The Basis for Recognizing Animal Rights in the US Food System

For many centuries, Western culture has regarded animals as objects, subject to human exploitation and abuse. This view is deeply rooted in public perception and the legal system and woven into many of the structures upon which society currently relies.

The movement for animal rights aims to overturn these harmful notions and, by doing so, increase understanding, compassion, and respect for the multitude of animal species with whom we share the planet.


In many countries, including the US, animals are legally considered property, a classification that allows for their treatment as exploitable objects rather than sentient beings. This legal categorization reveals how society has conditioned people to prioritize human interests, preferences, and desires at the expense of animals and their wellbeing. These attitudes are justified by widely-held beliefs that animals cannot possess interests, preferences, or desires themselves—beliefs propagated by influential thinkers like René Descartes, who asserted in the seventeenth century that animals are essentially machines responding to base stimuli.

The philosophy of animal rights aims to reverse this objectification of animals, elevating their formal status from something to someone and ultimately releasing them from human exploitation of any kind, whether in farms, laboratories, or any other venue where their autonomy is typically denied. Animal rights would theoretically extend to animals living in wild habitats, making activities such as whaling and deer hunting a violation of those animals’ rights. The interests of animals would also need to be accounted for when humans intrude on natural habitats or exploit natural resources that wild animals require, for example, via mining, logging, agriculture, and urban development.


Human rights arise from the perceived inherent value of a human mind, an idea based on the fact that all members of our species consistently experience and can express emotions such as pain, joy, love, and the desire for safety and comfort. The value attached to human wellbeing has led to the development of various norms and laws to protect human needs—although patriarchy, racism, and other forms of oppression continue to perpetuate inequality in the protection of human rights.

In contrast to human minds, animal minds are often considered unknowable, unreadable, and therefore unimportant, rendering the exploitation of animals for human purposes acceptable to the public. The denial of animal rights is based on the fact that people cannot understand the expressive languages of animals, making it difficult to measure whether animals can experience emotions and pain and whether they value safety and comfort.

Yet, these notions of the inferiority of animals’ minds are increasingly challenged by the growing accumulation of scientific knowledge suggesting that animals likely do experience pain,[1] possess inner worlds including memories,[2] and show emotional sophistication.[3] This knowledge is challenging the many human preconceptions and daily practices that give rise to animal suffering and the trampling of animals’ ability to enjoy autonomous, pain-free lives. If nonhuman animals possess elements of consciousness and sentience, should their inherent value be recognized by inalienable rights? 


The evolution of the animal rights movement in the US parallels a gradual shift of public attitudes toward rights and social policy since the latter half of the nineteenth century. British moral thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and advances in UK policy influenced US viewpoints on animals, leading to the 1866 establishment of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Half a century later, the novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair advanced this thinking again by providing a widely read and scathing critique of the meatpacking industry.[4]

A distinct US animal rights movement emerged during the twentieth century, led by several influential publications and public organizations. In 1954, the Humane Society of the United States was formed to advocate for improved animal protection and an end to animal cruelty. In 1975, with his book Animal Liberation, philosopher Peter Singer made the utilitarian argument that there is no logically consistent justification for furthering the preferences and interests of human beings by sacrificing the preferences and interests of animals.[5] While his argument was not based upon animals holding inherent rights, Singer’s approach galvanized contemporary social thought relating to the treatment of animals. Singer’s philosophy later influenced the 1980 founding of the nation’s largest animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In 1983, philosopher Tom Regan’s seminal treatise The Case for Animal Rights approached the question of animal rights by building upon the work of Immanuel Kant. Regan advanced a deontological rights perspective arguing that animals have the same inherent value as humans because both humans and animals are “subjects of a life” and thus, have the right not to be used by others as a means to an end.[6]


While both animal welfare and animal rights aim to protect animals from human-caused harm, these concepts can diverge significantly in both philosophy and action. Whereas animal welfare seeks to prevent unnecessary suffering without ending all suffering or exploitation, an animal rights approach aims to lift animals beyond the reach of human use altogether by granting animals the right to retain control over their own lives and bodies.

Animal welfare approaches aim to improve the treatment of animals under human control, whether on farms, in laboratories, or in homes. Some animal welfare laws exist in the US, most notably the Animal Welfare Act. Yet, by still permitting a great deal of suffering to occur, the Act’s limitations reveal the problematic nature of welfare as a framework for fully protecting animals. Farmed animals, for example, are exempt from protection under the Act, despite the suffering and slaughter that billions of animals undergo each year in the US food system.

