Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Moral Atrocity of Factory Farming and Why We Must Not Look Away

Journalist Marina Bolotnikova argues that factory farming is a fascist industry in which violence and domination of animals is justified without argument.

Current Affairs is proud to be a publication that takes animal rights seriously. From our lighthearted looks at manatees, ants, and cats, to our more serious pieces on the Orwellian language of the factory farming industry, the reason animal communication shouldn’t be the justification for animal rights, and the need for “Veticare For All,” we have always believed that left politics and animal welfare go together.

Marina Bolotnikova is a journalist who specializes in animal welfare and animal agriculture. In addition to Current Affairs, she has written for the Intercept, the Guardian, and Vox. She came on the Current Affairs podcast to talk to editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson about two articles she wrote for us. One was about the importance of direct action to the animal liberation movement. Most recently, she wrote about how the factory farming industry has gone from openly admitting that they view animals as profit-maximizing machines to pretending to care about being “humane.” This interview has been edited and condensed for grammar and clarity.

Robinson

You have written about animal rights, animal welfare, and animal agriculture. What is it about this topic that is so compelling that you have made it your beat? 

Bolotnikova

The subject of factory farming and animal rights is something I’ve been obsessed with for most of my life. I was in maybe fifth or sixth grade when I decided I was going to be vegetarian. I don’t think I had ever even heard of factory farming. I just figured that if we don’t have to eat animals to live, then it’s wrong to do that. I started to read a book about how to be a vegetarian and that was the first time I saw a mention of factory farming. It said that animals raised for food are treated really badly. And I was horrified. I got more and more into it. I watched Earthlings, a documentary narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. I watched that probably when I was too young for it, some time when I was in high school. Like a lot of people who are really devoted to this issue, I found it compelling. It’s an obvious atrocity.

I’ve worked in journalism for a while. For the vast majority of that time, I really didn’t focus on animal agriculture at all. Even though it’s so important to me, out of self-protection, I chose not to have it be the subject of my work. I found it traumatizing to have to engage with it. It’s upsetting as a subject matter. And one has to confront the fact that most people don’t care about it as much as you do. So as a freelancer, I wrote about a lot of different things. And then pretty soon, my beat found me. I was listening to a podcast by Wayne Hsiung. He’s a prominent animal rights activist and has a podcast called The Green Pill. He had a guest on his show, Matt Johnson, who is a direct action activist in the group Direct Action Everywhere. And he was talking about facing trial in Iowa, facing up to eight years in prison for an undercover investigation he did into a horrific thing that happened at pork factory farms early in the pandemic in 2020.

There was a supply chain crisis in the meat industry because COVID was affecting slaughterhouse workers. There were shutdowns and there was reduced slaughterhouse capacity. As a result, there were all of these surplus animals that couldn’t be processed into food on time, and in the pork industry, a method that they use to quote unquote depopulate these animals—which is a euphemism for exterminating them—involves essentially cooking them to death using temperatures of around 140 or 150 degrees. They pump in heat and steam.

Matt Johnson took undercover recordings. He got this incredible two-hour recording of the pigs shrieking throughout this process. It was a huge media story and was really embarrassing for the pork industry. Instead of prosecuting the pork industry bosses who carried all of this out, the state of Iowa put Johnson on trial.

I thought, “Oh my God, obviously I have to cover this.” I live in Wisconsin; I’m within driving distance. I can cover this. What could I possibly be doing or writing about that’s more important than this? So that’s how it started. Before then, I had written a little bit about veganism and animal rights. But I got really into it after writing about Johnson’s case. I had a lot of momentum to keep going. I think it’s what I’m meant to be writing about.

