THE ETHICS OF MEAT
The fairy tale farm evokes images of pigs rolling in muddy pig pens, cows grazing in green pastures and hens happily sitting on eggs in wooden hen houses. While this may have been the scene in the 1890s, the reality today is not so pretty. Increasing demand, corporatisation of agriculture and the expectation of low prices has encouraged the intensive production of animal products, along with a decline of our humanity and compassion for animals.
Many of us are blissfully ignorant of how our meat, milk and eggs get to the shops but there has been a shift in our attitudes and preferences. Social media, vegan activism and a growing awareness of animal welfare have helped to fuel the rise of flexitarianism, or eating less meat, as well as a rise in ethical claims on food such as ‘free-range’, ‘organic’ and ‘cruelty free’. Here we take a look at the main welfare issues within animal farming and how industries are responding with more ethical alternatives.
- CONFINEMENT – Chickens and pigs are commonly kept in cages or crates with little room to turn around. Lack of exercise weakens their bones and as chickens are grown unnaturally fast, broken bones are a common issue. Free-range chickens and ‘sow-stall free pork’ offers a more ethical alternative.
- DENIAL OF NATURAL BEHAVIOURS – chickens instinctively like to run around, roost, and dust bathe and all these behaviours are denied or severely curtailed in intensive farms. Free range farming allows chicken to engage in their natural behaviours. Similarly, pigs like to root around outside with their specially adapted snouts, and free-range farming allows them to do this.
- UNWANTED CHICKS AND CALVES – Only female chickens lay eggs, yet 50% of chicks born are males. Shockingly, male chicks are killed, either gassed or – horrifyingly – thrown alive into grinding machines. Similarly, dairy cows only produce milk if they have recently given birth so most calves are slaughtered, except for a small number of female calves that are raised to produce milk themselves.
- PAINFUL PROCEDURES – For a variety of reasons, intensive farming often involves hurting animals. Farmers may trim chicken beaks, dock horns, castrate pigs, lambs and calves, clip teeth, dock tails, ring noses, remove horn buds. These painful procedures are usually done without anaesthetic.
Ethical farming meat, egg and dairy farming are more labour intensive and therefore more expensive. In the case of milk, organic milk from smaller farms with kinder practices can cost double the amount of conventionally produced milk. This is out of reach for many. Another issue is the limited supply of more ethical products. While the situation is changing, ethically produced meat is still harder to find. How we can increase the supply is to demand it, and the food supply will gradually change to give us what we want.
How to be an ethical omnivore
- Enjoy a plant-based diet and when you eat your ‘just enough’ amount of animal products, choose the most ethical options available to you – a win for the animals and you! Eating just enough animal foods, and perhaps less than you do now, will reduce the cost impact as well.
- Choose organic, free range, cruelty free or humane choice meat and dairy. Organic farming standards include welfare for farm workers and animals.
- Choose wild, game meats – such as rabbit, kangaroo, venison (deer) that are free to roam before slaughter (and also have a smaller environmental footprint).
- Support smaller organic/biodynamic farms – as they use kinder and more environmentally sustainable production methods.
- Dine at ethical eateries – Support restaurants that use higher welfare animal ingredients – e.g. cage-free eggs. There are online directories such as Choose Wisely in Australia that help locate ethical eateries near you.
- Eat nose-to-tail and waste nothing – if we’re going to kill animals for food the least we can do is eat everything and not waste it. This means eating all the cuts and not just the popular ones. The bonus is they’re cheaper.
Thanks to Rachel Ananin AKA TheSeasonalDietitian.com for her assistance with this article.
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Nutritionist, author, consultant, cook, food enthusiast and mother who strives to make sense of nutrition science and delights in making healthy food delicious. Contact: You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or check out her website.