Mar 3, 2010

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The Dark Side of Progress

eating_animalsEating Animals
Jonathan Safran Foer
New york: Little, Brown and Company 2009

Why do we behave morally? There’s reciprocity and looking out for our genes. For many (most, I hope) of us there’s a natural dislike of cruelty. We try not to be responsible for any extra suffering in the world. Humans also desire approval from others and usually being a scoundrel isn’t good for your reputation.

But imagine a situation where you act cruelly by the decisions you make about what to buy. You don’t have to see the creature being tortured and mutilated for your sensual pleasure. There’s no social censure for your complicity in this evil system. As a matter of fact, 95% of the rest of the world does the exact same thing and the moral 5% are looked upon as eccentrics and weirdos. That’s the situation we find ourselves in today on the issue of meat consumption. A morally responsible being has no choice but to look and see where his food comes from. Eating Animals gives us a glimpse into the factory farm, and it’s not pretty.

Most of us have a somewhat romantic image of the farmer, with his humility, simple down home wisdom and personal relationship with his animals. That world is practically gone. Today 99% of the meat consumed in the US comes from factory farms. In the modern world, the decision to eat meat or not has less to do with an abstract notion of animal rights than whether or not one wants to contribute to the continuation of a hellish system.

On the one hand, the factory farm is a capitalist triumph. The drive to provide consumers what they want at the the lowest possible prices has resulted in modern Americans spending a lower percentage of their incomes on food than any other civilization in history. In 1930, more than 20 percent of the American population worked in agriculture. Today less than 2 percent do. Sixty years ago it took one farmer to supply every 15.5 people, compared to one for every 140 today. But technological and scientific innovation contributing to a higher standard of living is a beautiful thing only when the commodities in question aren’t sentient beings.

At some point, it was realized that keeping animals happy or healthy wasn’t required to profit off of them. We’ll start with the pig, an animal that is at least as intelligent as your dog. The industry journal Hog Farm Management wrote that a pig should be treated “just like a machine in the factory.” So since pigs tend to bite one another when crowded together, within the first forty-eight hours of life their tails and “needle teeth” are pulled off without any pain relief. The piglets are kept in a warm and dark room so they become lethargic and unwilling to fight. At the age of ten days males have their testicles torn off, which somehow improves the taste. 9-15 percent of piglets die before they start weaning.

The weaning begins sooner than it would in nature, since the faster the animals grow the faster they can be slaughtered. Because the pig is eating before it can digest solid foods, drugs are given to prevent diarrhea. They are then taken to “nurseries,” stacked cages, purposely designed so the animal can move as little as possible and avoid burning any calories. The goal is for the animal to gain as much weight on as little food as possible. Pigs that don’t grow fast enough have their heads smashed against the concrete floor. After the nurseries come crowded pens the pigs live in until slaughter. The existence is so unnatural that it requires a cocktail of pharmaceuticals just to keep them alive in such a cramped space.

The female sow usually spends the 16 weeks of her pregnancy in a “gestation crate” so small she can’t turn around. When she’s carrying in nature, she has excessive energy that she uses to build a nest and prepare for her piglets. Here the sow can barely move. There isn’t even any bedding. Chickens and turkeys have it little better; the National Chicken Council recommends each bird get eight-tenths of a square foot (about the size of a sheet of printing paper) to walk around on and many have even less than that.

While the lives of factory farmed cows aren’t as bad as those of poultry or pigs, and this isn’t saying much, the slaughter is about as horrifying an experience as one can imagine. Before the cow is killed, it’s supposed to be rendered unconscious by a stun gun to the head. But it doesn’t always work; an industry-wide audit showed that the majority of slaughterhouses were unable to regularly knock cows out with one blow. In these situations, the animal is “bled, skinned and dismembered while conscious.”

Foer emphasizes that the stories he tells are not unique, but representative of the meat industry. He quotes an animal rights activist who broke into factory farm after factory farm to try to prove to herself that the horrors she saw were unique. I find it entirely plausible that the stories that come from the animal rights activists are accurate; they make too much economic sense not to be.

