For the World Farm Animals Day held today, a critical review of the book The End of Animal Farming by Jacy Reese.
Reese’s argument, basically, is that considering the incredible inefficiency of animal farming, along with what he views as an expansion of humans’ moral circle, and the technological developments in the animal-free food systems, animal farming will end.
In the following three posts we’ll address each of these three main factors correspondingly.
The Dangers of the Inefficiency Argument
Reese repeatedly argues that one of the main reasons, if not the main one, that animal farming will end is that it doesn’t make rational sense:
“The ace in the hole for the inevitability of the end of animal farming is the incredible inefficiency of making meat, dairy, and eggs from animals. Farmed animals consume calories and nutrients from plants, and they use that energy to do a lot more than produce meat, dairy, and eggs. They have all the normal bodily functions like breathing, movement, and growing by-products like hoofs, organs, and hair. These processes mean farmed animals have a caloric conversion ratio of 10:1 or more. For every ten calories of food we feed them, we get only about one calorie of meat in return. And for every ten grams of plant-based protein, we get at most two grams of animal-based protein.”
However, in order for the claim that animal farming will end because in efficiency terms it is unreasonable, to be reasonable, humans need to consume food on reasonable basis, only that they don’t. Humans don’t choose their food on the basis of energy-efficiency, but according to many other factors. Humans eat for great many reasons, for reasons of community, rituals, family, expressing their identity by eating this and not that, and of course for pleasure. For billions of humans food is comfort, a gesture, entertainment, an enemy, a profession, a hobby, a weapon, it can break barriers, it defines cultures, and connects families. It involves so many taboos and determinations of who belongs to the group and who does not, it unifies and distinguishes between ethnic groups and cultures. Unfortunately food is much more than taste and nutrition. Looking for reason based on efficiency in humans’ eating habits is unreasonable.
For someone who is very familiar with humans’ various psychological biases, it is a bit strange that he ignores it in relation to food consumption. Humans don’t consume food on the basis of a rational caloric conversion ratio, or on a rational basis whatsoever, so this rational reason is far from being sufficient. Humans are not even consuming food on the basis of its nutritional value, health benefits, or environmental considerations, not to mention moral ones. They have a rather different list of priorities. They rather eat what they like, what they are used to, what is traditional, common, cheap, normal, what they have always eaten, what others around them are eating, food that defines them the way they wish to be defined, food that doesn’t distinguish them from the group they want to be part of, and etc. That’s why they are willing to invest what seems, on the face of it, as irrational efforts in the food they are eating.
Animal farming is still highly romanticized all around the world. Obviously for no good reason, yet that myth must be destroyed. Animal farming is not going to end merely because rationally speaking it is inefficient. For many humans around the world, following tradition is more rational than energy-efficiency. Food is not fuel for the body.
Exactly because food is not fuel but among many other things, a cultural and social indicator, there is a growing concern, that in many societies, and definitely in the US, animal based food would be associated with class and political stands. Meaning, that sadly, there is a high probability that many humans would choose whether or not to eat animal based products merely according to their political agenda. In other words, it is probable that consuming animals would be partisan based. It already is in many senses, but it might get worse. Veganism is already highly associated with the leftwing, this may happen to cultured meat as well. This is not a prediction but more of apprehension. And in any case not the point here. The point here is that food is far from being merely the way people energize themselves. Insisting that it is, in such an irrational world, makes his rational claim totally irrational.
Beyond the fact that humans’ preferred foods don’t reflect the energy-efficiency of their food system and so it is not very likely that the inefficiency claim would radically change the food system, there is a great danger in making the inefficiency claim.
That is since the arguer may raise a factual claim and control the practical conclusions s/he is extracting from it, however s/he has no control over the operative conclusions that others would make. In the energy-efficiency sense, since humans excel at resisting any substantial changes in their beloved habits, and tend to choose the least demanding option, the one that requires them to change their habits the least, it is more probable that if anything, they would choose the more “efficient” animal based options than the plant based one. In other words, and practically speaking, this means that some people would consider instead of devouring the corpses of cows and sheeps, to devour the ones of animals who are considered as more “efficient” such as chickens and fishes. Considering that fishes and chickens are much smaller than sheeps and cows, that means that more individual animals would be exploited and tortured by humans. So opposite to the original intention of this claim, it may be the case that it would bring about an unfortunate increase in the number of tortured animals in the food industry.
