Last month I read The Modern Savage by James McWilliams, a book about how the idea of “humane” meat and animal products is bullshit. McWilliams says it a lot more gently, but the main message is that buying meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal products from “humane” farms will never revolutionize the food industry or end animal suffering—only eating plants instead will.
The book starts by talking about how the fact that people are calling for a change in the food industry and demanding humane meat and cage free eggs means that people are acknowledging that there’s a problem with the way we’re treating animals. They’re acknowledging that animals don’t deserve to spend their lives in cramped cages, subjected to torturous conditions. Whether they realize it or not, they’re acknowledging that although obviously different from humans, animals are sentient beings who can experience pain and pleasure and are not objects to be contained, controlled, used, and killed by humans.
McWilliams calls the phenomena of calling for more ethical treatment of animals while still eating animals and animal products (from non-industrial “humane” farms) and thus contributing to the overall demand for meat and animal products (while not really improving the situation for the animals), the Omnivore’s Contradiction.
The book explains the various reasons why animals are not much better off, if at all, in “free-range,” nonindustrial farms, and in some cases, are actually worse off because they can be more prone to death and diseases without the containment systems, as inhumane as they are.
Take chickens for example. In the Humane Chicken chapter, McWilliams discusses how jungle fowl live in the wild—they have rooster led cliques and specific ways of eating, sleeping, breeding, and even pooping that enable them to live and thrive for up to thirty years.
People think they’re not contributing to animal cruelty when they buy cage-free “humane” eggs because the chickens aren’t from industrial farms, where they’re crammed into cages and basically treated like machines meant to churn out eggs, which entails torturous conditions of sleep and food deprivation, hormone pumped feed, mutilation (beak clipping), among other horrors.
But chickens on “free-range” farms are not happily pecking about, living care-free lives. A leading cause of death on small chicken farms is predators—dogs, raccoons, hawks, and coyotes often tear them to shreds while they are on pasture or in their coops, even after farmers take precautions. The birds are maimed and killed by predators “Because they were denied access to their natural strategies of protection.” This line in particular struck me: “Their access to more space, I would suggest, is a greater benefit to our shaky conscience than to the actual welfare of the birds themselves.”
Chickens on small farms are also more susceptible to diseases like Salmonella, Coccidiosis, and Marek’s because the chickens are pecking and pooping in fenced off spaces, whereas in the wild they roam over a much larger space of up to twenty miles and poop in specific locations to avoid disease.
While in industrial farms they’re subjected to other horrors, chickens and other animals still suffer in small, free-range farms.
McWilliams isn’t arguing that factory faming is better though, he’s explaining that buying from small farms isn’t helping the animals, the environment, or ourselves. He utilizes stories from small farmers themselves as well as studies and statistics to dismantle the fictional idea that non-industrial farms provide animals with happy, natural lives.
Even if animals live more comfortably on small farms, the animal industry exists for profit, and animals will always be treated as objects/production machines and decisions will be made based on profit, not on animal welfare. And ultimately, the animals are still slaughtered. (Yes, even dairy cows.) The book goes into more detail about how the idea of a quick painless death is far from reality. As McWilliams says, deep down we know that “Nothing is humane about shooting a pig in the face with a .22, no matter how lovingly he was raised.”
Buying “humane” animal products is not voting with our forks for better animal conditions, it’s voting to keep using and abusing them. Sometimes I feel hopeless after reading about animal cruelty and our current food industry, especially because we live in bacon culture (and not long ago, I was actively participating in it), but this book left me thinking that if we can make the connection between wanting to lessen animal suffering and the necessity of abstaining from animal foods, maybe there’s some hope.
I highly recommend reading McWilliam’s book The Modern Savage if you’re interested in learning more about the food industry or about the realities of small non-industrial farms.