on ethical farms and animal advocacy

I recently saw this graphic through the page of Jo-Anne McArthur, a Canadian photographer and activist, and it inspired me to continue reflecting on the unique space I occupy as a person who’s involved with smaller, more sustainable farming, and also as someone who advocates for the lives and well-being of other animals.

It’s tough to reconcile this combination. The image above is a good representation of the conflict I feel. Although “grass fed” or “free range” animals arguably live more naturally and freely than individuals raised in factory systems, the end result is the same and this deserves consideration. But, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to minimize the efforts people are making to develop alternatives to factory farms – I’m sure a hen who can run and stretch and dust bathe is much happier than one who cannot do these things because she lives in a battery cage, even though both are eventually killed. That doesn’t mean I think it’s okay to use other individuals for our own means by ignoring or sacrificing their interests and well-being, especially for products we don’t need.

Over the years I’ve been toying with creating a sort of guide for people to use to determine how ethical or humane a farm is. (Each person’s idea of “ethical” is different, but knowing about the issues at hand helps us decide who and what we want to support). People often read words like “free range” or see cattle on pasture and assume that the animals are receiving the absolute best care, and that all their needs are being met. Few people ask questions about the real details of the animals’ lives, because the picture presented to us looks nice, and because the needs of farmed animals are not something most people are familiar with. But it’s important to remember that when someone is trying to sell something, they will show you the most appealing part of the picture (this is true for anyone trying to sell a product, regardless of what it is). I think most people who eat animals hope or even expect them to be treated kindly, but it’s important for us to have some knowledge of what that means if we are to truly know whether an operation is doing so.

Birds in a free range Canadian chicken farm. Credit to Jo-Anne McArthur, from her We Animals collection.

The following are examples of questions I’d ask a farmer before deciding whether I was comfortable supporting them. These can be applied to a wide variety of animal farms, whether the animals are used for food or fiber or anything else, and whether the farm is organic or not.

  • What do you feed the animals?
  • Do you castrate, debeak or dehorn the animals? Why/why not? If yes, how? What kind of pain management (ie. anaesthetic, post-op pain killers) do you provide?
  • What kinds of euthanasia methods are used?
  • If you are an organic farmer, what do you do when sick or injured individuals are not responding to permitted forms of treatment?  (ie. do you use other forms of treatment even if it means sacrificing organic certification?)
  • What kind of mortality rate do you typically have among your herd/flock/etc? In general, what’s the biggest health issue that threatens the animals?

This is a (very) short version of a mental list I created using the knowledge I gained through my Animal Biology (read: how to factory farm) degree, and from visits to various types of large and small farms over the years. Here’s my reasoning behind some of these questions.

  • Feed type is a welfare concern especially for pigs and cattle. Pigs are prone to stomach ulcers and their incidence is correlated with feed type (note the focus on “performance” in this article). Most of the cattle who are farmed in Canada are fed corn and other grains, which they can’t digest well, and consequently experience metabolic diseases and other ailments. For instance, the dairy industry is structured such that cows are impregnated young and at every opportunity, so at any given time, a cow may be growing her own body, growing a calf inside of her, and also lactating, which is obviously a huge strain on her; cows literally can’t eat enough roughage (their natural food source) to meet their nutritional needs under these conditions. Humans have created this problem and have tried to solve it through feeding cows richer foods, but because cattle can’t digest these foods well, they become prone to ulcers, rumen acidosis and E. coli or Clostridium infection.  A second problem has instead been created. More here.
  • “Processing” of animals by cutting off parts of their bodies is routine in industrial farming, but is also present in the small farming world. While discouraged under Canada’s Organic Standards, it is permitted, and unfortunately procedures such as castration, tail docking and de-beaking is allowed without any pain management, just like in the non-organic farming world. The option to provide anaesthesia during the procedure and pain killers afterward is left up to the farmer, who may not prioritize pain relief, or it may not be practical economically or time-wise. These procedures are often done by farm workers, not veterinarians. A typical reason for them is to prevent animals from injuring each other in crowded or barren living spaces (another human-created problem). In the case of hens used for eggs, hatcheries will often de-beak chicks before they are shipped to farms, so farmers may have no choice in the matter (and of course, neither do the birds). More on piglet “processing” (note the distancing language used and the focus on animals’ growth or “production efficiency”.)

I found a book in the farm library about how to raise goats for milk and meat. Here are some related excerpts.

One-page-long castration how-to. Note the total lack of mention of anaesthetic or pain killers (never mind how ridiculous it is to use a book to learn how to do surgery!) Also note the focus on growth efficiency.

Another page-long how-to about de-horning or disbudding (destroying the young horn tissue). Again, no mention of pain management even though a third or fourth degree burn is being inflicted. At the end, the book suggests offering a bottle of warm milk, as though that’s going to provide any relief. Horns are important to animals for temperature regulation; they have soft tissue under the bone and are used to shed excess body heat, among other things. Animals housed properly should not fight severely enough to seriously injure each other. They can also be selectively bred to have no horns at all (ie. polled).

At the end of this chapter, a task list is given, as though all of these procedures are as simple as learning a few new words to add to your vocabulary.