Robinson

It’s very hard to think about and confront the reality of what is done on a mass scale to sentient creatures every day in this country and around the world. And it’s easy to try to avoid it. People don’t like thinking about it, and they don’t want to talk about it even though they kind of know at some level that there’s something bad that goes on or something horrible with animal agriculture. But something happens where, when you do confront it, instead of drawing further away, you decide you’re going to go closer, and you’re going to try to find the truth. Once you do that, it makes it difficult to go back to looking away. When you start to peel back the layers of what is done, you realize that there is a deep horror that is going on all the time. I think it becomes hard to justify to yourself not working on exposing this.

Bolotnikova

I think that’s very true. It’s really under-covered. This is kind of perverse, but it means it’s not that difficult to distinguish yourself in the field. I certainly wish I had more competition and that there were more people interested in factory farming from the perspective of the animals. There is more interest in it from a climate perspective.

Robinson

When you meet someone who hasn’t thought about animal welfare or who has spent their entire life looking away or trying not to confront this, what do you wish that such people knew about what actually goes on?

Bolotnikova

A lot of people have this idea that raising animals for food is natural, that it’s what we have always done. How could we go on without it? I have a friend who is really smart, but he said this strange thing about how undoing animal agriculture would somehow be a backwards development for human civilization. People have this idea that it’s the circle of life, right? And farming and slaughtering animals is just what life and death is all about. The deeper you get into understanding how the industry works, the more clear it becomes that that’s a preposterous idea. You know, it’s almost surreal. Factory farming gets its name because these places are factories. Animals never see the outdoors. They don’t touch grass. 

In the pork industry, I think one of the most vivid and shocking things is the treatment of female pigs. They’re locked in tiny crates that are barely bigger than their bodies. The crates are designed to prevent them from being able to turn around. It really limits their mobility. They’re unable to turn around their whole life. They’re artificially inseminated to produce litter after litter of piglets who are soon taken away from them and slaughtered at six months of age. You can see images of giant warehouses full of these gestation crates side by side. Aerial views. It’s really haunting. These are animals who never reproduce naturally in their lives. This practice couldn’t be farther from “natural.”

People may not know this, but the number of land animals slaughtered for food is almost unfathomable. It’s almost 10 billion, just in the United States, in one year. That’s a crazy number. I hate the word natural because it’s meaningless. But if people were sustaining themselves on what they think of as any kind of “natural” animal population, it wouldn’t approach anything near 10 billion animals available to eat. Pigs are known to be really smart and social animals. They’re often compared to dogs. I think there are reasons to doubt this kind of hierarchy of intelligence. But there’s no doubt that pigs are similar to us in many ways. They’re social and active. To immobilize and lock them up and snatch away their newborns—they bond with newborns just like humans do—is just really the most diabolical thing imaginable.

Robinson

When you start to try and empathize, to think what it’s like to be these creatures, and when you start to accept that they have emotions—they feel pain and fear—and then when you start to look at what they are put through, taken together with the huge numbers that you cited, you start to feel a sense of deep disquiet and disturbance. No wonder you want to pull away from it. If this is so “natural,” then why do none of us want to go anywhere near it or even contemplate it? Why have we built a system that we cannot even bear to look at or think about?

Bolotnikova

I think that’s a great way of putting it. The industry definitely benefits from and promulgates these narratives about what’s natural. There are these scam labels on animal products: “humanely raised.” Companies are profiting from exploiting this image that people have of a pre-industrial kind of agriculture that I would argue never really existed. But these mythologies are really powerful.

Robinson

They’ve got pictures of the green pastures on the label.

Bolotnikova

I just continue to be surprised by how dishonest people are willing to be. You know what I mean? I just don’t expect people to lie or to do things like that for profit. And one of the things that’s been different for me about reporting on animal agriculture is that I have to get in contact with and correspond with people who represent and defend the industry. It can drive you crazy sometimes to think, How are human beings doing this? It’s evil at its most banal.

Your latest article for Current Affairs discusses euphemisms and propaganda and the way in which the true atrocities that are conducted are covered with nice and pleasant words. Depopulation is a euphemism for extermination. In the article, there’s this incredible ad about sows as mothers.

