For the past two years, the only place I ate meat was at home with my family. As of October 2012, I’ve finally stopped eating meat altogether and can’t see a reason why I would want to go back to eating meat. This kind of attitude toward eating is commonly classified as “vegetarianism” where one refrains from eating the flesh of all animals, including fish, but still will consume animal products like eggs and milk (though I try to avoid egg as best I can).
Why might I want to do this? And why might I see it as a serious issue? It’s because I’m very concerned about the reality of suffering done to our “food animals” in the process of making them into meat, because I see vegetarianism as a way to reduce this suffering by stopping the harmful process, and because vegetarianism has not been hard at all for me to accomplish.
Animals Can Suffer
Back in the 1600s, Réné Descartes thought nonhuman animals were soulless automatons that could respond to their environment and react to stimuli, but could not feel anything — humans were the only species that were truly conscious. Descartes hit on an important point — since feelings are completely internal to the animal doing the feeling, it is impossible to demonstrate that anyone is truly conscious.
However, when it comes to humans, we don’t let that stop us from assuming other people feel pain. When we jab a person with a needle, no matter who they are, where they come from, or what they look like, they share a rather universal reaction of what we consider to be evidence of pain. We also extend this to our pets — we make great strides to avoid harming kittens, puppies, or other companion animals, and no one would want to kick a puppy or light a kitten on fire just because their consciousness cannot be directly observed. That’s why we even go as far as having laws against animal cruelty.
The animals we eat are no different. Pigs, chickens, cows, and fish all have incredibly analogous responses to stimuli that we would normally agree cause pain to humans and pets. Jab a pig with a needle, kick a chicken, or light a cow on fire, and they will react aversively like any cat, dog, horse, or human.
But we don’t need to rely on just our intuition – instead, we can look at the science. Animal scientists Temple Grandin and Mark Deesing conclude that “[o]ur review of the literature on frontal cortex development enables us to conclude that all mammals, including rats, have a sufficiently developed prefrontal cortex to suffer from pain”. An interview of seven different scientists concludes that animals can suffer.
Dr. Jane Goodall, famous for having studied animals, writes in her introduction to The Inner World of Farm Animals that “farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear, and pain. They are far more aware and intelligent than we ever imagined…they are individuals in their own right.” Farm Sanctuary, an animal welfare organization, has a good overview documenting this research on animal emotion.
Lastly, among much other evidence, in the “Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness”, prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists states:
Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.
Factory Farming Causes Considerable Suffering
However, the fact that animals can suffer is just one piece of the picture; we next have to establish that animals do suffer as a result of people eating meat. Honestly, this is easier shown than told – there’s an extremely harrowing and shocking 11-minute video about the cruelty available. Watching that video is perhaps the easiest way to see the suffering of nonhuman animals first hand in these “factory farms”.
In making the case clear, Vegan Outreach writes “Many people believe that animals raised for food must be treated well because sick or dead animals would be of no use to agribusiness. This is not true.”
They then go on to document, with sources, how virtually all birds raised for food are from factory farms where “resulting ammonia levels [from densely populated sheds and accumulated waste] commonly cause painful burns to the birds’ skin, eyes, and respiratory tracts” and how hens “become immobilized and die of asphyxiation or dehydration”, having been “[p]acked in cages (usually less than half a square foot of floor space per bird)”. In fact, 137 million chickens suffer to death each year before they can even make it to slaughter – more than the number of animals killed for fur, in shelters and in laboratories combined!
Farm Sanctuary also provides an excellent overview of the cruelty of factory farming, writing “Animals on factory farms are regarded as commodities to be exploited for profit. They undergo painful mutilations and are bred to grow unnaturally fast and large for the purpose of maximizing meat, egg, and milk production for the food industry.”
It seems clear that factory farming practices are truly deplorable, and certainly are not worth the benefit of eating a slightly tastier meal. In “An Animal’s Place”, Michael Pollan writes:
To visit a modern CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) is to enter a world that, for all its technological sophistication, is still designed according to Cartesian principles: animals are machines incapable of feeling pain. Since no thinking person can possibly believe this any more, industrial animal agriculture depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert your eyes on the part of everyone else.
