[content warning: animal suffering]

I’m a lacto vegetarian. In this post, I am going to explain why.

Animals Matter 

Makes sense, right? You’re not very likely to be vegetarian if you don’t think animals matter at all.

Fortunately, the vast majority of omnivores share the intuition that animals matter, at least a little bit. Most people think that it’s wrong to kick a cat, or dissect a still-living dog, or starve a rabbit to death. Most people support laws against animal cruelty. Most people, if they found out that someone’s hobby was torturing animals, would be horrified and no longer want to be friends with them. Many people have close relationships with their pet animals: I have had friends who said that the day their pet died was the worst day of their lives.

But unfortunately many people’s ethical systems include a strange exception for farm animals. The same person who pays hundreds of dollars for medicine for their dog sits down to a celebratory meal of bacon when the dog gets better. But I don’t think there’s any sensible reason to think that dogs matter and pigs don’t. Pigs are about as smart as dogs: they can deceive other pigs, they have excellent spatial memory, and they may even possess episodic memory of things that happened to them in the past. But we don’t ever really get a chance to interact with pigs in their non-butchered form, so it’s easy to just think of them as little meaty automatons.

Many people would prefer a more rigorous grounding of the idea that animals matter. I direct them to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s page on animal consciousness, which explores the relevant philosophical issues in mind-numbing depth.

(By the way: you don’t have to like animals to think they matter. Supporting animal welfare does not require you to like dogs slobbering all over your face. Just like you can dislike a person and oppose them being tortured, you can also dislike animals and be opposed to animal cruelty.)

Factory-Farmed Animal Lives Are Not Worth Living

Most people think that being a farm animal isn’t that bad. When they think about it at all, they think about happy chickens or cows frolicking under the watchful eye of a caring farmer. (After all, isn’t that what’s depicted on our milk cartons?) The reality, unfortunately, is far more grim.

Many routine practices in factory farms would violate felony animal cruelty laws if they were done to dogs and cats. The only way that factory farming is legal is that, in most states, farm animals are completely exempt from laws about animal cruelty.

So let’s talk about chickens raised for meat. (My source for all the facts in the next few paragraphs is the Humane Society of the US’s excellent white papers on farmed animals.) The average chicken raised for meat has been bred to grow so fast that a quarter of them are incapable of walking and experience chronic pain. They usually spend about three-quarters of their time resting, because they are so heavy that they can barely move. The birds often lie in their own waste and that of previous flocks: this creates high levels of ammonia which chickens find aversive, as well as health problems from eye lesions to structural damage to the lungs. Since chickens’ primary sense is smell, the presence of high levels of ammonia also de facto blinds them. The stocking density is such that the average chicken has only about the space of a single letter-sized piece of paper: chickens have scabs and scratches from the other chickens walking on top of them; they are chronically stressed by how tightly they’re packed. Chickens strongly prefer to be less crowded: to get a space less crowded than the average stocking density, chickens will cross over a barrier high enough to discourage 25% of chickens from getting feed after six hours of food deprivation.

Breeder broiler chickens– those that produce the next generation of chickens– also have welfare issues. Broilers have been selected for abnormally fast growth and typically die young. Breeders, who live longer, would have serious health problems if allowed to eat as much as they want. Therefore, they are left chronically hungry; they’re often fed as rarely as once every other day and receive only a quarter to half of the food that they would eat if they had free access. This underfeeding leads to chronic stress and increased aggressive behavior. Male boiler breeders often attack, rape and even kill females, which is abnormal behavior for chickens; this may be a product of stress from not being fed enough or a consequence of intense selective pressure for getting bigger.

When they’re caught for transportation to the slaughterhouse, broiler chickens are often roughly handled by the underpaid and overworked workers, which may lead to pain (particularly for the many chickens who already have leg problems), bruises, injuries, broken bones, and internal hemorrhages. The birds are generally quite frightened by this process. Broiler chickens are exempt from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which means they do not have to be stunned before slaughter. Most chickens are passed through an electrified water bath, which is intended to stun them; however, research suggests that most birds are not rendered immediately unconscious and thus many may still be conscious at slaughter. As many as three percent of birds may both not be stunned and survive the killing machine, and thus be conscious when dumped in the scald tank. They eventually die from their burns.

