By Maggie Hall
Maggie is a former Chair of Brighton Humanists, a member of the Humanists UK Dialogue Network, and a Humanists UK School Speaker. In this article she catalogues the cruelty involved in eating meat and fish and makes a strong case for choosing an alternative diet.
Humans as 'top predator'
For hundreds of thousands of years humans have thought of themselves as being at the top of a food chain. Until around 12,000 years ago they were hunter-gatherers, surviving mainly on what they could forage from their environment, with the intermittent addition of animal flesh when there had been a successful hunt. Like the humans themselves, the wild animals they hunted had lived a completely natural life right up until the moment of death. Also like the humans, their lives had not always been easy. They had to cope with predators, rivals in their own species, accidental injuries and presumably occasional outbreaks of disease. Neither the humans nor their wild prey had any choice about this. Predators, including humans, needed to consume their prey in order to survive and, with any luck, flourish. Sometimes, however, the preyed-upon animal would get away and, having learned from its near-death experience, not be so easy to catch in the future. There was always the possibility that it could escape and live on to enjoy its freedom for a bit longer. It at least had a fighting chance.
With the development of agriculture, alongside the domestication of certain food plants, some animals were also domesticated, meaning that they were kept within a confined space and largely or completely fed by humans, rather than being able to forage for their own food in the wild according to their natural instincts. As animal farming practices became more sophisticated, there was also little chance that individuals could choose their own mate, or indeed when to mate. Artificial selection by humans meant that their natural breeding instincts were curtailed in favour of promoting characteristics that were more desirable to humans for food. Unlike wild prey animals, who at least had a fair chance of escaping the chase, the fate of animals bred for food was sealed from their birth. Some were bred not for their flesh but for their by-products such as milk, eggs, honey, furs and skins.
Feeding eight billion people
Now that humans were able to cultivate their own crops and breed their own livestock, they became less nomadic and began to build small, settled communities of around 50-100 people who could easily be provided for due to the abundance of farmed food now available to them. In time, however, these settlements grew into larger communities, towns, cities and states. The global population has grown from some five million people 10,000 years ago, to about one billion in 1800 and eight billion today, and the more mouths there are to feed the more intensive farming practices need to be to meet the demand. Over time, farms have become steadily much larger and more specialist. In most of the developed world, food is produced to the demand of the supermarket, which caters to the demand of the consumer, whose tastes and aspirations are formed by advertising.
Increasingly, however, people are becoming aware of the way that their food is produced and are beginning to question whether it is necessary, desirable or even economical to continue to grow food to feed captive animals kept in unnatural and often stressful conditions in order to feed humans. Unlike our Neolithic ancestors, we have the luxury of choice. So let’s look at some of the animal products we are now able to choose to live without and why we should consider doing so.
Eggs with a clear conscience?
You could be forgiven for thinking that eggs are a comparatively cruelty-free source of animal protein, especially if you buy ‘free-range’ and/or ‘organic’. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. It might seem a crassly obvious thing to say, but eggs are produced by hens. That’s hens, not cockerels. The hens will lay eggs whether or not there is a cockerel around to fertilise them. You will find no fertilised eggs in the supermarket. As with most sexually reproducing animals, eggs that are fertilised, in order to breed more laying birds, stand an approximately 50 per cent chance of containing a male chick which is, of course, worthless because they don’t lay eggs, so they are surplus to requirements and need to be disposed of. In the UK, this is done in one of two ways. Either they are gassed and then sold to zoos, animal parks or the exotic pet industry as food for reptiles or birds of prey, or they are flung, still alive, into a ‘macerator’ – a machine containing numerous whirring sharp blades which chops them up. The macerated chicks are then either sold as pet food for dogs and cats or buried to decompose. If you have the stomach for it here is a short Australian video illustrating the process, and another one filmed in the US. I stress that viewing is at your own discretion. They are very graphic. Other methods used around the world include crushing, burning, drowning or asphyxiating in plastic bags.
Hens in nature would lay around twelve eggs per year, but today’s specially bred hens produce up to 300 per year. According to the Humane League, a global non-profit, ‘This puts huge pressure on their bodies and they often suffer from prolapse of their vent which is the egg laying duct. They also endure complications from calcium deficiency, such as brittle bones and other disorders which cause premature, painful death’.
Chickens and other poultry birds bred for meat don’t really fare any better. The Humane League recently brought a case in the High Court against the UK Environment Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, for failing to properly monitor and prosecute farmers for keeping ‘Frankenchickens’ – chickens bred to grow at a rate so fast as to be detrimental to their health.
Daisy the dairy cow
What could be more evocative of the bounty of nature, fresh air and the countryside than a meadow full of contented-looking dairy cows? Unfortunately, this is a false impression. The true story is very similar to that of the egg industry. As with any mammal, including humans, milk is only produced by females who have recently given birth. On dairy farms, this is achieved by impregnation via artificial insemination. When the calf is born there is a 50 per cent chance that it will be female and a 50 per cent chance it will be male. Female calves are taken away to be raised somewhere else on formula milk so that the milk produced by their mothers can go for human consumption. The mother will be impregnated again within a year to ensure that she continues to produce milk. After two, three, or four such pregnancies she will be ‘spent’ and slaughtered for meat. Dairy cows typically survive until around six years old, although their natural life span would be nearer to twenty-five. Male calves, of course, do not produce milk so they may be raised for beef or veal or killed, usually shot, shortly after birth. In the UK, approximately 60,000 male calves are shot at birth every year. The raising of calves for beef and veal entails its own horrors which you can read about on the Humane League UK website (see below).
