The Ethics of Animal Agribusiness
I think the best starting point for considering the ethics of eating involves looking at the business side of animal agriculture. By understanding the financial constraints the industry operates under, you’ll gain deep insights into exactly what’s objectionable about meat, dairy products, and eggs. In my case, I maintain a vegan diet because I’m repulsed by everything animal agribusiness represents. A close look at the industry reveals that it systematically brutalizes billions of animals each year, and then lies to cover up these cruelties. The industry even crafts laws that keep it from being held responsible for its treatment of animals.
The more closely you examine animal agriculture, the more thoroughly you’ll understand that the practice of raising farmed animals under a commodity system guarantees all manner of unconscionable behavior. What’s more, it turns out that the ethical lapses of the egg and dairy industries are at least as profound as those perpetrated by meat producers.
I’m going to spare you the gory details of specific cruelties. Instead, let’s simply look at how the business of animal agriculture has evolved over the past sixty years. By understanding the basic economics of animal agriculture, you’ll see why widespread acts of cruelty and dishonesty are inevitable. You’ll also understand why the industry cannot be trusted to fix these abuses.
Every sector of animal agriculture—beef, chicken, pork, milk, and eggs—has transformed radically since the 1950s. A combination of deliberate government policy and economic forces have practically driven small-scale animal agriculture out of existence. In 1950, it was still common for a small family farm to profitably keep a dozen dairy cows, three or four pigs, and a couple hundred chickens. But those days are long gone—you can’t make money raising animals on a small scale anymore, not as a conventional producer anyway. In fact, since 1950 more than 95 percent of chicken producers, pig farmers, and dairies have gone out of business—and the number of remaining animal farms keeps shrinking.
And yet America is producing more meat, milk, and eggs than ever before. That’s because today’s animal farms can be hundreds of times larger than the small family farms they replaced. The most obvious examples of super-sized farms are in the egg industry. Prior to 1950, most of America’s eggs were produced by small flocks of birds raised in coops. It was rare for a farmer to own more than a few thousand hens. Today, there are more than sixty egg companies in the United States that each carry inventories of at least one million hens.
Likewise, large-scale farming practices have taken over all other sectors of animal agriculture. Modern dairy and pig operations confine hundreds or even thousands of animals on a single piece of property. And cattle feedlots are even bigger; the largest feedlots confine more than 50,000 cattle in one facility.
As animal farms have grown larger, they’ve not only become more crowded, but also increasingly cruel. Much of this cruelty stems from the fact that agribusiness has figured out some ingenious methods of eliminating human labor requirements. As we’re about to see, many of these labor-saving techniques cause substantial animal suffering.
Before we go any further, I want to confront what I call the Big Lie of animal agriculture. Regarding the concerns I’ve so far raised, animal agriculture consistently offers just one response. And this response sounds so reasonable at first, that it seems to be an honest and sincerely crafted argument. Repeatedly, animal agriculture asserts that the industry must provide decent care to the animals they raise, and give them comfortable conditions, because unhealthy animals don’t grow to their full potential, nor will they be efficient producers of milk or eggs.
As I said, this claim sounds entirely reasonable. But in reality it’s worse than untrue—it is a deliberately misleading argument constructed in bad faith. The dishonesty of this argument arises from its implication that there are only two styles of raising animals—either you let them gambol happily on grassy hillsides, or you keep them at the brink of death under conditions comparable to a concentration camp. Obviously, no producer can make money from a shed full of dying animals, so animal producers would have you believe that economic necessity alone guarantees that animals will be raised under comfortable conditions. But a close look at animal agriculture reveals that the opposite is true. Rather than guaranteeing a decent level of care, the economic reality of animal agriculture imposes nonstop misery on nearly every one of America’s farmed animals.
Let’s look a little more closely at this idea that animals must be treated with decency and care, otherwise they won’t grow and produce profitably. Naturally, no animal can survive long if deprived of food, air, or water. But what’s remarkable is how horrendous living conditions can be while still delivering acceptably profitable yields and low mortality rates. Indeed, in animal agriculture, horrifying conditions and profitability are inseparably joined.