What is it like to work for the meat industry? I can’t think of a more horrifying job than being an assembly-line killer and people without any other options are the dregs of society (This is my opinion. The author is a liberal and sees poor people as another class of victims). Gail Eisnitz has put together a sort of “encyclopedia of cruelty” made up of worker testimonials in her book Slaughterhouse. One worker tells the story of a stun gun being broken all day and the workers killing the cows while still conscious. Another wrote

Down in the blood pit they say that the smell of blood makes you aggressive. And it does. You get an attitude that if that hog kicks at me, I’m going to get even. You’re already going to kill the hog, but that’s not enough. It has to suffer…You go in hard, push hard, blow the windpipe, make it drown in its own blood. Split its nose. A live hog would be running around the pit. It would just be looking up at me and I’d be sticking, and I would just take my knife and-eerk-cut its eye out while it was just sitting there. And this hog would just scream.

A USDA inspector found “deliberate acts of cruelty occurring on a regular basis” at 32 percent of the plants she made announced visits to. If the workers don’t start out as sadistic, it’s hard to see how they don’t become so. Slaughterhouse workers may kill as many as 2,000 cattle a shift. The man who can cut throat after throat or rip open stomach after stomach without going insane is the scary one.

While the government has anti-cruelty laws on the books, many states have what are called Common Farming Exemptions. These declare anything commonly practiced in the agriculture industry to be legal. In other words, corporations decide what rules and standards they have to follow. Labels like “organic” and “free range” are in general meaningless.

The meat industry has done remarkable things in the field of genetic engineering. A special chicken has been bred for laying eggs (layers) and one for meat (broilers). Between 1935 and 1995, broilers increased in weight by 65 percent while their food requirement went down 57 percent. “To gain a sense of the radicalness of this change, imagine human children growing to be three hundred pounds in ten years, while eating only granola bars and Flinstones vitamins.” Modern factory farmed turkeys can no longer even mate naturally. Most new pigs used by the industry wouldn’t even be able to survive outside of their artificial environment.

Foer wants to pretend that there are arguments against eating meat that have to do with health. I don’t believe him, as we evolved as omnivores, and there really aren’t that many good sources of protein that don’t come from animals. He also talks about the impact that factory farming has on global warming, which is probably nonsense. There’s the argument that eating animals is inefficient: much is made of the statistic that the corn and grain fed to farm animals could feed the world’s 1.4 billion hungry people. This is socialist thinking and assumes that as much food would be produced and transported where it needs to go without the profit incentive.

On more solid grounds are Foer’s concerns about diseases caused by mutating viruses. Doctors could potentially give all of us antibiotics. We would be healthier for a while but pathogens would evolve to be much stronger. Thus, the drugs are only prescribed to those who need it. The way factory farm animals are raised requires nontherapeutic use of antibiotics; they’re fed the stuff their whole lives, which keeps them alive as they grow but creates new diseases that could jump to humans.

While all this may increase the odds of a terrible epidemic, in the end, humans are healthier than ever. All the laments about our modern unnatural lifestyle seem to overlook this obvious and inconvenient fact. While we can debate to what extent meat corporations are passing on their external costs onto the rest of us through pollution, our own well-being isn’t an argument against eating meat. The only true case is a moral one.

There are 50 billion factory farmed chickens killed every year. The number boggles the mind. If you think a chicken’s life is worth 1/1000th that of a human, it’s like torturing and killing 50 million people. Even if you think a human life is worth a million chicken lives, that’s 50,000 murders. If China and India ever start eating chicken at the rate Americans do now the 50 billion number will double. Joseph Stalin supposedly said “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” The thought of someone torturing or killing a cat is disturbing, but I have no idea how to react to hearing about 50 billion miserable lives and deaths. The number might as well be 50 thousand or 50 trillion. The ruthlessness of nature, for humanity is part of nature, is a terrifying thing when faced honestly.

I’d like this problem to go away. I’d like to be able to eat my steak and chicken with a clear conscience and not think that humans can be so indifferent to something so cruel. Things that have done so much to bring about advancement and improvements in human well being, business competition, the division of labor, technical innovation, and hard work, have been used to carry out evil on a scale the world has never before seen. William Saletan holds out hope that we’ll eventually be able to grow meat in labs. There will have to be a demand for it though, and that will require a revolution in human thinking.

People tend to get mad at vegetarians. I’ve seen it and it’s very weird. There have been times in my life where I’ve thought deeply about eating animals and periods when I didn’t give the issue much thought. The more I’ve felt a desire to be more humane and live a life that I consider moral the less I’ve wanted to eat meat. There isn’t a philosophical system that allows one to both support factory farms and oppose needless suffering. Most people realize that at some level. Before the author wrote this book he knew that the more he researched where our food came from the more likely he was to become a vegetarian, as did everybody else he discussed his ideas with. We don’t like to be reminded of our own moral cowardice.

