Systemic abuse of animals within modern western agriculture

All that happens during an animal’s life in the animal agriculture industry happens because consumers are willing to buy its flesh, skin, feathers, milk or eggs. Even though consumers are often unconscious about the harm they cause with their purchases, they are directly responsible – demand and supply. This awareness is something that we have discussed in our previous post. There, we have addressed the sociology behind the silence and denial around animal suffering in everyday life. In this post, we will cover some of the standard western practices within the animal agriculture industry and give some insights into the lives of cows, chickens and pigs without going into gruesome detail – be ready to take off those comfortable blinders and become conscious consumers!

Is it necessary to consume animal-derived products?

Before we address some of the standard practices in the animal agriculture industry, it should be clear that there is no necessity to consume animal-derived products at all. Many studies have shown that people can not only get all the nutrition they need from plants, it is also proven to be healthier for all stages of life (including pregnancy and infancy). Animal-derived products used for non-food consumption can also easily be replaced by plant-based alternatives – in modern-day society, there is no need to wear the skin of an animal to stay warm. This raises the question: Can someone defend the cruelty brought upon an intelligent being if there is absolutely no necessity to do so?

Dairy industry

While it may seem obvious, many people do not realise that female cows have to become pregnant – every year – to continuously produce milk. Insemination happens artificially by sticking a full arm in her rectum, holding the cervix, while inserting bull sperm with a long stick through her vagina, only to have her calf taken away from her within 48 hours after birth.

The mom – naturally producing only 4 litres of milk a day for her baby – is bred to produce 28 litres(!) of milk per day. She is milked for four years in a row until her body has become too weak to continue. Even though she could have lived up to 18 to 25 years in natural circumstances, she is sent to the slaughterhouse when she loses her economic value (i.e. drop in milk production). The European Food Safety Authority states that this often happens while she is still pregnant.

“What happens to her calves?” – you may wonder. About 60% of the female calves follow in their mother’s footsteps by becoming dairy cows, starting the cycle all over again. The other female calves are sold to the beef or veal industry. The latter is where bull-calves end up if they are not killed shortly after birth – a common practice.

Veal and Beef industry

The veal industry is characterised by solitary confinement and malnutrition. The calves grow up in tiny cages called veal crates designed to prohibit exercise and slow down muscle growth to keep their flesh tender. Most calves are fed milk replacers low in iron and other dietary supplements to produce the desired blank meat. After only six months, veal calves go to the slaughterhouse – malnourished and starving.

It is not only the meat we desire from veal calves. In Europe, animal-derived rennet (extracted from the fourth stomach of the unweaned calves – veal calves) is still widely used to produce most types of cheese. This makes the majority of cheese types not vegetarian — something many vegetarians do not even realise.

Calves that end up in the beef industry are considered “finished” after approximately 18 to 36 months. The boys are castrated (steers), and the girls remain unbred (heifers) to produce beef to our liking. It is often believed that they graze on pasture land most of the time, but this is certainly not the case. Grass-fed cows require approximately 15-20 times more land than those raised on feedlots, which is why most cows live their entire lives packed together on a concrete or sandy patch. Intensification practices like this often come at a high cost for animal welfare and the environment.

Broiler industry

Compared to 1957, the size of broiler chickens has quadrupled due to the use of drugs and genetic selection (4.5x as heavy within 8 weeks after hatch – 1957 vs 2005). To put those “when I see a bodybuilder with chicken legs”-memes into a new perspective: many chickens become crippled because their legs cannot support the increased body mass. Not being able to walk causes them to die from hunger and thirst.

Virtually all chickens are factory-farmed. Broiler chickens are typically confined in large sheds without any natural light. They spend their whole six weeks living in almost complete darkness and an overpowering smell of faeces and ammonia. They sit and sleep in their own waste, and the ammonia burns their breasts, often blistering their skin and feet.

A large amount of chickens together makes it impossible to establish a pecking order. Frustrated, they start to peck one another relentlessly, causing injury and even death. Because broiler sheds are very filthy, diseases spread quickly. To keep chickens alive long enough to be sent to the slaughterhouse, they often receive anti-biotic supplements. In a desperate attempt to minimise the mortality rate, farmers also cut off or burn away part of the sensitive beaks of the chicks when they are still young (i.e., beak-trimming).

