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 of the harm they cause with their purchases, they are directly responsible – demand and supply. We have discussed this awareness in our previous post: “Silence and denial around animal suffering in everyday life”. 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 it is unnecessary to consume animal-derived products. Many studies have shown that people can get all the nutrition they need from plants, and 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?
Suffering within the dairy industry
While it may seem obvious, many people do not realise that female cows must become pregnant yearly to produce milk continuously. 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 as a cruel by-product of the dairy 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 most cheese types not even vegetarian — something many vegetarians do not even realise. There is no parmesan, gorgonzola, pecorino romano, camembert, gruyere, manchego, old Amsterdam, and Gouda cheese without the death of a baby calf.
Beef comes with a high cost
With cows being dehorned and castrated, the beef industry, like the dairy and veal industry, is not without suffering. Many like to believe that cows graze in pastures, but most beef comes from cows raised on factory farms. Because raising cows on pastures requires approximately 15-20 times more land than cows raised on feedlots, most cows live their entire lives (short – 18 to 36 months) on a concrete or sandy patch. They live a cramped and filthy life here, and fresh grass is not even on the menu. What is? Hay, grain, corn, soybeans, palm oil and fish-meal – mostly imported feed grown on ghost acres. We like to believe that cows eat grass, but they eat away our last pristine and biodiverse tropical forests through their feed. Intensification practices like this often come at a high cost for animal welfare and the environment.
The exploitation of the reproductive system of hens
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. Their reproductive system declines after 12 to 16 months of rapid egg production. 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.
No eggs without chick culling
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 finally recognise some of the sufferings of the egg industry, billions of hens are still exploited yearly to lay all these eggs. Is it even ethical to decide if a chicken’s egg can hatch if the gender does not suit our purpose?
Broiler barns: a perfect breeding ground for zoonotic diseases
Chickens grown for their meat live miserable and short life. 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.
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. In a desperate attempt to minimise the mortality rate, many farmers cut off or burn away part of the sensitive beaks of the chicks when they are still young (i.e., beak-trimming). This won’t stop the deprived and stressed chickens from hurting each other though.
Typically confined in large sheds of factory farms without any natural light, broiler chickens 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. Because broiler sheds are very filthy, diseases spread quickly. Barns filled with thousands of almost genetically identical, filthy, wounded and unhealthy chickens together are the perfect breeding grounds for zoonotic diseases. And with antibiotics beings overused – otherwise, many chickens won’t live long enough to be slaughtered – it’s only waiting for a disaster to happen.
The pork industry’s disturbing truths
In the pork industry, 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. Space is so limited that sows lay for weeks in the same position and when they try to move they often end up crushing their babies to death. Sows could live up to 20 years, but after four years of forced impregnation and confinement, they are too exhausted to carry on.
After three to four weeks, piglets are taken away from their mothers and brought to large-scale factory farms. Here, they receive anti-biotic drugs and are mutilated by castration, tail amputation and teeth clipping, all of which are done without anaesthetic. This is considered necessary because the sensory-deprived and stressed pigs often resort to cannibalism when they go insane. Still, many pigs will suffer from open wounds, infections and diseases due to poor sanitary living conditions and biting. They live their lives cramped together in an area smaller than a square metre each – often without bedding, sewage system or natural light. Not for long, though; piglets are quickly fattened up to approximately 120kg within six months – meaning that most piglets will not make it past childhood.
The suffering doesn’t end there. Because pigs do not have sweat glands, they suffer terribly from overheating during transport to the slaughterhouse. Transported in cramped and overcrowded trucks, without food and water and for long periods at a time, many young pigs 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 the animals a better quality of life. 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 no farms 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 could roam free for most 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 – don’t let someone tell you otherwise.
A burden we didn’t know we had
The things we have described are just fractions of what really goes on in the animal agriculture industry. Reading about it is not the same as seeing it. Seeing is not the same as feeling, but this is where veganism starts. You do not need to be an animal lover to understand that what we do to animals is morally wrong. For us, documentaries like Dominion and Earthlings made it click: these industries are cruel and unethical, and by becoming vegan, we wouldn’t participate in any of that anymore. Now that we are vegan, we have lost a burden from our shoulders that we didn’t know we had. Not doing it sooner is our only regret, really.
We invite all of you – vegan or not – to watch the documentary Dominion because it shows you the horrors hidden from the public. It takes a look at our interaction with companion animals, wildlife, and animals raised for the purpose of science, entertainment, clothing and food. It truly questions the morality and validity of our dominion over the animal kingdom. Just go to dominionmovement.com and watch it for free. The trailer isn’t pretty either, but we have embedded it below, just in case.