A New Model For Sustainable Agriculture: Local Co-ops

Image: bayarearanchers.com

By Razi Beresin-Scher, ODP Contributing Writer

Last summer, 16 Bay Area ranchers joined forces to form the Bay Area Ranchers Co-op. BAR-C, a start-up hoping to challenge the unsustainable and monopolistic corporate meatpacking industry.  Six global companies control the bulk of the global meat industry, and the lack of facilities forced ranchers in the Bay Area to drive as far as 200 miles several times a  month to harvest their livestock. The long, hot drives stress the animals, and the co-op members estimate that their drives released a collective 19.6 tons of carbon dioxide in just eight months. BAR-C’s innovative idea is to collectively run a mobile processing facility and bring it to the farmers, who bypass unsanitary meatpacking plants, and can sell a higher quality product locally.  

Why this matters: Changing the food industry in the U.S. will be a key to tackling the climate challenge. Beef cattle produce about 3.7 percent of the United State’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and that counts their emissions from birth to slaughter, most of which come from belches. Reducing consumption is one way to cut emissions, but the industry needs to be creative to find other solutions — like this one. Moreover, the meatpacking industry needs to change and this model could provide the competition needed to bring that about. 

COVID-19 Exacerbates the Problems of Unsustainable Meatpacking Plants

Recently, COVID-19 outbreaks have infected thousands of workers, leading to plant-closures that have reduced slaughter capacity by 10% for beef and 25% for pork. The highly concentrated nature of the industrial meat industry is badly suited for pandemic conditions; in fact, a single plant closure in South Dakota impacted 5% of the entire country’s pork supply. Without access to slaughterhouses, ranchers have been forced to euthanize millions of animals. The pandemic response plans drawn up by the nation’s meatpackers focused largely on animal health, disregarding the safety of their human workers. This negligence has led to the deaths of over 200 meat plant workers in California alone, with 42,000 infected with the virus.  Co-ops such as BAR-C are uniquely suited to counter the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. American meat plants are largely staffed by immigrants, refugees, and Black Americans who are subject to these unsafe conditions and low pay.

A Promising Alternative That Makes Business Sense

The global meat complex is especially non-competitive. Ranchers depend on increasingly inaccessible meat plants to harvest their products. However, the popularity of the cooperative models allow agricultural workers to pool their skills, knowledge, and resources. These shared investments reduce financial risk and provide independent agricultural workers with more support. Now, BAR-C will allow 80 ranchers in the Bay Area to process their animals on their own ranches without having to drive them to crowded and unsanitary industrial meatpacking plants. The Washington Post reports that the “slaughter mobile” used by BAR-C is catching on across the country, and is “filling a desperate need in a burgeoning movement to bring people closer to their food.” 


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