Let me start by saying that I come at this post with my feet firmly planted on Team People.
I love animals because they’re delicious. Cute ones even more so. I strongly advocate the eating of meat and hold a special disdain for vegetarians and their evil cousins the vegans, but that’s an issue for another time. That said, as meat eaters, we have a certain responsibility to ensure that the animals that give their lives so that we can eat the food we enjoy are well treated throughout their lives, from farm to feedlot to slaughter. Sadly, I contend more through lack of education than any kind of active malice, this is a responsibility that has been largely ignored by the carnivorous public.
The industrialization of our food supply, while absolutely necessary in order to feed the burgeoning global population, has resulted in a situation where many farm animals are raised in conditions that would be considered unconscionable to any rational person.
The current state of industrial farming is analogous to the state of manufacturing during the industrial revolution, where North Americans became accustomed to readily available, inexpensive goods. Along with the benefits of industrialization came rampant pollution, child labour, indentured servitude, and horrible, unsafe working conditions. Over time, the growth of labour unions (as much as it pains me to say anything nice about a labour union, there’s no question they served an important purpose at one time) and the re-education of the public eventually moved us to the labour standards we enjoy today.
Make no mistake, the animals we eat are the line workers of the agricultural industrial process. Their job is to eat, eat some more, die and eventually end up on my plate. The farmers are the management. They ensure the animals eat enough, grow big enough and ultimately produce a good product.
The benefits of industrialized agriculture? I can buy 2 chicken breasts for $6.95, a T-Bone steak for $10 and a dozen eggs for $3.99. I can buy any of these items at any grocery store, any time I want. By lowering the price, we have democratized nutrition.
A few facts:
- The past 40 years has seen a greater increase in food production than has been experienced over the balance of human history.
- Industrially raised broiler chickens are housed 15 to 17 per square meter.
- Egg laying hens (battery hens) are housed 4 to 6 in a wire cage with floor space the size of a folded newspaper. They are never let out.
- The final weeks of a cow’s life are spent on a feedlot with up to 50,000 of their brethren.
- Dairy cows often spend their entire lives in pens not much larger than their own bodies, making even lying down difficult.
Starting to see any parallels? The extreme overcrowding results in the rampant spread of disease, which is countered by the use of copious amounts of antibiotics. These antibiotics, of course, eventually make it into the food we consume. Further, the objectification of livestock (even live cows are referred to as “beef”) can result in extreme maltreatment, causing suffering in these animals that the public would never accept if it were occurring to a dog or a cat. I’ve left out some of the more sensationalist extremes advanced by PETA and others of their ilk such as the de-beaking of chickens and the processing of animals while they’re still alive as these are by all accounts isolated incidents and not at all reflective of standard farming practices. Of course, the major difference between today’s industrialized agriculture and the industrialized manufacturing of the early 1800’s is that cows and chickens can’t form labour unions.
So what’s the solution? How do we continue to produce the same amount of meat, sell it for the same low prices we’ve all come to expect, and ensure that the animals we eat are well treated? How the hell should I know? I’m just a banker. What I do know, however, is that until people educate themselves as to the conditions the animals live in, there will be absolutely no incentive for farming operations to change their ways.
As consumers in 2012, we expect that the goods we buy were manufactured responsibly, with as much respect for the environment as is reasonably possible and in the best working conditions that are reasonably achievable. As seen when the news came out about Apple’s largest supplier, Foxconn, when we learn that this isn’t the case there is a backlash, swift and severe. Only weeks after the Foxconn story made the front page, the company increased its employees’ wages by 25% and pledged to improve working conditions. Despite this focus on corporate social responsibility, we still expect our goods to be reasonably priced and of high quality. Why the hell don’t we place the exact same expectations of corporate responsibility on the food we buy at the grocery store?
The solution is not to stop eating meat. As a start, we need to demand the same manufacturing standards for our meat as we do for everything else we buy. “But”, my vegetarian readers are screaming at their computer screen, “the only way to make them change is to hit them where it hurts! Stop buying their products!” Sorry to get your knit hats in a knot but, just like the Foxconn news didn’t prompt people to stop buying Apple’s products, to think that any movement would ever be able to get enough people on Earth to stop eating meat that it would make any kind of difference is absolutely ludicrous. The backlash against Foxconn was one of shame and public disdain that was only possible because of the democratization of information through the New Media, and the ease of engagement we now have through things like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Absolutely no change is possible with an uneducated public, and on the topic of industrialized agriculture, that’s exactly what we’re dealing with.
So assuming you’re not planning to stop eating meat, what can you do? I don’t support going all organic because, for one, it’s too damn expensive and, secondly, organic foods bring their own set of problems so it’s not a complete solution anyway (I’ll explore the pitfalls of organic foods some other time). I will say, however, that on the occasions that you can afford to buy a local, organic free-range chicken, organic cage-free eggs or an organic grass-fed steak, do it! Not only will you be supporting smaller farmers who need all the help they can get, you’ll be buying a product that truly does taste noticeably superior to its industrially farmed counterpart. While the moral argument for animal welfare is certainly strong enough to stand on its own, as cooks and food lovers, we should also recognize that animals that have been well treated throughout their lives simply taste better!
If you’ve managed to make it all the way through this obscenely long post, you’re likely to be more educated on this subject now than the average North American. Everyone who eats meat has a moral responsibility to understand where it comes from, however the vast majority of us remain completely ignorant. Our demand for meat is what has made industrialized farming what it is today and that demand isn’t going away any time soon. It’s incumbent upon those of us who eat meat to demand that it is produced ethically, and if we can’t drive change with all the tools available to us today, then shame on us.