By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry
Responding Effectively to FAQ's About Food, Farm Animals, and Veganism
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
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.
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
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.
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 reproduce?
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
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.
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
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
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
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 abnormally
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.
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 alive?
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.
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.
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.
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 25O 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.
What about jobs? What will happen to all the jobs if people stop consuming
animal products? Are you trying to put people out of work?
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
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.
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
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.
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, food-
safety, and 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.