Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Singer on Factory Farming

by Joe Miller

In preparation for a campus lecture at the University of Minnesota, Peter Singer has written an editorial for the Minnesota Daily, the campus newspaper, condemning factory farming. Singer chronicles a fairly standard set of objections to factory farms:
Cows and veal calves are confined in crates too narrow for them even to turn around, let alone walk a few steps. Egg-laying hens are unable to stretch their wings because their cages are too small and too crowded. With nothing to do all day, they become frustrated and attack each other. To prevent losses, producers sear off their beaks with a hot knife, cutting through sensitive nerves.
Chickens, reared in sheds that hold 20,000 birds, now are bred to grow so fast that most of them develop leg problems because their immature bones cannot bear the weight of their bodies.
Another consequence of the genetics of these birds is that the breeding birds — the parents of the ones sold in supermarkets — constantly are hungry, because, unlike their offspring that are slaughtered at just 45 days old, they have to live long enough to reach sexual maturity. If fed as much as they are programmed to eat, they soon would be grotesquely obese and die or be unable to mate. So they are kept on strict rations that leave them always looking in vain for food.
Moreover, as Singer notes, these practices don't actually result in a more efficient method for feeding a growing population. Meat animals consume more calories than they yield as food (after all, some of those calories that animals require go into things like growing bones and other inedible parts, and other calories are burned in moving around and generating heat and the like). So if we're really trying to feed more people, it's far more efficient simply to use crops to feed humans directly.

So, then, what's the point of factory farming? As Singer puts the point:
It has nothing going for it except that it produces food that is, at the point of sale, cheap. But for that low price, the animals, the environment and rural neighborhoods have to pay steeply.
Oh, only that going for it. At this point, my brain tries to go in two directions at once. The pro-market side of me says, "hey, efficient equals cheap equals more money to spend on other stuff equals ultimately more wealth and that's all good." OTOH, part of the reason that I value markets is that they square so nicely with utilitarianism--the same utilitarianism that tells me that I really ought to consider the suffering of cows and pigs and chickens in my moral deliberations.

In part, the dilemma is easy enough to reconcile. I buy eggs from free-range chickens and milk from free-range cows and avoid eating animals (except for my weakness for sushi). But $4 per dozen eggs or $16 per pound sashimi-grade tuna is a tough sell to the minimum-wage earning single mother who would far rather buy the $0.99 package of hot dogs for her 3 kids.

One (partial) solution that should please the marketists and the minimum-wage earners alike: get rid of agricultural subsidies and eliminate all tariffs on agricultural products. Perhaps that would drop the prices of food enough to provide some real alternatives to the $0.99 hot dogs.


Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I hate to say this...

Ha, like that will ever happen. Take a good look at who most of the Congress-critters are from the states that have a heavy agriculture base. They nearly uniformly are "farmers." I use quotations here, because most of these sorry bastards wouldn't know how to wrestle a hog back into a pin if their lives depended on it. Anyway, to abuse the hog yet again, the pork will flow; directly into the pockets of the campaigns of those who protect the subsidies, tariffs and 'protection programs' of those damnable beasts called Factory Farmers.

Sorry. Coming from Georgia makes me acutely aware of the situation and just a little touchy, when it comes right down to it.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

I don't think that animals should be raised in torturous conditions, so I eat as many of them as I can. But I agree that agricultural subsidies have to go; let the market take care of it.

12:24 PM  
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