Concerned about animal welfare? Consider vegetarianism
On Monday, Student Life reported that Bon Appétit, the university’s food service provider, has unveiled new protocols for the humane treatment of the animals it purchases for consumption. These new policies include the boycott of gestation crates for pigs and veal crates for calves, as well as the insistence upon “cage-free” conditions for laying hens.
I applaud these changes, in particular the abolition of veal and gestation crates, which confine animals at all times in a space too small to even turn around: they will produce concrete benefits for countless animals. However, I urge anyone who is sincerely concerned with animal welfare to consider becoming a vegetarian.
First of all, the implication that these measures ensure truly “humane” treatment of the animals is misleading at best. The reality of “cage-free” laying hens does not conform to the idyllic image the term may produce of an “Old MacDonald” style farm with a few hens pecking around a green barnyard. In reality, the hens are kept densely packed (nine birds per square meter) in massive sheds, and often never have the opportunity to go outside. The hens attack each other so often (due to the discomfort of their close confinement) that part of their beaks are cut off shortly after hatching, in order to limit the damage they can do to each other. Furthermore, male chicks (which obviously make up 50 percent of the hatched birds) can’t lay eggs and thus have no commercial value to the industry. As such they are killed immediately after hatching, often in gruesome ways such as being ground up alive.
While the ethical arguments for vegetarianism are numerous, nuanced, and often mutually exclusive, I’m just going to mention a few over-arching points here: there seems to be something fundamentally amiss with the idea of demanding “humane” treatment of an animal whose sole reason for existing is to be slaughtered during the physical peak of its life. Believing in humane treatment for animals tacitly implies the assumption that animals are conscious beings with their own feelings and preferences, which ought to be respected when possible, and are capable of suffering, which ought to be limited. It seems difficult to maintain this view while supporting an industry that does not: intensive animal farms treat animals as meat-producing machines, just like any other piece of factory equipment. As such, the quest for efficiency and the bottom line often comes at the expense of the animals’ well-being. Construing animals as “things” to be used as we see fit promotes an attitude that severely impairs any effort toward increased well-being for farmed animals.
It is true that small, independent farms exist which don’t share factory farms’ attitude towards their animals, and as a result treat them relatively well (aside from the slaughter which is still the end goal). However, it is nearly impossible to produce meat on the industrial scale necessary to meet Americans’ demand without succumbing to the agribusiness model.
All of this is not even to mention the environmental reasons to become vegetarian (animal-based foods are much more energy-intensive to produce than plant-based) and the well-documented health benefits of decreasing one’s meat intake.
Becoming a vegetarian is a personal choice, and a big one at that. Many people balk at the seemingly ascetic nature of this decision. Fortunately, Wash. U. and Bon Appétit are incredibly supportive of such a venture. Delicious and healthy vegetarian food can be found at every campus eatery, from black bean burgers and stir-fry to the dedicated vegetarian station at the DUC (which recently has been introducing new, classy, and interesting dishes, which I can’t recommend highly enough).
Even if you don’t end up becoming vegetarian, if you are genuinely concerned about animal welfare, please keep what I have written in mind. Perhaps eat a couple fewer eggs every week, or get pizza with onion and green peppers instead of pepperoni. Even small steps such as these can help you become a more well-rounded person, physically as well as ethically, in addition to promoting the truly humane treatment of animals.