Since the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975, the animal rights movement has boomed in the United States. A large portion of the modern movement has focused on attacking industrialized livestock farming (i.e., factory farming). Although there have been many improvements in the industry since its onset about 50 years ago, the animal rights movement continues to attack animal farming corporations and to scare the public into eliminating meat from their diets.
Numerous documentaries like Robert Kenner’s Food Inc. and undercover videos distributed by organizations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) plague the Internet, and novels like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma line bookshelves.
Today, millions of individuals support animal rights groups in their efforts to stop factory farming and to start treating animals more humanely. The organizations continue to increase in number and size, generating support by using false propaganda to evoke an emotional response to the alleged mistreatment of animals.
Animal rights activists take an incredibly strong stance in the movement, arguing for factory-farmed animals’ right to a “natural” life, despite the fact that humans have created the unnatural, factory-farmed, genetically engineered animals they argue should be free.
Their beliefs hinder rational activism in the fight for animal rights, as their practices surround an irrational belief that animal rights take precedence over human and environmental concerns.
Through popular culture and propaganda pieces, human perception of animal farming has been distorted, as humans tend to anthropomorphize or allocate human qualities to animals. Through children’s books like Charlotte’s Webb by E. B. White, movies like Disney’s Bambi, and animal rights propaganda, the media generates the notion that animals have needs and rights that parallel the needs and rights of humans.
In the factory farming industry specifically, equality between humans and farmed animals seems far-fetched, since humans engineer cows, chickens, and pigs specifically for human needs. How can these human constructed animals be our equals?
Giving culturally constructed animals and humans the same social status would drastically reduce humans to the level of their factory-farmed creations. No farm animal can have the same rights as humans do, like the right to an education or the freedom to worship, because they lack the capacity and ability to exercise such rights.
Pain vs. Suffering
Peter Singer, one of the most forefront figures of the animal rights movement today, states that non-human animals cannot contemplate the distant future, and therefore, they have nothing to lose by dying. He argues that animals do, however, have an interest in not suffering during their untimely lives.
In his book, Singer notes, “we may recognize that the interests of one being are greater than those of another, and equal consideration will then lead us to sacrifice the being with lesser interest, if one or the other must be sacrificed”.
Feeding the billions of people in the world, therefore, takes precedence over a romanticized notion of animal freedom.
Even though Singer considers practices like factory farming to be appalling, he believes there is no moral requirement for humans not to eat animals; but there is, however, a moral requirement for humans to treat factory-farmed animals with respect.
From an animal welfare perspective, animals may be farmed as long as they do not experience unnecessary amounts of “suffering”. For example, it seems inhumane to remove appendages from living animals, or to confine pregnant pigs to stalls that are too small for them to move around.
If farm animals do consciously experience pain, then they should have certain rights like protection from unnecessary pain and suffering.
Physical pain has two components: an objective physiological process (“pain”) and a subjective conscious response (“suffering”). Typically, the physiological component involves the transmission of a signal from the stimulus across nerve fibers to the animal’s spinal cord and to its brain, a process known as nociception. Often, this physiological action can elicit a behavioral response, such as flinching, and/or involve brain activity, such as registering the intensity and quality of the stimulus.
It is widely accepted that farmed animals can actually experience pain, but there is little evidence to support the conscious component of pain.
We have a rather limited knowledge of where conscious pain processing takes place in human brains, and we have an even more limited knowledge of animal consciousness. It has been shown, however, that outwardly similar behaviors between animals and humans are controlled by very different cognitive mechanisms.
Different species have different capacities to experience the world, and therefore, each species will respond differently to pain.
When we see animals exhibiting responses that we attribute to experiencing pain, such as flinching or twitching, we attribute our emotions to the animals, and we imagine how we would feel in a similar situation.
However, when fish, for example, get caught on a hook and wriggle around, they do not actually feel pain because they lack the necessary capacity to feel pain. They wriggle as an unconscious reaction, rather than a response to pain. Although the fish have nociceptors, their mere presence does not mean they can feel pain.
This may also be true for other vertebrate species, including farm animals. If there is uncertainty about what the farm animals think and feel, as there appears to be, farmers should err on the side of caution and engage in humane practices.
Current Factory Farming Practices
Cornell Professor Joe Regenstein, an advocator of factory farming, measures animal pain and suffering by the productivity of the animal. He notes that “humanely treated” layer chickens, for example, lay about 315 eggs per bird housed, which is more than they would under stressful conditions outside. If they were too distressed, they would not produce as many eggs. Even though they spend most of their lives in a cage, most layer chickens do not seem to live a life of pain and suffering. Factory farming practices are by no means perfect, but they are not outwardly evil either.
