A Carnivore’s Conscience
September 12th, 2011

Much has been made in recent years of the costs of factory farming.  The antibiotics.  The sewage.  The animals who die of illness before they can be slaughtered.  Because of these things it is now reasonably easy to find grass fed beef, free range eggs, pastured hens, and so on.  But there is another cost of factory farming that I hadn’t really contemplated until I read this article from The Atlantic on the psychology of factory farming.

Author James McWilliams posits that large scale animal husbandry divorces humans from the unique welfare of individual animals; that commoditizing them eliminates the unhappy business of seeing an animal you carefully raised be slaughtered because the rancher no longer has any kind of relationship with each animal whose demise might cause him guilt or remorse.  McWilliams comments that in the bluntest terms, factory farming allows the rancher “to kill thousands of animals a year and remain a happy person.”

As I pondered the implications of that statement I surprised myself.  I thought that, upon reflection, I would reach the conclusion that the bond between animal and rancher should exist for its own sake; that animals have a right to such a relationship.  Interestingly, though (at least to me…) that’s not where I landed.  I think the psychology of factory farming is dangerous not because the animals are deprived of any relationship.  I find it more important that they are deprived of the byproducts of such a relationship.

When we have a relationship with an animal we treat it accordingly.  We ensure that it is healthy.  We ensure that it isn’t overly stressed.  We ensure that its life is reasonably comfortable.  These qualities translate differently for steers than for lap dogs, naturally.  But they still exist in some measure in both situations.  When our level of concern for an animal relates to its ability to produce a profit, and not to our personal relationship to it we treat it much differently.  We don’t worry about its levels of stress or comfort.  We worry about its health only to the extent that such health affects profit margins.  We allow ourselves to get away with behavior which under any other circumstances we would find abusive.

I believe that in the long run we only hurt ourselves with this approach to animal husbandry.  We poison our land with petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that grow the grain that feeds the animals.  We increase the strength and drug resistance of various bacteria by pumping animal feed full of antibiotics.  We increase the saturated fat content and decrease the omega-3 and omega-6 content of the meat we consume.  And, by supporting an industry that produces meat so cheaply we ultimately consume more meat and animal fat than is healthy.  We lose on every count.

Don’t mistake me, though.  It’s not only about the human fallout for me.  I don’t view livestock as pets, but I still believe that animals deserve some base level of care that is not met by factory farming.  Further still, as humans I believe it is innate to us to develop relationships – with each other, with pets, with working animals, and with food animals.  In the case of food animals our ability and desire to bond with those animals in some sense protects us from ourselves.

With factory farming we have managed to turn a blind eye to one of our basic human predilections and many people think that it’s a win-win situation because hamburger meat costs $1.49/pound.  But the fact remains, we pay the price somewhere, even if it isn’t at the grocery store checkout line.

Many thanks to loyal reader Rebecca at It’s Kili Time for recommending this article to me.  I love getting blog fodder from readers!

9 Responses to “A Carnivore’s Conscience”

  1. e Says:

    Interesting thoughts from a “not farm” girl. State fairs have been in full swing lately, and I guarantee had you walked through a livestock barn, you would have seen animal/owner relationships. 4-H was a huge part of my life and the auction that followed every year’s projects culminating at the county or state fair was always difficult. Does that mean we kept an angus forever? Absolutely not….but we might have hesitated to buy beef from Dillons for a short time after they bid highest for Aunt Agnes. Yep – we named them. But for that matter, so did my dad who would call Bossy to the barn to be milked. Factory farming has taken so much away from what farming was once about and the little guy is getting shoved out at an incredible rate. The sad part is I see no solution so what was a substantial part of my life and I believe made me who I am today won’t exist in the future.

    Nini (pronounced knee knee) was a calf born with too short of tendons in her front legs – thus her “walk” was on straight back legs and bent knees on front. Today she’d have just been killed, but then my siblings and I spent several hours each day rubbing her front legs in a way to help stretch them out. She didn’t become a family pet…..cows just don’t…..but the care that went into that little calf is something I’ll hold dear forever. Added to that is the conversation you have with the other sibling who came to the less-than-good-smelling lot with you and sat to either take the hold position or the rub position No tv, no parent listening, just the two of you and this little calf who needed you. Okay enough of the memories – just pray that life doesn’t become a factory and do what you can to be sure your’s doesn’t.

