Livestock farming began approximately in 8,000BC. Historically speaking, farming unified people by transforming wandering nomads into land-based property owners. This revolutionised human relationships, mainly through the evolution and the dynamics of commerce. Those commercial relationships in turn lead to local population increases and hence paved the way for the creation of the first organised human societies.
Humans have been domesticating and living beside animals for thousands of years, using all that the latter have to offer. Animal products, such as eggs and dairy, have always been a source of nutrition for humans. It has even been argued that animal products, such as meat, constituted a leading factor in human evolution.
There are many references of farm animals in modern human culture: They appear in cartoons and movies, in our art, as symbols, and even in our literature, as a means of criticising our political systems. Farm animals are even revered in our religions – cows are perceived as holy in Hinduism, pork consumption is to be avoided at all costs by Muslims and various farm animals were portrayed in the iconic scene of the birth of Christ -.
In a more scientific approach, research has also indicated that some farm animals, such as pigs, are sentient and are fully able to perceive anxiety, pain and suffering through their developed cognition, which is matched to the one of a three year old child.
Since the beginning of the practice, rearing of livestock had a universally accepted and ultimate goal: To acquire the products the animal had to offer, like eggs or milk and finally slaughter it for its meat. This practice offered a sustainable and self-serving mechanism for small communities to develop.
However, as our populations kept – and keep – growing exponentially, the demand for meat spiralled rapidly. In the last few decades livestock farming has been largely transferred from the ‘hands’ of small, independent farmers, to big corporations.
We are now living in the era of ‘factory farming’, which constitutes a crime that must not go unnoticed.
So what is it that makes excessive meat eating – and by definition factory farming- unsustainable, even unethical? The object under consideration can be viewed through various perspectives.
Meat is devoid of essential nutrients such as fibers, yet is highly concentrated in saturated fat. This means that meat eating poses various health problems. Excessive meat-eating has been associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and even sexual incompetence. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has linked red meat consumption with prostate and breast cancer development. The World Health Organisation, which recently isolated bacon as a potential carcinogen, along with tobacco and solar radiation, has repeatedly published experimental data associating meat consumption with increased chances of development of various types of cancer. Research has shown that vegetarian or vegan diets (completely devoid of meat consumption) are fully sustainable and can lead to healthy lives.
Livestock rearing constitutes a great risk for global health as well, through the rise of antibiotic resistance. Livestock are continuously and uncontrollably pumped with antibiotics to prevent disease and death hence maximising production. This preemptive tactic of administering antibiotics raises serious concerns for the development of antibiotic resistance (Through the continuous and often needless exposure to antibiotics, pathogens gradually become resistant to the effects of antibiotics) leaving the potential for a future pandemic open.
It is hard for one to grasp the extent of abuse and cruelty that factory animals are subjected to. Paul McCartney once famously stated: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian”.
But this is not simply a trivial or banal emotional appeal. The list of footage shot from undercover activists, who expose those horrific conditions goes on and on and on leaving no margin for doubt – besides, images always resonate louder than words -. And the footage in those videos is not just appalling and disturbing, but it reveals something essentially criminal. In the modern and evolved human way of thinking, we accept that humans are not above nature, but a part of it, whilst acknowledging that farm animals have rights, as living, sentient beings. Following this train of thought, anyone capable of exhibiting such violent behaviour on a defenceless being, must be considered mentally unstable and unfit to live in our societies.
However, we cannot ease our consciousness by referring to those cases as “isolated” or “perpetrated by some unstable individuals”. These videos do not constitute an exception, rather the norm. Factory farming is built around the idea of efficiency and profit. Both the latter clash with the idea of animal welfare. When the demand for meat is sky-high, the line of production cannot be delayed.
But it is not just about efficiency. One can read the countless farm-worker testimonials. I will not elaborate on this, but I will say that you do not have to be a hardcore vegan or an animal-rights activist to be fundamentally shaken by the atrocities that go on in factory farms. You can read all about it in Gail Eisnitz’s book Slaughterhouse.
Therefore, the cruelty you witness in those videos is not an abstract, distant concept, rather the manifestation of our daily choice: “What should I put on my plate today?”.
Yet even if farms avoid unnecessary abuse, often a certain degree of harm is necessary for the animal to be slaughtered. Steaks do not just magically appear on our dishes. And this part screams individual ethical consumer responsibility. To quote Wendell Berry’s maxim (Found in Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Eating Animals”): “Every time you make a decision about food, you are farming by proxy”.
The abuse in factory farms is not limited to the criminal ways that animals are handled. It also manifests itself in the way workers’ most basic human rights are violated. Oxfam recently conducted a research, which shone a light unto these conditions, revealing that workers in poultry farms in the United States were not allowed bathroom breaks and were asked to wear diapers in order for the line of production to not be delayed.
Animal agriculture has been identified as the leading cause of climate change. The United Nations’ current estimates place factory farming as responsible for 18% of man-made climate change. Specifically:
- Raising livestock produces 40% more greenhouse emissions than the entire transportation sector. That is more than cars, trucks, trains, boats and planes combined. It is responsible for 37% of anthropogenic methane, which is 23 times more potent in terms of its global warming potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide. It is also responsible for 65% of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, which is 296 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its GWP.
- Raising livestock accounts for 30% of our total water consumption.
- Animal agriculture currently takes up one third of the Earth’s surface, a figure that is increasing on a daily basis. 91% of the deforestation that has been caused to the Brazilian Amazon is due to animal agriculture. Specifically, to make way for grain plantations, destined to feed livestock.
- It is responsible for the creation of ‘ocean dead-zones‘. Marine biodiversity is widely threatened, mainly due to overfishing and irresponsible treatment of factory animals’ waste.
- It is a major contributor of mass species extinction. As rainforests are inconceivably rich in biodiversity, their destruction leads to the extinction of species.
- 50% of grain and legumes produced daily are fed to farm animals. This excess of food could be used to completely eradicate world hunger.
[For the statistics and figures click here]
The Meat Industry has become so large and strong over the past few decades that it is now referred to as the ‘BigMeat’ alongside ‘BigTobacco’ and ‘BigOil’.
The best way for an industry to prevent a scandal from erupting is to use various means to hinder those who are trying to expose it. Like BigTobacco actively funded and manipulated studies about the health implications of smoking and BigOil funded (and still funds!) climate change denial research. BigMeat has lobbied for certain laws in the United States known as ‘Ag-gag bills’. These make working at a farm undercover illegal, along with applying for a farm job without providing a full disclosure of your background as a journalist or as an animal rights activist.
This activism suppression is alive and kicking even in the US where animal rights activists are perceived as the number one threat of domestic terrorism by the FBI.
We stand by animals, which are trapped in aquariums and zoos. Or the animals who are often abused in circuses, pet shops or fur farms. And kudos to us. But is ironic, if not hypocritical, that we scream in protest for the rights of all these animals, or even for the dogs that are slaughtered in the annual Yulin festival in China, yet we continue to look away from the crimes of factory farming.
This article did not start as an argument for vegetarianism. It started as a research around the objective facts of meat-eating. Yet, when one dwells into this literature he or she cannot remain idle. Reducing our global meat consumption will not solve all our problems. Yet many of the world’s most urgent problems, like water shortage, climate change, poverty and hunger are encompassed in the farming of animals.
Factory farming is one of our most banal crimes. In the face of this crime we can act or continue being comfortably unaware. The choice begins in our plate.