Animal welfarist Temple Grandin is considered the world’s leading expert on cattle and pig welfare, and has worked to promote humane livestock handling processes. She notes that animals are considered property in our society because they can be bought and sold, but ultimately, the law gives them ethical protections to reduce their potential suffering.
It is illegal, therefore, to purposely harm or torture an animal. If severe mistreatment of farm animals is revealed to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), the plant is shut down.
Grandin works with the industry to encourage humane treatment and methods of slaughter, rather than acting against the industry. She views that animals only care to be treated fairly, and would most likely prefer a humane slaughter than a gruesome death in the wild.
For years, Grandin studied the behaviors of cattle during slaughter and has worked to ensure farming industries in the United States are running properly. If cattle entering a slaughterhouse knew their fate, she argued, they should be rougher, more aggressive, and more distressed during their handling at a slaughterhouse.
Before Grandin’s new slaughterhouse design 30 years ago, she observed the agitation of cattle before slaughter, as the cattle could see the previous cows being killed. Grandin reshaped the system by redesigning multiple livestock handling facilities in the U.S. by creating a curved chute system that disallows the cattle to see previously slaughtered cattle. This proved to reduce the agitation and stress on the cattle entering the slaughterhouse.
So, Why Fight Factory Farming?
Despite obvious improvements in the factory farming industry over the years, animal activists continue to attack the corporations who produce the meat and the companies who distribute the meat to the public. Animal rights groups try to guilt trip Americans into giving up meat by distorting our beliefs to assume that all of the animals involved in factory farming are in chronic “pain” and constant “suffering”.
By telling us that the only way to show we care about animal welfare is to give up eating meat, these organizations put the public in a really exasperating place and tend to alienate a large portion of the population who may otherwise be on their side.
What animal rights groups fail to recognize is the rapidly increasing American population. In response to this population growth, domestic and global consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs per capita rapidly increases as well.
The FDA notes that the majority of the meat sold in America is raised on domestic soil. The most efficient way to feed the growing number of omnivorous humans is to practice industrial farming in America and across the globe.
With the term “factory farming” comes images of animal torture; PETA is famous for their undercover videos of workers beating turkeys with metal rods to stun them, smashing weak piglets on the ground to break their necks, and slaughtering conscious cows.
In documented fact, the conditions in factory farms are not as bad as the propaganda videos claim. The videos are falsehoods of reality, as the footage shows a mix of historical practices with small amounts of recent footage.
PETA tends to generalize the entire meat production industry to these poor practices, arguing that inhumane incidences are found on every factory farm. In reality, these cases are anomalies.
These conditions that animal rights organizations complain about are terrible for the farms’ production efficiency and profit margin to the point that no industry or business would actively engage in their practices anyway.
Farmers must make a profit, and to do that, they need happy and healthy animals.
According to Certified Humane, meat is considered humanely raised if animals are given enough space, shelter, and gentle handling to limit stress; ample fresh water and a healthy diet of feed; and space to allow animals to “do what comes naturally”, for example, giving chickens space to flap their wings.
Because people demand humanely slaughtered meat, corporations make sure their animals are properly cared for by farmers.
For the most part, each house and caging unit is designed to meet the specific needs of the individual animals, including the proper amount of water and food and the proper dosage of temperature and sunlight, while taking into account the economics.
People perceive animal farms as dark, confined, crowded, and unventilated. Contrary to this popular belief, housing is typically well ventilated, warm, well lit, and clean.
Because many of us tend to view farm animals as projections of ourselves, we tend to misconstrue what is actually bad for the animals. We become upset when we see chickens and turkeys packed into barns, with little room to themselves because that would upset us if we were placed in a similar situation.
Crowding does occur on most farms, as maximizing the amount of animals for a given space allows corporations to increase profit. However, animals don’t seem to mind. Chickens are happy when they are placed in large, crowded communities. Studies show that even if these chickens were not confined in a barn, they would voluntarily crowd together for comfort and warmth.
Barns and similar housing protect animal health and welfare by keeping them away from predators, disease, bad weather, and extreme climate. For these reasons, animals that are raised for food are better fed and cared for than most animals found in the wild.
Although sometimes farm animals get sick, farmers try to limit the amount of animal sickness by including FDA approved animal health products, such as vitamins, minerals, and small amounts of antibiotics in their feed.
There is a lower mortality in the housing situation than there would be if the animals were kept outside, as there are no environmental or external causes of their death. Farmed animals die in a manner that is much more civil than being ripped apart by wild carnivores.
