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Farm Animal Angst: Decoding the Sustainable and Humane Meat Hysteria

“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 vegan 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 farming.”

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, extensions.

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 or 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.

Image Source: Emily/Flickr