Here is a bit of bad news: Humanity is committing an ongoing moral atrocity at an almost unthinkable scale. There is, however, also some good news: We might be able to end it more easily than people assume.
The moral problem with our current practice of killing and eating of animals is very clear. Non-human animals are quite obviously sentient and feel fear, pain, and sorrow. Most of us know this, which is why we object to animal cruelty when it’s perpetrated against puppies or kittens. But off in places we keep out of sight, billions of animals are being constantly subjected to unimaginable cruelty. Baby chicks are thrown away by the thousand to suffocate, animals are raised in crowded darkness, their entire lives consisting of never-ending stress and pain. This only begins to touch on the horrors.
Even though many people are queasy about industrial farming, most of us do not make it one of our main causes. People think that human issues are more important, but they are also simply overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. Meat is such a core part of the average diet (only a tiny fraction of people are vegetarian), and there are so many people on earth, that it’s unclear how you could possibly eliminate, or even substantially reduce, animal suffering. You could convince people one by one to go vegan, since if everyone was a vegan there would be no problem. But as a practical matter, that seems unlikely to work: It’s good to create new vegans where possible, but knowing about the problem does not turn people vegan. (I am not a vegan myself, though I have been a vegetarian for 10 years. I have had to eat a lot of shitty food, and pass up a lot of delicious food, in order to keep it up. Once, when I went to a steak restaurant with some friends and asked for something vegetarian, I was brought nothing but an entire plate of almost-raw broccoli, stalks and all. Here I am looking at it. Many chefs hate vegetarians.) In the absence of a sudden mass conversion to a fruit and nut diet, are we stuck with this problem forever?
In his new book The End of Animal Farming, Jacy Reese argues that we are not. Reese believes that with considerable effort, we can end animal farming altogether within 100 years, and that when we do, our era will come to seem as morally backward as the distant past now seems to us today. What’s more, we can do it without having to forgo the pleasures of animal-based foods. Reese’s book is somewhat unique, as there are too few works on intractable global problems that present clear and optimistic paths to solving them. If anyone wants to feel more encouraged about the possibilities for change, or more confident that animal cruelty is a problem that both should and can be addressed, pick up a copy of The End of Animal Farming.
Reese is aware that trying to change individual choices is not particularly effective. For one thing, people really don’t like to be told what to do—in one poll, 97 percent of respondents said that “whether to eat animals or be vegetarian is a personal choice, and nobody has the right to tell me which one they think I should do.” Not “nobody has a right to force me,” mind you. Nobody has a right to even tell me! And yet people are already pretty supportive of improving animal welfare, with over 70 percent endorsing “various changes… such as cage-free, lower-growth chicken genetics, high welfare slaughter methods, and an end to extreme crowding.” 49 percent even supported a “ban on slaughterhouses,” though it’s not clear what they had in mind by that.
For Reese, these facts suggest we need to stop focusing excessively on individual choice and press for institutional changes. At the moment, corporations have been able to keep the laws favorable to industrial farming practices (animal cruelty laws often have an exception for livestock). A well-organized movement can produce better policies—California voters just passed Proposition 12, which established “minimum space requirements based on square feet for calves raised for veal, breeding pigs, and egg-laying hens.” Reforms like this will improve millions of lives, even if they are small. And while improving laws will increase the prices of animal-based products, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: Those prices will better incorporate the “true costs” of the food, just as products made without worker exploitation are often costlier.
The U.S. can only do so much alone. For one thing, most of the problem occurs elsewhere. 49 percent of farmed animals live in China, which has 60 billion of them and no real animal protection laws. India is the next-highest country with 8 billion, while the U.S. itself only has 1 billion. A billion sentient creatures is still a lot of lives, though, and Reese says work in the U.S. has great value because of this country’s role in setting global trends. Practices implemented here will likely spread elsewhere. Ultimately, though, China needs its own domestic movement for animal welfare, and some have proposed an international treaty on animal rights. In fact, it’s remarkable to me that there isn’t such a treaty. International agreement on the basic standards of care necessary for animals seems an important corollary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But while regulation can better the conditions of farmed animals, it cannot eliminate the human demand for animal products. For that, we will need to improve non-animal-based products, and make them seem like “normal options rather than weird, imperfect alternatives.” It should feel more like switching to non-animal meat rather than giving up meat, the products tasting just as good and fooling blind taste-testers. After all, Reese says, “people eat animals in spite of how they are produced, not because of it,” and if you could give them a functionally indistinguishable substitute, they could probably be persuaded not to stick with slaughter purely for the sake of slaughter.
