Over the past few months, there has been much commentary on the advantages of sustainable and organic farming efforts. Yale community members are becoming aware that when we purchase or support food produced on local, private farms by environmentally responsible methods, there are tremendous benefits to the regional economy, the global ecosystem and our health.
But sometimes overlooked in the discussion of sustainable agriculture is one of its greatest advantages. A privately-owned, holistic farm guarantees its meat and dairy animals healthy lives and humane deaths. This stands in stark contrast to the practices of factory farming, the predominant mode of meat and dairy farming in America.
If we were to stop and think about where our hamburgers and scrambled eggs come from, we would likely picture cows and chickens grazing in sunny, grass-filled farmyards, lovingly tended by farmers who offer their animals rich, full lives before humanely killing them. But most of these idyllic farms are gone — despite what we see on meat and dairy television commercials — bought out or shut out by more economically efficient and heavily subsidized corporate farms. According to many activist groups, these massive factory farms increase profits by cramming as many animals as physically possible into huge buildings; keeping livestock just barely alive while spending as little money as they can doing so; and then, in the case of meat animals, slaughtering them as fast as they can.
Inside dark, windowless warehouses, three chickens each are crammed into hundreds of wire-floored cages the size of a piece of paper; they can barely move their wings and feet. Cows and pigs are confined to small enclosures whose floors can become covered with feces and urine. Because the stress of living in this filthy confinement can cause neurotic behavior, steps may be taken to prevent the livestock from killing one another. To prevent tail-biting, pigs may have their teeth pulled and tails cut off without pain-killers, and baby chicks may have their beaks cut or melted off to prevent pecking.
Throughout their lives, factory farm animals are pumped full of growth hormones to make them larger or to keep them producing eggs and milk constantly. Additionally, they are given huge doses of antibiotics to curb disease, while their frequent lacerations, ulcers, tumors, and lung disease (from unventilated air) are often left untreated. Animals thought dead are discarded; activists often find still-living animals under piles of carcasses. On egg farms, male chicks are sometimes simply thrown away at hatching, left to die of thirst in dumpsters because they cannot produce eggs.
After months or even years of this treatment, meat animals are slaughtered; in the US, 25 billion a year (that’s almost 800 a minute) are killed. According to Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, “Despite the laws on the books, chronically weak enforcement and intense pressure to speed up slaughterhouse assembly lines reportedly have resulted in animals being skinned, dismembered and boiled while they are still alive and conscious.”
This extreme animal abuse should not be condoned in our country. Americans would never tolerate a lifetime of suffering and a brutal death for a cat or dog, so why do we allow animals with the intelligence and awareness of our pets to be treated as if they could not feel pain or fear? Farm animals are dying so that we can eat; surely we owe it to them to show them a modicum of humanity.
To combat factory farms’ large-scale animal abuse, we must demand both legislation that protects livestock welfare and legislation that supports small farms and breaks up corporate monopolies. We must support the farmers who give their meat and dairy animals decent lives — space to play and roam, veterinary care and proper feed — and humane and careful slaughters. Small, independent farms often emphasize such proper care for animals, and certified organic farms guarantee it. The Yale Sustainable Food Project is giving the Yale community the opportunity to choose foods that come from farms for which farm animal welfare is a top priority. In addition, by creating a significant new demand for local and organic products, the Project is helping to drive down the costs that make consumers reluctant to choose natural foods over their cheaper conventional alternatives.
Chelsea Purvis is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. She is a member of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition and the Sustainable Food Group.