welcome back, Monica.

Monica C: [00:00:47] Thank you so much for having me. Thank you, Jon. Thank you, Amy.

Jon M: [00:00:52] How does a factory farm differ from a traditional farm? 

Monica C: [00:00:58] That’s an interesting question, Jon, because I’m not sure what you mean by a traditional farm. I’m assuming that you’re envisioning something along the lines of Old McDonald’s or cows prancing along in grassy fields with warm sunshine.

Jon M: [00:01:12] Sure. Or a family farm, let’s say, if we’re looking at it in economic terms.

Monica C: [00:01:19] Okay. Well, what I really wanted to define a factory farm is with the US Environmental Protection Agency definition, which is it’s a concentrated animal feeding operation with more than a thousand animals at least, or a thousand pounds of live weight. And I think that what really defines the factory farms is the close proximity of these animals together. And they are discharging manure, wastewater into ditches, streams or other waterways. And this whole system is happening because there’s just so much demand for these animal products.

So I think that when you’re talking about a family farm, you’re envisioning something much smaller in size. Family farms can still be concentrated animal feeding operations. It can still be owned by a family, but they are large in size. And that’s because in the United States, we are consuming 10 billion land animals and another 46 billion fish. And I think that sometimes when people talk about traditional family farms, they’re envisioning something like maybe, Jon, you’ve seen at the grocery store labels such as cage-free or free-range organic. And it sounds really wonderful and it sounds like the animals are actually able to be on grass, but that’s just not true. Cage-free just means that they’re not, for example, chickens in battery cages. They’re just like crammed by the thousands into sheds. So I just wanted to give a little bit of like background there on like how sometimes the labels that we associate aren’t as meaningful as we hope that they are.

Jon M: [00:02:47] Absoutely. Are factory farms, thinking of it in terms of this concentrated number of animals in a relatively cramped space, is this a new phenomenon or how long have they been around? 

Monica C: [00:03:03] Yeah. So the original factory farms, we point to the story of Celia Steele in Delaware, in the 1920s. And so she again was theoretically a family farm, but she found that she could be so much more productive, have so much more chicken to sell if she just put more animals inside. And so it’s really the 1920s where you’re seeing that growth.

Amy H-L: [00:03:29] Monica,  what are the impacts of factory farms and climate change?

Monica C: [00:03:33] Oh, my goodness. I have so much to say about this topic. Well, if you look at Project Drawdown, where there was an analysis of the top 100 solutions to addressing climate change, right there up in the top five you are seeing reducing food waste and plant rich diets. The impact from food on climate change is immense. And the United Nations said that we really need a lot of nations to halve their meat production and consumption. And so many times when we think about climate change, we’re talking about, you know, cars and transportation emissions. It’s very clear that the impact from our food choices is just really great. In fact, if everybody  in the US ate no meat or dairy just one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off of the road. 

Another thing that I want to mention in terms of climate change, that I think a lot of people are forgetting, does have to do with the fires in the Amazon right now. You might have seen articles about the terrible fires that are destroying huge swaths of forest in Brazil. What people don’t really understand is that many of these fires were started on purpose by farmers and ranchers who want to clear the land to graze beef cattle or grow corn and soy to feed the animals on factory farms. So that’s a part of the picture that I think is often forgotten and of course, losing, you know, the Amazon and its trees. I mean, you’re losing a carbon sink there and that is also contributing to climate change.

Jon M: [00:05:07] What role does methane from cattle play in climate change?

Monica C: [00:05:13] Okay. So I want to be clear that just overall, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has said that animal agriculture accounts for more greenhouse gases than all of the entire transportation sector combined. And part of the reason is that animals, and I’m going to speak specifically about cows, do directly emit greenhouse gases, but it’s other animals as well. In the case of cows, they do burp methane and their poop releases nitrous oxide. Methane is 20 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide is up to 300 times worse for climate change than carbon dioxide. So what’s coming out of a cow’s burps or out of its rear end, right, is up to 300 times worse than what’s coming out of our cars. And then when you combine that with the fossil fuel that’s required to grow the corn and soy and factor in all the deforestation then meat’s huge carbon footprint starts to make a lot of sense.

Amy H-L: [00:06:07] Monica, what about natural resources? How do factory farms both deplete and pollute for natural resources? 

Monica C: [00:06:15] Yeah, that’s really good question, Amy. The first thing that I think we need to address is inefficiency with land. We are growing a lot of corn and soy, not to feed to humans but to feed to animals on factory farms. For every 100 calories of corn and soy that we grow to feed an animals, we only get back, you know, 40 calories worth of milk down to three calories worth of beef, so that’s just a really inefficient system. And of course, growing so much corn and soy in a monoculture, it has a lot of devastating impacts on the environment.

