This article was also featured on The Huffington Post
Chances are, if you get into a conversation about the conditions in which animals are raised for food in the United States, you will hear the word “humane” sooner or later. This is true no matter whether a hunting enthusiast, conscientious omnivore or vegan is involved in the conversation. No one (well, unless they’re a sociopath) is going to openly declare that the animals we use and ultimately consume should not be treated better. This is primarily because there’s enough information now available about the terrible conditions in which animals live their short, miserable lives in factory farms. We’re moral beings and can’t possibly stand by and permit unnecessary cruelty to unfold before our eyes, so we buy humanely-raised animal products and we lobby for bigger cages, better slaughtering methods and a modicum of decency when it comes to the treatment and use of animals. But lets stop and think about what we are really changing.
The basic problem is this: food is a commodity and if animals are bred and raised for food, can we really blame factory farms for treating the animals in question as “things”? When meat and dairy industries look at animals, they’re thinking, “profit”; when people stare at a delicious looking burger topped with melted cheese, they’re thinking, “food.” Moreover, when people head to the nearest supermarket to buy meat and dairy, they’re generally thinking about quality and price, above anything else.
In recent years, however, there has been growing awareness about the devastating impact that factory farming is having on the environment, our health and the animals involved, which is leading people to buy products labeled “Cage-Free,” “Humanely-Raised,” “Certified-Humane,” “Animal-Compassionate,” “Free-Range,” etc., in hopes of making more compassionate choices. Let’s put aside the troubling questions regarding the true meaning of these labels and whether such products can be healthy, eco-friendly or sustainable. Now, imagine a world in which we all do our best to buy animal products from farms that treat their animals like pets (until of course, the day they’re slaughtered), and only frequent restaurants that support the same practices; what kind of change are we hoping to create? Are we trying to create a world in which our demand for humane meat turns all the factory farms into compassionate operations run by caring farmers (not corporations), where cows graze freely in idyllic green pastures and chickens and pigs get to have social lives? That’s a noble goal, but in a free market economy, can we realistically expect appreciation for animals to suddenly trump the industrial efficiency required to meet the demand of billions of hungry omnivores? Or will these new-age “compassionate farms” collectively scale production to compete with their big, bad industrial counterparts (the factory farms), who raise 99.9 percent of chickens for meat, 97 percent of laying hens, 99 percent of turkeys, 95 percent of pigs, and 78 percent of cattle currently sold? Most importantly, let’s assume the humane movement helps us achieve the Utopian vision of animal agribusiness, where the overall industry is well-regulated (including big, small, corporate and family-owned farms) and all farm animals have space to stretch their legs and wings, eat organic produce and are drug-free; will buying such “happy” meat and dairy somehow reduce the overall demand for animal products? You guessed it — highly unlikely.
However, there’s one thing we can be certain about — buying “humane” animal products will help us feel better about our choice to consume the animals we care about, while distracting us from the root of the problem (our gargantuan appetite for meat and dairy). In addition, buying humanely-raised animal products (even if it’s driven by the best intentions and as a solution for those of us who will never consider giving up meat/dairy), unwittingly encourages us to consume more animals with a lighter conscience.
No one can deny that it’s better to be less cruel in the ways we confine and kill animals (if we are going to kill and eat them anyway), but if we’re interested in long-term change, we can’t look at killing with kindness or gratitude as a solution in itself, when a huge part of the problem is over-consumption and the ubiquitous nature of animal products. Of course, it’s nobody’s business what someone chooses to buy or eat. Further, we cannot ignore socio-economic factors that influence people’s consumption choices in any discussion about what’s better for animals or the planet. The ability to make better choices obviously assumes that one has the privilege to choose in the first place. But if we want to spend our precious time, energy and dollars to help farm animals, the simplest thing one can do is realize that we don’t need to consume animal products to live healthy and happy lives.
Yes, animals are also incidentally killed in crop agriculture (due to machine tilling and harvesting). Yes, a plant-based diet does not guarantee that all our food choices will be sustainable or healthy (large-scale industrial monoculture and processed plant-based food are also problematic). Yes, sustainable and animal-free products could also involve the use of slave labor and terrible conditions for workers. We undoubtedly need to make all these connections, and that’s the true meaning of conscious consumption. However, none of the above justifies (or is reason enough to deny) the simple rule of demand and supply, which makes it clear that the conscious decision to consume animal products contributes to the demand for more animals to be bred and killed.
If we want to bring about true change, the most humane first step we can take is to choose plants and not animals when we eat.
Veal Calf Image Source: Jo-Anne McArthur