Aldous Huxley once wrote that animals might regard human beings as Satan. While at first blush this might seem extreme, when one considers the standard conditions of farmed animals on factory farms, the comparison seems apt.
Farmed animals are the most exploited and abused animals in the world, and there are billions upon billions of them. As the world, and particularly wealthy countries like the United States, continues pursuing a rapacious desire for animal products, agricultural industries gear up to bring even more animals into the fold, summoning them into shortened lifespans and endless manipulation for human desire. It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that, these days, farmed animals endure a kind of hell on earth.
What Is A Farmed Animal?
A farmed animal is an individual who finds themselves caught up in the agricultural system, forced to live on farms both large and small. The term farmed animal can be distinguished from farm animals since the latter suggests that certain species of animals typically chosen for farming are biologically designed for human consumption. However, there is no such thing as a farm animal; there are only animals who are farmed.
A farmed animal’s life is characterized by domination and control by human beings, from birth to death. Female farmed animals are forcibly inseminated with sperm collected non-consensually from fathers, and babies are brought into the world with the sole purpose of exploitation and consumption.
The agriculture industry considers farmed animals as livestock animals, enabling animals to be considered as stocks of resources rather than as the thinking, feeling individuals they truly are. This abstraction serves to lessen moral consideration towards farmed animals and aligns with their legal consideration as property.
How Does Factory Farming Affect Animals?
In virtually every way imaginable, factory farming causes harm to animals by denying them what they require to live fulfilling lives. They are denied space to run, walk, or sometimes even turn around. They are denied the ability to make any meaningful choices about their lives, including with whom to spend their time, whether to become pregnant or to spend time with their children. They are denied the sun, the grass, and the stars since many factory farms keep animals in barren indoor barns for the duration of their lives. They are denied clean environments, often forced to stand and lie down in their own excrement. They are denied the long, full lives they are capable of experiencing in the wild since lifespans are cut artificially short to maximize profits. Essentially, all factory-farmed animals are children by the time they are killed.
Ultimately, it cannot be said that factory farming affects animals in any remotely positive or beneficial way.
How Bad Is The Meat Industry?
The meat industry gets a bad rap – but for good reason. Besides the myriad harms it causes to animals, which will be explored below, there are also significant negative effects on the environment and human beings. One example comes from JBS, one of the world’s largest meat companies that supply the United States. JBS is responsible for breathtaking levels of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, hacking away at the so-called lungs of the planet piece by piece in order to graze cattle (or in some cases, JBS purchases cattle grazed on deforested land). Indigenous tribes who call the forest home are waging war with cattle companies and an industry-supportive government. In these battles, indigenous people are faced with the continuation of colonial erasure they’ve been confronting for thousands of years as they fight for their land and their lives.
Which Animals Are Factory Farmed?
The types of animals that are factory farmed will vary depending on numerous factors including, but not limited to, regions, countries, religions, and cultures. It can also depend on the market that the farm will serve. Factory farmed animals don’t only supply the global food chain but other industries as well. Some factory farms raise and slaughter animals for the fur industry. So the types of farmed animals can vary dramatically.
Chickens are arguably the most exploited species on the planet, accounting for 88% of farmed land animals. In the wild, chickens can live upwards of ten years, but broiler chickens – those who are raised for meat – are kept alive for roughly 47 days. This extremely shortened life span may be something of mercy since they are housed within large, generally windowless sheds in crowded flocks of 20,000 or more. Through selective breeding, these birds grow unnaturally fast and large, causing debilitating chronic illnesses.
In egg-production factory farms, male chicks are considered useless to the industry and so are often ground up alive. Laying hens then face two years of birthing eggs with unnatural frequency thanks in part to selective breeding. They can be stuffed into battery cages, which are wire cages measuring roughly the surface area of a piece of lined paper. Even in cage-free enterprises, hens are forced to spend their short lives indoors, although this is an improvement over battery cages.
Mother pigs, known in industry lingo as breeding sows, endure a life of extreme confinement. During pregnancy, sows are kept in gestation crates, which are metal cages no bigger than their own bodies. Once they have given birth, they are moved to farrowing crates that separate the mother from her young, who are taken away from her at around 17 days after birth. Piglets are sent to jam-packed indoor sheds where they grow for another 6 months before being sent to slaughter.
Dairy cows are impregnated once a year to force them to continue providing milk. Their calves are taken away often immediately after birth or shortly thereafter, to prevent the calf from drinking any milk intended for human consumption. Calves are either inserted into the dairy business or are placed in veal crates, where they endure isolation from their mothers or any other companions and are soon after sent to slaughter. After four or five years, a mother cow’s milk production will drop and she will be considered “spent” and sent to slaughter herself.
Cows who are raised for meat spend about 6 months in a pasture – which is an exception for the mostly indoor-sequestered factory-farmed animal. After their pasture time, cows can be auctioned off for slaughter, or endure another 6 months on feedlots, where they are crammed into tight pens, forced to stand in their own excrement before slaughter.