Bolotnikova

It’s from United Animal Health. People should read that article. Farm animal research is devoted to breeding farm animals and manipulating their bodies in a way that maximizes productivity. That’s the goal. And that’s another thing that makes this idea of animal agriculture being natural, just bizarre and perverse. Every part of the system is human engineered.

Robinson

Talk a little bit more about the way in which the truth is obscured through elaborate euphemisms.

Bolotnikova

Euphemisms. This is what you were referring to with the extermination method. Matt Johnson got audio of the extermination method where pigs were being roasted to death. That’s a method that’s called ventilation shutdown. It’s farm animal extermination. It’s also being used widely in the poultry industry this year to exterminate animals due to bird flu. There’s really no question that it’s a horrible way to die. It’s death by heatstroke, which is understood as probably one of the worst animal cull methods. And yet, there’s this whole infrastructure of animal science research departments and poultry science departments that exists to create research for the meat industry to validate whatever they want to do and slap the label “humane” onto anything. That’s something I’ve been kind of surprised by. The label ‘humane’ is slapped onto ventilation shutdown with no justification whatsoever. By “humane” they just mean that it’s something the industry wants to do. So we’re going to say it’s humane enough. There’s no need to even think very deeply about it. It’s just a way of rubber stamping things. 

This kind of research becomes the basis for guidelines by respected institutions like the American Veterinary Medical Association, which then becomes the basis for USDA policy on whether it’s okay to cull farm animals. It’s garbage all the way down. No one cares. There’s no meaningful political pressure put on federal regulators.

Robinson

For example, in this article that you did for the Intercept in April about the ventilation shutdown for killing chickens, there is this “research” that took place at North Carolina State University, a really innocuous-sounding place. There’s a video embedded in the article. I’ll just quote your description of it here: “A hen, hooked up to electrodes, stands alone in a glass cage. She starts panting, thrashing, slumping over, and lunging at the enclosure’s walls, appearing to look for an escape. Outside the cage, researchers point, take notes, and watch her die.” Everyone should watch this video. Unless you’re perhaps one of these researchers, someone who has desensitized themselves to the suffering of animals—if you’re a normal, empathetic person and you really put yourself in the place of this chicken, you see the extreme levels of pain that this method of killing causes. But you also notice that without the video, this kind of bland, bureaucratic language of “VSD +” (ventilation shutdown) would not give you any sense of the reality of the pain that is being inflicted here.

Bolotnikova

Absolutely. North Carolina is a big agriculture state. North Carolina State University has a lot of agricultural research. The Poultry Science Department was where these experiments took place in order to validate this torture method for killing egg-laying hens. The Poultry Science Department advertises its ties to industry. It reminds me of when people make fun of the Soviet economists whose work validated the Soviet economy. That’s what this is. It’s interesting to see this kind of doublespeak in this North Carolina State University research paper. They use the term “humane” and don’t define it. It’s just thrown in there. It’s kind of what consumers expect, but it’s just thrown in there. It’s fake.

Robinson

In your most recent article, you document the way in which things used to be a little more honest. You found these incredible notes from industry publications from a couple decades back where they would say quite directly that the pig is a machine and that you are trying to maximize the outputs and minimize the inputs. And that is the way you ought to think about this creature. And that is the only thing you need to think about this creature. It is a piece of a mechanical process. Now there has been this kind of shift—not in methods, which are clearly still horrendous and based on widespread torture—but a shift in the way in which these things are presented in order to add a veneer of the humane and the compassionate.

Bolotnikova

Yes. You’re referring to pork industry journals from the ‘70s that I quoted. They were fascinating because they just directly instruct the reader to treat the animal just like a machine in a factory. I was just amazed when I first saw that earlier this year. I thought it was fake. Well, I didn’t really think it was fake, but part of me doubted it and I was like, Could this really be real? The factory farm model has really taken over the pork industry since the ‘70s. The idea presented to farmers was almost as though it was genuinely novel. Throw out all the ideas you have about animals and animal farming and think of it as like a car factory or something. Since there was no internet, I doubt anyone other than a pork farmer would have been seeing these things. They didn’t need to worry about the public seeing these things. It’s a great resource for seeing how the industry operates.