Here there’s very good news indeed: Meat alternatives are improving all the time. Plant-based burgers no longer taste like plants. The Impossible Burger, for instance, has come extremely close to replicating the experience of eating hamburger meat, and is about to be made available in stores. I’ve had one (if you’re in New Orleans, they’re here), and thought it was phenomenal. It’s been a decade since I had a “real” one, of course, so I’m not a reliable judge. But I have noticed that veggie burgers are getting better. I never used to like eating them, and I mostly live on pasta and rice dishes, but the new ones like Beyond Meat are in a whole different class.
According to Reese, we can expect them to continue to more accurately simulate animal products over time. Eggs are a challenge, but there are people working on it. When a Business Insider reporter tried Hampton Creek’s eggless egg last year, here was the verdict: “I tried a small bite of the sandwich — which had been cut into quarters as if to acknowledge my skepticism — and was blown away. The texture was perfect, and the taste? Distinctly egg.” If you compare the veggie products of today to those of the ’80s and ’90s, it’s not difficult to imagine that with a few more decades of innovation, we could eliminate the differences almost completely.
One reason for optimism is that using animals is an incredibly inefficient process. You have to raise a whole living creature from birth to death in order to eat it, and Reese sees hope in the fact that “it’s simply not cost-effective to feed an animal ten or more calories of plants so she can grow one calorie of meat.” 30 percent of earth’s land mass is now used for grazing or to grow feed crops, plus “Animals raised for food produce approximately 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population and animal farms pollute our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined.” Animal farming “contribute[s] directly and indirectly to deforestation, water pollution, air pollution, greenhouse gases, global warming, desertification, [and] erosion … and virtually anywhere you go in the world, the damage done by ruminants, pigs and poultry, and those who grow feed crops for them, is visible on the land.” There is good reason to believe that once Big Food sees a cost-effective opportunity to replace slaughtered meat and laid eggs with indistinguishable alternatives, they’ll be more than happy to do it. A colossally wasteful process isn’t good for anyone.
Plant-based substitutes like the Impossible Burger are impressive enough, but we may also soon have the opportunity to grow meat without an animal attached. Reese discusses the history of “cultured meat” (frequently called “lab-grown”), which is not a meat substitute but is actual meat grown from animal tissue. These products are a bit behind plant meat in their development, but as a Wired headline puts it, “Lab-Grown Meat Is Coming Whether You Like It Or Not,” and there have even been (apparently successful!) experiments in creating both chorizo and foie gras this way.
Personally I’m all for it, if it tastes the same, isn’t dangerous, and doesn’t involve force-feeding a goose. But there are still important questions about how to name these products in order to make people open to eating them. Reese say that the phrase “lab-grown meat” is both off-putting and inaccurate—the meat will be made in a factory, just like other household food items. The current trend among advocates is to use either “cultured meat” or “clean meat.” Both have their weaknesses: Cultured conjures bacterial cultures, and clean suggests meat that has been chemically scrubbed. I tried to think of alternatives myself. It was difficult, since everything that immediately came to mind was flawed in some way (“artificial meat” suggested it’s not real meat, which it is, then “autonomous meat” was even worse, implying the meat had come alive and developed free will.) Eventually I came up with two I rather liked: harvested meat and pure meat, which have the advantages of suggesting naturalness rather than “frankenmeat.” Pure meat because it’s meat on its own that was never part of an animal, and didn’t go through the dirty process of being part of an eating, shitting, living thing. “Harvested” implies the same process as growing and gathering crops, and you do in fact harvest cells to create cultures. So in the future you’d have two categories: plant meat and animal meat, and animal meat would be divided into “slaughtered meat” (or “murdermeat”) and harvested/pure meat.
Agonizing over word choice might seem a waste of time, but there are psychological effects here. The food industry fights like hell to preserve its labels (leading the FDA to declare, for example vegan mayonnaise can’t be called vegan mayonnaise), and we can understand why. These products threaten revenues. There will probably be corporate pushback on calling these products “pure meat,” given what it implies about slaughtered meat—though that will only last until large companies find a way to get in on the profits.