The economic reality underlying animal agriculture is that meat, milk, and eggs are almost pure commodities. And the fact that these foods are commodities guarantees cruel production methods. Let’s now look more closely at the connection between commodities and cruelty. Discussion of commodities is admittedly a dreary topic, but a basic understanding about commodities provides us with a window through which we can glimpse animal agriculture’s inherently cruel business structure.
The quickest way to understand commodities is to contrast them to branded products. Products with strong brand names, like Coca-Cola or Macintosh computers, typically command a price premium over generic brands. People happily pay double the cost of generic sodas to get Coca-Cola, because—rightly or wrongly—they believe Coke to be a tastier product. Since the only producer of Coke is the Coca-Cola company, people who insist on drinking Coke must pay whatever the company charges. Likewise, Apple can maintain a much fatter profit margin than other computer companies, since they’ve convinced millions of people it’s worth paying extra to own a Mac.
In contrast to branded products, commodities are never sold at hefty markups. Instead, the producers of these goods operate under razor-thin profit margins. Animal products, even when sold under a brand name, are still almost pure commodities; indeed pork-bellies are frequently mentioned in economic textbooks as a classic example of a commodity.
As an example of how commodity pricing has unleashed enormous suffering onto farmed animals, let’s look at the egg industry. Like pork-bellies and every other animal product, eggs are essentially a pure commodity. That is, no matter where a carton of eggs is produced, each egg looks the same, fries up the same, and tastes the same.
Now, suppose you are the wholesale buyer working for a supermarket. When it comes to purchasing eggs, your job couldn’t be easier. You don’t have to worry about which farm produces the nicest looking or tastiest eggs, since as far as consumers are concerned one egg is exactly like another. All you have to do is find the farm that will sell eggs in wholesale quantities at the lowest possible cost.
This one simple fact, that supermarket wholesalers select eggs solely on the basis of price, has shaped the entire egg industry. Farms that can undercut their competitors on price will enjoy almost unlimited demand for their eggs. The remaining egg farms are on borrowed time, since they must either sell their eggs at a loss, or not sell them at all. You can now see why more than 95 percent of egg farms have gone bankrupt over the past half-century, while the surviving egg farms have grown enormous.
The Rise of the Battery Cage
Since the price of unnecessary expenses is bankruptcy, egg producers do everything possible to minimize their costs. There are two main ways to produce eggs as cheaply as possible: maximize each facility’s output, and eliminate unnecessary labor. Maximizing output is an easy trick with an obvious solution—you simply cram as many hens as possible into your building; the more hens go in, the more eggs come out.
In order to house as many hens as possible in each shed, the industry relies on “battery cages.” These cages can be stacked up to six high, with each cage stuffed full of birds. A battery cage has approximately the same dimensions as a file cabinet drawer, and egg producers often stock each cage with at least six birds.
After maximizing stocking density, the egg producer must also minimize labor costs. And here, we see the primary appeal of battery cages: these cages allow the producer to do away with nearly all labor requirements.
Traditionally, egg farms required substantial amounts of human labor. The hens had to be fed and given water. Their manure had to be regularly raked up and carted away. And finally, the eggs had to be collected each day. These jobs all demanded a great deal of time. But the introduction of battery cages eliminated all these required tasks at a single stroke.
Battery cages allow the provision of feed and water to be handled mechanically—with the birds all confined in cages, it’s a simple matter to bring feed by conveyor belt, and to pipe water to dispensers located in each cage. Likewise, battery cages also eliminate the need to rake away excrement. That’s because the bottoms of these cages are constructed of wire rather than sheet metal, and the excrement slips between these wires and falls into the slurry pits dug underneath the sheds.
The most labor-intensive task traditionally done on egg farms involved the daily gathering of eggs. Each day, every hen needed to be lifted up, so that any eggs she was trying to hatch could be taken. It would seem there would be no way to automate the task of gathering eggs, but once again battery cages made human labor obsolete. The wires in the cage flooring, while far enough apart to allow excrement to drop through to the slurry pits, are close enough together that the eggs remain inside the cages. These wire floors are tilted at a slight angle, which means that after an egg is laid, it rolls through a gap at the front of the cage and slips onto a conveyor belt. Once a day the belt is turned on, and the eggs are transported into a room for packing.