Eventually humans would do what they find convenient and pleasing. If we’ll tell them that animal farming is incredibly inefficient, as soon as they discover that the various industries are not equally inefficient, they are more likely to choose the less inefficient ones, and unfortunately choosing these ones means consuming more individual animals. And that is among the humans who would even consider changing their habits, most humans are practically totally indifferent to any consideration which is not selfish.
And Reese is aware of this implication. He even writes that “consuming smaller animals leads to far more suffering per calorie because it takes far more animals.” So the inefficiency argument is not only a speciesist argument in the sense of suggesting an opposition to an extremely cruel industry based on its inefficiency rather than its cruelty to other animals, it is also a cruel argument in the sense of the high probability of increasing the number of individual victims. Humans have been consuming more cows, sheeps and pigs in the past than they do nowadays (percentage wise), and nowadays they consume much more chickens and fishes. Along with human health motives, efficiency, also played a role in that awful course.
Reese is enough of an optimist to think that this argument is bound to bring about the end of animal farming, however, so far, along with other human oriented arguments, it has been increasing the number of exploited nonhuman animals.
The efficiency issue doesn’t only increase the number of victims but also each victim’s suffering.
Overall, the main mean in making animal farming more “efficient” is making the exploited animals more “efficient” at converting feed to flesh, and bodily secretion. More product for less investment. That practically means more control over the animals by manipulating them and their surroundings. These methods include increased lighting, unnatural calorie-dense feed, antibiotic use, growth hormones, and of course – a manipulation which invades deep into the animals’ body by changing their genetic characteristics. Craving efficiency led to engineering animals who are deformed and crippled, with some organs extremely enlarged and others shriveled.
Chickens are the most extreme representatives of the industry’s ability to manipulate animals’ bodies in a way which fits the exploiters needs – convert feed more “efficiently”, and grow larger.
Recent campaigns calling for exploitation of chickens from less deformed breeds, wishing to somewhat reverse this extremely violent trend, face the industry’s cynical green-washed excuses about the supposed unsustainability of this call. The National Chicken Council emphases that such a move would result in the use of more environmental resources due to the increase in feed and water (resources which would ‘grow unprofitable body parts’), and due to the overall number of days it would take to raise the birds.
Some animal exploitation experts also admit that less crippled chickens, who suffer less pain with each step, tend to move around more and therefore waste more energy, which is less “efficient”.
So chickens, who are already the most numerous land victims on earth, which are bound to the severest genetic manipulation and to the harshest living conditions, will be even worse off.
Much like chickens, fishes also suffer from their reputation for being more “efficient”.
Similarly to land animals, today, more and more fishes are bred in factory farms, euphemistically called aquaculture. Of course, the controlled environment of a farm means more control over the fishes – and much more manipulation to make them grow faster, thus also be more “efficient”. From the moment they hatch, farmed fishes endure a lighting regime that tricks them to eat more of a commercial diet designed for weight-gain. They live in crowded tanks or sea cages where they often face aggression from other fishes they cannot escape, and have to fight for food. The density leads to disease outbreaks and parasites which lead to immense suffering.
These intensive conditions which produce more flesh from each fish are known to cripple them. About 50-60% of farmed salmon and trout were found to have damaged ear bones, which leads to drastic hearing impairments. Studies have identified this deformity to be the result of accelerated growth rates that were traced to high-nutrient feed and exposure to longer light periods. This illness has also been found in other farmed fish species such as carp, eel and red drum.
The pressure for rapid weight gain doesn’t end with external environmental intervention. In another horrid resemblance to land animals, fishes too are the subject of genetic manipulation to increase “efficiency”.
In 2015 the level of invasion into the fishes’ bodies took another turn for the worse, as for the first time the FDA approved the marketing of GM animal – Atlantic salmon who has a gene from a Chinook salmon and a promoter sequence from an ocean pout.
This salmon can grow twice as fast as conventionally farmed Atlantic salmons, reaching adult size in some 18 months compared to 30 months, and requiring 25% less feed.
So far, animal farming’s inefficiency, didn’t cause the industry to reconsider its practices, but to constantly push further and further the biological limits of its poor victims. So talking about the industry’s inefficiency may increase the number of its victims as well as the suffering of each victim.