In contrast, the philosophy of animal rights argues for an abolitionist approach to animal exploitation. Animal rights thinking is based on reassessing the value ascribed to animal lives and the morality of subjecting animals to human control. An animal rights framing abjures any form of animal captivity since captivity infringes on an animal’s essential rights of freedom and self-determination.

Despite their differences, there can be significant practical overlap between rights and welfare approaches in the animal protection movement. Some advocates take a pragmatic approach, seeking incremental improvements in the lives of exploited animals while maintaining rights-based philosophical underpinnings. Given how entrenched animal exploitation is in modern human economies and the degree of suffering animals endure in captivity, incremental changes can still improve the lives of thousands and even millions of animals. In addition, gradual improvements in animal welfare awareness can also help move the public conversation toward more rights-oriented perspectives. 


There are currently no laws that protect animal rights in the US because the rights of animals have yet to be acknowledged, either philosophically or practically. There are, however, some significant developments that are paving the way toward more formal animal rights laws.

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is a nonprofit organization working to establish nonhuman personhood. The legal concept of personhood is necessary for an entity to be recognized as a rights-holder within the US legal system. Currently, all nonhuman animals are considered property and are therefore unable to possess rights.[7] Achieving nonhuman personhood status for living animals would allow the release of nonhuman persons from abusive situations and subsequent litigation to pursue punitive actions against rights violations.

Outside the US, there has been encouraging international progress on animal rights law. South Korea plans to grant legal status to animals with an amendment to the Civil Act in a bid to stem a growing tide of abuse to companion animals. In the UK, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill aims to align laws with the growing body of scientific evidence that demonstrates that animals are sentient and therefore suffer when pain is inflicted on them. Although both bills are welfare-oriented in that they allow for the continued use of animals for human purposes, they are nevertheless progressive in transcending the objectification of animals and potentially opening the door to further legal protections.


Contrary to a view of animals as unfeeling objects, contemporary science reveals that animals can think and feel and can experience pain, depression, and boredom. And, like us, they can express themselves by laughing, speaking,[8] and singing,[9] among many other unique forms of expression. Improving recognition and respect for animals’ rights is an essential step in humanity’s evolving understanding of the depth of animal minds and sensibilities.

Intersectional Benefits OF ANIMAL RIGHTS

In the context of food and farming, arguments for animal rights can include moral justifications, as well as perspectives related to public health and environmental protection.


Farmed animals can experience physical and psychological pain. Implementation of laws based on an animal rights philosophy would see an end to conventional animal farming, in which animals are exploited for human benefit. A rights perspective would preclude any economic or ethical justification for intentionally exposing animals to the sort of harm that commonly occurs in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), including extreme confinement, separation of mothers from their young, overcrowding and anxiety, and eventual slaughter long before the end of animals’ natural lifespans.


Industrial animal farming generates immense public health risks, which would be avoided if animal rights halted the conventional production of animals for human consumption. Whether they house poultry, hogs, or cattle, the CAFOs that produce most US meat and animal products generate vast volumes of concentrated manure. These wastes can endanger or even kill farm employees and contaminate water supplies and air in adjacent rural communities. In addition to the human health risks posed by manure, animal farming is one of the most significant contributors to the emergence of zoonotic diseases that cause pandemics.[10] Eliminating CAFOs and replacing animal protein with alternative foods would reduce future pandemic risk while significantly improving the air, land, and water quality.


Overall, eliminating animal farming for human consumption would increase the amount of food available for human populations. Whereas animals living unrestricted lives forage for food in the natural environment, animals kept in confinement eat grain- and legume-based feed produced by farming commodity crops like corn and soy. Although animal feed includes crops and crop residues that are not edible by humans, one-third of the world’s human-edible grain goes to farmed animals, and animal farming requires the output of 40% of global arable land.[11] Although animals in some regions of the world currently provide important supplemental nutrition for vulnerable human populations, alternatives exist for creating a food system that prioritizes human nutrition without relying on the suspension of animal rights.


