Humane Farming: Good Intentions In Tension With Advocacy
By now, the word has gotten out: The animals we eat suffer terrible lives and often painful deaths as part of the factory farming system. Producers in developed countries raise animals for food as if they were widgets in a factory — and increasingly, so do farmers and ranchers in developing countries. Indeed, the Western methods of factory farming are increasingly being exported abroad, inspiring mega-factories for animals in countries across Asia and Africa. Occasionally, Western companies are responsible for these intensified operations. In other instances they may not be directly involved — but they are clearly an inspiration.
Raising animals this way is not only cruel, it is not sustainable for our environment. We don’t have enough land, water, and other resources to provide nine billion people with 60-100 kilograms of meat per year, the current consumption rate in North America and Europe. Even the forecast worldwide annual consumption of 35.6 kilograms of meat per year in 2031 is likely not sustainable for the planet. We simply don’t have the capacity to supply that much meat to that many people — and if people want to eat more, we find ourselves in quite a quandary.
Animal advocates know that convincing everyone to become veg*n is likely not going to happen, at least not in the near term. To quote the founder of Faunalytics, we are the low hanging fruit, and as we work in our various capacities on advocacy issues, we will likely continue to draw in those who are most persuadable to our position first, while having difficulty with the harder cases. Eating meat is deeply ingrained in human culture; as the population increases, the number of meat-eaters increases proportionally, and as per capita incomes rise, meat consumption rises, too. Indeed, as people find their way out of deep poverty, one of the first things they do is add more animal products to their diets.
Many animal advocates view our role as facilitating the reduction and elimination of animal suffering. However, many advocates balk at the idea of reduction, because it doesn’t feel very good to advocate for. If one of our primary goals as advocates is to reduce animal suffering, shouldn’t we continue to expand our efforts to promote “humane farming,” the expansion of welfare initiatives and laws, and increasing regulations for “humane slaughter”? Isn’t there an ethical case for encouraging people to consume foods from animals whose lives were “good” and whose deaths were painless?
Many ethical veg*ns will answer with an emphatic “no,” and they have a range of moral philosophers on their side to bolster their case — indeed, the field of “abolitionist veganism” is broad and supported by many activists. The crux of their argument is that any advocacy for “humane” farming or animal welfare improvements is a tacit endorsement of animal exploitation, that by advocating for the improvement of the lives of animals used for food, we are actually perpetuating their use. Though the argument makes logical sense, it rests on the belief that a “vegan world” is possible — whether on a short or long-term scale — and that we should accept nothing less in the interim.
But consider this thought experiment: Suppose every meat eater ate products from animals raised outside of factory farm systems just one day each week. That simple (and achievable) short-term goal has the potential of removing eight billion animals from that system each year across the globe. To be sure, every pork chop from a pasture-raised pig still comes from an animal whose life was sacrificed for our plate. Still, there is a moral good in this outcome because their suffering was reduced for a large part of their lives, even if those lives were cut short, something that is inarguably a moral bad.
We know that “humane” animal husbandry can improve the quality of animal lives. However, it means different things, depending on the animal. Cows raised for meat require lifelong access to pasture. Calves should remain with their mothers until their health and that of their mothers encourages weaning. Tail docking and branding should be prohibited. Cows raised for milk should similarly live on pasture, with milking schedules appropriate for both the cow and her calf. Pigs would be removed from confinement and provided an environment where they could root and wallow. Their tails would not be docked. Breeding sows would be kept with other pregnant sows for socialization. Egg-laying hens might still live in broad enclosures but would have nest boxes, unfettered access to outdoor spaces, enough individual space to spread their wings, and be spared debeaking. Chickens raised for meat would have their genetics returned to where their growth rates were slower and their body confirmation more natural. They could then be kept on pasture with suitable shelter to protect them from climate and predators.
The idea of “humane slaughter” is perhaps the most contentious. At slaughter, line speeds can and should be slowed to a speed that can help prevent mistakes in stunning, and injuries to workers. Kill floors would be designed to minimize stress on both animals and the humans who are dealing with them. Animals would be confirmed insensate before being put on the disassembly line. Inspectors would keep watch on the process, and violations dealt with appropriately.
A truly humane system can potentially eliminate much of the suffering inherent in our current practices. Indeed, when we think deeply about the changes to animal husbandry outlined above and changes to the slaughter process, it would demand a considerably slower — and smaller — animal agriculture industry. To truly incorporate the changes above into farming and slaughter on a global scale, the true cost of animal products would rise considerably, and the products themselves would be less common, and less dominant.
A humane agricultural system may also produce environmental benefits, though just how much of an environmental benefit is still up for debate. Historically, grasslands included a variety of animals on the land. So-called “regenerative agriculture” attempts to (re)create these ecosystem services through a system of multi-species pasture rotations. Researchers studying these techniques have concluded that a regenerative approach could reduce the carbon emissions of cows by two-thirds from those of conventional cattle production. Unfortunately, this benefit comes at the cost of 2.5 times as much land — and studies have been criticized in some detail on the point that they don’t confirm net negative greenhouse gas emissions in regenerative systems. While these types of farms may help to revitalize rural communities which have been hollowed out by the dominance of big agriculture interests, their environmental benefits are less clear. As with regenerative agriculture, humane farming methods would require considerably more land than keeping animals confined indoors, meaning that a large shift in that direction would need to be accompanied by an overall reduction in demand.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that even vegan diets are not harm-free because of the deaths of small mammals, reptiles, and insects in fields where grains and soy are grown. Just how many animals who are indirectly affected by these practices is extremely difficult to calculate; globally, it’s probably in the billions — if we include insects and invertebrates, likely in the multiple trillions. While these deaths are likely quick, animals still die for every veggie burger.
Just as veganism — even of the abolitionist variety — can never be “perfect,” raising animals “humanely” comes with many benefits and a range of caveats. Products from a system in which animals are more compassionately raised will be more expensive and less accessible, which could increase food insecurity and exacerbate economic inequality. However, logic would dictate that this dynamic would also make plant-based foods more attractive, since they will be more affordable compared to foods made from animal products. A large-scale shift to humane methods would also likely increase the general public’s awareness of the harms done to animals in the name of our food system, and thus encourage more people to adopt a veg*n diet.
“Humane farming” is not an ideal solution, and billions of animals would continue to be raised and killed for food under such a system. However, on our path to advocating for a broader adoption of veg*nism and plant-based consumption, pushing for reforms can help to make farmed animal lives more bearable, and even livable, and it behooves us to consider it strategically and tactically. While “humane farming” will never be our destination, it may be a useful pit stop along the road to a more veg*n world.