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The Case for Vegetarianism as a Response to the Prevalence of Factory Farming

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Mark Edwards, from Boone, Iowa, wears a pig mask during a rally in the Iowa State Capitol against factory farms on Jan. 23, 2020. Iowa is one of the leading pork producing states in the US and many of the pig farms are corporate owned factory farms. Credit: Jack Kurtz/Zuma Press/TNS

Author bio: Daniel C. Zipin, a fourth year music education major, is the music director for the Buckeye Philharmonic Orchestra and a student teacher at Hilliard City Schools. He has been a vegetarian for two months.


We have the privileged ability to reflect upon the actions of our ancestors within the context of history, acknowledging that many acts considered normal in their day and age are in fact morally reprehensible by any logical or ethical standard. Among these acts are colonialism, inhumane forms of capital punishment, child labor, blood sport — including cockfighting, dog fighting, or gladiatorial combat — and the list goes on. Just as we look back in disgust on the moral failings of our ancestors, our descendants will look back on our society’s actions with a similar displeasure.

In order to be truly ethical, free-thinking and responsible citizens, we must ask ourselves a simple question: “What are the commonplace actions of our time that will be viewed as abhorrent within the context of history?” In order to answer this question, we must abide by a set of ethical standards, follow those standards to their logical conclusions and act accordingly regardless of whether the conclusions we arrive at match the actions of the society in which we live. When one views the actions of our society under this stringent and serious consideration, it becomes clear that modern factory farming — a system which accounts for 99 percent of farm animals in the United States — is one of the great moral emergencies of our time. It is a moral emergency that necessitates both the practice of vegetarianism and the immediate push for reform within the animal agricultural industry.

A moral framework for the ethical considerations of nonhuman animals

There are many important and obvious differences between humans and nonhuman animals. But the question is not: “Are humans and nonhuman animals different from one another?” The question we need to ask ourselves is: “What is the morally relevant difference between humans and nonhuman animals that allows humans to exploit nonhuman animals however they see fit?” By any reasonable metric, there is no morally relevant difference between humans and nonhuman animals so severe as to allow for the animal torture that occurs daily on factory farms. 

The main difference between humans and nonhuman animals is, of course, intelligence. But is intelligence a relevant factor when considering whether or not a sensitive being should be treated ethically? It is known that pigs have a level of intelligence and self-awareness that is comparable to dogs. If intelligence were truly a morally relevant difference, then why would it be permissible to keep pigs in conditions so unnatural and unsavory that it causes them to go insane — before subsequently slaughtering and eating them — while giving a dog anything less than an idyllic life would be considered reprehensible?

No, intelligence is not a consideration that should determine whether or not we treat a living being ethically. The consideration that matters is whether that being has a capacity for pain and suffering. 

As the great English philosopher Jeremy Bentham  wrote in his 1789 publication, “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation,” “The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

And nonhumans animals can and do suffer. Vertebrate animals — including humans and many nonhuman animals — have a nervous system and external response to stimuli that clearly and unequivocally indicates the capacity of nonhuman animals to experience physical pain. Many animal species are known to exhibit emotional and psychological pain as well. For example, factory-farmed dairy cows — who are forcibly impregnated throughout their lives in order to generate a constant supply of milk — grieve the loss of their newborn calves when they are taken away to be sold as veal or are simply killed on-site

Is animal suffering justifiable?

In the face of overwhelming evidence, it should be accepted that nonhuman animals have the capacity for pain and suffering and that, in theory, they ought to be treated ethically. However, how can this be squared with the fact that killing animals for food is evolutionarily selected for and necessary for human survival?

Well, killing animals for food is simply not necessary for survival. It is true that killing animals for food was necessary in the days before agriculture, when hunting and gathering was humanity’s main form of sustenance and starvation was oftentimes a serious concern. Or perhaps if a man were stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat but a pig or a chicken, then he would be justified in killing that pig or chicken in order to survive. But neither of those scenarios bear any resemblance to the world in which we live. With the plethora of food options, menu items, vitamin supplements, ingredients and produce available to us from across the globe during any time of year, we do not need to kill — or pay for the killing of — animals in order to survive. Our most likely motivation for eating animals today is the fact that they taste delicious. But this begs the question: Is taste’s pleasure alone enough to justify the torture and killing of beings capable of suffering and deserving of moral consideration?

Is it ethical to eat “humanely raised” animals?

It is obvious that factory farming is morally repugnant and unworthy of financial support from consumers. However, what about small, local, backyard farms that provide their animals with a good life before slaughter?

The short answer is yes; depending on one’s moral framework, it may be ethical to eat animals who lived a generally pleasant life well into their adulthood with plenty of nutritious food and comfort, the opportunity to raise their calves, had all their other instinctual desires met and were killed painlessly. However, this scenario is, for all practical intents and purposes, a mere thought experiment and not a reality.  Seventy-five percent of U.S. adults believe that they typically consume humane products, yet only 1 percent of animal products come from non-factory farms. Food labels claiming “humanely raised” animals are often extraordinarily misleading and wildly inaccurate. The few farmed animals who do have a pleasant existence are often transported over long distances to slaughterhouses in ghastly, cruel conditions during their final days of life. This type of animal cruelty, although better than conventional factory farming, cannot be justified for taste’s pleasure alone. Except for the rare few cases in which the consumer has raised the animal on their own or otherwise has an intimate knowledge of the animal’s life and death, there is no such thing as humanely raised meat. In nearly all cases, the only way to guarantee the minimization of animal suffering is to choose something from the menu that does not include animal products.

