Factory Farming: A Moral Issue
The Minnesota Daily, March 22, 2006
There is a growing consensus that factory farming of animals — also known as CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations — is morally wrong. The American animal rights movement, which in its early years focused largely on the use of animals in research, now has come to see that factory farming represents by far the greater abuse of animals. The numbers speak for themselves. In the United States somewhere between 20 million and 40 million birds and mammals are killed for research every year. That might seem like a lot — and it far exceeds the number of animals killed for their fur, let alone the relatively tiny number used in circuses — but 40 million represents less than two days’ toll in America’s slaughterhouses, which kill about 10 billion animals each year.
The overwhelming majority of these animals have spent their entire lives confined inside sheds, never going outdoors for a single hour. Their suffering isn’t just for a few hours or days, but for all their lives. Sows and veal calves are confined in crates too narrow for them even to turn around, let alone walk a few steps. Egg-laying hens are unable to stretch their wings because their cages are too small and too crowded. With nothing to do all day, they become frustrated and attack each other. To prevent losses, producers sear off their beaks with a hot knife, cutting through sensitive nerves.
Chickens, reared in sheds that hold 20,000 birds, now are bred to grow so fast that most of them develop leg problems because their immature bones cannot bear the weight of their bodies. Professor John Webster of the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Science said: “Broilers are the only livestock that are in chronic pain for the last 20 percent of their lives. They don’t move around, not because they are overstocked, but because it hurts their joints so much.”
Sometimes their legs collapse under them, causing them to starve to death because they cannot reach their food. Of course, the producers then cannot sell these birds, but economically, they are still better off with the freakishly fast-growing breeds they use. As an article in an industry journal noted, “simple calculations” lead to the conclusion that often “it is better to get the weight and ignore the mortality.” Another consequence of the genetics of these birds is that the breeding birds — the parents of the ones sold in supermarkets — constantly are hungry, because, unlike their offspring that are slaughtered at just 45 days old, they have to live long enough to reach sexual maturity. If fed as much as they are programmed to eat, they soon would be grotesquely obese and die or be unable to mate. So they are kept on strict rations that leave them always looking in vain for food.
Opposition to factory farming, once associated mostly with animal rights activists, now is shared by many conservatives, among them Matthew Scully, a former speech writer in President George W. Bush’s White House and the author of “Dominion: The Power of Man, The Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.” In Scully’s view, even though God has given us “dominion” over the animals, we should exercise that dominion with mercy — and factory farming fails to do so. Scully’s writings have found support from other conservatives, like Pat Buchanan, editor of The American Conservative, which gave cover-story prominence to Scully’s essay “Fear Factories: The Case for Compassionate Conservatism — for Animals,” and George F. Will, who used his Newsweek column to recommend Scully’s book.
No less a religious authority than Pope Benedict XVI has stated that human “dominion” over animals does not justify factory farming. While head of the Roman Catholic Church’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the future pope condemned the “industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds.” This “degrading of living creatures to a commodity” seemed to him “to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
Some people think that factory farming is necessary to feed the growing population of our planet. The truth, however, is the opposite. No matter how efficient intensive pork, beef, chicken, egg and milk production becomes, in the narrow sense of producing more meat, eggs or milk for each pound of grain we feed the animals, raising animals on grain remains wasteful. Far from increasing the total amount of food available for human consumption, it reduces it.
A concentrated animal feeding operation is, as the name implies, an operation in which we concentrate the animals and feed them. Unlike cattle or sheep on pasture, they don’t feed themselves. There lies the fundamental environmental flaw: Every CAFO relies on cropland, on which the food the animals eat is grown. Because the animals, even when confined, use much of the nutritional value of their food to move, keep warm and form bone and other inedible parts of their bodies, the entire operation is an inefficient way of feeding humans. It places greater demands on the environment in terms of land, energy and water than other forms of farming. It would be more efficient to use the cropland to grow food for humans to eat.
Factory farming, overwhelmingly dominated by huge corporations like Tyson, Smithfield, ConAgra and Seaboard, has contributed to rural depopulation and the decline of the family farm. It has nothing going for it except that it produces food that is, at the point of sale, cheap. But for that low price, the animals, the environment and rural neighborhoods have to pay steeply.
Fortunately there are alternatives, including eating a vegan diet, or buying animal products only from producers who allow their animals to go outside and live a minimally decent life. It is time for a shift in our values. While our society focuses on issues like gay marriage and the use of embryos for research, we are overlooking one of the big moral issues of our day. We should see the purchase and consumption of factory-farm products, whether by an individual or by an institution like a university, as a violation of the most basic ethical standards of how we should treat animals and the environment.
I will be speaking at 7 p.m. Thursday at Ted Mann Concert Hall.