Photo by Breanne Lywood
Whether you’re a fully-fledged rural homesteader, a sustainability-minded urbanite, or simply a curious consumer, you’ve probably heard bad things about how animals are raised on commercial farms. These things take many forms: a dramatic headline, a farm exposé video, or maybe a comment at a dinner party. What many criticisms of animal production have in common is that they fail to paint the full picture and, more importantly, they fail to offer real solutions.
I’m a student of animal biology. Outside the classroom, my journey through the animal husbandry trade has seen me doing everything from shoveling pungent manure out of a small pig barn to processing feather samples for hormone analysis in a lab. I’ve seen the flaws of the food animal industry firsthand, and it’s true that animals suffer to feed humans. For conscientious and compassionate people, is going vegan the only answer?
Lifestyle Changes are Not a Perfect Solution
If you’re that fully-fledged homesteader, you have the luxury of ample space and resources that allow you to produce your own meat or eggs. If you’re that urbanite, perhaps you have the desire and commitment to live a vegan lifestyle or otherwise source your food entirely from a distant farm, such as through community-supported agriculture. Whether homesteader or vegan or both, I applaud your compassion and dedication, but I have a question for you: What about everybody else?
Many people have spent their entire lives in cities, and don’t have the means to uproot themselves and start a small farm. Veganism is a straightforward solution to food animal suffering that's on the rise, but vegans are still a small proportion of the world's population.
A world full of homesteaders and vegans — one where animals aren't grown on commercial farms — is a grand ideal to strive for, but humanity is far from it. Even though the world is changing, the reality is that billions of food animals will continue to live under human management for many years to come.
Education is a First Step Toward Happier Animals
So, what can you and I do? I believe it is possible to rear animals for food responsibly using systems and practices that cater to their welfare. Changing an industry, however, is a tough slog from start to finish. Behaviour research, welfare certification programs, and new legislations all take years of effort. The crime in all this is that these honest efforts to help animals happen completely unbeknownst to consumers. The average person walking down a grocery store aisle has never been taught what free range, free run, or certified humane really mean.
All that is required for change is enough people who want it. In this blog series, I’ll take you on an open and honest tour of animal production in the modern world. I’ll reveal the good, the bad, what has changed, and what needs to change. I’ll present everything from a scientific perspective based on my education and experience with animals. My goal is to arm you with a real and undramatized understanding of where animal-based food comes from.
With this knowledge, you’ll be able to do more than change your decisions in the grocery store. You’ll have the tools to educate others, support the right legislations, and ultimately help animals in a real way.
What You Can Do Right Now
Animal welfare in food production is a complex issue, and the best actions are informed by a thorough understanding of the animals and the systems involved. Before we get into all that in future chapters, I'd like to end today's installment with some simple advice that you can act on immediately.
Buy certified products. If you consume animal-based food, choose free run, free range, or certified humane products on your next grocery trip. In later chapters, I'll cover what these terms mean in more detail for each farm species. Generally, these “better welfare” products have been produced with less animal suffering than the alternatives. Watch out for products which claim better welfare but aren’t verified by a formal organization.
Understand labels. In many countries, government or independent organizations audit farms and ensure that certain standards have been met. A better welfare product that doesn’t bear the logo of such an organization could be making a false claim. Reputable certifying organizations will depend on your region, but include the SPCA, A Greener World, Humane Farm Animal Care, the Global Animal Partnership, the American Grassfed Association, and the American Humane Association.
Raise backyard poultry. If you have even a little outdoor space, consider raising some animal-based food at home. Laying hens are the easiest farm species to start with. We’ll learn more about egg production later in the series, but these amazing birds provide daily eggs and are resilient and easy to care for. Keeping a few of your own birds is one of the best ways to get ethically produced eggs. MOTHER EARTH NEWS has dozens of articles on raising a variety of egg and meat birds.
Be mindful before every meal. Lastly, if you’re somebody that consumes animal products, don’t feel guilty. The next time you sit down to an animal-based meal, take a meditative minute to appreciate what’s in front of you. Centuries of selective breeding and management led to the amazing farm animal species we have today.
Our relationship with animals has been part of how humanity interacts with the planet for millennia. That relationship has been abused over the past 70 years, but that doesn’t mean we can’t marvel in the beauty of what animals do for us and strive to hold up our end of the bargain.
Jacob Maxwell is a student and animal scientist-in-training in Ontario, who divides his time between animal biology coursework and hands-on experience with veterinarians and animal researchers. Connect with Jacob on his blog, A Try-Hard's Guide to Having Fun, and on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Read all of Jacob’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.