Goats and Sheep
Goats and sheep raised for meat are typically slaughtered very young – three to five months for goat kids, and six to eight months for lambs. Sheep raised for wool or meat are “tail-docked”, meaning their tails are either cut off or a tight band is placed around the tail so that it eventually rots away.
In the U.S., turkeys are associated with holiday meals, the most popular of which being Thanksgiving, which marks the beginning of the European invasion that led to the genocide of indigenous people across the country. 46 million turkeys are eaten on this day, with other holidays like Christmas and Easter accounting for hundreds of millions more.
Fish farms, also known as aquaculture, force species such as salmon to live such impoverished lives that they can become severely depressed and essentially suicidal – displaying the same neurochemical conditions occurring within humans who have given up on life. Fish farms also cause water pollution and spread diseases, such as sea lice, among wild populations.
Live Animal Transport
Live animal transport is a lesser-known component of industrial animal agriculture, however, in scale it is every bit as mind-boggling, and just as cruel as other aspects of factory farming. These excursions bring animals between farms or to slaughterhouses and can last for a period of up to six weeks. An estimated 2 billion animals were transported by trucks or ships in 2017, with chickens topping the list as most transported. Some of the longest excursions are overseas, on massive ships that can handle up to 130,000 sheep. These are truly cruises from your worst nightmares.
As is the case within all concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), the conditions on any transport vehicle can be hot, poorly ventilated, and lacking in proper veterinary care. The fear caused by the unfamiliarity of a crowded, moving truck or ship environment can cause animals to begin fighting with one another, and they are given no space to deescalate by removing themselves from the situation. It is primarily during transport that fecal contamination of meat occurs since animals can become so frightened and stressed that they soil themselves. A 2011 study found 48% of chicken carcasses tested positive for fecal contamination.
How Many Farmed Animals Are There?
By some accounting, there are roughly 70 billion farmed animals in the world. A study published in 2018 calculated the total biomass of species on the planet, finding that 60% of all mammals on the planet are farmed animals, with 36% accounting for human beings and just 4% wild mammals.
How Are Factory Farmed Animals Killed?
The deaths of factory-farmed animals are marketed as being humane, and indeed, a humane death is supposed to be legally required, mandated by the Humane Slaughter Act which is intended to prevent “needless suffering”. Despite this, an animals’ wellbeing is diametrically opposed to their killing, and all too often, concerns about painlessness are outmatched by maximizing production and profit. One major reason for so-called needless suffering in the deaths of factory-farmed animals can be attributed to the speed of production lines. Animals are supposed to be stunned, rendering them insensitive to the subsequent stages of processing. But with efforts made to kill and process as many animals per hour as possible, the stunning of many animals winds up being incomplete, or botched. For these poor creatures, they will suffer truly horrific deaths by remaining or regaining consciousness while their throats are slit or their bodies dismembered.
Slaughtering methods vary with species. Chickens are gassed to death or are hung upside-down on metal shackles and their heads are dunked into electrified water, which is supposed to stun them before their throats are cut. Cows, goats, and sheep can be shot in the head with a gun using a retractable bullet before being hung upside down in shackles. Pigs are stunned with an electrical gun. Of course, slaughter methods vary by country and region. In many places, animals are always alive when their throats are slit.
Is Factory Farming Ethical?
Industrial animal agriculture has been called one of the worst crimes in history. It may provide sustenance for millions and even billions of people around the world, but these foods aren’t essential for human life. Vegans have existed in the world since time immemorial, and to this day, millions of people around the world are thriving on entirely plant-based diets. There is therefore no need for humans to eat flesh or eggs or consume another species’ breast milk. People can even become afflicted with chronic health issues from high levels of meat consumption, including in places like the United States which has one of the highest per capita meat consumption rates.
Particularly because eating animals is a matter of preference, rather than need, there exists no sufficient ethical justification for the abuse that takes place on factory farms.
Do Animals Have Feelings?
It is common knowledge in the industry that, on beef operations or small to mid-sized dairy farms where cows are allowed to go outside, mothers will hide their newborns from farmers. One veterinarian working on a small dairy farm tells the story of a cow who gave birth in a field to her fifth calf, and as is standard industry practice, the calf was taken from her and sent straight to the veal crates. However, the mother wasn’t producing any milk. It was discovered days later that she’d given birth to twins and kept one hidden in the field, where she would nurse her calf out of sight of the farmer. Sadly, once discovered, this calf was also taken from her forever, sent to the crates for a brief, lonely existence.
This heartbreaking situation forms striking anecdotal evidence of cow cognition, memory, and emotions. This mother hatched and executed an inventive, albeit desperate plan. It is not unreasonable to suggest her motivations were motherly love, and a desire to prevent the heart-rending loss of her sixth calf.
