Every day there are legally sanctioned atrocities of torture, abuse and death occurring in the private sector. It is of such a magnitude that it eclipses the number of lives lost in all of the world wars, the holocaust, 911 and subsequent terrorist attacks combined.
The perpetrators of these abuses are factory farms, also known as intensive industrial farm operations. They are large-scale agri-businesses that supply 98% of all the food produced in the United States.
The victims are nine billion animals killed each year for food in the U.S. That number reaches 70 billion globally, or six million animals per hour. Some might say that it is unfair to compare human lives with nonhuman animals, but the overwhelming scientific evidence of their sentience and their ability to feel pain as much as we do, puts us in the same category.
Misleading marketing campaigns show animals roaming around the fields, but the reality is that they never breathe fresh air or see the sunlight. Animals are treated like biological machines where they are crammed into cages so small that they cannot stand up or stretch their limbs for their whole lives.
Egg-laying hens spend about two years in battery cages where they cannot spread a single wing. They die from either uterine prolapse from growth hormones they are fed to constantly push out eggs, skeletal deformities, lung congestion or one of the rampant infections that spread through the cramped quarters.
Understandably, the overcrowding causes aggression resulting in animals biting one another. To combat this, female chickens are de-beaked and left in such pain, they often die. Since there is no use for the male chicks, they are immediately gassed, ground up alive or put into garbage bags to suffocate. Pigs and cows’ tails are routinely cut off without any painkillers.
Equally cruel are the euphemistically named “gestation crates” that immobilize mother pigs for their whole lives so that they can be bred over and over again. They are forcibly confined, (also known as the “rape rack”), then artificially inseminated. Their babies have only 24 hours with their mother, as they suckle through the bars of the crates, before they are taken away, and put on hormones and antibiotics so the cycle can continue.
In 2013 the European Union banned gestation crates, followed by Canada in 2014. Australia and New Zealand are phasing them out by 2017, yet only nine states in the U.S. have banned them so far.
It seems preposterous that such massive institutionalized cruelty can happen without greater public awareness. Even more shocking is that videos have been taken by employees in slaughterhouses to document the abuses, but industry lobbyists have managed to criminalize the whistleblowing. Now known as the “Ag-gag” law, any person who gathers evidence can be sued $5,000 for each day they collect it. Seven states have this law in effect.
Despite significant efforts by the agriculture industry to cover up their abuses, word is getting out. Public pressure has caused companies such as Costco, Mondelez International, Nestle and Walmart to switch to cage-free eggs. It is just one step, but shows that companies will do the right thing with public pressure.
To be sure, feeding an ever-growing population requires intensive efforts, but factory farming is not the answer. In addition to causing immense animal suffering, it also causes water, land and air pollution that results in respiratory problems, skin infections, nausea, depression, and even death for people who live nearby.
Fortunately, entrepreneurs are finding ways to grow meat in labs and create great tasting plant proteins, creating more humane alternatives. Progress takes time though. To help end the suffering and sustain our earth, there are at least three things we can all do to have a positive impact:
- Choose plant–based alternatives. There are plenty of tasty choices available, with more coming on the market every day. Not only is a green diet healthier for you, it less expensive. Even one day a week can make a difference in the number of animals abused;
- Cut back or cut out eating animal products. It may be helpful to re-frame how you see the products in supermarkets: not hamburger or steak, but bloodied animal flesh under plastic that came from great suffering;
- Tell others so they can make informed choices in their foods.
In an industry that is surprisingly immune to the most basic laws of humanity and civility, we can be a voice for these voiceless animals. Change won’t happen until we speak up.