“Now sustainable meat is all the rage.”
Grist, Jan. 31, 2012
Since the late 1990s, something like mass support for eliminating factory
farming has grown. Revelations of industrial animal production practices and
conditions have attracted media coverage, as Internet images and
investigative reports document how animals in agribusiness are living and
dying horrifically on factory farms.
But while these revelations have boosted a vegetarian response, the
prevailing attitude at present is that while industrial animal farming is
bad, people can continue to eat animal products that somehow avoid the taint
of “factory farming,” arriving in supermarkets and restaurants from pastoral
settings where animals are “happy,” receive a “respectful death,” and
contribute to the health of the planet in being farmed – a daydream
popularized by Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and other food writers.
Thus, The New York Times editorialized in “A Humane Egg,” on July 11,
2010, that “In fact, there is no justification, economic or otherwise, for
the abusive practice of confining animals in spaces barely larger than the
volume of their bodies. Animals with more space are healthier, and they are
no less productive. Industrial confinement is cruel and senseless and will
turn out to be, we hope, a relatively short-lived anomaly in modern
While this may sound promising to some, it doesn’t fit the reality that
we know. Currently there are over 7 billion human beings on the planet, and
around 65 billion land animals are being raised each year worldwide for
human consumption. The United States Census Bureau expects the human
population to reach 7.5 billion to 10.5 billion by 2050, and an article in
World Watch by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, in 2009, predicted that the
number of animals raised globally for human consumption will double between
2006 and 2050.
The number of sea animals killed for Americans alone in 2009 was 51
billion, and the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization predicts
that “global meat consumption will rise from 233 million tons to 300 million
tons by 2020” (Feedstuffs Foodlink, March 28, 2011, p. 16).
One must ask how these numbers comport with the idea of non-industrial
animal production – at low prices, no less! – keeping in mind that nearly
everything people buy in stores is mass-produced in industrial factories. Do
we really believe that contrary to virtually every other product on the
market, the majority of animal products can somehow reach billions of tables
from tens of billions of animals custom-raised on land, in fresh air, with
room to roam or even take a few steps? How much land would be needed to
sustain this gargantuan population of “non-factory farmed” animals? How much
land would people willingly set aside to support them?
In Comfortably Unaware: Global Depletion and Food Responsibility (Langdon
Street Press, 2011), Dr. Richard Oppenlander explains why “grass-fed,
pastured” animal production is a false solution to factory farming, and why
small-scale operations cannot sustainably meet the demands of billions of
people wanting cheap, readily available meat, dairy and eggs.
Smaller farms don’t alter the amount of resources required to raise,
transport, and slaughter billions of animals. Currently, 55 percent of our
fresh water is given to animals raised for food, and 89,000 pounds of
excrement are produced by farmed animals every second in the United States
alone, according to Oppenlander. Moreover, what is fashionably called
“humane” farming does not meet the behavioral and cognitive needs of, or
show any genuine respect for, the animals trapped in our food production
systems and belittling attitudes.
Anti-factory farming discussions that accurately depict aspects of
standard industrial animal farming seldom include an equally scrupulous
evocation of so-called alternative production practices – practices and
attitudes that investigations and Internet blogs have often shown to be as
callous and cruel as the “factory farming” of which they are, in fact,
For example, many backyard chicken-keeping enthusiasts, and touted
smaller farms such as Polyface in Virginia, purchase birds with the same
manufactured genetic disabilities (e.g. predisposition to painful lameness,
congestive heart failure, respiratory infections, and reproductive tumors)
as those used in factory farming. And they typically buy their birds from
industrial factory-farm hatcheries like Murray McMurray, in Iowa. Hens
purchased by smaller farms for egg-laying purposes are often debeaked at the
hatchery as a routine procedure before being shipped to buyers. “Egg-type”
rooster chicks are so discounted by these hatcheries that, in addition to
being trashed at birth, they’re used as packing material – called “packers”
– in shipments of female chicks to buyers.
These are just some examples I can cite to counter “humane farming”
fantasies. The reality is that the cruelest, most brutal and atrocious
industrial farming conditions and practices have become the standard by
which so-called humane treatment of farmed animals and satisfaction of their
“basic behavioral needs” are being measured. The term “humane” as applied to
farmed animals is a true example of Orwellian Doublespeak.
If being progressive in the 1990s meant choosing a vegetarian-vegan diet for ethical and environmental reasons, those reasons have not been trumped by any evidence favoring an animal-based diet. On the contrary, there is every good reason to support the growing provision of delicious, nourishing, ethically sustainable vegan foods. Even on the Perdue-dominated Virginia Eastern Shore where I live, vegan food products are increasing, not decreasing, in the supermarket. So let’s not be too quick to say vegan evolution is dead. If it is, our own extinction may be closer than we think.
Karen Davis, PhD is the founder and president of
United Poultry Concerns,
a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful
treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens on the Eastern
Shore of Virginia.