As we’ve become increasingly disconnected from our food sources, we tend to forget about the people who grow them, as well as the welfare of the animals that we eat. It’s all too easy to neglect thinking beyond the supermarket portion of the food system that we see every day. Still, it’s time we reconnect with our food sources. In this article, we’ll be looking into the ethical issues surrounding animal and farmer welfare that stem from the current industrialised food system.
How do we know the meat, eggs, or diary that we buy has been grown in consideration of animal welfare? Currently, the labelling of products as ‘free-range’, ‘organic’ or ‘Red Tractor’ certified is the only measure we have to answer this question. But do the labels actually show if an animal has been raised in truly ethical conditions?
Well, there’s a lot of confusion around what animal welfare standards require. It’s become all too easy for companies to put seemingly ethical labels on their products without any proof to back it. But really, it comes down to simple things like ensuring that they’re basic needs (food, water, shelter) are met along with mental well-being and the freedom to express normal behaviour.
The sad reality though, is that most animals raised in the industrial food systems aren’t treated with these animal welfare standards. Although they might have access to food and water, very few can live with the freedom to move and behave as natural animals do. Regardless of whether it’s hens, cattle, or pigs, the industrialised food system neglects their needs as sentient living beings.
In many cases, birds reared under industrial conditions are slaughtered after just 41 days from birth. [i] At this point, they’re still chicks but grown to be unnaturally obese for their age. During their very short lifespan, they have to endure processes such as beak trimming which are illegal in many EU countries but still standard practice in the UK. They’re also overfed until they can no longer endure their weight. [ii] The dirty environment where they live in also makes them vulnerable to organ failures, infection by parasites, and injuries. [iii]
In the case of egg-laying hens, farmers get rid of male chicks as soon as they are born because they are deemed unproductive for human consumption purposes. Estimates suggest that up to 40 million day-old chicks are killed each year in the UK. [iv] It’s unfortunate, but a majority of the chickens and eggs sold in supermarkets come from animals raised in confinement who did not have the opportunity to run, stretch and open their wings as free chickens. [iii]
There are approximately 11 thousand pig farms in the UK. Of those, 1,400 rear over 1,000 pigs, accounting for 85% of the total pig population in the UK. [vi] Like birds, pigs are kept inside tiny confinements with no sunlight and surrounded in pools of waste, creating an ideal breeding ground for bacteria or viruses. [iii] This is why ½ of antibiotics sold in the UK are for animal farms, 60% of which go to pigs. [v]
Estimates show that only 3% of pigs in the UK will get to spend their life outdoors. [vi] In addition, most sows in the UK are unnaturally and repeatedly impregnated to be productive for humans. [iii] Not only is this practice physiologically taxing on the pigs, but causes psychological stress, as they never get to interact with their piglets. As individuals, we have a say in how these animals live by voting through our consumption choices.
COWS, GOATS AND SHEEPS
Industrial dairy cows are forced to produce more than 10 times the amount of milk they would produce under natural conditions. [vii] After 4-6 years when they can no longer do that, industrial farmers will send them for slaughter; cutting short the 25-year lifespan that normal, healthy cows should have. [viii] Sadly, as is the case with male offspring of hens, male calves in dairy farms are considered undesirable and therefore killed after birth. [ix]
Besides cows, up to 1.4 million sheep and goats are also slaughtered each year in the UK without proper stunning, meaning that the animals are still fully conscious. [x] This is because of the fast-paced environment of industrial livestock farming, forcing operations to be done rapidly but with less accuracy. It’s a clear sign that something has to change.