From an economic perspective, battery cages are an amazing piece of technology. Cheaply mass-produced, these cages enable egg producers to stock birds at maximum density while simultaneously cutting away nearly all labor costs. There is simply no disputing that battery cages offer the most cost-effective way to produce eggs. But these cost savings come at a staggering price when animal suffering is taken into consideration. In fact, it’s hard to conceive of a more inhumane way to house layer hens, or for that matter any animal, than to keep them in battery cages.
If the cruel nature of battery cages isn’t evident from the brief description I have provided, one look at any photograph of battery hens will reveal the truth. And that is why, as we’ll see later in this chapter, the egg industry works so hard to keep photographs and videos of egg farms from the public eye. For people who see these images or who visit an egg farm in person, the most obvious cruelty relates to the unbelievable degree of crowding that the birds experience. At five or more birds per cage, the floor-space for each bird amounts to less than a single sheet of notebook paper.
Because of this tight confinement, the stressed hens have a tendency to peck at one another. This pecking problem would diminish if the hens were only given more space, but that solution would reduce profits. So instead, egg producers sear off the ends of each hen’s beak, so that when pecking occurs serious injury will rarely result—a blunted beak is unlikely to draw blood.
Although intensive crowding is the most visible welfare problem at egg farms, it’s far from the greatest cruelty. That distinction goes to an inconspicuous source—the fact that the sides and bottoms of battery cages are constructed of wire. At first glance, the fact that battery cages are constructed of wire seems hardly worthy of mention. But the reality is that from the time a seventeen-week-old hen arrives from the hatchery, she spends every moment of the rest of her life in a battery cage. Her entire adult life is therefore spent either standing on wire or sleeping pressed against it. As the weeks and months pass, the wire eats into her feet, wears away feathers, and digs into her flesh. Most battery hens are kept a minimum of eighteen months in these cages before they are sent to slaughter.
By the time hens have spent a year inside a battery cage, they look like no chicken you would ever imagine. Most of their feathers have been abraded away from the wires. On their bare skin, numerous cuts, scrapes, and sores are plainly visible. Yet the true extent of their suffering and deprivation is only visible when one of these hens is rescued. Standing on soil for the first time, the hen will take loping, unbalanced, tentative steps—after spending nearly all her life inside cramped wire-floored cages, she has forgotten how to walk. She’s never seen sunlight, breathed clean air, or pecked in the dirt.
Eggs are among the cheapest foods in America, and without battery cages such low egg prices would be impossible. I believe that no food—not even veal—contains more misery per mouthful than a typical supermarket egg. For each conventionally-produced egg, a hen must spend about thirty hours standing or sleeping on wire.
To say that egg producers have a huge financial incentive to mistreat their animals actually understates the problem. The truth is far worse: under fierce commodity pricing pressure, egg producers must either mistreat their animals, or go out of business.
At this point, it’s insightful to ask what sort of person would decide to enter an industry that treats animals this way. The answer may be the egg industry’s fundamental problem—it attracts emotionally calloused people who have no regard whatsoever for animal suffering. And once ensconced in the industry, competitive pressures force each producer to adopt every cost-cutting step available, no matter how cruel. The economics of the industry mean that there is no room for acts of conscience. To the contrary, the industry is in an ethical race to the bottom—fierce economic pressures guarantee that any producer who takes a stand against cruel production methods will be driven out of business.
Now that we’ve looked closely at America’s egg industry, let’s quickly examine the lives of other sorts of farmed animals. We’re about to see that the same commodity-driven cost-cutting that has shaped the egg industry generates comparable cruelties where other farmed animals are concerned.
The life of a modern dairy cow is one of heartbreaking sadness coupled with constant physical strain. In order for them to produce as much milk as possible, cows are kept pregnant nine months out of every year. And although cows immediately display a strong maternal bond for their young, each newborn calf is forever taken from the mother within just a day or two of birth. There is a small comfort, at least, that the mother cow never learns the fate of her calf: most of the males are either slaughtered immediately, or spend an agonizing few months inside a veal crate. The female calves are commonly raised as dairy cows.