Egg industry

Before humans started to exploit the female reproduction system of hens, female hens laid 12 to 20 eggs a year during spring. Nowadays, they lay a shocking amount of 200 to 350 eggs a year. She uses up to 10% of the calcium in her bones to create the shell of one egg. Because the cheap feed they receive does not replenish all the calcium they have lost, many egg-laying hens suffer from weak and broken bones, osteoporosis and paralysis.

Intense stress due to confinement causes hens to engage in unnatural behaviour – cannibalism and self-mutilation are common. After 12 to 16 months of rapid egg production, their reproductive system declines. 3-star labelled or not; instead of a well-deserved retirement, they are all brought to the slaughterhouse, which is often the first time they see sunlight.

Whether organic, free-range, or battery cage, there is no use for male chicks in the egg industry. Annually, 7 billion male chicks are disposed of shortly after they hatch. This process is called chick culling. Workers throw them directly into a shredder (without anaesthetics), in a gas chamber, or drown them to death. Some European countries have recently announced that they plan to stop chick culling. Instead, they want to replace this practice with ultrasound machines, spectroscopy or chemical assays to determine the sex by measuring the egg. If the sex is male, the egg will be crushed. While it is great news that governments are finally recognising some of the sufferings of the egg industry, there are still billions of hens exploited every year to lay all these eggs. Is it even ethical to decide if a chicken’s egg is allowed to hatch if the gender does not suit our purpose?

Pork industry

Within the animal agriculture industry, males are considered unprofitable because they can’t give milk, lay eggs, or because we dislike how their meat tastes when they grow too old. Therefore, most males are killed within the first hours or days after birth. Since most pigs will not make it past childhood and are only raised for their flesh, this is different for the pork industry. Here, both male (castrated) and female pigs are deemed profitable and are fattened up as fast a possible – to approximately 120kg within six months.

The majority of the female breeding pigs – also known as sows – are artificially inseminated to keep them pregnant continuously. Every time they give birth, they are confined in farrowing crates for weeks in a row. These crates are so small that the sows can not turn around. The forced impregnation and confinement cycle is repeated for roughly four years until the sows are too exhausted to carry on.

Piglets are taken away from their mothers after approximately three to four weeks. After that, they will live their short lives on large-scale or factory farms in an area smaller than a square metre, often without bedding, sewage system or natural light. Virtually all piglets receive anti-biotic drugs and are mutilated by castration, tail amputation and teeth clipping, all of which is done without anaesthetic. This is considered necessary because the sensory deprived and stressed pigs often resort to cannibalism when they go insane.

Most pigs suffer from open wounds and many die before making it to the slaughterhouse. Like other farmed land animals, pigs are transported in cramped and overcrowded trucks without food and water – often for long periods at a time. But because pigs do not have sweat glands, they suffer terribly from overheating during transport. Many of them become so ill and weak that they die before reaching the kill blade or gas chambers.

Humane washing within the animal agriculture industry

The things we have described are standard practices but not necessarily known to the common public – the reality is hidden from sight. Farms and producers of animal-derived products portray pretty pictures of animals living happy lives on their packaging and in commercials to make us believe that their products are ethically and humanely produced. This is called ‘humane washing’. Another frequently used method is downplaying the reality of the animal agriculture industry with terms like ‘humanely sourced’, ‘free-range’, ‘cruelty-free’, ‘organic’, ‘better life’, ‘grass-fed’, ‘natural’ and ‘fresh’ to reduce consumer concern.

There is a misconception that ‘local’ and ‘family’ farms provide a better quality of life for the animals. Geographical location doesn’t say anything about how animals are treated on farms. In the USA, the USDA classified 98% of all farms as family-owned farms, while 99% of all animals are factory-farmed. In the end, every factory farm is local somewhere, yet we are always told to support our local family farms – “get your eggs and milk locally” or “we only sell locally sourced meat”.

This doesn’t mean that there are no farms that have their cows grazing down in a field or that no chickens are running around freely on a small farm. In the end, it is the goal to use the bodies of the animals and ultimately kill them for profit. Even if animals were able to roam free for the majority of their lifetime, they all meet the kill-blade against their will at only a fraction of their natural lifespan. This is never ethical or humane.

If you are asking yourself how it is possible that animals suffer all around us in farms, slaughterhouses, transportation and laboratories, while we are not “aware” of it, read our article about the silence and denial around animal suffering in everyday life.

If you would like to learn more about the systemic abuse of animals within modern western animal agriculture, we recommend watching the documentary Dominion. You can watch it for free on youtube; check out the trailer below!

Elise & Joy

suggested reads