Animals have been impacted by human food systems in the Americas since the earliest days of human settlement, roughly 30,000 years ago. Hunting by humans in the Americas likely contributed to the extinction of many large land animals like the woolly mammoth and the mastodon during the end of the Pleistocene era. European colonizers later imported extractive agriculture, including the intensive farming of domesticated animals.
In the US, animal farming has increased sharply since the beginning of the twentieth century. The advent of modern industrial technologies and the subsequent rise of profit-driven multinational food and agriculture corporations have drastically changed the character of human-animal relationships. The development of industrial animal farming in the latter half of the twentieth century brought an unprecedented erosion of farmed animal welfare caused by increasing production volume at the expense of animal and environmental wellbeing.
As humanity continues to learn more about animals’ capacity to suffer in confinement, the need for improved farming practices becomes increasingly apparent. It is time for a paradigm shift within the US food system, bringing a new era of plant-based farming and an end to farming practices that disregard animal welfare.
WHAT IS FARMED ANIMAL WELFARE?
The concept of welfare refers to an animal’s health and psychological condition while under the control of human beings. Welfare protocols, policies, and laws condone the use of animals for food but aim to prevent unnecessary harm during raising and slaughtering. In the US food system, most farmed animals enjoy few basic welfare protections, and existing rules overwhelmingly prioritize the financial interests of corporate food producers. For example, animals raised for food are excluded entirely from the federal Animal Welfare Act, and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act that governs farmed animals lacks an enforcement provision.
Farmed animals play a significant role in US society, although most US residents rarely, if ever, interact with farmed animals directly. Instead, most farmed animals are confined inside industrial production facilities known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Animals in CAFOs are raised by the tens of thousands under exploitative conditions and slaughtered years ahead of their natural life expectancy. US legislation has a long way to go to resolve the systemic welfare concerns of industrial animal farming.
WHY IS FARMED ANIMAL WELFARE IMPORTANT?
Scientific research has established in a variety of ways that the species most commonly found in the CAFOs of the US food system can experience pain and fear and enjoy comfort—insights that present an ethical argument for eliminating their suffering at human hands. Nevertheless, animal agriculture corporations regard farmed animals solely as products and a means to earn profit. In reality, the animals used in the US supply chains of food, fiber, and experimentation are sentient, sensitive, and emotionally complex.
- Cattle: Cattle are emotional beings who can develop close bonds with their offspring and their fellow animals and become excited when learning something new.
- Pigs: While ranking species’ intelligence is fraught given the challenges and biases within human conceptions of intelligence, pigs are considered to be among the most intelligent of farmed animals. Pigs can use tools, think abstractly and anticipate future events, and are capable of empathy with their fellow pigs.
- Chickens: In contrast to their unintelligent portrayal in popular culture, chickens can experience psychological distress, boredom, and frustration and are doting parents when allowed to spend time with their young.
FARMED ANIMAL WELFARE ISSUES
As long as farmed animals continue to be considered food commodities within an industrial food system, there will continue to be incentives to violate animal welfare in the pursuit of profit. Standard business practices on CAFOs perpetuate welfare violations on a massive scale through confinement, slaughter, mutilation, and a range of exploitative practices.
Animal slaughter is integral to the farming of animal products, even in supply chains for products like eggs and milk. The 1978 Humane Methods of Slaughter Act is designed to ensure that animal deaths in food production are swift and as painless as possible. In practice, this often means that animals are stunned or rendered unconscious before subsequent processing stages that would be exceedingly painful for conscious animals.
However, there are many ways in which this Act does not adequately safeguard the welfare of animals. Farmed birds, including chickens, turkeys, and geese, are excluded from the Act altogether. One of the most common methods of farmed bird slaughter in the US is known as live-shackle slaughter, a method widely considered inhumane.
Additionally, the Act does not regulate line speeds at slaughterhouses. Lines move quickly, pressuring workers to slaughter and process as many animals per minute as is physically possible. Fast line speeds make it nearly impossible to ensure that animals are successfully stunned before slaughter and increase the risk of severe injury and disease transmission among slaughterhouse workers.
OVERCROWDING AND CONFINEMENT
It is estimated that 1.6 billion animals are living on the roughly 25,000 CAFOs found within the US at any given time. Far from being considered a problem, crowding in these facilities is a feature embedded by design. Confining animals in a facility with a minimal footprint allows animal farms to produce the largest yields while expending the fewest resources. Restricting animals’ movement also makes them easier to control. Battery cages, where many egg-laying hens are still routinely kept, are an example of extreme confinement—providing the birds with living space that is barely larger than the size of their bodies.