Although the dairy industry popularizes the myth that milk universally comes from happy cows grazing lush hillsides, the reality is that many dairy cows are raised at factory farms. These cows are packed in barren sheds, and are often not allowed outdoors to graze.
Dairy cows never die of old age, they die of middle age. That is, as their milk yields decline with each successive pregnancy, they become unprofitable to keep, and are sent to slaughter.
Cattle raised for beef suffer less cruelty than other farmed animals, since they spend at least the first six months of their lives grazing outdoors on the open range. Yet during this time, they suffer branding and de-horning, and the males are castrated. No anesthetic is given for any of this.
As the maturing calves approach adulthood, they are taken from their mothers and trucked to a feedlot. Feedlot conditions are universally appalling. Most facilities are enormous—some contain tens of thousands of cattle. You can often smell a feedlot from miles away, and the ground the animals walk and sleep upon is urine-drenched manure, trampled by thousands of cattle into pitch black filth.
In my previous book Meat Market, I wrote: “the business of a feedlot is to trade health for size.” This assertion cannot credibly be disputed.
At the feedlot, the cattle are put on all-corn rations and implanted with hormones to speed their growth. This corn-based diet is terribly unhealthy for cattle, and frequently produces liver problems. But there’s no doubting that a corn-based diet causes rapid weight gain: at the feedlot, cattle gain almost 100 pounds each month. After four to five months at the feedlot, the bloated animals are trucked to slaughter. The “Meet Your Meat” video, which can be watched online at YouTube, shows the animals’ final minutes. I strongly believe that every non-vegetarian has an ethical obligation to watch at least a few minutes of slaughterhouse video.
In the United States, about half of all pigs are raised in just three states: Iowa, North Carolina, and Minnesota. Agribusiness has taken advantage of weak environmental and anti-cruelty regulations in these states to build massive pig confinement operations.
The unluckiest of all these pigs are the “breeder sows,” who spend their entire lives in gestation and farrowing crates, pumping out the piglets who will be raised for meat. The crates in which these mother pigs are confined are comparable to veal crates in terms of restricting movement—they are far too narrow to permit a normal range of motion or even to allow the animals to turn around. This extreme confinement is lifelong, and a breeder sow may be kept crated without interruption for several years. The isolation and frustration caused by this unrelenting ordeal frequently results in psychological damage, which is manifested by stereotypies—repetitive, constant, and abnormal movements that are widely accepted by scientists as a sign of profound emotional disturbance.
Unlike their mothers, pigs raised for meat are kept, not in crates, but crowded pens. The packing together of so many young animals into tightly confined areas gives rise to regular conflicts. Specifically, when crowded tightly together, pigs commonly react to this stress by biting at each others’ tails. Pig farmers call tail-biting a vice—in effect, blaming the pigs for their response to overcrowding.
The main risk of tail-biting isn’t the inevitable nip or bite. It’s that pigs in factory farms are so depressed and dispirited that they often won’t protest or run away when their tails are bitten. So what pig farmers do to prevent serious tail-biting injuries is amputate each pig’s tail, save for a tiny nub. This nub is extraordinarily sensitive, and pigs will go to any length to avoid being bitten. Problem solved, factory farming style: the animals remain crowded and miserable, but lose the capacity to seriously injure one another. Providing the pigs with adequate space would also resolve the tail-biting problem, but this solution is regarded as prohibitively expensive.
Perhaps the most deplorable aspect of pig farms isn’t the confinement, but the air quality. Pigs have a far keener sense of smell than humans—more discriminating, in fact, than even dogs. Unfortunately, the stench of concentrated pig manure and urine is one of the most overpowering odors imaginable. The ammonia and dust actually eat into the pigs’ lung tissue, and postmortems of slaughtered pigs commonly reveal lesions in the lungs—an especially disturbing fact given that pigs are only about six months old when slaughtered. It’s hardly surprising that workers at pig farms are likewise prone to respiratory problems. In fact, the air in and around pig farms is so toxic that even people living nearby these facilities suffer heightened rates of lung disorders.
Meat chickens have been specially bred to grow at astonishing speed. These birds grow so quickly that many are slaughtered at just 39 days of age. In otherwise healthy flocks, about 1 to 4 percent of these chickens will die suddenly and prematurely from the bodily stresses brought on by their rapid growth. In the United States alone, we have at least 10 million birds dying suddenly each year because they have deliberately been dealt a defective genetic hand.
