We know that factory farms are terrible places. Animals are crammed by the thousands into sheds, bred and manipulated in unnatural ways, and usually killed before they are fully-grown adults. These huge farms also produce immense amounts of pollution, all for the sake of meat and dairy products which are often contaminated –- so we compassionate consumers try not to buy from such places, right? You want a better alternative, so you buy local or “humanely raised” meat at a co-op or farmers’ market. You make this effort because you care about your health, the environment, and probably also about animals. You prefer that animals have decent living conditions and a swift, painless death. If you take your concern for animals to its logical conclusion, you would not eat them at all.
Killing animals for food is not necessary. When you buy “humane” animal products you are still paying for animals to be killed needlessly as there is no nutrient in meat, dairy products, or eggs that we can’t get from plant foods, and in cleaner forms. (Vegans do need to get vitamin B12 via supplements or fortified foods, but so do many meat-eaters. B12 is not an animal product.) Foods made from animals’ bodies contain many non-essential and unhealthy substances, such as growth hormones (some added, some naturally present), cholesterol, and saturated fat, which are not found in foods made from plants.
Labels like “humane certified,” “cage-free,” “grass-fed,” and “free range” imply large differences from factory farming practices which do not exist. The animals raised in these alternative ways might have more space or be able to go outdoors, but in fact there are more similarities to factory farming than differences. Procedures like tail-docking, de-beaking, and other mutilations without anesthetic; total denial of natural behaviors; and brutal transport conditions are routine even on “humane” farms, but would be considered immoral if done to dogs or cats. And all farm animals, including dairy cows and egg-laying hens, are slaughtered while they are still young animals.
When we buy from “humane” farms we are still relying on farmers and meat producers to define for us what they are doing to the animals, but until we visit the farms and slaughterhouses we really have no idea. The labels and certifications are not rigorously enforced or backed by institutions that truly value animal welfare. Those who sell “humane” animal products profit from our concerns about factory farming practices and thus are not reliable sources of information about how the animals lived and died.
“Humane slaughter” is an oxymoron. There is no “humane” (compassionate, merciful, or kind) way to kill a creature who does not want to die. All animals fear death. “Humane” meat does not come from animals that lived a full life and died of natural causes or were euthanized. All of those animals were killed well before the time of their natural death.
Could you kill a pig, chicken, cow, or turkey, by yourself? If not, why pay someone to do it for you? How humane is a farmer who has treated an animal relatively well and even allowed the animal to develop a trusting relationship, yet sends him or her off to be slaughtered? What a betrayal of trust. Let the animals live and find something else to eat for dinner.
For most people eating animals is the most egregious form of violence they ever commit. Most people don’t rob, rape, or murder people. We want to think of ourselves as kind, compassionate, and fair — yet in our society most people, every day, unthinkingly cause animals to be killed and mistreated to obtain their flesh and milk and eggs. This unnecessary violence underlies our lives and its effects seep into our psyches and our behavior. If we eat animals, we are always trying to justify, consciously or unconsciously, our harshness and cruelty. When we end the daily violence of confining, commodifying, and killing animals, our society will be much less competitive, unfair, and harsh. Seventy percent of the grain and legumes grown world-wide is fed to farm animals, who very inefficiently convert the nutrients into animal “products.” Water use is highly inefficient as well in this conversion. Fully fifty percent of the water used world-wide for all purposes is used for animal agriculture. When we stop breeding farm animals more food will be available for hungry people and there will be less conflict for scarce water and fuel resources. We already have the tools and knowledge needed to create a more peaceful, fair, and loving society; we just need to use them.
Don’t look for a better way to do a bad thing: instead, look beyond the two common options of factory farm products and “humane” animal products. Taking animals’ interests seriously means opting out of animal agriculture. If you haven’t yet, try going vegan for a week or two. We are fortunate to have access to such an abundance of plant-based foods that eating a healthy vegan diet is surprisingly easy and involves no sense of deprivation. So many books, websites, recipes online, vegan products, and caring people are available to help us get the violence out of our diets and to help us create a kinder, more conscious society.