Separation at birth
Many of us take it for granted that we get to be with our family and parents for as long as we’d like. But this is hardly the case for livestock animals. For example, piglets in the wild tend to stay with their mother for 12-14 weeks, but under industrial conditions, they are separated after 3-4 weeks so that the mother can quickly be re-impregnated. [xi] Likewise, calves feed from their mothers for 9 months to 1 year after birth, but under the current food system, they are taken away within 24 to 72 hours after birth. This is so that farms and companies can take as much milk as possible from their mothers. [xii] The separation of babies from mothers at birth is a distressing experience for both and neglects their basic needs as sentient beings. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Transportation is also a huge issue when it comes to the industrialised livestock sector. The loss of local abattoirs in favour of centralised corporate systems means that many animals have to be transported long distances from their farms. Many individuals don’t make it through this process, as they are cramped in tiny cages for long hours, enduring physical pain from broken legs or wings and mental stress from the fear of the destination. [xv],[xiii],[xiv] Besides birds and pigs, male calves grown in the UK are often exported to other countries in Europe, which forces them to endure long hours of truck rides. [v]
Solutions: raising livestock ethically
We must encourage the raising of livestock in ethical manners that benefit the well-being of the animals. This shift starts with a radical change to the environment in which animals are raised. We must move away from keeping them in confined spaces inside walls, to let them roam around freely in the open grass under the sky. Farms should start embracing a more regenerative, holistic way of cattle raising, such as a mob-grazing system used by some farmers that work with Tend. [xv] The animals should be allowed to express natural behaviours and stay with their offspring for as long as possible.
Another potential solution is reinstating local or mobile abattoirs. Unfortunately, a third of small abattoirs closed in just the last 10 years and in 2017, there were only 63 low-throughput ones left in the country. [xvi] In addition to the unethical nature of long-distance livestock transport, it goes against the movement towards low-mileage local food. Most recently, the Scottish Government carried out extensive research on the viability of introducing mobile abattoirs to Scotland. 90% of survey respondents were in support of and would use mobile slaughter unit services, suggesting that there is potential for transitioning from an industrialised approach to a more local one. [xvii]
In addition to animal welfare, farmer welfare is also an important issue that we tend to oversee. Farmers may face long-term health issues related to prolonged exposure to agricultural chemicals such as pesticides. There have been several studies aimed at discerning the chemicals linked to disease, as well as reports from rural residents indicating potential chronic effects such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone diseases and neurological damage. [xviii] However, the reality is that physical issues result from a combination of lifestyle factors and long-term exposure to a mixture of chemicals – known as the cocktail effect – making it hard discern the direct cause and effect of specific substances. [xix] There is also the issue of dosage that will determine the extent of pesticide driven physical impacts. What we do know, however, is that continued high dosage use of pesticides have the potential to damage farmers health. [xx]
Regardless of whether we can make conclusive remarks about physical health, farmers mental health is yet another issue that we must address. 85% of young farmers believe mental health is the biggest danger facing their industry, with one person in agriculture or a related trade committing suicide each week. [xxi] The industry is facing many stress factors, with financial uncertainty a big concern. The drive for supermarket scale has forced many farms into mono-cropping, meaning disease or weather can wipe out their entire year’s income. Farmers will often plant and harvest their produce without knowing the price they’ll receive for it, with many supermarkets offering less than the cost of production to the farmers in take-it-or-leave-it-deals. Due to rock bottom supermarket prices, 42% of farmers made a loss last year before receiving government subsidies.
It’s good to see that conversations surrounding mental health has increased in the last few years. Yet, in the agricultural sector, we still have to address the stigma surrounding poor mental health. [xxii] The Farming Community Network’s support helpline has reported to receiving increasing amounts of concerns regarding farmer mental health in 2020. [xxiii] On top of their pre-existing problems surrounding finances, political issues such as Brexit and global news of the COVID-19 pandemic pile on to their stress.
More than ever before, it’s vital for us to step back and see the bigger picture as a community, and to offer support - especially to those who produce the very foods we eat. Purchasing from small farms is a fantastic way to do that. At Tend, we believe that caring about farmer’s well-being and animal welfare, vital to building a sustainable, ethical and healthy food system that addresses everyone’s needs.
The drive for industrial-scale production and the disconnects between where our food comes from means many of us do not consider the impact our food has beyond ourselves. With an ethical food system, animals can be raised to higher welfare standards that go beyond preventing negative outcomes but enhance their opportunity to live. Farmers can start to focus on growing healthy nutritious foods without having to worry about additional pressures imposed by the current food system. There is a better way to produce food in a way that does not harm, but instead nourishes, and Tend aims to be a part of that solution.