The chickens who survive until slaughter spend the six or seven weeks of their lives on a crowded indoor floor. Like pigs, chickens are highly socially-oriented, and they have no problem recognizing each bird in a normal flock of one or two dozen chickens. But this ability, and the social hierarchy that chickens instinctively assemble, breaks down when you’ve got upwards of 20,000 chickens crowded together in a single shed. It’s a noisy, dusty, fear-filled environment where every basic need, apart from eating and drinking, is frustrated.
I once met a chicken who knew his name, and would run to you and jump in your lap when called. And yet agribusiness and the law treat chickens as if they are not sentient beings. When the time comes for slaughter, even the pathetically minimal legal protections extended to cattle and pigs are withheld from chickens. Everything at a chicken slaughterhouse is set up to enable the quickest possible slaughter at the least possible labor cost, with no regard to the suffering this system creates. After the birds are shackled by their feet, most of the remaining processing, including the throat-cutting, is done mechanically. There is no legitimate stunning prior to throat cutting: quite to the contrary, the birds are jolted with electricity so that their heads will momentarily hang limp to permit their throats to be mechanically slashed. Hanging upside down by their feet, while fully conscious, the birds then bleed to death.
Lies and Lawmaking
When you look at how commodity-based pricing dictates conditions at both factory farms and slaughterhouses, the welfare situation for today’s farmed animals is easy to analyze. In the United States, what we have is an industry that raises more than ten billion animals each year—run by precisely the people who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near an animal.
In the face of such ubiquitous animal cruelty, what’s remarkable is the hostility the industry showers upon any efforts to improve animal welfare. The industry has a two-pronged strategy for dealing with the welfare issue: lie about farmed animal cruelties, and lobby to pass laws that make these cruelties legal.
The distortions and outright lies are in evidence everywhere. California dairy producers have spent millions of dollars on television advertisements depicting beautiful hillside grazing pastures, yet these ads never display the cramped stalls at the state’s many dry-lot dairies. Children of my generation even watched Ronald McDonald proclaim during television commercials that the company’s hamburgers were actually the fruit of plants growing in “hamburger patches.”
But it is the egg industry that deserves the Grand Prize for deceiving consumers about animal welfare. In 2002 America’s egg industry decided to tackle the animal welfare issue. The obvious path forward would have been to abolish battery cages, while boosting floor space per bird. This could easily have been done industry-wide, at the behest of the industry’s flagship trade group, the United Egg Producers (UEP). About 85 percent of eggs sold in America are produced under UEP guidelines, so a strict set of new welfare standards could have transformed the egg industry overnight.
Instead, the UEP created a snazzy new logo which stated, “Animal Care Certified,” with these words encircling a large check mark. Egg producers then proceeded to prominently stamp this logo on just about every carton of eggs sold in the United States. Just one problem remained: the Animal Care Certified program was a sham. It called for a gradual and pathetically insufficient increase in the floor-space per bird, as well as for the phasing out of a cruel practice called forced molting that deliberately deprived birds of food.
But the Animal Care Certified program did nothing to address the egg industry’s primary cruelties. Under the program’s guidelines, hens would still spend their lives in battery cages, they would still be subjected to beak-searing, and no hen would ever receive individualized veterinary care, no matter how grave the need. In fact, even after the program’s phase-in period for expanded cage-space was complete, each hen would still have less cage space than a sheet of notebook paper. In short, the Animal Care Certified program was a gigantic fraud perpetrated against American egg buyers.
Fortunately, the egg industry’s deceptive practices did not escape notice. The Better Business Bureau interceded in 2003, and filed a complaint that the Animal Care Certified program was misleading consumers. But since the Bureau lacked authority to shut down the program, the UEP ignored their complaint, and factory farmed eggs continued to be sold using this logo.
But in 2005, the Federal Trade Commission stepped in. Acting on the Better Business Bureau’s complaint, the FTC forced the egg industry to abandon its deceptive logo. The industry has since changed their logo’s wording to read, “United Egg Producers Certified”—whatever on earth that’s supposed to mean.