Natural resources can also include impacts to water. So on some of the factory farms that we discuss in our presentations, specifically on pig factory farms, for example, in North Carolina, you’re seeing a lot of that waste falling through cracks from these pigs into these giant man-made cesspools. And that is just released into the air, which causes air pollution, asthma, and also it goes into our water supply. And that’s a really important consideration, because so many times we want to talk about how water is a right and how everybody should have access to clean, healthy water from the tap and use reusable water bottles. And that’s just not reality for a lot of people who live near these factory farms. 

And then the final thing that I can say about natural resources is that having all of this habitat for grazing for free range cattle, for feed crop for animals, has impacted the wildlife substantially. So right now, wild animals now make up only 4% of all mammals on earth. And  just over a third are humans and then two thirds are livestock. So if all wild terrestrial mammals climbed on this biomass scale together, the world’s cattle would outweigh them by 16 times. We’re turning the earth into one giant feedlot. 

And when you hear people talk about the issues of overpopulation, which is a very valid issue, the biggest problem is actually not just with humans, but with the overpopulation of livestock,

Amy H-L: [00:08:17] Monica, you and I live in California where we’re used to drought. What about the water that it takes to raise these animals and to turn them into food? 

Monica C: [00:08:30] Yeah, it takes tremendous amounts of water. And for some reason, actually, it’s not for some reason. I feel that here in California, we talk a lot about taking shorter showers and I ask the kids, what were you told to do while you were in school to save or conserve water? And they always say, we’re supposed to, if it’s yellow, let it mellow. We’re supposed to make sure that we don’t plant grass. You’re supposed to be conscious when you’re washing dishes. And that has to do with your direct water usage, but it’s not taking into account your food and all the water that was used to grow that food.

Now a lot of people in California in particular are very concerned about almond milk and almonds taking up a lot of water. And it’s true that almonds do take up a lot of water, but not nearly as much as cow’s milk does, right, because again, you’re not having just the cows drink water, but all the food that the animal consumes takes up a lot of water, all the processing, et cetera.

Jon M: [00:09:31] So you spoke last time about dairy cows and calves in factory farms. Could you talk roughly about what life is like for other animals in factory farms? You spoke a little bit in the beginning about chickens, but just give us a general picture.

Monica C: [00:09:47] Well, chickens, for example, that are bred to lay eggs are now being forced to lay more than 300 eggs per year, which puts an enormous strain on their body. And about only a hundred years ago, layer hens produce half as many eggs. In the original chickens, the ones such as the red and gray jungle fowls, they only laid 10 to 15 eggs per year. So this is a really dramatic increase. 

We’re putting these animals into these battery cages, where they have so little room that they can’t even turn around. They have less square footage than a single sheet of paper. And so they’re just cramped up on the sides of these cages and they don’t have enough room to perform their natural behaviors. Chickens like to peck around at the ground. And now if you’re cramming them all together, they will actually start to go insane and they will peck each other and seriously injury each other.

And that leads to their beaks being cut off. And I saved this just because I think it’s an example, as I said last time ,of unnatural problems leading to unnatural solutions, right. So these animals would be pecking naturally, but because we’ve put them so close together and created this unnatural environment, now we have to cut off their beaks.

Sadly, these chickens’ bodies can not handle the stress of producing all of these eggs in such a short amount of time in these unnatural conditions. And they will eventually not be able to produce eggs every single day. And then the farmers or growers just deem that these animals are not valuable anymore. And then they’re sent to slaughter to become dog food or other extremely low grade chicken products.

And the male chicks are not valuable to the egg laying industry at all. And so they go through a process that’s called culling and more than 250 million male chicks every single year are just killed. They’re not considered valuable. So again, it’s just this unnatural promise leading to these unnatural solution.

And the really sad reality is that farmed animals have virtually no legal protections. Every state has laws against animal cruelty. But almost every state has a common farming practice exemption and this states that if a practice is commonly done on a factory farm, it’s automatically legal. So factory farms get to decide for themselves whether or not a practice is cruel. When I talk to students, you know, they will talk about how cutting off the puppy’s tail without anesthetic or keeping a pregnant dog locked in a closet for 16 weeks, like that’s not okay. We don’t do that to our companion animals, but cutting off a piglet’s tail without anesthetic, that’s a common farming practice exemption.

Amy H-L: [00:12:33] Honestly, pigs are what keeps me up at night. I find whenever we talk about pigs, I look over here at Zak. They’re so similar. Zak has actually had a pig as a friend. And so, you know, what are pigs’ lives like? 

Monica C: [00:12:57] Yeah, pigs’ lives are very, I think that what you’re pointing to is just the intelligence of the pigs, the friendliness of the pigs, the curiosity of the pigs that just cannot be expressed in these factory farms where they’re kept in very tight spaces again, where they usually cannot turn around. And they do go insane.