We are after all, nothing more than animals ourselves. Humans supposedly have the ability to “choose” to act contrary to our nature, whatever that means, but in reality we’re more complicated versions of the beings we butcher. Let’s just hope a higher life form never discovers our planet and finds us tasty.

HBD Books, March 2, 1010


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  1. Rob Freeman said:

    I quite agree, Richard. I have worked at a family run slaughterhouse. The conditions were much cleaner, the slaughtering was more professional and careful, but killing an animal is killing an animal. The animals at the family owned slaughterhouses are no happier than the ones at the factory slaughterhouses. The slaughter of pigs was particularly gruesome. They would put the sticking knife in at the shoulder blade while the pig was hanging upside, and stick it way in and move around a bit to hit the aorta. The pig would do a sit up to try and hold in it’s blood, but then it would let go and there would be massive arterial spurt.

    I haven’t stopped eating meat though. I’ve been thinking about this lately. I really wish we would go back to having 40% farmers in the country.

    In my view, doing that to a pig is really no different than doing that to a person. The pain and the fear are the same, and really horrible. I just eat those pork chops with gravy and mashed potatoes and string beans all the same, though.

    You know what, though? If the pigs get a chance, they’ll eat you. If a farmer passes out drunk in a pig pen, the pigs will literally eat him. It’s happened.

  2. Sam Davidson said:

    Maybe there’s a “moral argument” against eating certain types of meat. Perhaps pork?

    I’ve been around both chicken and cattle and I have zero sympathy for the animals. The modern versions of these animals have been so drastically changed by domestication that they are nothing but stupid meat-factories. Chickens are filthy animals that make ugly noises, act aggressive, and defecate everywhere. Cows are stupid and loud animals that likewise defecate everywhere and their only instinct is to follow the truck that drops food. But they’re not smart enough to distinguish between vehicles so even if you’re not the source of their food they will still mob your Toyota and probably leave you stuck in a combination of mud and cow shit.

    And, like Rob said, if they had the chance they’d probably eat you.

  3. Maybe you could add in there a moral code based on truth-seeking behaviors–valuing objective truth, and the ability to follow truth, and then also threat to truth-seeking individuals or classes of individuals. A hierarchy of morality. First would be ranking on the truth-seeking ability scale (accurate information-seeking, or seeking abstract information out of curiousity), then next ranking would be on level of threat to the truth-seekers (level of corruption, selfishness, etc. over working for the future of truth). things like level of sentience (i.e. a microorganism compared to a cow) would also factor in. That sort of thing. Then you would have blanket directives to avoid aggressive harm and cruelty as a general rule except where necessary to rectify acute conflicts in the first two dimensions. These would constitute the most rational basic and universal morals I can come up with on the spur of the moment — with many others to follow and be tied in too, such as caring for and teaching children in a hierarchy according to their abilities (so the hierarchy of morality would exist within ones own race too if necessary in food shortages, etc. or other disaster). What you would have would be an increasing level of morality over time that was self-sustaining and going somewhere eventually–making a certain kind of society, looking to the future to be sure we could overcome all environmental obstacles for the forseeable future.

    To me, I view the horror of the vast suffering killing fields of the history of life as being made worth it if it eventually leads to pure abstract truth-seeking organisms such as ourselves. I view all life as really one unbroken chain if you remove the circumscribed dimension of time — a great living tree, with sacrifices made so that we might bear the fruit of life as it’s logical epitome. Each organism is a facet of us, so unnecessary suffering naturally should be eliminated. People say that all sorts of drastic things should be done in the name of “saving lives” — but that is not nearly as important as saving the future, and especially the future of truth. I like to point out to people that in 100 short years (on the cosmic scale of the 3+ billion-year history of life) around 6 billion or more people will die. Everyone on Earth, all it’s teeming cities… Life is not about us now. It is about the great life force of history, and it’s destiny we can see clearly from the one priciple of the evolution of life that always increases ability to survive: TRUTH.

