It is very possible that plants have sensitivities that we do not yet
understand. Because plants do not have nervous systems and cannot run away
from predators, it has generally been assumed that they do not experience pain
and suffering. Recent scientific evidence suggests that the life of plants is more
complex than we once thought. However, we do know that birds, mammals and fish have well-developed nervous systems and pain receptors. Like
us, they show pleasure and pain and they present comparable evidence of fear
and well-being. Animals cry out in pain, they nurse wounded body parts, and
they seek to avoid those who have hurt them in the past.
In order to live, one has to eat. However, when we eat animal products, we
consume many more plants indirectly than if we ate those plants directly,
because the animals we eat are fed huge quantities of grasses, grains, and
seeds to be converted into meat, milk, and eggs. As a vegan (one who eats no
animal products) you cause fewer beings to suffer and die for you.
Farm animals will not overrun the earth if we stop eating them because we will
no longer intentionally breed them as we do now. Parent flocks and herds are
deliberately maintained by artificial insemination, genetic selection, bizarre
lighting schedules and other manipulations to force them to produce billions
of offspring each year. This inflated population will fade as people stop
eating animal products. In time, as David Gabbe states in Why Do Vegetarians
Eat Like That?, "farm animals could be left to fend for themselves; some would
make out fine, others would struggle to keep from becoming extinct. But, like
all animals (except humans), they would adjust their numbers in accordance
with the conditions around them."
In the meantime, we have to remember that we, not they, are responsible for
their predicament. We have an obligation to find ways to ease the transitional
period for these animals.
On the one hand we're afraid that farm animals will overrun the earth. On the
other hand we worry that they'll become extinct. Feral chickens, pigs, and
other farm animals ("feral" refers to domesticated animals who have become
self-sustaining again) successfully resume their natural activities given the
chance: they forage, graze, mate, raise their young, socialize and get along
very well without humans. Farm animals are much more autonomous and resilient
than is commonly supposed. Otherwise, it is better for creatures afflicted
with human- created defects not to be born. People who think it is all right
to imprison animals in genetically-impaired bodies and who then get testy
about their becoming extinct, are indulging in cynicism and sentimentality.
Call their bluff and move on to other issues.
Slave traders and slaveholders argued that it was better to be a slave in a
"civilized, Christian" society than to be at liberty in a heathen jungle. This
same rationalization is used to justify expropriating and subjugating other
species. Producers tell the public that farm animals prefer "three meals a
day" to a life in the wild. In fact, the "wild" is a human projection onto
areas of the earth and modes of being that are alien and inhospitable to our
species. The wild isn't "wild" to the animals who live there. It is their
home. Animals in wall-to-wall confinement are forced to live in a situation
that expresses human nature, not theirs. If they preferred to be packed
together without contact with the world outside, then we would not need
intensive physical confinement facilities, since they would voluntarily cram
together and save us money.
It is illogical to argue that humans protect farm animals from "predators." We
are their predator. Moreover, by confining them we subject them to many more
nonhuman predators in the form of parasites and other disease organisms than
they would otherwise encounter. By locking them up, we prevent them from using
their natural flight/fight abilities, so that when a predator (such as the
farmer) comes along, they cannot escape. Millions more animals die of heat
stress and other climactic conditions in intensive confinement facilities than
they would in nature. The inability of confined farm animals to exercise their
natural defenses and self-assertion induces pathological stress leading to
immune-system breakdown. Only by twisted standards can apathy and atrophy be
regarded as benefiting an animal.
Farm animals can be profoundly mistreated and still "produce," in the same way
that profoundly mistreated humans can be overweight, sexually active and able
to produce offspring. Like humans, farm animals can "adapt," up to a point, to
living in slums and concentration camp conditions. Is this an argument for
slums and concentration camps? Farm animals do not gain weight, lay eggs, and
produce milk because they are comfortable, content, or well-cared for, but
because they have been manipulated specifically to do these things through
genetics, medications, and management techniques. For example, cage layer
producers artificially stimulate and extend egg production by keeping the
lights burning for 16 or 17 hours a day to force the hen's pituitary gland to
secrete increased quantities of the hormone that activates the ovary.