Pigs that are used for breeding piglets, which are raised for pork, they spend their whole life confined in a crate that’s so small that she can’t turn around and it became smaller because, the issue, it was so small that the mother pig  would lie down and she would crush her baby piglets. And so our unnatural solution to that problem was to then make it so that she basically can’t do anything else, but have like her piglets on the side of her. There’s these things called gestation crates. It’s tremendously cruel.

Jon M: [00:13:52] I was going to talk about another aspect of the food industry, essentially, which is closely tied to factory farms, that in May and June, you know, as meat packing plants became hotspots for COVID-19, news stories gave us a glimpse of what it’s like to work in one of these facilities. Could you tell us what conditions are like in meat packing plants for the workers who are overwhelmingly immigrants?

Monica C: [00:14:25] Yeah, I’d be happy to, Jon. What you’re talking about really received a lot of attention just after we began shelter in place. Maybe in May, when the League of United Latin American Citizens, LULAC, called for Meatless May. And there was a specific plant in Marshalltown, Iowa. There was a factory farm owned by JBS, or a slaughtering facility, that employs 2,400 people. And these people were shoulder to shoulder cutting and processing. And it was a clear danger because COVID is so easily spread in these really tight conditions. So I know that those workers were asking for mandatory COVID-19 testing, a reduction in work speed, more work space for social distancing, full paid sick leave. There are a lot of really, I think, reasonable demands, but when it comes to these jobs, I’ll just say that they are taken up by a lot of immigrants because a lot of US citizens do not want them, and these companies can pay them a lot less. There’s the job, for example, of the late night cleaning crew. These people arrive at midnight and by sunrise, they are expected to clean the remains of the 3,000 to 4,000 animals that were slaughtered at the plant that day. And many of these workers, as you said, are undocumented and they usually make minimum wage. They have zero health insurance or job protections. And the third shift workers, as the cleaners are often called, they wade through this blood and grease and chunks of bone and flesh and they are racing all night to hose down the plant with disinfectants and scalding water. You can imagine how horrific the stench is. Many workers just retch. And they’re spraying a mix of 180 degree water and chlorine. They often have to clean these machines while they are running, so it’s an extremely dangerous job. 

Jon M: [00:16:20] So as the podcast is focused on schools and education, we’re really interested in what FFAC is doing in terms of educating kids about a lot of these conditions that you’ve just been talking about. And I know from things that Amy has told me that FFAC offers several different kinds of classroom programs, depending on teacher preferences and available class time. Now, of course, many students are going to be doing distance or hybrid learning for the fall and maybe the foreseeable future, what kind of programming has FFAC developed for these kinds of circumstances?

Monica C: [00:17:05] So we have a couple of different options. First of all, when you bring FFAC into  a classroom, we have pre-presentation  curriculum and post-presentation curriculum. We have pre-recorded presentations that are tailored to your specific demographic. For example, it’s a very different audience.If you’re speaking to kindergarteners versus to a 12th grade biology class. We have also been really thoughtful about making sure that sometimes there are schools that require asynchronous lessons. And that’s when a teacher isn’t teaching all the students at the same time.

So we offer things on the Nearpod platform, for example, where part of the presentation will play and then there are assessment questions built in and then more of the presentation will play.

And my personal favorite is the live virtual version of our work. We can present on any topic. What I really appreciate about FFAC, as I’ve said before on your podcast, is just that food does connect to so many different topics. When I taught about climate change, I felt that I was talking about climate change, and this is before FFAC, in a very limited way. Again, focusing on transportation or something like that. Now I can see the food connects to racial justice. It connects to pandemics. It connects to social justice. There’s so much that we can fit into our curriculum.

We present to business classes. We can do economics classes, marketing classes, English classes. We present in different languages.

So there are a lot of different options available. And in our lessons, we are able to conduct conversations with the students over the virtual learning platforms such as Zoom and have actual discourse about why are we treating these animals this way? Why do we eat the things that we do? And we do that in a very, I think, culturally sensitive way. We’re not telling people, “Oh, you must go vegan,” or anything directive like that. We’re encouraging students to develop critical thinking skills and having students come to their own conclusions is far more valuable than anything somebody could do by just telling them, you know, what to think, really. We want to inspire critical thinking.

Jon M: [00:19:16] What do some of these different presentations look like in terms of content, in addition to these issues of format that you’re  talking about? Are you more likely to focus on one issue, say the impact on climate change or the ethical issues of how people relate to animals, or do you try to give a general picture? What would a teacher who is interested in having you come and talk? What kind of conversation would you have with the teacher ahead of time about what you’d be presenting?

Monica C: [00:19:48] Yeah. Whenever a teacher reaches out to us, we like to get a sense of, again, what the age demographic is. We’re very cognizant of the fact that students are from homes, where their families are more involved in their learning or can hear everything and might take special interest. And we want to take all of that into account. We want to know where the students are from potentially. Like I’ve had conversations with some teachers where they really, they want me to know, “Hey, my students don’t have access to a lot of great, healthy, nutritious food. They live in a food desert. All that’s available to them are the corner stores. Can you keep that in mind?” Of course, right, we want to be cognizant of that.