    This is just a thumbnail based on what I view to be the #1 factor behind all systems of morality. Most religions I can think of have codes of morality with higher truth as their most basic ultimate foundational core — by the results that come from following morals such as those against selfishness, lying, greed, murder, or even gluttony… Reading the book of the Universe itself seems to me to be the highest source of morality–understanding who we are as life, and where it might all be going from the processes we see in every aspect of nature. Certain things naturally and universally follow from what we see there. Thoughtfulness, logic, and knowledge are most divine. Science is holy to me–it is translating the voice, grammar, and meaning of the creator. Justice itself can only be justice if it is based on objective truth. To me, the real importance of freedom is that it sustains truth, and puts corruption at a disadvantage. Part of that is how freedom makes you feel, but the feeling of freedom is not the object of freedom–freedom is ultimately a facilitator of something else. TRUTH. Can you even have love without truth?

    Other than that, your article made me want to be a vegetarian… wow. Eye-opening.

  4. Eating meat is natural and healthy, and as such, vegetarianism is un-natural (although people are free to be vegetarians if they so wish). Humans were designed to source their protein from animal meat and no amount of mung beans can compensate for that.

    That said, industrial meat production is truly horrific. The industry needs to be totally restructured to break up the agribusiness conglomerates and put food production back in the hands of the small farmer.

    Eating organic and free range meat is a good solution to the problem of eating meat without supporting the system.

  5. Welcome to the “Brave New World” we are reduced as are the animals. It is the same for slavery it reduced man as well.

  6. Rob Freeman said:

    Any moral system that allows for the Pacific Garbage Patch and the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zones and Confined Animal Feeding Operations is an epic phail.

    Factory farming is NOT more efficient; it takes billions in subsidies. American family farms before WWII DID NOT TAKE SUBSIDIES. They were self sustaining and a net gain. Factory farming is a net loss. The point of factory farming, the raison d’ etre, is control of the food supply, not efficiency or better quality.

  7. Alexander Wolfe - Murray said:

    I well remember while at agricultural college a visit to the small local abattoir where the farm animals were killed but in a humane way. They didn’t even know what hit them. I haven’t visited the new efficient centralized slaughterhouses but I have seen enough videos for me to cut way down on meat consumption. I also hate to think what it does to the cheap unskilled labour employed in those places. I avoid chicken now as I don’t want to eat meat that has been pissed on by the chickens above it and spent its life stressed. You can imagine what that does to the quality. I buy very little meat now but I do eat free range eggs and meat served to me at friend’s homes as I am already a crank on one subject so I don’t want to scare them off completely. The real surprise is that so few people have made the connection between what we eat and the rampant unhealthiness of the general population.

  8. Volksverhetzer said:

    Norway is no animal paradise, but compared to the factory farming you find in other countries, it is a lot better.

    This is from the Norwegian Animal Welfare Act:

    “Section 1 Animals covered by the Act.

    This Act applies to live mammals, birds, toads, frogs, salamanders (newts), reptiles, fish, and crustaceans.

    Section 2 General provisions on how animals should be treated.

    Animals shall be treated well, and consideration shall be given to the instinctive behaviour and natural needs of animals, so that there is no risk of causing them unnecessary suffering.”


    “Section 9 Killing.

    The killing of animals shall be carried out in such a manner that they are not caused unnecessary suffering.

    In connection with the killing of horses, cattle, sheep and goats, pigs, poultry, rabbits, or domestic reindeer, the animal shall be stunned before being bled. The killing of such animals must only be performed by persons over the age of 16, and who have the necessary skills. As far as possible, killing shall be performed out of sight of other animals.

    Animals must not be skinned, scalded, or plucked, before they are dead. This does not, however, apply to crustacea.

    The provisions of paragraphs one and two also apply when hunting and catching.”

    As you can see, the rule is that “unnecessary suffering” for animals should be avoided, and as technology moves on, what is “unnecessary suffering” also changes.

    Since Halal and Kosher slaughter is unnecessary suffering, it is of course banned, and just to be sure, it is outright forbidden ( the animal shall be stunned before being bled. )
    You might shoot it with a gun in the brain, as that cause no more suffering that stunning it with electricity first.

  9. Stronza said:

    I think the issue is too impersonal when it’s couched as causing unnecessary suffering vs necessary suffering. I would ask the meat eater if he or she is capable of butchering that animal himself. From beginning to end. If you can do so with a minimum of mental anguish, then you are built for meat eating and likely need it. If you can’t bear to kill an animal, maybe Mother Nature or the Creator or whatever entity is in charge of this puzzling world is trying to send you a message.