Animals in production agriculture are slaughtered at extremely young ages,
before disease and death have decimated them as would otherwise happen even
with all the drugs. Even so, many more individual animals suffer and die in
intensive farming, but because the volume of animals being used is so big--in
the billions--the losses are economically negligible, while the volume of
flesh, milk and eggs is abnormally increased.
The fact that giving farm animals a decent life before killing them can be
seriously questioned represents an important reason to stop raising them for
food. It is not that they are going to die anyway that seems to justify our
mistreatment of them when they are alive--we are all going to die but we do
not generalize the argument--but that we are deliberately going to kill them.
There is a felt inconsistency in valuing a creature so little and yet
insisting that he or she be granted a semblance of tolerable existence prior
to execution. So wanton can our disrespect for our victims become that any
churlish sentiment or behavior seems fit to exercise. It is contemptible to
assert that humans have no responsibility, or that it makes no sense, to
enrich the life of a being brought into the world merely to suffer and die for
us. The situation confers greater, rather than lesser, or no, obligations on
us towards those at our mercy.
Some people believe that the Creator gave humanity "dominion" over other life.
Others see the idea of "dominion" as an assertion of human ego in conflict
with true spirituality and common sense. One way or other, a loving God does
not authorize humanity to degrade, insult, and terrorize the other creatures
of the earth, any more than people are authorized to bully, terrorize, and
belittle one another. The idea of a gracious human spirit is expressed in the
Christian Bible, for example, where it says, "O, Jerusalem . . . how often I
have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under
her wings" (Matthew 23:37). Like nature, scripture can be invoked to justify
almost anything one wishes to do. Instead of dwelling on verses that invite us
to be pompous and violent, we should focus on passages and images that
instruct us to be peaceful, participating members of creation.
Most world religions envision a "golden age" when humans lived peaceably on
earth without bloodshed. In Genesis 1:29, God gives to humans "every herb
bearing seed . . . and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding
seed." God says that, for us, these seeds and fruits "shall be meat." The
Biblical image of the Garden of Eden is paralleled by the Classical image of
the Golden Age and by ancient Indian depictions of a peaceable kingdom on
Arguments about the true and ancient diet of humanity are largely speculative.
Opposition to flesh-eating goes back to antiquity, as shown in Howard
Williams's history, The Ethics of Diet (1883). Records show a traditional
association between certain human cultures throughout the world and a diet
comprising, though not necessarily based on, meat. A vigorous human lifestyle
can sustain some intake of the flesh of vigorous animals. However, westernized
populations are not active by stone age standards, and the mass-produced
animals whose body parts and secretions they consume are forced to live
sedentary lives, in filth and confinement, because natural activity expends
energy that "wastes feed."
There is clear evidence that an animal-based diet causes degenerative
diseases--actual cases can be cited and actual clogged arteries and starved
internal organs can be viewed every day in the hospital or morgue. Where is
the comparable evidence showing that people living on a varied plant-based
diet suffer, as a result, from calcium, protein, and iron deficiencies, heart
attacks and strokes? Studies currently conducted by Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. T.
Colin Campbell in the U.S. and China show the opposite. European travellers in
the 18th and 19th centuries marveled at the vigor and longevity of peasants in
Turkey, Russia, South America and elsewhere: they were amazed that people
living on such "impoverished fare" as rice, beans, millet and potatoes could
be so hardy and long-lived. While there is no evidence that the human body
needs animal products, there is abundant evidence that the human body thrives
on a nutritious plant-based diet.
