Responding Effectively to 13 Frequently Asked Questions
About Food, Fiber, Farm Animals, and the Ethics of Diet
1. What about plants? Don't plants have feelings too?
It is very possible that plants have sensitivities that
we do not yet understand. Because plants do not have nervous systems and
cannot run away from predators, it has generally been assumed that they
do not experience pain and suffering. Recent scientific evidence
suggests that this assumption may be incorrect. However, we do know that
birds and other nonhuman vertebrates have well-developed nervous systems
and pain receptors the same as humans. Like us, they show pleasure and
pain and they present comparable evidence of fear and well-being.
Animals cry out in pain, they nurse wounded body parts, and they seek to
avoid those who have hurt them in the past.
In order to live, one has to eat. However, when we eat
animal products, we consume many more plants indirectly than if we ate
those plants directly, because the animals we eat are fed huge
quantities of grasses, grains, and seeds to be converted into meat,
milk, and eggs. As a vegan (one who eats no animal products) you cause
fewer beings to suffer and die for you.
2. What will we do with all the animals if we stop
eating them? Won't they overrun the earth?
Farm animals will not overrun the earth if we stop
eating them because we will no longer intentionally breed them as we do
now. Parent flocks and herds are deliberately maintained by artificial
insemination, genetic selection, bizarre lighting schedules and other
manipulations to force them to produce billions of offspring each year.
This inflated population will fade as people stop eating animal
products. In time, as David Gabbe states in Why Do Vegetarians Eat Like
That?, "farm animals could be left to fend for themselves; some would
make out fine, others would struggle to keep from becoming extinct. But,
like all animals (except humans), they would adjust their numbers in
accordance with the conditions around them."
In the meantime, we have to remember that we, not they,
are responsible for their predicament. We have an obligation to find
ways to ease the transitional period for these animals.
3. Farm animals have been bred for domestication.
Haven't they lost their
natural instincts? They can't survive on their own, can they? If we stop
providing for them, won't they die of starvation and failure to
On the one hand we're afraid that farm animals will
overrun the earth. On the other hand we worry that they'll become
extinct. Feral chickens, pigs, and other farm animals ("feral" refers to
domesticated animals who have become self-sustaining again) successfully
resume their natural activities given the chance: they forage, graze,
mate, raise their young, socialize and get along very well without
humans. Farm animals are much more autonomous and resilient than is
commonly supposed. Otherwise, it is better for creatures afflicted with
human-created defects not to be born. People who think it is all right
to imprison animals in genetically impaired bodies and who then get
testy about their becoming extinct, are indulging in cynicism and
sentimentality. Call their bluff and move on to other issues.
4. Is confinement so terrible? After all, farmers
protect their animals from
bad weather and predators and provide them with food, water and shelter.
Isn't that better than being in the wild?
Slave traders and slaveholders argued that it was better
to be a slave in a "civilized, Christian" society than to be at liberty
in a heathen jungle. This same rationalization is used to justify
expropriating and subjugating other species. Producers tell the public
that farm animals prefer "three meals a day" to a life in the wild. In
fact, the "wild" is a human projection onto areas of the earth and modes
of being that are alien and inhospitable to our species. The wild isn't
"wild" to the animals who live there. It is their home. Animals in
wall-to-wall confinement are forced to live in a situation that
expresses human nature, not theirs. If they preferred to be packed
together without contact with the world outside, then we would not need
intensive physical confinement facilities, since they would voluntarily
cram together and save us money.
It is illogical to argue that humans protect farm
animals from "predators." We are their predator. Moreover, by confining
them we subject them to many more nonhuman predators in the form of
parasites and other disease organisms than they would otherwise
encounter. By locking them up, we prevent them from using their natural
flight/fight abilities, so that when a predator (such as the farmer)
comes along, they cannot escape. Millions more animals die of heat
stress and other climactic conditions in intensive confinement
facilities than they would in nature. The inability of confined farm
animals to exercise their natural defenses and self-assertion induces
pathological stress leading to immune-system breakdown. Only by twisted
standards can apathy and atrophy be regarded as benefiting an animal.
5. If farm animals are treated as badly as you say, why
are they so productive? Wouldn't they stop producing meat, milk and eggs
if they were treated inhumanely?
Farm animals can be profoundly mistreated and still
"produce," in the same way that profoundly mistreated humans can be
overweight, sexually active and able to produce offspring. Like humans,
farm animals can "adapt," up to a point, to living in slums and
concentration camp conditions. Is this an argument for slums and
concentration camps? Farm animals do not gain weight, lay eggs, and
produce milk because they are comfortable, content, or well-cared for,
but because they have been manipulated specifically to do these things
through genetics, medications, and management techniques. For example,
cage layer producers artificially stimulate and extend egg production by
keeping the lights burning for 16 or 17 hours a day to force the hen's
pituitary gland to secrete increased quantities of the hormone that
activates the ovary.
