The Emotional Life of Our Food

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Is it becoming harder to justify the inhumane treatment of factory farmed animals in order for us to have their eggs, milk and flesh? 

WORDS Valerie Wangnet

There is something deeply troubling in the attitudes of human beings toward other species. With recent exposés in the media of various factory farming methods, both domestically and internationally, this is no longer only an issue for animal welfare groups; people are opting for more humane alternatives, reforming their eating habits, and challenging the preconception that human beings are entitled to mistreat other animals for the purpose of profit.

Today the use of industrial methods to kill other animals on a massive scale is standard procedure, with an estimated 58 billion animals killed each year for food. This means finding cheaper ways to manufacture what we eat, such as cramming sows into crates where they are unable to turn around or lay down, de-beaking hens without the use of anesthesia, leaving many to die from shock, and forcing milk from dairy cows until they become too weak to stand and are then taken to be slaughtered. When we think about what is essentially wrong with this, what it comes down to is sentience, primarily the capacity for suffering. In 1789 Jeremy Bentham famously wrote:

“The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognised, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate…The question is not, can they reason, nor, can they talk but, can they suffer?”

And it is a reality that non-human animals have the capacity for suffering in more ways than one. Factory farmed animals experience deep states of fear, distress and agitation just as humans do, but the emotional lives of these animals are often conveniently underestimated. When we attribute things like love, hope, grief and even happiness to non-human animals, we are often accused of anthropomorphising them with characteristics unique to the human species. To make these comparisons would of course make them too much like us, and our attitudes toward them would surely have to change.

In Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions of Man and Animals, published in 1872 and regarded as the first scientific exploration of its kind, the naturalist argued that not only do animals feel emotions, but they also display them in similar ways to humans. He described a situation in which a monkey bravely stood up to a fierce baboon in order to save a human. Because of this, Darwin was severely criticized for anthropomorphizing animal behaviour. Still today, when we hear cases of birds shielding their mates from the rain as they do with their young chicks, or the numerous documented cases of animals adopting and caring for orphaned babies of a different species, we refuse to acknowledge this behaviour as being driven by love, compassion or altruism. We say that although these animals appear to display the same emotions as we do, it’s just not the same thing.

The refusal to acknowledge that non-human animals are as capable of feeling emotions as we are becomes most prominent when it comes to the issue of factory farming. The fact is however, that their capacity for suffering is very much like our own, which makes it increasingly difficult to justify the way in which we treat them.

Studies on the social behaviour of pigs at Purdue University in the United States found that pigs crave affection and become easily depressed if isolated or denied playtime with each other. Jeremy Rifkin, author of Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, reported, “The lack of mental and physical stimuli can result in deterioration of health and increased incidence of disease.” Despite these findings, breeding sows on factory farms are kept in tiny, individual gestation crates (two by seven foot enclosures) where they are unable to take more than one step forward and back. Sows will spend the majority of their lives in them, without any interaction with other pigs and typically without ever seeing daylight. Driven to madness, they develop neurotic coping behaviours. Sows begin incessantly thrashing their heads, fiercely biting the bars of their crates and “sham chewing” (chewing nothing).

Pigs are not the only animals to feel stress, extreme agitation and depression due to a lack of space and stimuli. The intensive overcrowding and barren environment endured by battery hens prevents them from fulfilling basic behavioural needs such as wing flapping, dust bathing, scratching, pecking, perching and nest building. As their cages prevent them from dust bathing, hens will attempt to incessantly rub against the wire floors. Their stress and frustration from these conditions result in severe feather pecking and often cannibalism.

[pullquote_left]…the use of industrial methods to kill other animals on a massive scale is standard procedure, with an estimated 58 billion animals killed each year for food.[/pullquote_left]

Along with stress, fear is commonly displayed in factory-farmed animals. When Four Corners broadcast their report ‘A Bloody Business’ in May 2011, investigating live cattle export from Australia to Indonesia, the images shown were horrific, sparking a huge public outcry. And from all of the gruesome shots of fully conscious cows having their throats slit, or being kicked and bashed by frustrated workers, the image that remained most poignant was that of a group of cows being tied up and forced to watch as others were killed and cut up. This kept happening until one was left – a steer standing alone and trembling violently, anticipating its fate.

And then there remains the issue of whether or not non-human animals can experience love, grief and loss. In a 2010 lecture given by activist Gary Yourofsky at Georgia Tech in the United States, Yourofsky recalled, “the worst scream I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard them all first hand – was of a mother cow on a dairy farm. She screams and bellows her lungs out day after day for her stolen baby to be given back to her.”

As we begin to learn more and more about the behaviour and sentience of non-human animals, it becomes harder to justify the way in which factory farmed animals are treated in order for us to have their milk, eggs and flesh. In May this year, The New York Times held an essay contest entitled Put Your Ethics Where Your Mouth Is, challenging readers to think up reasons why it was ethical for humans to eat meat. Many of the responses were clever and wildly creative (one of which argued that in vitro meat would be the way of the future), but what the contest demonstrated was just how difficult it was to morally justify eating meat in an era of savage mass production.

The widespread abuse of sentient animals on factory farms today demonstrates humanity’s sense of entitlement and superiority over the other, something that has caused countless incidents of suffering and oppression throughout the course of our history. It is difficult to believe, when we demean and abuse other animals, that our humanity does not suffer also. Educators are recognising today that animal cruelty in childhood is symptomatic of emotional problems that can lead to psychopathology and crimes of violence at a later age. The importance of treating animals with compassion and respect is essential for the moral progress of our society, as Tolstoy wrote, “As long as there are slaughterhouses there will always be battlefields.”