  • You can see from some of the articles I’ve linked to that farming is very much a business, and therefore efficiency is a top priority. If an individual becomes sick or injured or their “production efficiency” is no longer at its peak, they are a burden to the business, and are thus culled. They may be sent to the slaughterhouse, or killed on the farm by being gassed or shot.  A typical “euthanasia” method for factory farmed piglets who are not growing fast enough is to be picked up by the hind legs and have their heads pounded against the floor or wall of the barn. I’ve also heard of people hanging animals, or hitting them in the head with hammers, in order to “euthanize” them. It is difficult for third parties to monitor practices such as these to ensure animals are being killed in a way that minimizes suffering. Here are the AVMA’s guidelines (that’s right, guidelines, not rules) on various methods of euthanasia (PDF) Also note the technical jargon that distances readers from the individuals in question, such as “cervical dislocation” (breaking of the neck). I have to wonder what negative effects seeing or performing this kind of euthanasia has on a person.
  • Regarding organic farms and certification: there are ways to treat sick animals that are permitted under the Canadian Organic Standards. However, certain substances are prohibited or controlled. This means a farmer may have to choose whether sick individuals receive proper health care but risk losing certification status for those individuals, or potentially let the animals suffer in order for their milk, eggs or bodies to stay certified. To be fair, the Standards demand that farmers “break” certification if necessary in order to properly treat animals for their ailments, however, this can be hard to monitor, and organic products raise a premium, so it’s not hard to see how a problem might go untreated. Some people who work for certifying bodies may also be more lenient than others, throwing further complications into the mix. I’ve observed animals being raised organically who were wasting away from parasites (and some, dying) due to inadequate treatment. In some situations, as is often the case when individuals are viewed as commodities, injury and illness go unnoticed or ignored and result in death; farmers don’t always provide health care when animals become sick and injured. Unfortunately, a widespread idea exists among the general population that if farmed animals are going to be killed, it isn’t necessary or worthwhile to provide them with proper health care. This attitude is precisely why so much suffering occurs in the industry.

Here is a photo I took of a young turkey on a local organic farm. She appeared to have a sinus or respiratory infection and was about half the size of her flock mates.

  • Mortality rate and its common causes are of interest because they can indicate whether a farmer is providing proper care to their animals. For example, if a common reason for losing animals is cold or heat stress, you might deduce that they are not being provided with adequate living conditions. Although shelter from extreme weather is a very basic need, this sort of thing does happen. (Again, an article focusing on profits lost). If you google a photo of a feedlot or observe animals in an open field without any form of shelter, you’ll understand why. The article linked states that a 1-2% mortality rate is the norm on South Dakota feedlots. It’s not always feasible to prevent every death, but the way people keep farmed animals is often the cause.

It’s important to ask yourself how you feel about practices such as the above, why you feel that way, and whether you’re comfortable supporting farms that use them. Would you feel comfortable supporting a horse or dog farm if these conditions were present? Why/why not? Another very important thing is to keep in mind that every individual has relationships with herd/flock mates, forms bonds with others, and has a will to live (survival instinct), regardless of the kind of life or death they experience.

The root of the problem in my mind is the prioritization of profit over the lives of the individuals being used to gain it; a great example is that of the ‘dairy’ cows being fed improperly due to the stress of the ‘production’ cycle.  The idea that some individuals are more worthy of compassion and respect than others is one that exists in so many realms, both between groups of humans, and between humans and other animals. Our focus on making money, and the way our society enforces that at almost any cost, is unfortunately the cause of so much of this privileging and domination (and therefore suffering). I reject the notion that money is the most important thing in the world, even though I acknowledge that our society is set up in a way that makes it pretty near impossible to live without. I also reject the idea that certain individuals are entitled to the lives or bodies of others, and should use them against their will. My aim is for my food choices to reflect this, and to help embody the qualities I need or value in myself and others.

I do want to make it clear that I don’t see folks who farm animals as a mass of faceless evil. Although I don’t feel comfortable consuming animals or animal products, I’ve seen first hand the efforts people are making to provide safer and (more) respectful care for the individuals they’re using, and the benefits to those individuals because of it. This doesn’t justify using or killing others for products we don’t need, but I’m hopeful that as more people come to understand the current food system and its pitfalls, they’ll continue working to change it into something more positive (whether for humans, other animals, or the planet.)  In the meantime I’ve decided not to support animal agriculture at all (among other choices like consuming organic and whole foods) because that’s the most respectful and sensible option for me. Like I said earlier in this post, each person’s idea of what is acceptable and ethical is different.

Please also realize that what I’ve talked about here is one part of a very complex series of problems that exist in agriculture today. I haven’t addressed things like environmental destruction, pollution, migrant farm workers’ issues, the local food movement, food security, nutrition, preservation of farmland, food labeling or GMOs. All of these things come into play whenever we eat. I’m very fortunate to be able to access animal-free foods, to grow my own food, and to have access to organic and local foods. In this post I’ve stuck to the topic I know the most about, but I encourage everyone to look into these other issues as well (as am I). I’m more than happy to have conversations about this subject and share more of my experiences in person.

Whatever the case may be, know that your decisions affect billions of other individuals. Taste is personal, and food should be enjoyed – if any of you have ever eaten a meal with me, you’ll know how strongly I feel about this! I also understand that others are affected by our food choices who have no choice. We have the power to inflict great harm, or to demonstrate great compassion. And we have the choice.


About tino

I'm an aspiring organic farmer living in canada. I talk about farm life, things I'm learning, other relevant topics like feminism, social & environmental justice, nature, animals, vegan food, and fun.

Posted on April 20, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this issue, Tino. I’m an omnivore and I’m concerned about the ethics of farming. The tendency to paint animal farming uniformly black, as you say, does not help people who want to make informed choices about the meat that they eat. We try to buy most of our meat and eggs at the farmers’ market from local producers. This spring I hope to visit a couple of the farms to get a clear idea of the conditions in which these animals are raised.

  2. good to hear from you, van! visiting farms is a great way to find out more about food. In my experience it’s also very interesting to talk with farmers about their work.

  1. Pingback: Studying Sustainability: A Blog Roll | Speed River Journal

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  3. Pingback: a bit more on the use of animals, plus some recommended reading/viewing « out here in the fields

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