“Humanely-Raised” Meat and Animal Welfare

I wrote this response to an argument I heard recently that buying “humanely-raised” meat could reduce animal suffering more than going vegetarian or vegan, because it would increase the market for those products.

I use quotation marks around “humanely-raised” because, for practical purposes, there is no humane way to raise animals for human consumption.  “Humanely-raised” animals still suffer.

Most “free-range” chickens, for example, are still crowded tightly in dark, stench-filled sheds and still painfully de-beaked without anesthesia. A small door in the shed leads to a tiny outdoor run; however, very few of the birds are able to cross the crowded shed to access it. “Humanely- produced” dairy products still require cows to be kept constantly pregnant–that’s the only way to get a continual supply of milk–and the newborn calves are still taken away at birth, so that humans can consume milk or cheese.  Cows know their own babies and cry out for them long after the calves are taken away.  In egg production, only females will eventually lay eggs, of course, so hatcheries kill male chicks right after hatching, seldom humanely.  A backyard chicken keeper may be completely unaware of the slaughter that preceded her order from a hatchery of young hens to raise.

Even if a farmer is willing to provide a natural outdoor life, animals bred and raised for human consumption always have their young taken away, and are slaughtered early in life, usually after less than one-fourth of a full life span.  Also, in order to qualify for the organic label, farmers may be required to withhold drugs from animals who become sick, causing more suffering.  Is it humane for us as a society to confine and dictate the circumstances of life and early death for over ten billion sentient animals in the U.S. each year?  If we treated dogs this way, would it be considered ethical?

Increased support for “humane” farmers would not mean better conditions for all livestock animals, due to reasons of economics and scale. Regarding economics, the market for any product always moves in the direction of greater efficiency and lower price.  In the case of livestock animals, greater efficiency and lower price mean greater crowding and more harmful exploitation, so that even “humane” farmers will constantly be tempted to cut corners, to treat animals less well, in order to get the price of those steaks or eggs a few cents lower than their competitors.  That’s why factory farming methods became the norm.

In terms of scale, animals raised under marginally better conditions will always be a higher-priced niche market for a relatively few people; it cannot be widely expanded.  Why? Any kind of meat production is highly resource-intensive, but “humanely-raised” meat production requires even more.  Our planet simply does not have sufficient pasture land, topsoil, water, and energy to allow a higher percentage of farmed animals to take up more space and consume the food necessary for longer lives. For example, if all feedlot cattle in the U.S. were grass-raised instead, at roughly ten acres per cow, they would occupy nearly half our land area!

A fact that makes any type of livestock raising even less defensible is that eating meat is completely unnecessary, in fact detrimental, to human health.  Furthermore, reduced meat consumption would greatly benefit the planet, because livestock agriculture is a primary source of deforestation, topsoil erosion, and water pollution, while producing more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector combined.  Grass-fed cattle, for example, produce more methane, a potent greenhouse gas, than do those in feedlots.

Why confine, manipulate, and slaughter sentient creatures when it is both unnecessary as well as harmful to human health and the health of the planet?  Plant-based meals are colorful, varied, healthful, satisfying, and delicious, and you’ll find more support than ever these days for enjoying more of them, while reducing your overall meat consumption.

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