(Part One of this document was largely based on the work of philosopher and Princeton University professor Peter Singer and his landmark 1975 publication, “Animal Liberation”)

The human and environmental cost of factory farming

Antibiotic resistance is one of the looming health crises of our time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has described antibiotic resistance as “… one of the world’s most urgent public health problems,” accounting for 2.8 million bacterial infections annually, a number which is continuing to grow at an alarming rate. Millions of people rely on antibiotics for medical treatment, including those who undergo surgery and organ transplants, as well as those with chronic conditions such as diabetes. In order to prevent unnecessary human suffering and mortality, we must prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, if at all possible. 

The CDC lists animal agriculture as one of the primary causes of antibiotic resistance. Research published by the National Institutes of Health states that: “The potential threat to human health resulting from inappropriate antibiotic use in food animals is significant … and could be widely disseminated in food products.” So, doing our part to prevent the spread of antibiotic resistance is not only possible, but it is also straightforward. In order to eliminate one of the primary causes of a looming public health crisis, all we need to do is stop paying for factory-farmed goods, at least until the industry finds a way to judiciously and responsibly administer antibiotics only to the animals who truly need them. 

Furthermore, in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic there is an ever-growing concern regarding zoonotic viruses, which are viruses that develop in nonhuman animals and then spread to infect human populations. The modern system of factory farming, a system which packs as many as 20,000 chickens into a single 400-foot-long warehouse and then ships them all over the country to various slaughterhouses and processing plants, is the ideal environment for such viruses to proliferate, mutate and go on to infect human beings. If another global viral pandemic is to be avoided, then we must select vegetarian or vegan options from the menu until factory farming becomes obsolete in our society. 

In addition to the pressing medical concerns of animal agriculture, there is an abundance of environmental concern. Agriculture and land accounts for more than one-fifth of the world’s human-made carbon emissions. In the average American diet, animal products — including meat, dairy, seafood and eggs — account for a whopping 83.5 percent of food-related carbon emissions. The pollution caused by factory farms costs more money than the farms actually contribute to global economic output. Not to mention the devastating environmental costs of deforestation spurred by cattle ranching

Beyond these ethical, medical and environmental concerns, factory farming is a human rights issue. In 2010, the Human Rights Watch labeled slaughterhouse work in the United States as a human rights crime due to the industry’s mistreatment of migrant workers. In fact, the abhorrent treatment and working conditions of low-wage workers in animal agriculture is significant and well-documented

Questions and objections regarding a vegetarian diet

Does being vegetarian actually reduce animal suffering? People are going to buy meat regardless of whether or not a single individual chooses to eat animals. 

Given enough time, a single individual refusing to fund modern animal agriculture will reduce animal suffering. There will inevitably be a cutoff point. After a certain number of times an individual opts to buy an Impossible Whopper rather than a traditional Whopper at Burger King, for example, the restaurant will decide to increase their production of the vegetarian burgers and decrease their production of beef burgers. Additionally, the more individuals there are that choose vegetarian options, the more prevalent vegetarian products will become in our society, therefore greatly reducing animal suffering in factory farms over time.

Doesn’t plant agriculture destroy natural habitats and cause animal suffering and environmental damage as well? Everything we consume likely causes some form of animal suffering or environmental waste.

The vast majority of plant agriculture in the U.S. is used for producing livestock feed. Most of the animal suffering and environmental destruction caused by plant agriculture is a direct result of animal agriculture. If the goal is to eliminate animal suffering and environmental destruction wherever possible, then refusing to buy factory farmed products is the most obvious step to take.  

But eating meat is natural. 

Although humans did evolve to be able to eat some meat, that does not mean it is ethical to do so in modern society — “Can they suffer?” And even though eating meat is natural, factory farming is clearly an unnatural product of the relatively recent human-made industrialization and commodification of animals. 

Conclusion

The beginning of this document stated that in order to be ethically and morally consistent, we must follow a set of universal principles to their logical conclusions. The question of whether consuming animal products is ethical follows a simple set of premises and a logical conclusion. First, unnecessary pain and suffering should be avoided, and second, modern animal agriculture causes unnecessary pain and suffering; the conclusion that necessarily follows is that we must not pay for the pain and suffering caused by modern animal agriculture. 

As activist Alex O’Connor said, “The exploitation of animals for food, entertainment, and clothing disappears the moment that we stop paying for it to continue.” 

The ethical, medical, environmental and human rights atrocities committed by factory farms demand that we stop paying for them to continue, regardless of any amount of convenience or sensory pleasure that we may receive from consuming animals. Given the ubiquity of factory farming across 99 percent of animal products in the U.S., the only substantive way to stop paying into the industry is to stop eating meat altogether. Some social scientists believe that as our society’s moral progress advances and our animal-free food technology continues to proliferate, the developed world may abandon factory farming as early as the 22nd century

When our descendants look back — inevitably recognizing the intense animal suffering and environmental waste on factory farms as the moral atrocity that it is — would you like to be remembered as one of the protagonists on the issue, or would you rather be remembered as a cause behind the institutional suffering of innocent creatures?