Boycott Economics and the Animal Agriculture Industry

By Vidur Kapur
Correspondent, Medical Undergraduate 

“Britain is a nation of animal lovers.” On first glance, this statement has an element of truth to it: after all, we were the first country in the world to pass animal welfare legislation, and some 40% of UK households own a pet. These pets make up a sizeable chunk of the population of UK, totalling around 20 million. However, their numbers are dwarfed by another group of animals. Like pets, these animals are domesticated. Unlike pets, who are often pampered by their loving owners, these animals live in some of the most horrific conditions on the planet. What would surely be considered a moral catastrophe if dogs, cats and rabbits were the victims is perceived as routine when pigs, cows and chickens are involved.

Now take a moment to visualise the following:

Chickens in overcrowded sheds, with no more than the size of an A4 sheet of paper in which to move. Their droppings often not cleared out until slaughter time, and as a result, ammonia fills their enclosures, damaging their eyes and respiratory system and burning their bodies.

One in ten turkeys, along with some chickens, having their beaks cut off with a hot blade without anaesthetic. The beak of a bird is an extremely sensitive place filled with nerves: the experience is agonising.

One may mistakenly think that with the term ‘free-range’, our conscience can be at peace. Yet, even “free-range” farming is not all that it seems: an overcrowded shed full of hens with a small hole through which they can escape outdoors for a few hours a day qualifies as “free-range”.

Let us not fail to mention piglets, subjected to the gruelling pain of having their tails docked and their teeth clipped, again without anaesthetic.

The above was merely a snapshot of what occurs every day in the animal agriculture industry. This form of farming, involving huge numbers of animals being confined in very small spaces, is fittingly called ‘factory farming’, and at least 70% of the meat in the UK is produced using this method, with 94% of chickens being raised in this way.

Some of the practices outlined above, such as tail-docking and beak trimming, are justified by farmers on the basis that pigs and chickens would bite and peck at each other in such small, enclosed spaces. But this logic is perverse: the best way to ensure that they aren’t biting each other is to stop raising them into these conditions in the first place.

In natural conditions, anti-social behaviours like feather-pecking and bar-biting are rarely observed among chickens and pigs. The reason they display such behaviours when confined is because they have evolved to be social creatures. Modern farming suppresses the natural instincts of farmed animals, from fish to pigs to chickens, causing them to become bored, frustrated and even show signs of depression.

Is There a Solution?

Given the horrible state of industrial-style farming, how should we go about eliminating these conditions? You may think that it would be easy to abandon these practices while keeping the animal agriculture industry intact. This, however, is not so. Factory farming doesn’t exist because farmers are sadists. It exists for economic reasons: our insatiable demand for meat, eggs and dairy requires animals to be treated as economic units, to be grown as fast as possible and in the smallest space possible. Allowing them to move around means that they burn energy, which increases the time to slaughter and increases the costs to the farmer.

The best way for us to ensure that animals are no longer raised in these conditions is to reduce the demand for animal products, which can be achieved more efficiently if we boycott the animal agriculture industry. If everyone were to buy from so-called humane farms, these farms would very quickly be forced to adopt the practices of factory farms to keep up with demand, or they would have to raise their prices to such a degree that most people would effectively be priced out of eating meat anyway.

The logic of factory farming is borne of high demand, and even humane farms can’t resist this imperative.

Future Alternatives

This is not to say that other industries cannot fill the meat-shaped void that many omnivores would likely experience if we were to boycott the animal agriculture industry. On the contrary, technological developments and market forces are conspiring to produce low-cost meat without a single animal being slaughtered. The first lab-grown burger was tasted in 2013, and would have had a retail price of around $1.2 million per pound. In 2017, some forms of cultured meat can sell for $6000 per pound. While this is still much more expensive than regular meat, the cost is coming down rapidly. Other companies are making plant-based burgers that mimic very closely the texture and taste of regular meat, and they are already being sold in some supermarkets. Those in the industry estimate that by 2020, clean meat will be affordable to the average consumer.11

Whether or not we see a large-scale shift toward cultured meat within the next few years, what’s certain is that the idea is gaining momentum. Highly (and ethically) motivated non-profit organizations such as the Good Food Institute are trying to speed the process up, and wealthy investors such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson are supporting cultured meat companies.

Status of Sentient Beings

At this point, some might attempt to defend the animal agriculture industry in its current form. For instance, it might be asserted that the interests of humans come before the interests of other animals. If humans want to consume normal, non-cultured meat, eggs and dairy, let them do so, no matter the cost. According to this view, the only reason that putting pets into factory farms would be wrong is because of the distress it would bring to their owners. People could even torture cats for fun if they really wanted to.

There are some obvious flaws with this argument. First of all, why are human interests supreme in the first place? Is it simply because humans are humans; that is, they are members of the species Homo sapiens? As the moral philosopher Peter Singer has argued, this notion is as arbitrary as saying that the interests of members of a particular gender or race matter more simply because they belong to that group. Just as few accept the repercussion of this train of argument applied against humans, we cannot use it to demean the interests of animals compared to humans, let alone to arbitrarily discriminate between animals as many reflexively do.

The cat torture apologist may move to a different argument: while there’s nothing magical about being a member of the human species, isn’t it the case that humans are more intelligent than other animals? On this view, intelligence, not species membership, determines how much a being’s suffering matters. Yet, this would mean that the suffering of more intelligent humans would matter more than the suffering of less intelligent humans. Furthermore, it’s not the case that all humans are more intelligent than all non-humans. More importantly, intelligence is, again, an arbitrarily chosen characteristic which is irrelevant to whether we ought to think that the experiences of a being matter.

Ultimately, we are left with the conclusion that unnecessary suffering is wrong, no matter the race, gender or species of the being experiencing it. When we oppose suffering in humans, we do so not because of the human experiencing it, but because the very nature of the suffering gives us reasons to want to eliminate it.

What we oppose is not human suffering, but suffering as such.

Most of us recognise this intuitively. An overwhelming majority of Britons are opposed to fox hunting, and farmed animals themselves are given some paltry protections. For example, the UK Government recently announced that CCTV cameras would be placed into all slaughterhouses. Thus, it seems that most of us do care about the suffering of animals, regardless of whether they are our pets or not. Most of us don’t resort to engaging in apologetics for cat torture. In other words, Britain is, to a large extent, a nation of animal lovers!

Yet, the fact that the animal agriculture industry continues to exist suggests that we are failing to align our actions with our beliefs. This is understandable, as people are notoriously bad at doing so. Some may also believe that consuming animal products is necessary for our health. This is not so. As the American Dietetic Association has stated:

“appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” 

Finally, some may accept all of the arguments in favour of boycotting the meat, egg and dairy industries, but feel that their individual actions won’t make a difference. With or without their business, factory farms will persist. But this standpoint merely confuses a self-fulfilling expectation with an immutable reality, a position few with an interest in improving the morality of our society have any interest in defending.

Even if you were to accept the arguments I’ve made in this piece, it may still be difficult for you to instantly boycott the animal agriculture industry. It was difficult for me too. My solution was to gradually begin to boycott it. I eliminated meat and eggs from my diet immediately, but gradually reduced my consumption of dairy products. If a gradual approach works for some people, then that’s certainly better than not taking action at all. Boycotting the animal agriculture industry shouldn’t be about personal purity, it should be about alleviating suffering.


Illustration by Baillie Marie/Flickr

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