Beyond deliberately misleading consumers with bogus advertising and public relations campaigns, animal agriculture hires lobbyists to enact laws that perpetuate animal cruelty. Some of these laws are expressly designed to keep activists from documenting conditions at factory farms. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, numerous state laws have recently entered the books that forbid trespassing and photography at factory farms. In fact, in Kansas and Montana, the mere act of bringing a camera into a factory farm or slaughterhouse is a criminal offense.
And while the industry seeks to jail anyone who would dare to document animal cruelty, it also tries to exempt itself from existing animal welfare laws. Its most important effort in this respect has been to get “Common Farming Exemption” (CFE) laws passed in most top agriculture states. Although enacted on the state level, these laws are all written with nearly identical language—suggesting that a highly organized entity with deep pockets has been pulling the strings.
Under state CFE laws, it becomes practically impossible to win an animal cruelty case against a factory farm or slaughterhouse. That’s because most instances of factory farm cruelty are remarkably widespread—they are cruelties practiced on millions or even billions of animals on an industry-wide basis. These cruelties include: using caustic paste to dehorn dairy cows; castrating pigs and cattle without anesthetic; the beak-searing of chickens; and crowding nearly every type of farmed animal to an unconscionable degree.
And that’s where CFE laws work their magic. Under these laws, so long as the cruelty in question is considered “common,” “normal,” or “customary,” within animal agriculture, it is exempt from prosecution. In states that have passed CFE laws, a factory farm can do virtually anything it likes to its animals, as long as other factory farms are behaving similarly. David Wolfson, the animal rights attorney who has extensively documented the existence of CFE laws, says, “Common Farming Exemptions give complete power to the farming community to decide what is cruelty to a farmed animal. If the industry adopts a practice, it automatically becomes legal, and farmers cannot be prosecuted for cruelty, no matter how horrific the practice.”
Alternative Animal Agriculture
Much of the cruelty related to factory farmed animal products can be cut away by switching to alternative producers. When more money is put into care, feed, and housing, the welfare of farmed animals can increase markedly. Of course, people who choose this option must pay significantly more for their meat, milk, and eggs.
Unfortunately, much animal suffering simply cannot, under any reasonable circumstances, be removed. Many people become vegan out of distaste for the killing of animals. For people with this motivation, even cage-free eggs and organic milk are unacceptable. Unless they die prematurely of disease, every free-range layer hen and every organic dairy cow ends up in the slaughterhouse at a young age. That’s because milk and eggs are reproductive products, and yields diminish as the animals age. So every drop of organic milk, and every free-range egg sold in stores, comes from an animal who will ultimately have her throat cut.
Slaughter aside, the hour-by-hour misery of farmed animals can indeed be erased, given appropriate care. The trouble is that raising animals humanely demands a great deal of extra money—the better the care, the greater the cost. This in turn gives rise to the problem of accurate labeling. Animal products from alternative producers are uniformly marketed as being humane, as if each of these animals is given the same excellent level of care. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Even outside the factory farm, there remains the constant temptation for producers to cut costs in order to gain a financial edge. And, unfortunately, the existing alternative labels—“free-range,” “grass-fed,” “organic,”—are so vague in some cases as to be meaningless, especially where animal welfare is concerned. Not only are animal welfare standards ambiguous, but there is practically no state or federal law enforcement that holds producers responsible for their claims of enhanced welfare. This lack of monitoring opens the door to all manner of abuse. Most consumers are happy to believe that merely by purchasing “free-range” eggs, or “organic” milk, they are doing their part to stamp out animal cruelty. The marketing for these products conjures up images of chickens cheerfully pecking the dirt outdoors, and cows munching grass on picturesque hillsides. The reality is often surprisingly bleak.
The trouble is that free-range eggs and organic milk fetch much higher prices than their factory farmed counterparts. And, tragically, agribusiness is full of ethically challenged people who will do practically anything to an animal to earn an extra dollar. Some of these producers doubtless see the free-range and organic markets as easy money. They can do the bare minimum suggested by these standards, and pocket the extra money these foods command.
