We Need To Farm Fewer Animals
Presented at the Taking Stock conference
Discussions on eating animals, if we have them at all, tend to revolve around personal ethics: is or isn’t it ethical to eat animals? Or, we talk about the role of law in protecting farmed animals, and why it is doing such a bad job.
I’d like to encourage the conversation to include more of: how can we farm fewer animals? Consumer action and law reform are important but we badly need a society-wide conversation about how to shift towards a more plant-based economy. Not only for the sake of animals, but for our shared environment and our own health. And it needs to be society-wide: this isn’t a fringe issue of concern only to a few kale-loving vegans, but an urgent and existential problem that impacts all of us.
Animal farming and its associated problems can’t be resolved at the consumer choice level, but rather require government intervention and leadership. We need government policies that shift us away from farming so many animals and towards a plant-based diet.
My three takeaways are: we need to shift towards a more plant-based diet and economy; this shift needs to happen at the policy level; and this issue is globally important and personally relevant to all of us.
It’s not only that diets rich in animal food are high in saturated fats, but eating too many animal foods also crowds out the veggies, fruits and legumes that are associated with less chronic disease (obesity, diabetes, heart diseases, and some cancers).
Our food guide is in the process of being revised, and a published draft looks promising. It encourages a “high proportion of plant-based foods,” “regular intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and protein-rich foods, especially plant-based sources of protein,” and doesn’t arbitrarily privilege dairy with its own special food group.
It’s concerning, however, that the federal agriculture department has been quietly lobbying Health Canada to consider the economic interests of meat and dairy industries. The public expects and deserves trustworthy, evidence-based eating recommendations that guide us to eat healthfully. It ought to go without saying that we shouldn’t be misled into maintaining the profits of industries at the expense of our own health.
The draft food guide comports with the dietary recommendations of the World Health Organization, which state that people should “prefer unsaturated fat” over saturated, eat fruits, vegetables and legumes, and select foods of plant and marine origin. It’s also consistent with some of the most compelling health research ever conducted into populations where people live the longest and with the most vitality (is there a better way to define health?!). Conducted by National Geographic, the so-called “Blue Zones” research reveals that without exception, health and longevity are associated with plant-based diets. These exceptionally healthy populations consume very little animal foods but plenty of vegetables and legumes. And it’s part of the culture, not a personal choice. We need to emulate that here in Canada.
In 2006, the United Nations published Livestock’s Long Shadow, which found that animal farming is a top contributor to the “most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” Farming animals is associated with climate change, air pollution, land degradation, water shortage, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.
The UN emphasized the importance of the meat industry being a policy focus when dealing with these areas, not just a matter of consumer choice. According to the UN, “urgent action” is required to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, that report was issued over a decade ago and our government has not responded with urgent action.
More recently, the international think tank Chatham House issued a report finding that reducing global meat and dairy consumption is required if we are to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, which is considered the “danger level” and was the main goal of the recent climate negotiations in Paris.
Chatham House conducted global polling and found that the public doesn’t understand the links between farmed animals, diet, and climate change—what it called a “considerable awareness gap.” Moreover, polling found that the public sees it as the role of government to spearhead efforts to address unsustainable meat and dairy consumption. Governments fear the repercussions of intervention, and since public awareness is low they feel very little pressure to intervene anyway. Thus, our task must be to raise public awareness along with pushing governments to use policy tools to reduce meat and dairy consumption.
A simple message is best, according to the work done by Chatham House: “globally we should eat less meat and dairy.” We’ve grown accustomed to seeing messages about the importance of using less water; many of us might balk at first at seeing an imperative from the government to eat fewer animal foods, and yet this is exactly what is needed if we are to curb their unsustainable consumption.
When we talk about animal foods—meat, dairy, eggs—we are really talking about animals, muscle tissues and breastmilk from once-sentient individuals. It feels dramatic or extreme to even talk about it this way, but this is literally what it is: meat is the body of a dead animal. This reality is often culturally obscured, by children’s books, marketing showing happy animals complicit in their consumption, and even language—pork, steak—that masks the animals who once was. Even saying “who” in reference to animals is considered a grammatical error—we’re supposed to use “what.” This serves to make the animal who preceded the food become invisible.
Yet, animals are complex individuals who value family and freedom just like we do. Just the other day an article in the Guardian highlighted the “secret lives of cows” from the perspective of a farmer—cows communicate, invent games, forecast the weather, open gates, and even babysit for each other. Despite being intensely loyal, apparently sometimes mother cows will fall out with grandmothers over how to raise a calf! Sound familiar?!
We killed 771 million farmed land animals in 2016, a rise over previous years. It’s rising because we’re farming more chickens every year as the population grows and people switch from red meat to white, believing it to be a healthier choice. Chickens, of course, are much smaller than cows, so we kill many more of them when we swap one meat for the other without reducing intake.
There are significant welfare concerns associated with chicken farming. They are genetically selected for rapid growth, which can lead to cardiovascular and skeletal issues. They start their short lives in hatcheries, never knowing comfort from their mothers or the stability of normal family structures. Instead, they live entirely in the company of other babies, indoors with polluted air, low lighting, no enrichment, and a lack of space. When they’re considered fully grown, catchers round the confused and terrified birds up by the handful, stuffing them into transport crates. Broken bones and dislocations aren’t uncommon. At the slaughterhouse, they’re killed by being hung upside-down while fully conscious, their legs wedged into shackles, before (hopefully) being stunned by an electrified water bath then killed with a blade to the throat.
Normal farming practices tend to surprise and trouble the public—polling consistently reflects this. And footage of routine farming is often censored on Animal Justice’s social media sites for showing graphic violence. Think about this: normal farming is too upsetting to even view!
Welfare concerns are intrinsically linked to the sheer volume of animals we consume. Husbandry has been replaced by companies becoming ever more efficient and consolidated, hiring unskilled workers to carry out the labour of “producing” and “processing” animals’ bodies.
We tend to dismiss farmed animals as being dumb, or as not mattering, but they are individuals with rich lives that matter to them and we really ought to do a better job of acknowledging that uncomfortable truth and reconciling it with our cultural habits and government policies. And it must be government: otherwise, we’re saying that taking moral action is reserved for the privileged, those who can afford the price premium, time or energy it takes to move towards a plant-based diet.
Anna Pippus is Director of Farmed Animal Advocacy at Animal Justice. Her personal website is: www.annapippus.info.