Animals in production agriculture are slaughtered at
extremely young ages, before disease and death have decimated them as
would otherwise happen even with all the drugs. Even so, many more
individual animals suffer and die in intensive farming, but because the
volume of animals being used is so big -- in the billions -- the losses
are economically negligible, while the volume of flesh, milk and eggs is
6. What difference does it make how we treat farm
animals -- they're going to die anyway, aren't they?
The fact that giving farm animals a decent life before
killing them can be seriously questioned represents an important reason
to stop raising them for food. It is not that they are going to die
anyway that seems to justify our mistreatment of them when they are
alive -- we are all going to die but we do not generalize the argument
-- but that we are deliberately going to kill them. There is a felt
inconsistency in valuing a creature so little and yet insisting that he
or she be granted a semblance of tolerable existence prior to execution.
So wanton can our disrespect for our victims become that any churlish
sentiment or behavior seems fit to exercise. It is contemptible to
assert that humans have no responsibility, or that it makes no sense, to
enrich the life of a being brought into the world merely to suffer and
die for us. The situation confers greater, rather than lesser, or no,
obligations on us towards those at our mercy.
7. Yes, but didn't God give humans dominion over all the
other animals? If so, what's wrong with raising them for food and
killing them as long as we treat them humanely while they're still
Some people believe that the Creator gave humanity
"dominion" over other life. Others see the idea of "dominion" as an
assertion of human ego in conflict with true spirituality and common
sense. One way or other, a loving God does not authorize humanity to
degrade, insult, and terrorize the other creatures of the earth, any
more than people are authorized to bully, terrorize, and belittle one
another. The idea of a gracious human spirit is expressed in the
Christian Bible, for example, where it says, "O, Jerusalem . . . how
often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers
her chicks under her wings" (Matthew 23:37). Like nature, scripture can
be invoked to justify almost anything one wishes to do. Instead of
dwelling on verses that invite us to be pompous and violent, we should
focus on passages and images that instruct us to be peaceful,
participating members of creation.
Most world religions envision a "golden age" when humans
lived peaceably on earth without bloodshed. In Genesis 1:29, God gives
to humans "every herb bearing seed . . . and every tree in which is the
fruit of a tree yielding seed." God says that, for us, these seeds and
fruits "shall be meat." The Biblical image of the Garden of Eden is
paralleled by the Classical image of the Golden Age and by ancient
Indian depictions of a peaceable kingdom on earth.
8. Aren't humans natural meat-eaters? Aren't we
omnivores, designed to eat plants and animals?
Arguments about the true and ancient diet of humanity
are largely speculative. Opposition to flesh-eating goes back to
antiquity, as shown in Howard Williams's history, The Ethics of Diet
(1883). Records show a traditional association between certain human
cultures throughout the world and a diet comprising, though not
necessarily based on, meat. A vigorous human lifestyle can sustain some
intake of the flesh of vigorous animals. However, westernized
populations are not active by stone age standards, and the mass-produced
animals whose body parts and secretions they consume are forced to live
sedentary lives, in filth and confinement, because natural activity
expends energy that "wastes feed."
There is clear evidence that an animal-based diet causes
degenerative diseases-- actual cases can be cited and actual clogged
arteries and starved internal organs can be viewed every day in the
hospital or morgue. Where is the comparable evidence showing that people
living on a varied plant-based diet suffer, as a result, from calcium,
protein, and iron deficiencies, heart attacks and strokes? Studies
currently conducted by Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. T. Colin Campbell in the
U.S. and China show the opposite. European travelers in the 18th and
19th centuries marveled at the vigor and longevity of peasants in
Turkey, Russia, South America and elsewhere: they were amazed that
people living on such "impoverished fare" as rice, beans, millet and
potatoes could be so hardy and long-lived. While there is no evidence
that the human body needs animal products, there is abundant evidence
that the human body thrives on a nutritious plant-based diet.
9. There is no such thing as cruelty-free food! To raise
vegetables, you have to kill animals --"pests" who would otherwise eat
up your crops, like
rodents and insects. What's the difference between directly killing
animals for food and killing them to protect crops and grains?