Recognizing animal rights by ending the farming of animals for food would also go a long way toward bringing global greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets within reach. In 2017, research revealed that replacing beef cattle production in the US with the cultivation of beans could free up 42% of US cropland and provide GHG savings equivalent to up to three-quarters of 2020 US emissions reduction targets. Globally, producing animals for food emits twice as many GHGs as producing plant-based foods.[12] Shifting to a plant-based food system by 2050 would remove GHG emissions from animal farming and could provide additional carbon sequestration potential. Even without further emissions reductions from other sectors, a plant-based food system protecting animal rights would shift carbon emissions enough to give the world a reasonable chance at limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees C.[13]  


Eliminating animal agriculture under the banner of animal rights could greatly assist in preserving forest lands worldwide. The corn, soy, and other grains fed to animals in CAFOs are often genetically modified and grown in unsustainable industrial monocrops. In their most damaging form, many feed crops are produced in places like the Brazilian Amazon, enabled by logging and burning primary rainforest lands to make way for soybeans. Animal agriculture is one of the primary drivers of deforestation within this critical habitat.


Many major US industries would look very different if animal rights were legally enshrined. Animals would no longer be used for food or clothing, resulting in the abolition of CAFOs and the vast amounts of pollution they generate. Instead of farming animals and their feed crops, US farmers could instead grow crops for direct human consumption and the accelerating plant-based food industry, contributing to the emergence of a new farm economy compatible with animal rights. Laboratories would no longer test medicines and cosmetics on animals, shifting instead to existing computer modeling or biological testing alternatives. Even the way animals live as companions might change if human caretakers fully recognize animals as beings in their own right, with their own interests and feelings.


Achieving animal rights recognition in the US can transform a range of industries to be healthier and more sustainable, including food production, personal care products, and textiles. Although there is a long way to go before the rights of nonhuman species can be formally recognized and respected by US law, change is brewing. Calls for improved animal welfare are proliferating, revealing a society no longer comfortable with historical norms of animal treatment. Similarly, the animal rights movement is gaining momentum, bolstered by documentaries, undercover reporting exposing the cruel treatment of animals in everyday contexts, and continuing research demonstrating the cognitive and social complexity of nonhuman animals. As plant-based technologies increasingly replace animal products from meat to leather, the utilitarian justification for exploiting animals is rapidly disappearing.

[1] Robert W. Elwood, “Potential Pain in Fish and Decapods: Similar Experimental Approaches and Similar Results,” Frontiers in Veterinary Science 8 (April 2021),

[2] Cornell, H. N. et al., “Social learning spreads knowledge about dangerous humans among American crows”, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, (June 29 2011),

[3] Lori Marino and Christina M. Colvin, “Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus Domesticus,” International Journal of Comparative Psychology 28 (2015).

[4] Sinclair, Upton, and Earl Lee. The Jungle: The Uncensored Original Edition. See Sharp Press, 2003.

[5] Singer, Peter. “Animal liberation.” In Animal rights, pp. 7-18. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1973.

[6] Regan, Tom. “The case for animal rights.” In Advances in animal welfare science 1986/87, pp. 179-189. Springer, Dordrecht, 1987.

[7] Ruth S. Musgrave, Sara Parker, and Miriam Wolok, “The Status of Poaching in the United States—Are We Protecting Our Wildlife?”, Natural Resources Journal 33, no. 4 (Fall 1993): 977–1014,

[8] Vyacheslav A. Ryabov, “The Study of Acoustic Signals and the Supposed Spoken Language of the Dolphins,” St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal: Physics and Mathematics 2, no. 3 (October 2016):231–239,

[9] Timothy E. Holy and Zhongsheng Guo, “Ultrasonic Songs of Male Mice,” PLOS Biology 3, no. 12 (December 2005): 2177–2186,

[10] United Nations Environment Program and International Livestock Research Institute, Preventing The Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission (Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment Program, 2020).

[11] Anne Mottet et al., “Livestock: On Our Plates or Eating at Our Table? A New Analysis of the Feed/Food Debate,” Global Food Security, Food Security Governance in Latin America, 14 (September 1, 2017): 1–8,

[12] Xiaoming Xu et al., “Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Animal-Based Foods Are Twice Those of Plant-Based Foods,” Nature Food 2, no. 9 (September 2021): 724–32,

[13] Matthew N. Hayek et al., “The Carbon Opportunity Cost of Animal-Sourced Food Production on Land,” Nature Sustainability 4, no. 1 (January 2021): 21–24,

About the author

Stray Dog Institute

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

About the Author

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

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