Ethical animal farming; for dairy, eggs and meat is a myth. Take a trip to any “humane” meat or dairy farm and this becomes strikingly obvious.
A few years ago I wanted to visit the best egg farm I could find. I had been inside an egg factory farm. I had seen a dozen sheds, each with a dozen rows of wire cages stacked two high and 150 ft deep. Those cages were so small the birds inside couldn’t even spread their wings. They were half-starved, diseased, and undeniably miserable.
Factory farming was clearly wrong, so I wanted to instead find a farm that represented an ethical and humane way to raise animals for food.
Fortunately some small farms, such as those who set up stands at farmers’ markets, are willing to let people visit their facilities. So in March 2016, I drove from my home in San Francisco up California’s northern coast, through towering redwoods and past crashing waves, to one of the best egg farms in the state.
The award-winning farm was nestled in a landscape of bucolic green grass and rolling hills. It looked like it came straight out of an advertisement. I saw a charmingly rundown-yet-functional mobile chicken coop standing in a football-field-sized pasture peppered with free-roaming chickens. I thought to myself, why couldn’t all farms be like this? I had seen what happened behind the locked doors of factory farms, but here I seemed to be witnessing a better way. I would soon learn just how wrong I was.
Americans care about farmed animal welfare. In fact, last week California passed a ballot measure for cage-free eggs with 61% of the vote, a rare level of agreement in these divided times. In 2016, a similar initiative in Massachusetts succeeded with 78%.
Consumers go out of their way to buy cage-free or pasture-based eggs or buy meat at the local farmers’ market. My colleagues and I ran a survey in 2017 that showed that 75% of US adults believe they usually eat meat, dairy, and eggs “from animals that are treated humanely.” In fact, when vegans ask their friends to stop eating animals, one of the most common responses they hear is, “Don’t worry. I only eat humane meat.”
Are consumers right? It’s impossible for all of them to be. Data on the number of animals per farm in the US suggests that over 99% of US farmed animals live on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, commonly known as “factory farms”. Globally, that figure is probably over 90%.
So 75% of Americans think they consume humane meat, but a tiny fraction actually do. The majority of consumers seem tragically wrong about what they eat.
Take cage-free eggs, for example. Just because the birds aren’t in cages doesn’t mean they’re healthy or happy. Cage-free birds have around the same total space per bird; they just live in a large shed with thousands of other birds.
In this stressful environment, birds frequently peck each other so much that they lose feathers, bleed, and even die from what is effectively cannibalism caused by the birds’ high-density confinement. The air quality on cage-free farms tends to be worse as chickens walking around kick up dust and feces, which threatens food safety.
Raising chickens on pasture avoids some of these issues, but it invites new problems. Pasture-based flocks suffer due to predation and disease from wild animals.
By some measures grass-fed cow farming is potentially worse than grain-fed cow farming. Grass-fed cow farming leads to two to four times more production of methane, a major greenhouse gas, than grain-fed cow farming. It also takes more land, water, and fossil fuels to produce grass-fed beef. Buying “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” can be seen as a salve for the environmental conscience, but the damage can actually be greater.
Maybe there are some rotational, labor-intensive methods that do reduce environmental impact. However, eco-conscious animal farming does little to mitigate health concerns aside from the overuse of antibiotics. And the animal suffering, especially on chicken farms, is still staggering.
You may be thinking that even if the vast majority of farms still have serious issues, surely at least a few farms have happy animals.
This response is valid, to an extent. Where I grew up in rural Texas, I lived around pasture-raised cattle who seemed perfectly content to chew their cud. I helped raise a handful chickens and goats myself. Yes, their slaughter might be a terrible experience, but it seems plausible that one day of even suffering might not outweigh a few years of happy cud-chewing life.
When people call upon the idea of ethical animal farming – even if that constitutes little or none of their actual consumption – it has dangerous effects as a “psychological refuge” they indirectly use to justify their consumption of factory farmed products.
Most Americans have been exposed to the realities of animal farming from hundreds of undercover investigations over the years and dozens of scientific reports on the industry’s environmental and public health impacts.
But their minds resolve this conflict between their values and their behavior by insisting that they eat a humane kind of meat that doesn’t cause animal suffering or environmental damage. Their other options are to stop eating animal products or to accept that what they’re doing is harmful, and neither of these options are particularly appealing. This is why we see 75% of US adults thinking they eat humane meat, despite fewer than 1% of farmed animals actually living on non-factory farms.
Ethical farming – nice try
At the California egg farm I visited, the devil was in the details. Despite the pastoral scenery, I found that the birds were in worse health than those of any other farm I’d been to. I saw many cases of Marek’s, a highly contagious disease that had led to partial blindness in many of them; swollen abdomens, some with over a pound of fluid buildup in their less-than-five-pound body;and lice.
Like the hens in factory farms, many of them suffered and died from cancer, stuck eggs, reproductive tract infections, and other ailments that result from artificial breeding for hyperactive reproductive systems that make them lay unnatural numbers of eggs.
When I visited the farm, I sincerely wanted to believe that these animals had good lives, but the evidence just wasn’t there to support it. It wasn’t as bad as the factory farms I visited, but it still wasn’t the kind of life I’d want to live myself.
Of course, the current scarcity of humane animal farms doesn’t preclude their theoretically possibility. But consider the cost: the eggs at the farm I visited cost over $6 per dozen. Hardly anyone is willing to pay that much for food, and that farm still had serious ethical problems.
I was disappointed by the visit to this farm and other farm visits, as well as evidence from hundreds of other visits to “humane” farms by animal protection advocates and investigators. Mercy For Animals, the international non-profit animal protection organisation, says it randomly selects farms to investigate, and other groups have specifically sought out farms with leading humane certifications in order to show that even the animals on those farms still suffer tremendously.
Time to abolish factory farming
We would need extensive regulations and enforcement to maintain high animal welfare throughout the industry. This would include the expenses of regular independent inspections and livestreamed security footage at all facilities.
Consumers or taxpayers would also need to pay for direct costs such as more space per animal, an army of veterinarians and medical supplies for sick animals, and a reversion of the artificial breeding that has made animals grow meat and produce milk and eggs at ultra-fast rates. That level of welfare doesn’t exist at the very best farms today, so even the steep price tag of the eggs from the pasture farm I visited is still too low to guarantee that the animals have good lives.
So even if humane animal farming is possible in theory, and maybe even real in a handful of isolated cases, it can’t feasibly feed around 10 billion people by 2050.
The fact is that when we use animals as raw materials or labor in the food system this inevitably leads to mass cruelty because cheap prices and profits will always come before their welfare.
This means we need to take a position against animal farming. Then I think we’ll be on track to end all animal farming.
Original source: https://www.theguardian.com