Farmed animals are subjected to routine mutilations that make it possible for the meat industry to confine them in close quarters, such as castration and removal of horns and beaks. Animals are generally not provided any anesthesia for these procedures. Reducing animals’ pain during and after these operations is typically outweighed by concerns over minimizing costs and maximizing profit margins. This calculation results in acute and often chronic welfare degradation for farmed animals.
Forced molting is a practice designed to artificially boost egg production. Withholding food for days or weeks stops egg production but causes hens to lay larger—more profitable—eggs when access to food is restored, and laying recommences. This practice causes birds significant stress, causing aggression, pacing, feather loss, weight loss, and even death. While manifestly cruel and banned in many countries, including India, the EU, and the UK, forced molting continues to be common in the US.
Gestation crates are another example of extreme confinement, used to house pregnant sows for several months at a time. Typically not much larger than the pigs’ bodies, these crates prevent sows from walking, visiting other pigs, or even turning around. In addition to stress, boredom, and frustration from the almost complete inability to engage in natural behaviors, these crates can also cause injuries and physical ailments. Regions of the UK and EU have banned gestation crates, but they remain common on US hog farms.
Culling refers to the killing of animals outside of standard patterns of slaughter. Producers may cull animals that are injured or sick during confinement in a CAFO or at any time when disposal is more cost-effective than keeping animals alive. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, meat companies and their producers culled millions of animals when slaughterhouse closures left CAFOs with excess animals to house and feed. An estimated 600,000 pigs and 10 million chickens were culled during these supply chain disruptions. Without established practices for killing animals, some CAFO farmers turned to so-called “ventilator shutdown (VSD),” sealing air inlets and halting ventilators to suffocate animals in their living areas. VSD causes prolonged, panic-filled deaths that are not considered humane.
IS IT NECESSARY TO FARM ANIMALS?
Although human beings can thrive on a diet consisting entirely of plant foods, animal production in the food system is often portrayed as indispensable. Defining the proper role of meat and animal products in US diets is a complicated topic shaped by personal values, differential levels of knowledge and education, the presence of hunger and poverty, unequal access to alternatives, and natural variation in food preferences.
In some global contexts, animal products play a central role in diets due to how food systems are currently structured, but a different food system may be possible. In lower-income countries and regions characterized by smaller-scale and subsistence-based food systems with limited production capacity, animals sometimes supply necessary nutrients for which there are few or no locally appropriate substitutes yet available. In more industrialized food systems, animal agriculture remains dominant despite a growing array of plant-based alternatives. Lopsided capital flows to the animal industry have made meat and animal products exceedingly cheap and ubiquitous across the higher-income nations.
In the US, income inequality and racially-motivated patterns of social disinvestment have also contributed to differential food access between communities, leaving some consumers with few alternatives to industrial animal products. US farming already delivers abundant innovative plant-based foods and meat alternatives, making it increasingly unnecessary to farm animals for human sustenance. With appropriate systemic solutions for unequal food access and sufficient political and social commitment to transition the agricultural sector toward plant-based alternatives, US farming could support a national food system that drastically reduces—or even eliminates—the farming of animals.
HOW CAN WE HELP FARMED ANIMALS?
US residents consume large quantities of animal products, the vast majority of which come from animals living in CAFOs who experience sub-optimal welfare. One of the most effective ways to help farmed animals is to reduce or entirely withdraw support for the industrial animal agriculture industry. For individuals who have access to alternative ways of eating, this can mean choosing to consume plant-based foods and alternatives to meat. NGOs active in farmed animal welfare and related issue areas can contribute by promoting plant-based lifestyles, shifting the food system away from the exploitation of farmed animals, and advocating for rights-based approaches to animal welfare.
The industrial animal agriculture sector causes immense harm to the billions of animals born and raised in the nation’s CAFOs. CAFOs and the model of industrial animal agriculture are fundamentally incompatible with animal welfare. Improving the lives of farmed animals is a transformational project that can ultimately deliver intersectional benefits for the good of people, animals, and the environment. Achieving a dignified, just, and sustainable food system will require eliminating industrial animal agriculture and supporting viable dietary and economic alternatives that do not require the exploitation of farmed animals.
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 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), https://escholarship.org/uc/item/8sx4s79c.
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