If that title doesn’t make you feel a little bit uneasy, it probably should. Anyone who is conscious or becoming conscious of what they eat and where it comes from learns about factory farming very early on. If you would like to learn more about the subject, I have books to recommend. One in particular is a book I am reading now, called “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer. There is a plethora of statistics, anecdotes, facts, and ideas about eating meat and why it should be reduced. However, he is very fair and thorough, it is not simply a decree to eat vegetarian. The most recent chapter I read included an anecdote about an activist and him breaking into a turkey “farm” (I put farm in quotes because it really resembles a factory more than a farm – the turkeys see the inside of a building, not green space). After the story, he gives a chance for the activist who arranged the rescue to write. She tells her background, and explains that she is not a radical in any way (no piercings, tattoos, politically centrist, etc) but that in fact the issue of factory farming is really a middle of the road issue. Her points are compelling, but that is not what inspired me to write.
Following her story, he allows a “retired farmer,” as he refers to himself, a chance to tell his side of the story. In reality, this man reveals that he worked in agribusiness (as he calls it), better known as factory farming. He helped design turkey breeder farms, did disease management and flock management, specialized in chicken nutrition and health – titles you might associate more with a business than a farm. He tells a quick history of farming back in the day, then he paints a picture of the farmer needing to produce more food. He points out that the price of food hasn’t increased in thirty years – a fact that has allowed Americans to currently spend the smallest proportion of their income on food than any other culture in history. Then he claims that in order to “put food on your table, send your kids to school, get a new car as needed – the farmer has to produce more and more.” This is necessary to feed the world he says, and dreaming of a vegetarian world is not only unproductive (“I’ve got news for you, people don’t want to eat less meat”) but immoral. However, while there is a wealth of misguided statements there, I don’t want to examine those either right now.
What I came here to talk about comes in his next paragraph. “People have no idea where food comes from anymore. It’s not synthetic, it’s not created in a lab, it actually has to be grown. What I hate is when consumers act as if farmers want these things, when it’s consumers who tell farmers what to grow. They’ve wanted cheap food. We’ve grown it.”
While I disagree with much of what this gentleman has to say, this particular point could not be more spot on. We have a tendency to demonize the people who work in or operate factory farms. We lament their creation and we hark back to simpler times with family farms. But the reality is, they were responding to demand, not creating it. I mean, sure, marketing on behalf of the industry helped inflate demand a bit, touting the health benefits of animal products, or simply implying that a meal isn’t a meal without meat. But on the whole, consumers demanded higher quantities and cheaper meat sources. It is a fact that with increasing affluence, as people are raised out of poverty, the very first thing people buy is meat. Just look at China. As they gain wealth, global meat demand is rising rapidly.
So, while this particular man believes dreaming of a vegetarian world is immoral, let me offer a counter perspective. While I have never believed that the world needs to go entirely vegetarian, it is undeniable that the current levels of meat consumption are wildly unsustainable. So even if we want a world where we still get to eat meat, currently, it is a safe bet that if you eat meat, the amount you eat is unsustainable.
If you cringed at the words “factory farming,” then don’t demand factory farms. Eat less meat. And if you are sitting there thinking, “well I try to buy the best meat I can, grass-fed, organic, free-range, etc,” I have news for you. Ninety-nine percent of the meat consumed in this country was produced by a factory farm. That means that you can guarantee that most of the meat you eat came from these farms. That’s 99% of every hamburger, nugget, cheese, egg, or gallon of milk. So. Think factory farming is atrocious? Eat fewer animal products. Demand less of it and less of it will exist. It’s just that simple.