Egg-laying chickens also live in horrifying conditions. Most males of the egg-laying chicken species are unnecessary and thus are killed upon hatching: they may be ground up fully conscious and unanesthetized, exposed to poisonous gases, or sucked through pipes to an electrified kill plate. Egg-laying chickens are confined in barren conditions, the stress of which leads to injurious feather-pecking and cannibalism. To prevent cannibalism, they have their beaks trimmed, causing tissue damage and nerve injury, which sometimes leads to chronic pain. The beak is also a chicken’s equivalent of a human’s hands– their primary way of exploring the world.

Battery cages prevent hens from engaging in normal, natural behaviors they feel an innate drive to do and/or find highly pleasurable, like dustbathing, nest-building, perching, scratching, preening, stretching, and exploring their environment. The inability to perform these behaviors causes them considerable distress, boredom, and frustration. When a hen lays eggs, she uses some of the calcium from her skeleton. Compounding this problem, the space is too small for hens to exercise and strengthen their bones. As many as a quarter of hens have broken bones at any time, and caged hens may suffer from “cage layer fatigue”: their skeletal systems become so weak that they may become paralyzed. Consumer demand for large eggs produced by these relatively small birds leads to a condition called cloacal prolapse, in which the outer end of the reproductive tract is outside the body, leading to hemorrhages and infection. To speed up the process of molting (during which hens do not lay eggs), hens are fed a low-nutrient diet consisting of insoluble plant fibers or corn, wheat middlings, or alfalfa until they lose ten percent to a third of their body weight. This is a product of animal welfare activism; previously (and to this day on some farms), the hens were starved.

Let’s talk about pigs. Like I said before, pigs are highly intelligent animals; many people consider them to be as smart as dogs. (Dog owners, imagine someone doing all this to your dog.)

Pigs are confined in inhumanely small environments. They are less than a fifth as far their nearest neighbor than they typically are in the wild. While pig herds naturally avoid each other, producers typically combine six or more herds in the same pen. This confinement leads to higher rates of aggression and disease. Pigs have concrete, slatted floors without bedding; this causes them foot and limb injuries. The air smells of rotting animal waste, which pigs find as noxious as humans do; the poor air quality leads to respiratory problems, which cause the majority of deaths among growing pigs. Pigs’ digestive systems evolved for small amounts of high-fiber food, but they are typically fed large amounts of low-fiber diets, which causes painful ulcers: on various farms, somewhere between 0% and 60% of pigs have ulcers.

Pigs are smart and curious, but they are confined in extremely boring places. Some become inactive and unresponsive– what in humans we would call depression. Others direct their curiosity to biting the tails of their penmates: the victim can get infections and abscesses, and this sometimes escalates into cannibalism. The tails of young pigs are generally cut off without anesthesia to prevent tail-biting. Naturally, pigs resort to biting the ears of their penmates instead, sometimes leading to ear hematomas; some producers treat this through ear amputation.

When pigs are slaughtered, they are usually frightened of humans, because they rarely see them. (A single farmer may care for thousands of pigs.) When pigs stand still due to fright, they are often goaded along with electric prods which deliver a strong electric shock. Pigs are often denied food for a day before they are allowed onto trucks, because they would vomit from motion sickness otherwise, and because the food won’t get turned into meat anyway. Fortunately, thanks in part to the work of Temple Grandin, slaughterhouses are far better than they used to be, and the vast majority of pigs are properly stunned before slaughter.

Why don’t people know more about this? So-called “ag-gag” laws make it illegal to film or photograph goings-on at a farm without the consent of the owner. Whistleblowers may receive fines or jail time. In the US, Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, and Utah all have ag-gag laws. (The Wikipedia page, interestingly, contains the sentence “supporters of ag-gag laws have argued that they serve to protect the agriculture industry from the negative repercussions of exposés by whistleblowers.” It seems to me that if your customers object to animal cruelty, perhaps you deserve to have some negative repercussions.) Naturally, in addition to allowing customers to be deceived about how their food is made, these laws are also blatant violations of the principle of freedom of speech.

Ethical Meat?

Many people, upon finding out about the suffering of animals, choose to consume ethically raised animals. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to be misled about what these labels actually mean.

(All of these are about regulations in the US. If you live in a different country, please research your own country’s regulations.)

Purchasing meat from a farmers’ market does not mean that it is locally raised meat from happy animals. The food in many farmers’ markets comes from resellers, who get their food from exactly the same place grocery stores get theirs. If you have not personally investigated the farmer and inspected the conditions of their animals, do not assume that their animals are ethically raised or, in fact, exist.