How bad does it get? Many “cage-free” and “free-range” layer hens have virtually no opportunity to set foot outdoors. And while the stocking density for these hens generally isn’t comparable to what occurs in battery cages, it’s still nothing that can fairly be called humane. More abusive still is what occurs at many so-called “organic” dairies. It’s true that these cows are given organic feed, and not injected with Bovine Growth Hormone or antibiotics, but many of these organic dairies are nevertheless factory farms by any reasonable definition. At least one of these so-called organic dairies keeps upwards of 6000 cows in cramped stalls, yet still gets away with charging premium prices for their “organic” milk. The lesson here is that so-called “organic” meat, milk, and eggs can still come from factory farms.
Since labeling reveals so little, the onus is on the consumer to determine welfare conditions first-hand. It’s time-consuming for consumers to check up on animal welfare standards, since every farm they purchase from needs to be personally investigated—ideally on a regular basis. Plus, the farms that have the best welfare are likely to have higher prices than ersatz “free-range” and “organic” farms. All of this means that conscientious consumers of animal products must invest considerable time and money to patronize farms with high welfare standards. When all this is taken into account, even people who have no problem with animal slaughter may well decide to chuck it all and just become vegan. It is much easier and cheaper to follow a vegan diet than it is to perform due diligence on a diet that includes meat, milk, or eggs.
Even on animal farms with the best welfare, there are still troubling questions and ugly answers. For instance, what happens to the male counterparts of the female “layer strain” chicks obtained by a free-range egg farm? Many free-range farms obtain these females from standard commercial hatcheries. And since the males in question can neither lay eggs nor economically be raised for meat, the hatchery may kill them using exceptionally inhumane methods—the chicks may be smothered in trash bags or ground up while still alive.
Similarly, what happens to the male offspring of “organic, pasture fed” dairy cows? All dairy cows are impregnated annually to keep up the flow of milk. The male calves, even those born at organic farms, are routinely sold at auction to veal farmers. Questions like these can drive a person either to drink, or to become vegan. But it’s precisely because of their unpleasant and grave implications that these sorts of issues must be personally investigated by every truly conscientious consumer of animal products.
The Vegan Lifestyle
This chapter offered only a brief look at the enormous industry of animal agriculture. But the deeper you dig, and the more you read, the clearer it becomes that factory farming deserves our disgust and contempt. This industry attracts precisely the people most unsuited to being entrusted to care for animals, and then puts them into a position where they will face financial ruin if they balk at perpetuating cruelty.
As with meat, the production of milk and eggs always entails the slaughter of the animals involved. Additionally, factory-farmed dairy and egg products arguably contain more misery per mouthful than does meat. Some animal suffering—but by no means all of it—can be avoided by choosing animal products that do not come from factory farms. But finding animal products that aren’t associated with needless cruelty demands vigilance and money, and it’s quite likely easier to simply switch to a vegan diet.
Although this chapter has focused on the connection between economics and animal cruelty, a comparably strong argument for veganism can be made philosophically. That is, there are numerous schools of thought that advance the idea that it’s wrong to kill animals—no matter how “humanely”—simply because we like how they taste. Entire books have been devoted to advancing this argument through a variety of philosophical frameworks including utilitarianism, feminism, and moral rights.
Let’s finish this look at animal agriculture by considering the big picture. Since most Americans eat more than 2000 chickens and other land animals in their lifetimes, the choice to go vegan eliminates enormous amounts of misery and slaughter. On the other hand, when you take the 10 billion animals slaughtered annually in the United States and subtract 2000, you’ve still got 10 billion. And that is why following up a vegan diet with a commitment to activism is essential. The final chapter of this book shows how easy and fulfilling it is to take action against animal agriculture. It’s my hope that after reading that chapter you’ll move beyond merely focusing on your personal food choices to something infinitely more important: becoming an effective and lifelong opponent of animal agriculture.
But the bulk of this book is devoted to bringing you up to speed on everything you need to know to become vegan. You’ll learn how to shop for foods, how to outfit your kitchen, what pitfalls to look out for, and so much more. It’s quite easy to become vegan, especially if you have someone showing you how to do it. If you’re ready to make the switch, I’ve done everything I can in this book to make becoming vegan as easy, healthful, and fulfilling as possible.
Next Chapter: Crowding, Not Cutting
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