Assuming that all known methods of harmless self-protection have been
exhausted, there is still a definite difference between defending oneself from
predators (including insects) and deliberately bringing creatures into the
world to suffer and be killed for one's appetites and habits. We kill bacteria
to defend our teeth from decay. Only thoughtlessness considers this the same
as, or a justification for, slaughterhouses and the violence surrounding
them--castration, debeaking, starvation, force- feeding, electrical shock,
Vegetarians do not eat animals, but, according to the traditional use of the
term, they may choose to consume dairy products and eggs, in which case they
are called lacto-ovo (milk and egg) vegetarians. These distinctions are
essentially academic, as the production of eggs and dairy products involves
enormous killing as does the production of meat. Surplus cockerels, unwanted
calves, "spent" dairy cows and laying fowl have been slaughtered, bludgeoned,
trashed, drowned and ditched through the ages. Disposing of the "surplus"
males by the dairy industry is the basis of the veal calf industry. The egg
industry trashes half the population of birds born--more than 250 million male
In fact, dairy products and eggs are every bit as much animal parts as "meat"
(muscle tissue) is. No less than muscles, these parts derive from and comprise
within themselves the physiological, metabolic, and hormonal activities of an
animal's body, and a magnitude of bodily expense. A hen's egg is a generative
cell, or ovum, with a store of food and immunity for an embryo that, in
nature, would normally be growing inside the egg. Milk is the provision of
food and immunity that is produced by the body of a female mammal for her
nursing offspring. Milk, literally, is baby food.
For thousands of years, human beings have manipulated the bodies of hens and
cows in order to extract these body, or baby, parts for themselves. Now as in
the past, the economically "spent" fowl and cow are shipped to the
slaughterhouse when their bodies no longer pay. They endure days of pre-
slaughter starvation and long trips to the slaughterhouse because of their low
carcass value. To be a lacto-ovo vegetarian is not to wash one's hands of
misery and murder.
The fear pounded into meat-industry workers about losing their jobs if people
convert to a vegetarian diet locks them into the only fate they know. As long
as people exist, food will have to be produced and someone will have to
produce it for them. Imagine if all those protein-rich soybeans and other
produce now fed to farm animals were harvested directly for people and turned
into everything from burgers to ice cream. Imagine all the jobs! The huge
amount of money that is now being spent to patch up human bodies ravaged by
animal-based diets and to clean up an environment increasingly polluted by
farm animal wastes could be used to retrain workers and redirect food
technologies. As consumers, we can use our enormous purchasing power to speed
technological conversion to the production of all-vegetarian foods. In
retooling, producers will "create their own competition," hiring just as many
workers as before in order to feed the hungry-as-ever human population.
Are Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) badgered with why they are not
working instead for battered women or abused children or some other cause?
Were Americans who fought against slavery attacked for ignoring the plight of
white people? Choosing a particular issue does not mean that one is
indifferent to other concerns. Animal abuse, like child abuse and spouse
abuse, is a human problem. The world that we have made for farm animals to
live in hurts people as well as the animals and offers good evidence that
hardening of the sensibilities is an even worse disease than hardening of the
arteries. As human beings, we have a responsibility to the victims of our
society and our species, whoever and wherever those victims may be. Every
social justice movement in history has been scorned by the mainstream, which
is made up ironically of people whose own freedoms and rights were won by
revolutionaries at an earlier time.
Some people argue that we should emphasize health, food-safety, and environmental issues rather than the animals and their plight, because humans are basically selfish. While it is important to combine these issues whenever possible, it is a mistake to assume that people cannot or will not care about their fellow creatures. Just as we owe it to our animal victims to rescue them from cruel and degrading circumstances, so we owe it to them to be their voice. To insist that most people will never care about farmed animals is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Two centuries ago, most people "didn't want to hear about" human slaves, either. Many more people will openly care and move toward change when they feel it is socially safe. Millions of people have impulses of compassion that have been stifled by self-doubt and fear of ridicule. Eventually, some of the health and environmental problems caused by an animal-based diet may be solved or reduced by technology, at least in appearance. Only the ethics of diet, the pain and suffering, the shared mortality and claims of our fellow creatures upon us are lasting.