Robinson

You have this fascinating point in the article where you draw parallels with fascism and Donald Trump. You describe how the system of factory farming is kind of like a fascist industry. I’ve written about Holocaust comparisons, which I think everyone needs to be careful of; it’s easy for them to be offensive. But we see the same tendency to ignore the suffering of those who have been deemed not to matter. And we also see the methods of industrial killing. The system operates so that the weakest are just trampled upon and killed and treated as having no value except to the degree that their lives are useful for those who exploit them. Factory farming is like that kind of system perfected.

Bolotnikova

Yes. I think it absolutely is a fascist industry. And I think I took this idea from a philosopher named John Sanbonmatsu. He’s a friend of mine and a very smart critical animal studies scholar. I think I sent you one of his books. It’s a collection called Critical Theory and Animal Liberation. It’s a great collection. It was really influential to me. In the introduction, he talks about this idea that our relationship with non-human animals is a kind of fascism. It’s violent. It has its own justification. And it really resonated with me much more than this kind of bloodless animal welfare/animal rights philosophy that you read. I don’t want to say anything negative about anyone working in that space, but it’s like, Let’s talk about animals as though they’re just inputs for pleasure and pain, utility or whatever. Fascism is a great model for understanding animal agriculture and animal exploitation more broadly. You know, if someone’s talking about animal suffering, or factory farming on Twitter or in real life, someone will just laugh or be like, “bacon.” That’s an example, right? You don’t need reasons or real arguments or any kind of reasonable discourse. It’s just violence and domination that justifies itself.

Recently I read David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth. One of the things he says early in the book is, I’m never going to be vegan. If you’re at the top of the food chain, you should flaunt it. That’s almost verbatim what he said. And that’s another example of what I mean. It’s domination justifying itself. Might makes right.

Robinson

He’s an intelligent person. But you hear people who have normally somewhat rigorous standards for the arguments that they put forth just abandoning all of that and saying things that obviously don’t hold up to scrutiny. Being at the top of the food chain? How does that in any way respond to this serious moral question of whether tearing away a pig’s little piglets from her is justifiable? You can only make these arguments if you don’t talk about what we’re really talking about, or if you talk about the eating of animals on your plate and not the way they’re treated somewhere far away. And that gets me to the article that you wrote for us about direct action. One of the only ways in which we can start talking about what we’re really talking about, is to see things like that video that you have in the article of the chicken being killed. You write about the critical importance of animal welfare activists who are willing to violate laws in order to expose the truth.

Bolotnikova

Earlier, I was talking about the trial of the activist Matt Johnson in Iowa. The germ for this piece kind of came out of that. Matt Johnson was in Iowa facing trial, and many of his fellow activists from Direct Action Everywhere were there to support and protest. They used their time there to do more investigations and more work on the ground. Iowa is ground zero for pork factory farming.

There was a group of activists driving around rural Iowa. There are pork factory farms everywhere, and they passed by one. It’s pretty normal outside of pork farms to see piles of dead bodies. They go through so many animal bodies—it’s the cost of doing business. So you often see animals outside that have been discarded because they’re runts. And they found a piglet still alive and breathing. The temperature was in the single digits, and there was this piglet there covered in blood and among these other bodies. Horrible. These conversations were happening over Signal and there were a lot of messages going back and forth in real time. I was deeply affected by it. And they rushed this piglet to the vet. He survived for a few days but ended up dying. It was a sad story. Maybe the piglet could have survived and lived out his life at a farm sanctuary if they’d gotten to it sooner.

