The case against eating meat

Throughout history, many practices that have been accepted as normal have been horrendously immoral. One needn’t look very far to find examples of hideous practices that were seen as totally innocuous and challenged by few – beating children, for example, was seen as normal and permitted for much of human history. Our modern society is not exempt from the possibility of similar grievous errors – and I believe that many of us, in our food choices, are making a similar moral error. This moral error we make in our culinary choices is meat consumption.  

Most of us would agree that it’s wrong to be cruel to animals. If we saw a person kicking a dog or abusing a pig, we would speak up. So if it turns out that our meat is the product of much greater cruelty, the same moral impulse should push us to stop eating meat.   

It’s easy to have an idyllic picture of how animals are treated. Naturally, big factory farms want people to consume their products – and thus they’ve pushed for laws that make it illegal to photograph their practices. So it’s worth reviewing the facts surrounding the industries which many of us partake in on a daily basis.  Here are some of them:  

→ Many male pigs are castrated with no anaesthetic.  

→ Pregnant female pigs are, for their entire pregnancy, kept in tiny gestation crates with barely enough room to move or turn around. 

→ Half a million chickens are boiled alive every year. 

→ Chickens live in spaces smaller than a piece of notebook paper.

→ Egg-laying hens are stuffed into tiny cages and develop osteoporosis at alarming rates. To quote one report “Because a large amount of calcium goes into egg production, almost all battery hens suffer from osteoporosis, which is exacerbated by lack of exercise in cages.” 

→ In the egg industry, billions of baby male chicks are killed globally on their first day of life, often by being shredded by blender-like spinning metal blades, though sometimes by being simply thrown away to be suffocated in trash bags.  Male chickens aren’t the right type of chicken to be sold for meat and they can’t lay eggs, so they’re seen as a waste product and disposed of violently.  

→ 80% of pigs have pneumonia at the time of slaughter because they – despite their acute sense of smell – are forced to live in faeces and ammonia for most of their lives.  

→ Even supposedly high-welfare farms kill pigs – which are, relevantly, smarter than dogs – by beating them against concrete.  

→ Genetic modification leaves many chickens unable to walk properly.  

→ Most chickens live their entire lives without ever seeing the sun, except when they’re being transported to slaughter. 

→ Veal cows — which are produced as a byproduct of the dairy industry, meaning those who contribute to veal also contribute to the dairy industry — are crammed into tiny crates, with just enough space to stand, so that their muscles don’t properly develop, to make the meat more tender. 

→ A report documented some particular horrors of the pig industry. When they are young, sows are jammed between two rails, so that they cannot turn around and take care of the piglets, only feed them. This is done to prevent the sow from crushing a piglet to death, because of the lack of space. The piglets are brought to the weaning section after the nursing period of only 3 to 4 weeks (instead of the natural 14 weeks). At the age of about 72 days, they go to the fattening farm, where 14 of them are put in a sty of 10 m², usually on a grid floor without straw.

→ One particularly horrific fact is noted by Michael Pollan. Piglets in confinement operations are weaned from their mothers 10 days after birth (compared with 13 weeks in nature) because they gain weight faster on their hormone- and antibiotic-fortified feed. This premature weaning leaves the pigs with a lifelong craving to suck and chew, a desire they gratify in confinement by biting the tail of the animal in front of them. A normal pig would fight off his molester, but a demoralized pig has stopped caring. ”Learned helplessness” is the psychological term, and it’s not uncommon in confinement operations, where tens of thousands of hogs spend their entire lives ignorant of sunshine or earth or straw, crowded together beneath a metal roof upon metal slats suspended over a manure pit. So it’s not surprising that an animal as sensitive and intelligent as a pig would get depressed, and a depressed pig will allow his tail to be chewed on to the point of infection. Sick pigs, being underperforming ”production units,” are clubbed to death on the spot. The U.S.D.A.’s recommended solution to the problem is called ”tail docking.” Using a pair of pliers (and no anaesthetic), most but not all of the tail is snipped off. Why the little stump? Because the whole point of the exercise is not to remove the object of tail-biting so much as to render it more sensitive. Now, a bite on the tail is so painful that even the most demoralized pig will mount a struggle to avoid it.

It’s easy to imagine that one’s meat comes from some humane, small farmer who treats their animals well.  However, notably, more than 99% of meat in the U.S. comes from factory farms – vile, ghastly industrial organizations that mistreat their animals grievously.  The facts described above are not isolated instances – mistreatment is not unique to the industries described.  

This isn’t just a few bad apples – it’s what you get when industries treat sentient beings, many of whom are smarter than dogs, as products. A particularly notable instance of this came when, as a result of the massive amount of methane and ammonia present in a chicken barn, a barn fire burned 200,000 chickens to death.  It’s worth imagining the outrage there would have been if dogs had been burned alive rather than chickens.  However, an industry spokesperson declared “no one was injured.”  Animals are seen as “no one” and treated accordingly.  

If we lived in a world where every animal was treated well, the question of whether we should kill them for food would be a difficult one – perhaps best left to the philosophers.  But when animals are routinely mistreated in the most horrific ways imaginable, the notion that we shouldn’t contribute to their torture is a no-brainer.  If we seriously oppose animal cruelty, so too must we oppose the modern meat industry.  

It’s worth addressing some worries that people have about abstaining from animal products.  One may claim that meat is natural and thus it’s okay to eat it.  This is fallacious reasoning – many natural things like dying of disease at a young age are not good.  Additionally, the modern industrial factory farm is the opposite of natural.  

Some people worry that avoiding meat will be bad for their health, but the science doesn’t back this up.  In fact, a comprehensive survey of the entire field of studies on the health of vegans versus non-vegans concluded that veganism improves health.  Thus, the scientific community is quite clear about the health benefits of veganism.  

One may worry that abstaining from meat has no impact on the industry.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  If more people consume meat, more meat will be produced to keep up with the increased demand.  The most comprehensive study on the topic has concluded that the average consumer does make a real difference to the lives of many hundreds of animals over the course of their life.  

On top of this, the animal agriculture industry is responsible for a huge amount of environmental destruction.  A United Nations report concluded, “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”  

Even if one doesn’t want to abstain from meat, there are other effective ways of helping animals. Animal charity evaluators has a link to the most cost-effective charities that help animals at the lowest cost. Šimčikas estimates that every dollar donated can, on average, cause an extra 9-120 years of chickens living cage-free, rather than in cages. While cage-free chickens still have bad lives, it’s a clear improvement over being kept in tiny cages – and huge differences can be made at tiny costs. 

Thus, the case for abstaining from meat is overwhelming.  Meat has devastating health effects, is unimaginably cruel to animals, and is destroying our planet.  When animals are kept in tiny cages, unable to turn around, and all we have to do to avoid contributing to their confinement and torment is choose a different option from the dining hall or menu, we clearly should.  The moral case is abundantly clear – the only question is whether we care enough to do something about it.

This article was originally posted on the author’s personal blog.  

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