The Economics of Eating Ethically

“And he said: Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth.” –Genesis 1:26

It’s finally here—the time when American blood runs thickest: barbeque season. In the coming months, many Americans will enjoy a tasty rack of ribs or burgers without thinking twice about how it got to their plate. It’s an unfortunate mistake many of us make. As human beings we are given the authority and responsibility by God to care for the earth and all its inhabitants. It is our job to make choices that have the respect for all life in the forefront of our minds. And quite frankly, we are failing miserably at respecting the lives of animals that meet our physical needs. The ethical, economical, and spiritual implications of our actions all have visible consequences, but the question at hand is, “Can we take the power we have through innovation to create a more ethical system of animal welfare?” As consumers on a smaller scale, what can we do to help drive this shift in quality of life for all living beings?

In many cases of factory farming, there seems to be a lack of respect between the animals that are raised for consumption and the people that care for these creatures. The most crucial aspect in ethically producing and consuming animal products is viewing these beings not merely as food, but living things with (non-rational) souls, feelings, and emotions. If an animal is physically or emotionally abused, it will feel pain—a very obvious, but often an ignored response. We are called to recognize their suffering and instead treat such beings with care and respect—talking calmly and quietly to them rather than yelling and being violent, accommodating living conditions to calm the animal instead of making them more afraid, and finding painless ways of ending the animal’s life. As a consumer, it is vital to view the meat on our plates not merely as sustenence, but as a life that was ended so we could live a healthier one—making sure not to waste any meat, but instead making good use of it out of respect for the animal.

At the Fork, a documentary produced by John Papola, has been a fantastic resource for thinking about this issue. His wife, Lisa Papola, is a vegetarian and planted the seed in John’s mind to think more intensely about where his food comes from. To explore just how farm animals are raised for consumption, John and his wife set out to explore farm production from a range of ethical philosophies.

Like humans and nature, animals too have certain conditions that are fixed in their very makeup that allow for their health and happiness. Crystal Lake Farm owner Richard Udale states that the chickens on his farm are “being real chickens” because they are allowed to roam around outside in an open area of foliage and water puddles. Francis Thicke, from Radiance Dairy, states that his cows are “healthy because they are in a natural environment.” These farmers recognize that it is natural for animals to be outside in nature where they were before the rise of factory farming. This, being an Aristotelian, is an important observation to make. All natural things were created with specific needs that must be met in order to fulfill their purpose, or telos. It should be no surprise then that animals are happier and healthier when they are in their natural habitat—just like penguins cannot thrive in the desert because they were not designed to do so, so too will farm animals suffer in the unnatural living conditions of large-scale factory farms.

Many farmers believe crates and stalls are the best life for animals—it is easier to monitor the animal’s food intake and vitals if the animal is contained in a small area and on a controlled diet. These farmers believe their animals are living a rewarding life in stalls because the temperature inside such barns is regulated and their needs are provided to the desired standard. However, this is not the natural environment of these animals. The stalls and crates used in this method have barely enough room for the animal to turn around, and in some cases, not even enough room to fully stand upright. Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures, states that good animal welfare is “incumbent on us to create an environment in which the animal can express its instinctive behavior.” Harris raises hogs not in crates, but allows the animals to roam his 40 acre forest. These animals are able to gather their own food, except for peanuts and eggs he provides on occasion. Disease caused by rain is a concern for most pig and hog farmers, but in Harris’ experience, his hogs are perfectly healthy despite being exposed to the conditions of weather. Another farmer, Jude Becker of Becker Land Organic, mentions that, in the wild, pigs regulate their own body temperature by rolling in mud and finding shade and creating shelter by building huts. Animals do not need to depend on us to provide their necessary living conditions—survival is built in their nature by virtue of being a certain kind of animal, and they are fit to provide for themselves in the wild.

The main problem with higher welfare farming is an economic one. Factory farming simply produces more product for the cheapest cost to the consumer. The high demand for meat leaves the entrepreneur with the task of creating ways to meet this demand, such as finding new ways of producing animals with the highest weight and productivity. In such cases, the producer is willing, and would be forced, to adopt whatever demand was requested by the consumer. With a shift in demand toward quality over quantity by the consumer, the necessity for ethical treatment of animals would rise—allowing for smaller, local farms to compete for the market demand. In this sense, the consumer is using their dollar to vote on what matters to them—either cheap meat that was mistreated or meat that may or may not be more expensive but was treated well and given living conditions that allowed for the animal to live a good, natural life.

As it states in Genesis, man does have dominion over the animals to care for them and to use them for sustenance. However, the mass production of animals and animal products is an entirely different concept that directly opposes the biblical duty of mankind—a case of domination versus dominion. For the consumer, supporting ethical practices of treatment thorough purchasing eggs produced by cage-free chickens and limiting meat consumption by shifting to a plant-based diet (“Meatless Mondays” are a great way to start) helps shift the demand away from factory farming animals in the same way we do other products such as produce. Though the power of innovation brings much growth, it also brings up ethical questions that force us to consider how our actions affect the world around us. Having respect for all living creatures seems like it should be on the forefront of our minds.