The story of Charlie the piglet impacted me very deeply. It was the opening to the piece I wrote. It’s the most tragic story you could imagine about this system, right? This little baby animal was unsuccessfully killed and thrown in the trash alive. No doubt this happens routinely. If it weren’t for activists who risk criminalization to trespass and document this stuff, we would have no idea that it happens. Most people will never get close to a factory farm or get close to the animals in them and see what it’s like. Having activists who do it is a critical antidote to the industry lies and euphemisms and abstractions.

It’s a way of staying close to the powerless and vulnerable—beings that are utterly and totally crushed in this system—and seeing what really happens to them. I think it’s incredibly powerful.

Robinson

The industry is willing to wage war on activists to prevent their practices from being exposed, and is willing to wage war on any effort that, in any way, requires them to adopt meaningful, humane standards that might be costly. These are corporations that are ruthless in trying to maintain the very worst and most disturbing aspects of the system they’ve created.

Bolotnikova

And the absurd severity of the criminal charges brought against activists-–it definitely says a lot about how much of a threat the industry thinks that they are, and also how much influence they have over prosecutors. There’s another trial coming up in September in Utah that I will be writing about. It’s a similar story. Activists are facing years in prison for going to a massive Smithfield pig factory farm in Utah. I’m not positive, but it might be the single biggest factory farm in the U.S. It has massive rows of mother pigs and gestation crates. They went in either 2017 or 2018 and took out two small, sick piglets, arguing they were on the verge of dying and wouldn’t have survived. They’re arguing that the animals wouldn’t have had value to the industry anyway considering the condition they were in. If this were a normal situation, it wouldn’t even be worth the criminal justice system’s time. Utah has a law. I think if you steal $500 or less of property, it’s a misdemeanor unless it’s a farm animal.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is that the charges against Matt Johnson were dropped at the very last minute. It was surprising. We’ll probably never know for sure why, but I think it had to do with the media attention that it was attracting.

Robinson

Having a big public trial is a way to draw attention to the practice and I’m sure they’re constantly trying to figure out what’s in their interest. If they go too far, it might actually help the activists’ cause. Let’s finish by talking briefly about the way in which animal welfare is often not treated as an issue of sufficient seriousness by leftists or environmentalists, people who have values where you would think this would naturally be an issue that was at the core of their politics.

Bolotnikova

I think it’s also feminized, so it can make me a little self-conscious if people perceive it as this kind of unserious womanly thing and not a real political issue. It’s been really hard for animal advocates to build political power; it’s still such an isolated movement. A few years ago, California passed a ballot measure, one of the strongest farm animal protection laws in the country. It bans the gestation crates that we’ve been talking about and other kinds of extreme confinement on factory farms. That’s called Prop 12. It took a massive amount of effort and organizing to get that on the ballot and passed. It looks likely that the Supreme Court will strike it down. I haven’t seen much of anyone outside of the animal movement stand up for it. And I think it’s really sad. But I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. I think giving up is not an option.

I think animal advocates have gotten much better at not being so single issue. Prop 12 passed by an overwhelming margin. Well, it depends on how you define overwhelming. I think it passed by 63 percent of voters by ballot measure. That suggests that people want farm animals to be treated well. But when it’s time to actually defend these laws from the Supreme Court or to hold politicians accountable to enforce them, you don’t see a lot of people show up beyond those in the animal movement.

Robinson

What’s hopeful is that when these practices are brought to light, most moral human beings are revolted by them. It requires a hell of a lot of effort and money on behalf of the meat industry to keep the public in the dark. It would be a much more pessimistic and sad situation if it were the case that everyone did know and didn’t care. The fact that people don’t know opens the possibility that we can, in fact, through a more widespread discussion and through activism build some more serious public opposition.

More In: Interviews

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

Essays on Marvel movies, sports card collecting, sobriety memoirs, a vicious poke at @jordanbpeterson, a lengthy defense of Satan, and so much more.

The Latest From Current Affairs