We are tailoring our presentations based on the topic that the teachers are interested in. As I said, if biology or AP environmental science classes really want us to focus on climate change or deforestation, there’s a lot more, and any teacher that reaches out to me, I can send you a full list of all the different topics that we could delve into. If it is going to be an econ class, then we will talk about horizontal and vertical integration. I think that the common thread between all these presentations is just that we do  need to define what factory farms are, but the the rest of the presentation does vary.

I will say that most presentations at this point do include some kind of environmental component and some component about pandemics because that’s just incredibly relevant for a lot of folks right now. It’s again just about engaging their interests. That’s what I think is so key. I used to be a teacher and I taught so many things that the kids did not care about. And it was hard for me as their teacher because I was like, you’re right, you probably won’t need to use some of these things. Maybe some of this curriculum isn’t actually relevant to you. Food is relevant to the kids. And we want to make sure that we meet the kids where they’re at. So at a school in East Oakland, for example, where I teach, if the students are talking a lot about immigrant rights, then we will talk about the workers on these factory farms and the pollution and the environmental racism in their communities. If we were talking to a group that cares about like, maybe it’s 350.Org, then we’ll talk about climate change and lead with that. And then there are other connections that we can make afterwards.

Amy H-L: [00:21:55] And of course we will post Monica’s contact information and FFAC’s website so teachers and teacher educators can contact Monica and arrange for presentations in their classrooms or their virtual classrooms.

Monica, could you tell us about FFACS’ intern program?

Monica C: [00:22:16] Yes, I’d be happy to because this is a relatively new program that we only began two years ago. When FFAC first began, we were students who just saw that so many of our courses were not talking about food and we filled a niche of raising awareness through classroom presentations.

What we weren’t doing up until two years ago was really mobilizing activists. There are so many students right now. Actually, the teachers who bring us in semester after semester, they’re also really passionate about this work. And we wanted to mobilize them, give them the tools to advocate for institutional change on their campuses.

If there is a high school or a college dining facility, how can we bring more plant based food options into their menus? We work with the students on other solutions. We want to help them focus on legislation, build up their public speaking skills. There is also a full curriculum that we offer to our interns.

Basically students who view our presentations, if they are interested in learning more, there are so many more connections that we want to make because we want to help our students speak to anyone about how food is impacting their life. So our curriculum talks about masculinity and athleticism as it relates to food. It’ll talk about LGBTQ issues. It will talk about racism. There’s so many things, and I’d be really happy to share more of that with any listener.

Jon M: [00:23:46] How can listeners, how can students who are interested, find out more about the intern program and perhaps apply to participate.?

You can go to our website,, and then under the GET INVOLVED tab, you can click on intern.

You can also just go to


Amy H-L: [00:24:05] Monica, is there anything else that we haven’t covered that you’d like to speak about? 

Monica C: [00:24:11] I think that I’d be remiss if I didn’t make clear the connection about how factory farming is related to the emergence of infectious diseases. I’m really concerned that this link hasn’t been made clear.

And if I could just take a minute to explain, then I hope that your audience members will be able to talk about this, especially if they are teachers, to their students. First because of deforestation, humans and livestocks are becoming more and more exposed to diseases that used to only be found in wildlife. Livestock can easily become infected with  diseases from these wild animals and then spread the disease to humans. Climate change also accelerates the evolution of these new pathogens, making it easier for them to infect new hosts like livestock and humans. And third, when we change the land from forest or whatever else the land used to feedlots, we kill and displace wildlife and reduce biodiversity. And this reduction in biodiversity also amplifies the likelihood of disease spread. So evidence suggests that as climate change gets worse and humans continuing to encroach upon wildlife, the spread of diseases such as COVID-19 will become more frequent. And finally, the public American Public Health Association has urged for moratorium on factory farms, in part because they are so concerned about the environmental waste, but also over usage of antibiotics on these factory farms.

And so I really want to make clear that we are seeing that raising animals in this way for our consumption is really impacting people. So this is a social justice issue. 

Jon M: [00:25:52] Thank you so much. Monica Chen of  the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition. 

Amy H-L: [00:25:58] And thank you, listeners, for joining us. We’re posting transcripts of our interviews to make it easy to pull audio clips for classes and workshops. Let us know how you’ve incorporated ideas from our podcast or blog or if there are topics you’d like to hear more about. Email Contact us if you’re interested in professional development on social emotional learning with a focus on ethics in the New York City area. You can check out prior episodes and articles on our website, We’re on Facebook and Twitter @ethicalschools and  Instagram. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week. 

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