Animal rights activists argue that factory farms limit the potential for the animals to live happily fulfilling and “natural” lives. However, it is impossible for animals to live natural lives, given the fact that farm animals are human constructions; the animals have been genetically engineered and enhanced specifically for human purposes.
Pros and Cons of Genetic Engineering of Farmed Animals
Genetic engineering is practiced in the farming industry in order to increase animal productivity, food quality, disease resistance, and environmental sustainability. Factory farmed animals are selected for desirable traits that tend to be for the benefit of the industry, rather than the animal.
Since the late 1970s, factory-farming-advocate Jude Capper argues, there has been an increase in carcass weights and decrease in the growth period, which is one of the positive effects of genetic engineering. In the 70s and 80s, it took 5 cattle and 606 days to produce the amount of beef that we get from 4 cattle in about 482 days today.
Due to this maximized yield per animal, the negative environmental impact of the industry has actually decreased, as farmers are saving hundreds of days of land, water, waste, and feed due to these modifications. The total carbon footprint per pound of beef has gone down by 16% as well due to improvements in productivity and efficiency by producing beef in an affordable and sustainable manner.
However, these enhanced growth rates have an effect on the animals themselves.
Sows and chickens, for example, have been genetically enhanced to produce more meat per animal and have become too big to fit in their stalls. We can equate this problem to people on airplanes; people are getting bigger, while the seats on an airplane are getting smaller and less comfortable. The stalls should be adjusted to fit sows and allow them to turn around.
Genetic engineering of animals has become a problem in recent years, as breeders and engineers are creating problems that should not exist. Broiler chickens, for example, are being engineered to increase their breast size, creating a disproportionate body size. With enlarged breast size, chickens cannot stand or walk properly, and they tend to fall over frequently because they are too top-heavy.
Animal rights activists should be pushing to increase cage sizes and to advocate for more humane genetic engineering, rather than trying to end world meat consumption. Genetic engineers should select for production and health traits and breed animals with legs that are strong enough to support their weight.
The factory farming industry already integrates nature and culture into their practices, and the animal rights movement tries to combat this integration. However, humans and nature are and will always be interrelated; they are not separate entities that must stay separate. We have created a farming industry that efficiently combines the natural animals with cultural engineering practices.
So, What Can be Changed?
Many animal rights activists are more rational in their approaches towards the industry, but in the campaign today, they tend to argue for the wrong improvements. For example, many activists urge consumers to buy from family farms, where the animals are allowed to roam the fields and eat their natural diet of grass, but this practice leads to negative environmental consequences.
The amount of land required to supply a diet of family farmed animals would increase by about 130 million acres, greenhouse gas emissions would increase by 134 million tons per year, and water usage would increase by 460 billion gallons per year.
In order to satisfy the needs of the animals, animal rights activists, and environmentalists, we should stop raising crops to feed the cows and other farmed animals and instead, feed them the leftover, by-products of crop production for human needs. By using this system, cows could be fed a mix of grass, grains, and the by-products of crop production, which is scientifically a good balance for their diets.
Advocate for Enforcement of Animal Husbandry Laws
Docking, or removing a cow’s tail, for example, is arguably a necessary standard procedure for dairy cows. In past studies, docking was shown to improve worker hygiene, controls disease transmission, and increases comfort for the animal during milking. Other studies, however, show that cleanliness and disease transmission did not improve after docking. These results suggest that producers have little to gain from completing this procedure, so the procedure should be dismissed from practice.
Another good way to eliminate mismanagement in the industry is to support enforcement of laws that already exist and to advocate for more animal husbandry laws.
In 2008, for example, in California the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act was passed to prohibit the confinement of pigs, egg-laying hens, and calves in a way that disallows them to lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. Similar acts were passed in Florida, Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado, which mostly prohibited the confinement of sows in gestation crates.
With increased support, the government continues to work to improve humane treatment of factory-farmed animals in the industry.
There is no excuse for inflicting unnecessary pain on any living being. Factory farmed cattle, pigs, and poultry are not entitled to a life outside of the farm, but are entitled to humane treatment inside the farms.
Although most factory farms use humane practices when caring for their animals, there is still room for improvement.
Rather than advocating for people to boycott the industry, animal rights groups should instead focus on processes that can be improved. Animal rights activists should direct advocate for a change in the way we genetically modify our farm animals to allow them to walk properly, and they should push for laws requiring larger battery cages for layer chickens and larger stalls for pregnant sows.
Factory farming is by no means perfect, but it is not as evil as PETA makes it out to be.