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    We pay the price in poorer health and lives cut short or compromised, not to mention billions in health care.

    Moreover, if there are farmer’s markets in your vicinity, it is possible to shop (and therefore eat) economically – while consuming all sorts of food without the antibiotics and other additives that make their way from what goes in our mouths into our bodies.

    I believe we can – and must – find a way to solve this problem.

  3. Gale Says:

    E – Thanks for this comment. I really appreciate the perspective you bring as someone who grew up on a working farm. You mention some other very important aspect of family (rather than factory) farming, and that is the family element itself. Your work on the farm as a kid significantly influenced your relationship with your parents and siblings in ways that are difficult to mimic elsewhere in life.

    Also, reading your comment took me back to the line in the original article about factory farmers’ ability “to kill thousands of animals a year and remain a happy person.” Perhaps this doesn’t apply to modern day family farmers due to the incredible financial hardships created by competing factory farms, but historically I think that on the whole family farmers have lived very happy lives. And I think that’s due in part to the scale of family farming. Yes, the family farmer may have to take named cattle to slaughter, but it’s done with respect for the animal and recognition for the fact that one life is ending in order to feed another. I guess what I’m getting at here is that your life can contain the somber business of slaughering something you’ve carefully raised and still be a happy life. I find it ironic that merely increasing the number of animals killed in a year to levels that render them commoditized is any sort of solution for mitigating your guilt or remorse around death in the first place.

  4. John S. Says:


    This is why I have started eating fish almost exclusively. If served a steak, ham, turkey or chicken by someone else (such as your mother on Thanksgiving), I will eat it without saying a word. But for me and my house (sounds a bit like Joshua, doesn’t it?), I have decided not to eat anything I could not kill myself. So fish is about the only meat I eat (particularly salmon, which has a given lifespan). I imagine I will be ridiculed by my sibling and parental units if they read this, but this is how I have chosen to deal with the issues you describe. There are few topics I can’t discuss with others, but feedlots (like the one near Wray) are so repulsive that I simply cannot discuss them. And I have no idea how slaughterhouse workers handle their jobs psychologically. Maybe you do it because you have two kids to put through college and you just summon the courage you need day by day.

  5. John S. Says:

    And, from an anthropological standpoint, homo sapiens does not have the teeth of a carnivore (e.g., wolves or big cats). Technically, we are omnivores, and the fossil record suggests that we did not become meat eaters until comparatively late. Homo sapiens has a far longer history as a gathering species than a hunting one.

  6. Cathy Says:

    I grew up on a farm. We had chickens, hens, turkeys, cows and pigs. All but the hens were slaughtered but we had relationships with all of them – most especially the cows and hens. All our cows had names and I will never forget the beautiful, all black baby calf that my father stayed up all night with nursing through pneumonia. It didn’t make it that night and the following day was one of the saddest ever. Other than that though, we would ask when we ate the beef – “Is this Fred or is this Jenny?” There was some amount of acceptance that yes, you enjoyed the animals while they were there but ultimately they serve a purpose.

    One thing too specifically related to cows is that all the methane gas created from their feces creates more CO2 emissions than the vehicles in the US. It’s horrible in the greenhouse gas department. Hence there’s been a big environmental push to not eat beef in particular.

  7. Rebecca Says:

    Wow. How do you compose your thoughts so succinctly? Having worked for the US beef industry and now no longer doing so and having read tons about the food industry, I can see both sides of the coin. Ultimately where I come down on this is that I think its a privilege to have these philosophical discussions about our food supply and that they’re good and make us a better society, ultimately. Now that the US is upon difficult times, economically, I’d be curious to know if anyone who had previously taken the ‘Organic or Bust’ pledge during the good times has had to retreat on these principles due to budget limitations.

  8. Rebecca Says:

    and p.s. thanks for giving me props!

  9. Ten Dollar Thoughts » Blog Archive » Questions I Can’t Answer. Chickens I Won’t Eat. Says:

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