Assuming that all known methods of harmless
self-protection have been exhausted, there is still a definite
difference between defending oneself from predators (including insects)
and deliberately bringing creatures into the world to suffer and be
killed for one's appetites and habits. We kill bacteria to defend our
teeth from decay. Only thoughtlessness considers this the same as, or a
justification for, slaughterhouses and the violence surrounding them --
castration, debeaking, starvation, force-feeding, electrical shock, etc.
10. What's wrong with eggs and milk? Eating dairy
products and eggs is not the same as eating animals, is it?
Vegetarians do not eat animals, but, according to the
traditional use of the term, they may choose to consume dairy products
and eggs, in which case they are called lacto-ovo (milk and egg)
vegetarians. These distinctions are essentially academic, as the
production of eggs and dairy products involves enormous killing as does
the production of meat. Surplus cockerels, unwanted calves, "spent"
dairy cows and laying fowl have been slaughtered, bludgeoned, trashed,
drowned and ditched through the ages. Disposing of the "surplus" males
by the dairy industry is the basis of the veal calf industry. The egg
industry trashes half the population of birds born -- more than 250
million male chicks -- every year.
In fact, dairy products and eggs are every bit as much
animal parts as "meat" (muscle tissue) is. No less than muscles, these
parts derive from and comprise within themselves the physiological,
metabolic, and hormonal activities of an animal's body, and a magnitude
of bodily expense. A hen's egg is a generative cell, or ovum, with a
store of food and immunity for an embryo that, in nature, would normally
be growing inside the egg. Milk is the provision of food and immunity
that is produced by the body of a female mammal for her nursing
offspring. Milk, literally, is baby food.
For thousands of years, human beings have manipulated
the bodies of hens and cows in order to extract these body, or baby,
parts for themselves. Now as in the past, the economically "spent" fowl
and cow are shipped to the slaughterhouse when their bodies no longer
pay. They endure days of pre-slaughter starvation and long trips to the
slaughterhouse because of their low carcass value. To be a lacto-ovo
vegetarian is not to wash one's hands of misery and murder.
11. What about jobs? What will happen to all the jobs if
people stop consuming animal products? Are you trying to put people out
The fear pounded into meat-industry workers about losing
their jobs if people convert to a vegetarian diet locks them into the
only fate they know. As long as people exist, food will have to be
produced and someone will have to produce it for them. Imagine if all
those protein-rich soybeans and other produce now fed to farm animals
were harvested directly for people and turned into everything from
burgers to ice cream. Imagine all the jobs! The huge amount of money
that is now being spent to patch up human bodies ravaged by animal-based
diets and to clean up an environment increasingly polluted by farm
animal wastes could be used to retrain workers and redirect food
technologies. As consumers, we can use our enormous purchasing power to
speed technological conversion to the production of all-vegetarian
foods. In retooling, producers will "create their
own competition," hiring just as many workers as before in order to feed
the hungry-as-ever human population.
12. What about human problems? Why concentrate on
animals when so many suffering people need help?
Are Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) badgered with
why they are not working instead for battered women or abused children
or some other cause? Were Americans who fought against slavery attacked
for ignoring the plight of white people? Choosing a particular issue
does not mean that one is indifferent to other concerns. Animal abuse,
like child abuse and spouse abuse, is a human problem. The world that we
have made for farm animals to live in hurts people as well as the
animals and offers good evidence that hardening of the sensibilities is
an even worse disease than hardening of the arteries. As human beings,
we have a responsibility to the victims of our society and our species,
whoever and wherever those victims may be. Every social justice movement
in history has been scorned by the mainstream, which is made up
ironically of people whose own freedoms and rights were won by
revolutionaries at an earlier time.
13. Forget about ethics. You'll make a better case for
vegetarianism if you stick to health and environmental issues. Do you
honestly think most
people are ever going to care about farm animals?
Some people argue that we should emphasize health,
environmental issues rather than the animals and their plight, because
humans are basically selfish. While it is important to combine these
issues whenever possible, it is a mistake to assume that people cannot
or will not care about their fellow creatures. Just as we owe it to our
animal victims to rescue them from cruel and degrading circumstances, so
we owe it to them to be their voice. To insist that most people will
never care about farm animals is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. A
little more than a century ago, most people "didn't want to hear about"
human slaves, either. Many more people will openly care and move toward
change when they feel it is socially safe. Millions of people have
impulses of compassion which have been stifled by self-doubt and fear of
ridicule. Eventually, some of the health and environmental problems that
are caused by an animal-based diet may be solved or reduced by
technology, at least in the short run. Only the ethics of diet, the pain
and suffering, the shared mortality and claims of our fellow creatures
upon us are lasting.
To contact United Poultry Concerns please email:
Go on to Heaven's
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