  10. Rob Freeman said:

    What do the other commenters think about entomophagy, or eating insects and larva? It is actually quite clean food, if you wash it and especially if you stir fry, steam or boil it. Last year I was turning my soil and I found hundreds of Japanese beetle grubs. I made a stir fry with mustard leaves and it was a very good meal. I also eat grasshoppers when I catch them.

    You still get the protein, and I believe it is less cruel and more environmentally sustainable, than eating mammals or reptiles, or fish which can have mercury in it. The “ick” factor is purely a cultural thing. It just takes a little getting used to, but if you need protein, the insect world will fill the bill.

  11. Sinodisc said:

    ‘What do the other commenters think about entomophagy, or eating insects and larva? ‘

    When I can get insect flakes at the grocery store, without having to wash them individually, and when those flakes provide cheaper protein than boiled eggs, I’ll consider it.

    ‘If the pigs get a chance, they’ll eat you.’

    Likewise, some chickens will attempt to peck , kick, and wing-slap humans unless they are swatted smartly with a stick.

    ‘If you can’t bear to kill an animal, maybe Mother Nature or the Creator or whatever entity is in charge of this puzzling world is trying to send you a message.’

    I recently had the heart-wrenching experience of vainly advising a recovering anorexic to start eating meat. Her principles are fixed against it, and while she desperately desires to gain weight and restore what remains of her health, she will not consider eating meat. I only hope I can get her to eat eggs. If Mother Nature is sending her a message, it is a cruel message that reads: “You will never be healthy enough to bear offspring.”

    At my local farmers’ market, the chickens are freshly killed before our eyes with a second or two of suffering. Perhaps we humans must be willing to inflict at least one second of suffering, once in a while, in order to live healthily.

  12. Joe Owens said:

    Eating meat is natural and healthy, and as such, vegetarianism is un-natural (although people are free to be vegetarians if they so wish). Humans were designed to source their protein from animal meat and no amount of mung beans can compensate for that.

    That said, industrial meat production is truly horrific. The industry needs to be totally restructured to break up the agribusiness conglomerates and put food production back in the hands of the small farmer.

    Eating organic and free range meat is a good solution to the problem of eating meat without supporting the system.

    We can indeed eat meat, but our stomachs were never designed to digest it like other carnivores. Meat can stay in your bowel for up to a week putrefying. Palaeolithic man eat very little meat off the carcass, but was mostly concerned with fats from organs and brains. He only ate meat when nothing else was available. Eating organic grass fed cows is a lot healthier (like you say) than the bowel cancer producing garbage of today. Though most proteins and vitamin B12 are destroyed or denatured during the cooking of meat, unlike raw uncooked vegetables. It’s also a bit of a myth we need tons of protein to survive.

  13. I love animals.

    But I must admit to an ongoing case of conflict between opposing needs, desires, or emotions when I sit down to enjoy a plate of previously sentient pork chops or ground chuck.

    I’ve seen the slaughterhouse videos. I’ve spoken with people who have worked in them.

    Maybe I do need to kill my next meal to settle the conflict once and for all. In fact the day may come when we ALL have to do so.

    Then, conflict be damned.

  14. Stronza said:

    My uncle worked in a slaughterhouse (not the killing section). He said that the men who killed the animals day in and day out were the biggest bunch of alcoholics he ever saw. Hardly a one was a normal person. This was back in the 1950s and 60s.

    The white people don’t want to work in “meat packing” plants any more. They are importing countless DPs to do the shitwork for those of you who suffer from “conflict”. Personally, I think that the ability to avoid meat year after year, decade after decade, is an inborn gift. You can’t force yourself to be veg, it won’t work.

  15. What do y’all think of eating roadkill? It seems to me to be the only moral kind of meat, if the animal was killed by accident rather than intentionally. I think that some Buddhists teach that it is okay to eat an animal not specifically slaughtered for you. Mind you, there’s something a bit slimy about that, kind of like certain tribalists who twist themselves about in order to obey the letter of the law only and the moral intent be damned.

  16. Edgardus de la Vega said:

    Frankly, I’ve often wondered if God’s ‘Natural Law’ was a design flaw. That is to say: ‘life at the expense of life’ on all levels, and at every pace. The ancient Greeks pondered this very issue. They basically stated that if all of existence were preserved – there would be no room left for anything throughout the cosmos.

    But then again: we are told the universe has been expanding. Perhaps there is room for every little piglet.

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