Friday, October 2, 2009

Thoughtful Comments From A Reader

I often make analogies between the rearing of animals and rearing of children, arguing that just as we do not prohibit the rearing of children despite the fact that some will be abused, we should not eliminate animal food production based on the fact there are producers who abuse their animals. One reader left a very thoughtful response which I thought was worth considering, so I pasted it below. Enjoy!

With any analogy there are maybe 2 or 3 likes and 41 differences. I don’t want to be the pesky commenter that picks out every difference, but I want to comment on your child-raising/animal-rearing comparison to make a point about your conclusion here and in other postings.

You’re probably correct that most consumers who watch investigatory farm footage assume that the spotlighted farms are bad apples (if for no other reason than to absolve their consumption choices). But that is a faulty assumption. I think you would agree that the great majority of animal suffering in animal agriculture – particularly in CAFOs, but also in smaller operations – results not from callousness or careless management, but simply from built-in production models designed to minimize cost and maximize productivity (e.g., chickens cannot be optimally grown without selective breeding that causes extensive welfare issues). Most welfare issues thus emerge from production systems and are often irremovable without systematic reform (e.g., no matter how well a battery-cage facility is managed, hens will lack the space to engage in many natural behaviors).

So unless a CAFO investigation video depicts problems that can be directly linked to individual actions independent of system-wide features, it is only fair to assume that the problems are (roughly) representative of operations of comparable magnitude and design (which as Anthony clarifies are not the majority of farms, but account for the majority of animal production).

But then can we say that CAFOs are the bad apples and are exceptional to smaller operations? They are indeed extreme examples, but even smaller farms generally commodify animals into sellable products, in the sense that farming practices are designed to optimize efficiency of animal production within certain parameters. For instance, in this pig operation, which is idyllic as they come, farmers still cut corners that hurt animal welfare:

Child raising, in contrast, is not an economic institution and children are victims of individual abusers not systems of production. With child abuse, culpability lies squarely with the parents. By contrast, in the face of systematic mistreatment of farm animals, consumers must accept that such systems are driven by their demand and must accept personal responsibility. That is why, while it makes little sense to swear off child-bearing in reaction to child abuse, it is reasonable to swear off animal products in reaction to the intrinsic economy of raising animals for food, at least in non-subsistence agriculture.

Generally, I am a huge fan of your writings for your thoroughness, nuance, and impatience with bias. That said, I think you are too quick to dismiss veganism as extreme or unreasonable without closely examining its merits.