“Natural” and “naturally raised” don’t mean anything at all.

“Free-range” means that the animal has access to the outdoors, at least a little bit. A door open as little as five minutes a day meets the requirement. However, having access to the outdoors doesn’t necessarily mean that the animal goes outdoors; many animals are frightened of new places, so a free-range animal may very well stay inside the barn. “Free-range” does not mean that the animal’s life is free of any of the abuses I previously described (except perhaps the very boring environment for pigs). In addition, it is unclear to me to what degree being free-range actually improves an animal’s welfare, as compared to e.g. lower stocking density or not being bred for increased size to the extent that they have horrifying health problems. Indeed, free-range farming may decrease welfare, such as by exposing the animal to more parasites. (For more on the subject of the controversy over free-range animals, I recommend David Fraser’s excellent book Understanding Animal Welfare.)

“Certified Organic” means that the animal has access to the outdoors and– if it’s a cow, sheep, or goat– has access to pasture. However, like free-range animals, there is no regulation of how much pasture or outdoor access they must have or of its quality, and there’s no guarantee that they actually go outside. Certified organic animals must have access to bedding, which is good. However, the use of antibiotics is prohibited, which means that many sick animals will go untreated so that they still qualify for organic status. It’s unclear to me whether having bedding outweighs the cost of not being treated when you’re sick.

Most of the US egg industry complies with United Egg Producers Certified, which bans a few very obvious abuses like forced molting through starvation but continues to allow birds to be crammed into tiny spaces.

“Cage-free” on eggs means pretty much what it sounds like: the hens that laid the eggs weren’t in cages. United Egg Producers Certified cage-free eggs, along with many other certification programs, require that hens have a certain amount of space to themselves so that they can turn around and spread their wings. “Cage-free” on broiler chickens is much like saying “arsenic-free”: while it’s technically true, chickens raised for meat are not generally caged anyway.

“Grass-fed” means that the animal ate a diet solely composed of grass, forage, and milk before they were weaned. Grass-fed animals must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Grass-fed animals appear to live a fairly natural life. However, there are still welfare issues for grass-fed animals: most notably, that painful surgery can be performed without pain relief. The grass-fed label is enforced by the USDA.

There are a variety of certification programs for animal welfare, such as “Animal Welfare Approved“, “Certified Humane“, “American Humane Certified“, “Food Alliance Certified“, and “5-Step Animal Welfare Standards.” These labels mean that the farm has been audited and found to comply with certain welfare standards. I’m not going to explain all the different standards; if you’re considering buying humane meat, I encourage you to read the standards yourself and figure out which ones fit your moral values.

Most people care about animal welfare, at least a little bit. Unfortunately, most people have also been systematically lied to about the horrible conditions in factory farms, particularly for animals like chickens and pigs. Even if people are aware that factory farms are awful and choose to consume ethically raised meat, they may not know that a lot of labels are meaningless or imply a much higher standard of welfare than the animals actually have.

However, there are some steps any individual can take to help save animals from factory farming:

  • You can go vegetarian, vegan, or lacto bivalvegan yourself.
  • You can reduce your animal product consumption, perhaps by practicing Meatless Mondays or Vegan Before Six.
  • You can be vegetarian or vegan except for particular foods that you really enjoy eating, such as sushi, cheeseburger’s, or Mom’s Thanksgiving turkey.
  • You can try new vegetarian or vegan recipes and, if you like them, share them with your friends.
  • You can research certification programs and only buy meat from humanely raised animals. (Unfortunately, genuinely humane meat and eggs are expensive enough that you’ll likely end up functionally vegetarian or vegan anyway.)
  • You can eliminate chicken, chicken products, and farmed fish from your diet. Eliminating those three foods gets you much of the benefit of going vegan or vegetarian, and is easier for many people.
  • You can talk to other people about factory farming and encourage them to reduce or eliminate their animal product consumption.
  • You can email corporations to encourage them to make cage-free pledges. Mercy for Animals will give you daily actions to help chickens here.
  • You can go to stores and restaurants which show a commitment to animal welfare, such as by making a cage-free egg pledge or by serving the Impossible Burger.
  • You can call politicians and express support for stronger animal-welfare legislation, vote for politicians that have improved conditions for animals, and in some states vote for ballot propositions that protect animals.
  • You can donate to charities which raise awareness of factory farming, advocate for people to go vegan, and support the development of meat substitutes that taste just as good as meat.