The animal product industry is huge in the US and other developed countries, and there are so many problems with it that it’s difficult to know where to start. In the US alone, 9 billion land animals are put through the torturous life of a factory farm animal.1 Worldwide, this number may be as high as 70 billion.2 Over 99% of all animal products consumed in the US come from factory farms.3 The fact is that we depend heavily on a system that treats sentient individuals as profit-producing objects.
The life of an animal on a factory farm is horrible from beginning to end. In the interest of maximizing efficiency and profits, animals are kept in spaces so small they often cannot move, their bodies are mutilated (debeaking, tail clipping, etc.) without anesthetic to prevent animals from attacking each other or themselves out of frustration and anger. An animal is raised to its maximum utility and then killed, usually decades before the end of it’s natural lifespan. In egg and dairy industries, this means that male animals are often killed as soon as they are born. The slaughter process is rushed, so even if there are practices in place to make the slaughter better for the animals, they often cannot be adhered to. This means that many animals are fully conscious when they are skinned, boiled, or gassed to death.4
Although minimal legislation exists to regulate the slaughter of animals, the Humane Slaughter Act does not apply to chickens or turkeys, which make up a huge portion of factory farmed animals.5 Even animals covered by the act are often not slaughtered according to these minimal standards, because of poor regulation and cutting corners in the interest of efficiency.
In addition to being incredibly harmful to the animals, factory farms are notorious for abusing their workers. Undocumented immigrants are disproportionately employed by the industry, which means that they are unlikely to speak up about poor labor practices. The whole industry is set up to operate in secret, in the interest of profits. Workers are routinely exposed to hazardous chemicals and dangerous conditions, so on-the-job injuries are the norm. If that isn’t enough, the work is extremely psychologically damaging. Factory farm workers have extremely high rates of mental illness, domestic abuse, and other violent offenses.6 This is hardly surprising given the nature and conditions of the work they do. The plight of these people is not well known, and support for them is minimal.
As if all that is not enough, the environmental impact of the factory farm industry is huge. Factory farms use huge amounts of water and energy, and they produce incredible amounts of waste that pollute the air and water.4 A single pound of beef takes about 1,500 gallons of water to produce, the equivalent of about 100 showers. 7 The industry’s contribution to climate change is estimated to be greater than all emissions from cars and planes.8
I could keep going, and talk about the overuse of antibiotics, the effects on communities, the low nutrition of the food produced. The factory farm system is simply indefensible. It is staggeringly inefficient, cruel, exploitative, and environmentally destructive. The fact is that we do not need to be producing animal products on such a large scale, and if we don’t stop, there could be serious consequences. Reliance on meat and other animal products simply is not sustainable, and not ethical.
Although the industry has done everything it could to keep its practices a secret, these facts are starting to become better known. Many people are fully aware of some of the problems with factory farms, yet continue to support them by buying their products.
Dr. Melanie Joy talks about a concept called carnism, a kind of prejudice against animals used for food. People will object more to harm inflicted on a dog than to the same treatment of a pig, even though the two animals have comparable intelligence. This carnism is widespread, and certainly contributes to people’s acceptance of the problem. It’s a way to combat the cognitive dissonance people feel when they learn that the hamburger they are enjoying was produced in such a problematic way.9
However, this is clearly not the whole problem. The system is perpetuated primarily by separating the product from the process. The way animal products are talked about, marketed, and consumed completely removes the animals and workers from the picture. The products at the grocery store often do not look like the animals they come from. Marketing stays away from showing pictures of the animals at all, especially not in the real conditions in which they were living (the dairy industry is an exception, but that’s a separate issue). Even words like ‘beef’, ‘pork’, and others separate the living animal from the edible flesh. All of these factors contribute very sneakily to the fact that you simply don’t think of a factory farm when you buy a block of cheese or order a hamburger. It takes a great deal of effort to stop thinking of the thing on your plate as a piece of meat and start thinking of it as a dead animal.
There really isn’t much to discuss, nor any ethical questions to ask. The factory farming practices we employ are clearly wrong, on so many levels. Anyone who defends them is putting profits above public health, environmental protection, worker safety, and endless animal suffering. Change is clearly necessary here, and there is no sustainable, cruelty-free way to keep consuming animal products at the rate we are today. It’s simply inevitable that people are going to have to give up at least a large portion of the meat, eggs, and dairy that they are used to. Even those who advocate humane farming practices acknowledge that these practices cannot produce anywhere close to the volume produced by factory farms.
We need to stop treating living, feeling animals as commodities. They are not machines for turning huge amounts of water and energy into meat (even so, they would be incredibly inefficient). This fundamental shift in how we think of animals is not an easy one to accomplish, but it’s necessary if we want to move forward.
1 A Well-Fed World on factory farming
2 Factory Farming Facts
3 ASPCA on factory farming
4 Wikipedia on intensive animal farming
5 Wikipedia on the Humane Slaughter Act
6 VegNews, Inside the Life of a Factory Farm worker
7 Farm Sanctuary on factory farming and the environment
8 Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine on factory farms
9 Dr. Melanie Joy on carnism