Today is World Day for Farmed Animals. Despite the devoted efforts of activists around the world, it will likely pass again this year with little mainstream public awareness.
Yet modern animal ‘farming’ practices constitute not only one of the world’s most pressing public policy concerns, but also what the Guardian newspaper this week called ‘one of the most pressing ethical issues of our time.’
Since the end of the Second World War, there have been significant changes in the way mankind produces and consumes food. Increasing demand for meat has resulted in livestock production moving into peri-urban areas close to markets, animals have been moved from pastures into concentrated animal feeding operations (often indoors), and there continues to be a relentless increase in both the scale and intensity of animal agriculture intended to meet the expanding demand for meat, especially cheap pork and chicken.
These new ways of farming animals have significant negative consequences, including establishing competition for resources between people and farmed animals. Research by the UN and countless other reputable international organisations has established that modern animal agriculture consumes water and energy at a prodigious and unsustainable rate. The livestock sector has been recognized as far back as 2007 as the single largest contributor to anthropogenic climate change, as well as being a significant polluter of land, terrestrial waterways and coastal seas. The increasing demands for animal feed are also major driver of the loss of habitat and biodiversity, as well as the destruction of rural livelihoods.
If the implications of factory farming appear dire for people, the consequences for the farmed animals can only be described as horrendous. The application of modern industrial manufacturing practices has broken the link between the welfare of the animal and the fortunes of the farmer. Animals have become units of production, to be optimized in whatever way the pursuit of profits sees fit. Some 70 billion terrestrial animals are killed each year to provide meat to people, with more than 50 billion individual creatures suffering through short, brutal lives in factory farms. At issue is not only how each of these sentient beings dies, but also how they live. Practices such as selective breeding, unnatural diets, forced moulting, castration, tail-docking, de-beaking, amputation, the removal of horns etc. (all typically without anaesthetics), the routine use of prophylactic antibiotics, long distance live transport and industrial scale slaughter have become routine on many modern farms. In many instances the conditions in which farmed animals live their pathetic lives deny them even the ability to exercise their most basic instincts. Matthew Scully put it this way in his book Dominion,
‘At the Smithfield mass-confinement hog farms I toured in North Carolina, the visitor is greeted by a bedlam of squealing, chain rattling, and horrible roaring. To maximize the use of space and minimize the need for care, the creatures are encased row after row, 400- to 500- pound mammals trapped without relief inside iron crates 7 feet long and 22 inches wide. They chew maniacally on the bars and chains, as foraging animals will do when denied straw, or engage in stereotypical nest building with the straw that isn’t there, or else just lie there as broken beings.
Factory farming isn’t just killing. It’s a negation, a complete denial of the animal as a living being with his or her needs and nature …’
The recent global furore over the shameless killing of Cecil the Lion shows that people are not immune to the ethical questions posed when humans kill animals. Many modern societies have extensive legal standards prohibiting cruelty to pets, for example. Since the fate of factory farmed animals concerns the majority of the Earth’s large creatures, it seems inexplicable that there are not sustained and increasingly strident calls for reform. Progress in legislating some limited welfare improvements in recent years might give cause for hope, but it is generally obvious that decades of advocacy have failed to create the public awareness and import the issue deserves.
The reasons for this are complex. Firstly, the conditions on factory farms are well concealed. Access by the public is usually near to impossible. Meat products are often packaged and labeled with misleading language and imagery which shamelessly seek to perpetuate the comfortable myth that animals are still farmed in idyllic fields under the care of a compassionate and engaged farmer. Producer industry bodies typically lobby hard against improvements in welfare reform, product labeling standards and the like.
As a result, people still often tend to discount the extent of the suffering, even when confronted with visual evidence recording the shameful conditions inside factory farms, during transport or in industrial slaughter plants. Perhaps, the almost incomprehensible scale of the suffering makes it hard to accept, with the public choosing instead to rationalize publicized exposures of cruelty as isolated examples or aberrations. On the face of it, it does seem inexplicable that government and industry could be complicit in allowing something so inherently evil, so incompatible with expressed public values. To believe otherwise forces consumers to accept their complicity in supporting a morally bankrupt industry with their consumer spending, and raises difficult decisions regarding changing behaviour.
Then there are the persistent myths that animal proteins are a necessary part of the human diet, and that factory farming is necessary to feed a growing global population, especially the poor in developing countries. Both contentions are easy enough to rebut on the facts, but these perceptions are deeply embedded in entrenched cultural and social norms, and changing long held cultural beliefs and practices does not happen overnight.
Mahatma Gandhi was born on the 2nd of October. His principled commitment to non-violence and compassion inspired the choice of this particular day to highlight the plight of farmed animals. It seems unlikely that an engaged and informed citizenry will tolerate the cruelty and violence inherent in factory farming for long, certainly not once its evils are understood and accepted by a significant portion of the population. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future we might look back on factory farming in the same way that history now views slavery, apartheid, the Holocaust and genocide - as inexplicable ethical lapses, impossible to reconcile with prevailing moral standards. In the meantime, it is incumbent on every person to speak up against this evil practice, and to expose it for what it is - a morally bankrupt system of exploitation for financial gain which damages our environment, brutalizes people and which tortures billions of powerless individual animals.