Beaks seared off with hot blades; pregnant sows with barely room to
take a step. And the scale of suffering is set to soar
Global meat consumption is predicted to double by 2020. Yet in Europe and North
America there is growing concern about the ethics of the way meat and eggs are
produced. The consumption of veal has fallen sharply since it became widely
known that, to produce so-called "white" - actually pale pink - veal,
newborn calves are separated from their mothers, deliberately made anaemic,
denied roughage and kept in stalls so narrow that they cannot walk or turn around.
In Europe mad cow disease shocked many people, not only because it shattered
beef's image as a safe and healthy food, but also because they learned that
the disease was caused by feeding cattle the brains and nerve tissue of sheep.
People who naively believed that cows ate grass discovered that beef cattle
may be fed anything from corn to fish meal, chicken litter (complete with chicken
droppings) and slaughterhouse waste.
Concern about how we treat farm animals is far from being limited to the small
percentage of people who are vegetarians or even vegans - eating no animal products
at all. Despite strong ethical arguments for vegetarianism, it is not yet a
mainstream position. More common is the view that we are justified in eating
meat, as long as the animals have a decent life before they are killed.
The problem, as Jim Mason and I describe in our recent book, is that industrial
agriculture denies animals even a minimally decent life. Tens of billions of
chickens produced today never go outdoors. They are bred to have voracious appetites
and gain weight as fast as possible, then reared in sheds that can hold more
than 20,000 birds. The level of ammonia in the air from their accumulated droppings
stings the eyes and hurts the lungs. Slaughtered at only 45 days old, their
immature bones can hardly bear the weight of their bodies. Some collapse and,
unable to reach food or water, soon die, their fate irrelevant to the economics
of the enterprise as a whole.
Conditions are, if anything, even worse for laying hens crammed into wire cages
so small that even if there were just one per cage she would be unable to stretch
her wings. But there are usually at least four hens per cage, and often more.
Under such crowded conditions, the more dominant, aggressive birds are likely
to peck to death the weaker hens in the cage. To prevent this, producers sear
off all birds' beaks with a hot blade. A hen's beak is full of nerve tissue
- it is, after all, her principal means of relating to her environment - but
no anaesthetic or analgesic is used to relieve the pain.
Pigs may be the most intelligent and sensitive of the animals that we commonly
eat. When foraging in a rural village they can exercise that intelligence and
explore their varied environment. Before they give birth, sows use straw or
leaves and twigs to build a comfortable, safe nest in which to nurse their litter.
But in today's factory farms pregnant sows are kept in crates so narrow that
they cannot turn around, or even walk more than a step forward or backward.
They lie on bare concrete without straw or any other form of bedding. The piglets
are taken from the sow as soon as possible, so that she can be made pregnant
again, but they never leave the shed until they are taken to slaughter.
Defenders of these production methods argue that they are a regrettable but
necessary response to a growing population's demand for food. On the contrary,
when we confine animals in factory farms we have to grow food for them. The
animals burn up most of that food's energy just to breathe and keep their bodies
warm, so we end up with a small fraction - usually no more than one-third and
sometimes as little as one-tenth - of the food value that we feed them. By contrast,
cows grazing on pasture eat food that we cannot digest, which means that they
add to the amount of food available to us.
It is tragic that countries such as China and India, as they become more prosperous,
are copying western methods and putting animals in huge industrial farms. If
this continues, the result will be animal suffering on an even greater scale
than now exists in the west, as well as more environmental damage and a rise
in heart disease and cancers of the digestive system. It will also be grossly
inefficient. As consumers, we have the power - and the moral obligation - to
refuse to support farming methods that are cruel to animals and bad for us.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University
and the author, with Jim Mason, of "The
Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter" project-syndicate.org