Some people who have become aware of the arguments against eating meat have decided to follow a pescatarian diet – a vegetarian diet plus fish. Most people, however, are unaware that around 70 percent of the fish they eat is from intensive fish farming. These fish are reared in factory farms at least as problematic as the ones used to rear land animals. Another significant fact is that one third of all edible fish caught in the oceans goes to feed livestock, not humans. It is now commonly accepted by the scientific community that fish do experience pain and suffering, but their treatment in fish farms fails to recognise this, and currently they do not enjoy the same legal protections as land animals. In May of this year, the animal rights organisation Animal Equality, an international animal protection organisation, released covert footage showing horrific conditions in fish farms and slaughter boats across the coast of Scotland. Some of the incidents shown include:
Failure to stun fish or conduct adequate stun-checks, with some fish entering the stun-kill machinery backwards, rather than headfirst
Smaller fish being left to suffocate in an empty bucket
Visible overcrowding in nets and bloodied slaughterhouse machinery
Fish wounded and bleeding after being transported in pipes from sea pens onto boats
Fish thrown violently by workers, causing some fish to slam against walls
And dead and dying fish being discarded overboard by workers, a clear biosecurity risk
Mark Borthwick, a fish expert and Doctoral Fellow with the Open-Oxford-Cambridge Doctoral Training Partnership, has been quoted as saying: ‘Stunning machines usually require fish to enter head-first. I can’t emphasise enough how painful it would be for a salmon to have a club or electric shock applied to their body and not their head. It’s a chaotic scene.’ Another investigation found similar problems in a trout farm in the Test Valley in Hampshire, UK. This farm has a reputation for producing a high-end product which is supplied to prestigious restaurants and endorsed by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
In all of these cases, fish were confined in filthy ponds. Dead fish were left to rot, creating a breeding ground for disease and parasites, which become such a problem that the fish were sprayed with parasite-killing chemicals and antibiotics. All of this leaches out into the rivers and oceans, adding to the pollution already caused by plastics and other detritus left by ocean fishing and causing antibiotic resistance in humans as well as animals. Moreover, due to changes in fishing practices and oceanic pollution, many fish stocks have plummeted since the 1950s, and most commercial fisheries are projected to collapse by 2050 if present conditions continue.
Pigs can outsmart dogs and equal chimpanzees in intelligence tests and they maintain complex social structures similar to primates. Sows bond closely with their young and build nests for them. Sadly, restrictive farrowing crates are still widely used in the UK. The sow is put in one shortly before giving birth, preventing her from turning round and making a nest. She will be kept in the crate for up to a month. Pigs often have their tails docked, usually without anaesthetic, to prevent them biting each other’s tails due to overcrowding. They are slaughtered, usually between 15 and 22 weeks of age, with an apparatus applied to their temples, or gas stunned. Death from CO2 gas can mean around 15-30 seconds of suffering before the pig loses consciousness. They will feel burning, and a feeling similar to drowning, as they struggle to breathe. The natural lifespan of a pig is 15-20 years.
Wild sheep do not need to be sheared. They shed their wool naturally when they need to. Domesticated sheep have been bred with wool that keeps on growing. During lambing season ewes are both pregnant and carrying a heavy weight of wool, which can result in them falling and rolling onto their backs, unable to get up. If they are not discovered and righted within 24 hours, they are likely to die a slow and painful death due to the build-up of stomach gases. Shearing subjects sheep to repeated handling in order to muster, pen and shear them, all of which is acutely stressful for them. Sheep are often nicked or cut during shearing, sometimes requiring stitching, which is usually done by the shearer. Lambs bred for meat are slaughtered at an average age of 6-7 months, although this could be as young as ten weeks. The natural life span of a sheep is around ten to twelve years, although with some breeds it could be more than twenty years.
British slaughterhouses are meant to comply with strict animal welfare legislation, but even if they do, which sadly is too often not the case, there really is no humane way of killing an animal. Here is another illustrative video which, again, you will need a strong stomach to watch, and viewing is at your own discretion. It was filmed in a slaughterhouse in Wales.
There are numerous other arguments to be had regarding the desirability of continuing to consume the flesh and by-products of sentient non-human animals, besides those of animal welfare. There are the issues of land use, climate change, human health and pollution of waterways to name just a few. However, if the spectacle of sentient animals being forced to live in unnatural, stressful conditions and killed when they have hardly lived has no effect, then I fear that all other arguments will also fail. Our early ancestors may well have needed meat to survive. They couldn’t pop round to their local supermarket for a veggie burger. However, at least in most developed countries, we do now have an abundant choice of alternative food sources. It is up to us to decide which choices we should make.
https://animalequality.org.uk/blog/2022/03/07/our-work-on-fish/#report?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=fish-wj (this contains a link to another graphic video)
Information on plant based alternatives to animal products
Information which includes the human health and environmental impacts of animal farming
Here is a very comprehensive report by Compassion in World Farming.
At an hour and twenty minutes, the following documentary, narrated by Kate Winslet, is a bit of a long watch, but I would urge you to watch to the end to get the full story: https://www.eating2extinction.com/.