Industrial farming — ‘worst crime in history’

Plate competition: More than 50 billion chickens are bred around the world each year. © PA

Each second, 255 animals are slaughtered for the UK meat supply chain. Is this a shocking betrayal of sentient beings, or simply a reasonable way of feeding a nation of carnivores?

Wire cages, windowless sheds and metal crates prevent them from turning around, lying down or going outside. They grow unnaturally quickly after being force-fed antibiotics. And, often shortly after being born, the slaughterhouse — where they are rapidly stunned, killed and turned into food — awaits. These are among the realities for the animals bred, reared and slaughtered in industrial farming around the world every year.

Now, an animal rights campaign group in the United States has chosen a surprising battleground on which to fight this emotive issue. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) has brought a court case against organic supermarket group Whole Foods — a chain described as ‘the leader on animal welfare’ by the Humane Society. As they were issuing the papers, similar issues were being raised among the British public: the Shadow Environment Secretary, Kerry McCarthy, called for public campaigns to discourage people from eating meat altogether.

People in developed countries are especially carniverous; just 2% of the UK population identified as vegetarian in 2012, and the average meat-eater in the UK now consumes around 7,000 animals over the course of their lives. This includes 11 cows, 27 pigs and 2,400 chickens. Britain’s substantial meat industry employs thousands and contributes over £6bn each year to the economy. But at the same time, approximately 2.6 million cattle, 10 million pigs, 14.5 million sheep and lambs, 80 million fish and 950 million birds (mostly chickens) are slaughtered for human consumption.

In a book published last year, Israeli professor Yuval Noah Harari studied the relationship between man and animals through history. He showed that our species had been responsible for the extinction of 90% of Australia’s large animals 45,000 years ago and 75% of North America’s 15,000 years ago. Harari now says that ‘perhaps the worst crime in history’ is taking place on industrial farms, as humans override animals’ natural instincts to survive, socialise and rear young.

Bon appetit?

‘If slaughterhouses had glass walls, the whole world would be vegetarian,’ said Linda McCartney. Most of us would never willingly inflict suffering on animals ourselves but we do conveniently ignore it. We are too quick to pick up a packet of ham from the supermarket shelves, ignoring the practices which have led to it being there.

Not so, say hardened meat eaters. We now know more than ever before about the way meat is produced, and most people still take a pragmatic view. Man has eaten meat for centuries. Modern techniques allow it to be produced more humanely than ever before, while also meeting a realistic desire for efficiency.

You Decide

  1. Will you change what you eat based on what you’ve learnt here?
  2. Is it ever right for an animal to die for a human’s needs?


  1. Draw a campaign poster in response to this story (for example, calling for tougher animal welfare laws or calling for support for farmers).
  2. Create a presentation on the relationship between humans and animals through time. Yuval Noah Harari’s piece in the Guardian (under ‘Become An Expert’) is a good place to start your research.

Some People Say...

“Meat is murder.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How well do farmers look after the animals that end up on my plate?
That usually depends on the price you pay — a higher price may indicate a better standard of welfare for the animal. But this is not always the case, and some fashionable meats (such as veal and foie gras) are manufactured by restricting the animal’s movements or causing them to suffer. Some products or shops advertise their animal welfare standards to reassure consumers (for example, by saying their chickens are free range).
Won’t the meat industry change the future of the planet?
Meat production takes up land and resources, and some observers argue that it fuels global warming and hunger. But some point out that, if we continue to eat meat, industrial farms are more likely to tackle these problems than more open ones.

Word Watch

Leader on animal welfare
The Humane Society has praised Whole Foods for adopting vegetarian and vegan products quickly, banning live lobster and foie gras (liver from a specially fattened duck or goose) and using a multi-tiered system for animal welfare standards. But Peta says the standards are ‘a sham’.
Public campaigns
McCarthy called for campaigns similar to those which have been used to cut down smoking rates. Health warnings on cigarette packets, for example, have been used to inform smokers of the risks of their habit. But the Countryside Alliance, which promotes British farmers’ interests, said her views were ‘verging on the cranky’.
In his book, Harari highlights the evolutionary processes behind animals’ social needs. He says that farmers who keep calves in enclosed spaces are causing them unnecessary suffering as they have an instinctive need to play in order to learn.
Rear young
Harari highlights the frequency with which farmers separate mothers from calves. He argues that this causes suffering because it overrides the evolutionary need for the two to bond.

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