Sometimes, when I raise issues like animal welfare in our agricultural economics classes, I feel like “that” person. You know, the PETA-supporting, tree-hugging, naive, doe-eyed idealist that people expect to sing kumbaya next. In ag econ, we care about efficiency. Optimal economic decisions. If you cannot survive as a small producer, you are clearly not competitive enough and should make way for the big kids. As Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson said famously in the fifties: “Get big or get out.” Sadly, getting big and efficient in animal production oftentimes means that the animals live in insufferable conditions and get mistreated on a regular basis. And that, my friends, is no tree-hugging overly sentimental opinion, but a reality.
The Rolling Stone just published a very well produced feature article (the title: In the Belly of the Beast – Animal Cruelty is the Price We Pay for Cheap Meat) on the production circumstances in many, many US factory farms. It interviews undercover reporters, gives examples of where corners are cut for the sake of price-efficiency, and also shows some of the videos these activists captured. I personally haven’t watched the videos yet; already the article is not for the faint-hearted. But if you are eating that hamburger, that Costco chicken, that omelette made from impossibly cheap eggs, you are already deeply involved in this reality, and closing your eyes to it won’t make it go away. Now, the article is written pretty provocatively, and obviously these conditions don’t apply as a blanket statement to all of US meat production, and maybe not even to all large-scale operations – ranching for example often has large numbers of animals in an even vaster space. Still, if this is the new ‘efficiency frontier’ in meat production, I am very concerned – especially considering that the world is becoming more and more carnivorous, as this Nature article pointed out. And we don’t have to necessarily argue over the humanity of non-humans (though this is a fascinating topic) to practice empathy and allow fellow creatures an absence of pain and suffering, no?
Please please check out that article – though maybe not while you are eating 😉