Reese thinks a lot about how to overcome the psychological barriers that prevent people from acting on animal welfare issues. First, because the problem is so large, it’s important to come up with hopeful paths toward solving it. He writes that “when people are provided with an achievable path to a better world… [they] become not just more able to take short-term action but they become fundamentally more concerned.” They will be more likely to act if you spend less time on the “why” question (why is this a problem?) and more on the “how” question (answering how you propose to have them fix it).
With animal-based foods specifically, there are four common defenses people use, the four N’s: normal, natural, nice, and necessary. Everyone eats meat, eating meat is human nature, meat is delicious, and you need meat to be healthy. Reese proposes ways of countering each of these, by normalizing alternative products, showing how the moral question can’t be solved by calling something “natural,” finding ways to create equivalent deliciousness, and showing that meat is unnecessary for health (vegan football players like Colin Kaepernick and vegan MMA fighters are good advertisers). Reese is critical of the alienating approach taken by PETA, and advocates meeting people where they’re at: not trying to make them become ascetics, focusing more on political action and pressuring institutions. Let people know that you can do things other than reduce your animal intake, like “contacting a company or government representative, joining a protest, working for or donating to animal advocacy organizations or animal-free food startups, sharing articles and other media, or having conversations about animal farming with their friends and family.” Reese is also sensitive to the potential for the animal welfare movement to become isolated, as well as dominated by wealthy white people, and insists that those who care about animals “build bridges with other movements” and adopt an “intersectional” framework that is conscientious about human political issues too.
The End of Animal Farming is written from the “effective altruist” point of view, and carries both that movement’s best and worst tendencies. At their best, the effective altruists help hone our moral reasoning, and focus on being useful rather than seeming virtuous. You can see that in Reese’s approach: He wants to convince you that ending animal farming is possible, and lay out a series of steps by which it might be achieved, not just show that it’s important. In fact, he spends little time making the moral case, which is quite simple, and the bulk of the book is dedicated to solutions. Unfortunately, the “effective altruists’’’ frustrating qualities are on display too. In a chapter on how we might further “expand our moral circle,” Reese discusses some of the EA movement’s other pet causes (such as preventing an artificially intelligent creature from enslaving humanity) and mulls on moral questions about space colonization and the civil rights of future robot servants. This eccentric altruism is not based on evidence, but upon thought experiments about possible distant futures (Reese mentions “whole brain emulation”), and causes some EA adherents to think their time is wisely spent trying to help prevent far-fetched hypothetical future-suffering rather than actual present-suffering. (If we are to base our actions on the maximization of future happiness, though, the most efficient use of your time is to work toward the establishment of the socialist utopia.) I am grateful that Reese chooses to spend his time on animals instead.
(I suspect I will get letters from effective altruists about this part. Do not bother sending them, I know all of your arguments.)
Reese’s opposition to animal farming is categorical. This is not a book about ending inhumane farming (though we should do that), but about ending animal farming entirely. This is for several reasons. First, he argues, humane farming is simply not possible at the scale necessary to feed humanity, given how much more resource-intensive it would be than our destructive current practices. It’s also in many ways a myth. Reese recounts a personal visit to a supposedly humane farm that turned out not to be very humane at all, and notes reasons that “in some ways cage-free sheds are even worse than battery cages,” though they are better overall. The existence of “humane” farming methods also allows people “psychological refuge” to avoid confronting the core moral issue. About 75 percent of people say they only consume “humane” animal products even though only 1 percent of farm animals are raised in “humane” facilities. Finally, Reese argues that taking animal lives is simply wrong: If a smarter alien race came down to earth, captured human beings and raised them for food, we would object to the killing and eating and not just the “conditions” in which we were imprisoned.
Some people, like Steven Pinker, think the story of humanity is for the most part a story of moral progress: We are better people now than we once were. Factory farming is a counterexample. Here, we are worse people than we have ever been, in terms of the amount of conscious suffering we are directly inflicting on other creatures. I don’t think any morally serious person can afford to look away from this, though I understand why people do. It’s depressing, and seems unsolvable. Any changes you could enact yourself are a “drop in the bucket.” The End of Animal Farming shows the right approach: First, convince people that it’s possible to stop killing animals. Then we can develop a plan for how to do it.
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