Vegetarianism Can Make a Difference
Many people see the staggering amount of suffering in factory farms, and if they don’t aim to dismiss it outright will say that there’s no way they can make a difference by changing their eating habits. However, this is certainly not the case!
How Many Would Be Saved?
Drawing from the 2010 Livestock Slaughter Animal Summary and the Poultry Slaughter Animal Summary, 9.1 billion land animals are either grown in the US or imported (94% of which are chickens!), 1.6 billion are exported, and 631 million die before anyone can eat them, leaving 8.1 billion land animals for US consumption each year.
A naïve average would divide this total among the population of the US, which is 311 million, assigning 26 land animals for each person’s annual consumption. Thus, by being vegetarian, you are saving 26 land animals a year you would have otherwise eaten. And this doesn’t even count fish, which could be quite high given how many fish need to be grown just to be fed to bigger fish!
Yet, this is not quite true. It’s important to note that supply and demand aren’t perfectly linear. If you reduce your demand for meat, the suppliers will react by lowering the price of meat a little bit, making it so more people can buy it. Since chickens dominate the meat market, we’ll adjust by the supply elasticity of chickens, which is 0.22 and the demand elasticity of chickens, which is -0.52, and calculate the change in supply, which is 0.3. Taking this multiplier, it’s more accurate to say you’re saving 7.8 land animals a year or more. Though, there are a lot of complex considerations in calculating elasticity, so we should take this figure to have some uncertainty.
One might critique this response by responding that since meat is often bought in bulk, reducing meat consumption won’t affect the amount of meat bought, and thus the suffering will still be the same, except with meat gone to waste. However, this ignores the effect of many different vegetarians acting together.
Imagine that you’re supermarket buys cases of 200 chicken wings. It would thus take 200 people together to agree to buy 1 less wing in order for the supermarket to buy less wings. However, you have no idea if you’re vegetarian #1 or vegetarian #56 or vegetarian #200, making the tipping point for 200 less wings to be bought. You thus can estimate that by buying one less wing you have a 1 in 200 chance of reducing 200 wings, which is equivalent to reducing the supply by one wing. So the effect basically cancels out. See here or here for more.
Every time you buy factory farmed meat, you are creating demand for that product, essentially saying “Thank you, I liked what you are doing and want to encourage you to do it more”. By eating less meat, we can stop our support of this industry.
Vegetarianism Is Easier Than You Think
So nonhuman animals can suffer and do suffer in factory farms, and we can help stop this suffering by eating less meat. I know people who get this far, but then stop and say that, as much as they would like to, there’s no way they could be a vegetarian because they like meat too much! However, such a joy for meat shouldn’t count much compared to the massive suffering each animal undergoes just to be farmed – imagine if someone wouldn’t stop eating your pet just because they like eating your pet so much!
This is less than a problem than you might think, because being a vegetarian is really easy. Most people only think about what they would have to give up and how good it tastes, and don’t think about what tasty things they could eat instead that have no meat in them. When I first decided to be a vegetarian, I simply switched from tasty hamburgers to href=”http://www.veganoutreach.org/guide/substitutes.html”>tasty veggieburgers and there was no problem at all.
To those who say that vegetarianism is too hard, I’d like to simply challenge you to just try it for a few days. Feel free to give up afterward if you find it too hard. But I imagine that you should do just fine, find great replacements, and be able to save animals from suffering in the process.
If reducing suffering is one of your goals, there’s no reason why you must either be a die-hard meat eater or a die-hard vegetarian. Instead, feel free to explore some middle ground. You could be a vegetarian on weekdays but eat meat on weekends, or just try Meatless Mondays, or simply try to eat less meat. You could try to eat bigger animals like cows instead of fish or chicken, thus getting the same amount of meat with significantly less suffering.
Author’s Note: This essay was revised on 23 July 2013. This essay was originally posted on my old blog.