The fact that some continue to question the existence of animal emotions shows how deeply ingrained the cultural belief really is. But this belief is a fallacy, one that is convenient and comfortable to indulge in for the sake of continuing to consume animal products free of guilt. The science makes it clear: animals do have feelings, including farmed animals such as pigs, cows, chickens, goats, and fish.
How Can We Stop the Abuse and Cruelty of Farmed Animals?
The veil on factory farming must be lifted so that people can understand the abuse animals suffer in these places. The Humane League achieves this in a number of ways, including disseminating educational materials (with over 7 million veg eating guides distributed), working collaboratively with other nonprofit organizations, and cultivating a welcoming, nimble, and change-making community. Policy and legislative work are also important and can result in stronger protections and better welfare for farmed animals.
How Does Factory Farming Affect Humans?
Factory farming doesn’t discriminate in its disrespect for life – including human life. The meatpacking industry is the most dangerous job in the United States, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finding that the instance of injuries is higher than for all manufacturing and private industry. According to Human Rights Watch, most of the workers within slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities are people of color, with immigrants making up about a third of the workforce, and as many as a quarter of them being undocumented. Meat companies tend to fight unionization, leaving workers vulnerable to workplace hazards and other abuses, as well as some of the lowest salaries in the country.
Psychological trauma is virtually impossible to avoid within certain jobs in the meatpacking industry. As is oft-said in the business world, time is money – so facilities are geared to produce as much product as possible, as quickly as possible. For so-called slaughtermen, this can mean killing several hundred animals every single hour. The psychological toll of this violent work is steep, sometimes manifesting with symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorders. Impacts are also felt in surrounding communities, with one study finding that slaughterhouse workers were disproportionately prone to committing violent and sexual crimes.
Physical dangers also abound, which are hugely exacerbated by high speeds within processing lines. One of the most dangerous jobs is known as the “sticker” – the person who slices an animal’s neck in order to drain the blood. By the time an animal reaches the sticker, they should have been knocked unconscious and are hung upside down to facilitate the drainage of blood. However, again due to the swift speeds of processing lines, many animals remain conscious by the time they arrive at the sticker. People are regularly killed or gravely injured due to a panicked animal who is kicking and screaming as they hang from the hooks.
Factory farms also cause significant damage to the environment and human health, including surface and groundwater contamination, and air pollution which can cause a host of human health conditions including asthma, and depression, high blood pressure, and likely cancer. Across the U.S., factory farms are located in close proximity to communities of color, with people being forced to deal with the consequences of intensive farming, forming tragic examples of environmental racism.
The crowded, filthy, and entirely unnatural conditions on factory farms require animals to be pumped full of antibiotics in order for them to survive the brief years they are forced to endure. These drugs wind up coming into contact with humans either through water contamination or the direct consumption of animal products themselves. The World Health Organization proclaims antibiotic resistance to be one of the most urgent threats humanity faces – a threat that would be nearly entirely eliminated with the widespread adoption of vegan diets.
Which Laws Protect Farm Animals?
In the United States, virtually every existing animal welfare law specifically excludes farmed animals from their purview, such as the Animal Welfare Act. The only two federal laws dealing with farmed animals are the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, requiring that animals be rendered unconscious before being killed; and the 28-Hour Law which requires animals to be given a rest period every 28 hours during transport. Both of these laws are exploited with numerous loopholes or are simply ignored. U.S. state laws are no better. Ultimately, all laws are designed to protect the financial interest of farmers, be they individuals or multinational industrial agriculture corporations.
What Is The Punishment For Animal Abuse?
In the U.S., as long as a farmer is adhering to the inherently cruel husbandry standards, there is no punishment for the systematic mistreatment of animals that defines factory farming. Animal suffering is seen as being “necessary”, and therefore legally justifiable.
In cases when someone has been found to cause animals “unnecessary” suffering, meaning, the deliberate injuring of animals or neglecting them to the point of injury, state laws can come into effect, with punishments that vary by state. However many of these laws exempt farmed animals from consideration.
What Can You Do to Help Farmed Animals
The most effective way you can help farmed animals is to stop eating animal products and follow a vegan diet. Reducing demand may be the only way the industrial agricultural industry will ultimately be forced to reform.
Spend your dollars instead on plant-based meat companies and even clean meat when it becomes available. While still technically an animal product, clean meat will ultimately not require the death of any animals.
You can also get involved in the animal advocacy movement by volunteering online or in your community.
The period of factory farming may be a blight on the hopefully long arc of human history, something that future generations will learn from, looking back to wonder how we could excuse such widespread despair for the slating of dietary preferences. Ending the suffering of farmed animals in today’s world is a moral imperative, and although these truths may be difficult to bear, it is through awareness that positive change can be achieved.
Laura is a published fiction & nonfiction author. Her essay on Western dominator identity is featured in The Routledge Handbook of Ecocultural Identity.