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Meat is generally considered an integral part of a healthy diet for people and carnivorous pets such as cats and dogs. However, there also exists a noteworthy vegetarian movement, with extreme members known as vegans. There is a variety of reasons why one may choose to forgo eating meat or animal-based products in general. Supposed health benefits or personal beliefs are usually considered the primary drivers for vegetarians, and vegans tend to base their position on disapproval of the animal cruelty that takes place on farms. However, their opinions are not taken into consideration often, possibly in part due to animal product suppliers exerting control to protect the status quo.
The Case Against Animal Product Producers
Like most businesses, farms are concerned with efficiency and maximizing profits by minimizing spending. This trend often means that the comfort and potentially well-being of the animals who are used are disregarded, and the treatment may be considered unethical from some standpoints. Meadows (2012) describes how chickens are killed en masse, female pigs are exploited and kept mostly immobile, and cows are killed when their milk production slows. While these practices are appropriate from a purely utilitarian perspective, most people would not enjoy witnessing them in person. As such, empathy plays a significant part in the case against supporting animal product producers, as doing so would reduce their profits and potentially compel them to create better conditions for their livestock.
Some people, mostly vegans, take a more radical stance and draw parallels between animals and humans. Spiegel (1988) begins her book by comparing racism and speciesism, or the tendency of modern humanity to show disdain for animals. She argues that the onset of industrial trends, spurred mostly by the rapid expansion of the European civilization, changed the view of animals from creatures to admire and honor to pests and livestock (Spiegel, 1988). Some people champion the idea that animals deserve the same, or similar, treatment as what humans receive, with specific rights that are enforced. The methods employed by many producers, particularly large-scale firms that benefit from efficiency improvements considerably, would be unethical, if not illegal, in such a situation.
The abuse perpetrated by meat, dairy, egg, and other suppliers that employ animals in their activities becomes still less justifiable as technology advances. Wurgaft (2019) discusses the concept of artificially growing meat for human consumption using samples collected from animals with minimal inconveniences for them. The idea is not yet viable for large-scale implementation, but if the costs can be reduced to a competitive level, the technology may render many meat producers obsolete. Animals can then be released to live their lives in relative freedom, though humanity will still likely have to care for them, as they are fully domesticated. With the emergence of viable alternatives, cruel methods will become morally unjustifiable.
Methods of Control
Humans are omnivores, and therefore, it is natural for them to include meat and other animal products in their diet. As such, the current position that views vegetarians, and vegans in particular, as oddities and outliers, appears justifiable. However, the moral questions of animal treatment remain valid, and many vegetarians would be satisfied if livestock were not abused throughout their lives. Necessity is a compelling counterpoint, as the unprecedented numbers of modern humanity demand that producers go to extremes to satisfy our need for food. However, there are also methods of control that are employed by businesses and governments to downplay or avoid the issue and maintain the status quo.
Throughout much of human history, meat consumption was viewed as a symbol of power, the victory of the hunter over the prey, or the success of a farmer. According to Ruby and Heine (2011), people associate omnivorous habits more masculine when compared to vegetarianism, even though vegetarians were seen as more virtuous. It is in the interest of marketers and other people who create societal narratives to maintain this image. Thus, popular culture expressions such as fast food advertisements and depictions of wealthy and successful men often emphasize meat consumption. By contrast, vegetarianism receives considerably less attention, both because members of the movement are a minority and because it is inconvenient to interested parties.
Animal products that may have been less ubiquitous in the past have become popular and irreplaceable through aggressive marketing. According to Guptill, Copelton, and Lucal (2017), milk is an example of this phenomenon, which is known as commodification. It was not especially popular in the United States before the 20th century, but then the government began promoting its production and consumption through a variety of methods. As a result, dairy products became prevalent throughout the national culture, leading to a dramatic increase in demand and the consequent need to match it for suppliers. This change became one of the two primary reasons why dairy production became industrial and possibly dehumanized.
The other cause is the government’s approach to farming, which favored some methods over others with damaging consequences. Guptill et al. (2017) refer to this outcome as the farm crisis, wherein smaller, local producers could not compete due to the restrictions placed on their practices by the government. Meanwhile, large firms with efficient, automated approaches that came at the cost of the animals’ comfort could operate freely and proceeded to saturate the market. As Guptill et al. (2017) note, the opposition to these policies did not result in significant changes, and the practices became normalized. Opponents of changes informed by morality can now refer to the non-viability of the classic farm as an argument.
This point leads to the final form of control employed by the industry and the government, cost. Traditional producers could not compete because their practices incurred higher expenses than those of their inhumane peers, forcing them to set non-competitive prices or forgo profits. The same logic will be correct if a firm switches to non-abusive methods today, as organic products show in the agricultural industry. As such, most animal product suppliers will not commit to the change because of its detriment to their business.
Many of the practices employed by modern animal product manufacturers may be considered abusive to animals. However, they justify themselves to the public by claiming that the methods are necessary, a claim that is valid to some degree. Traditional farming is non-viable in the U.S., though that may be a result of government policies, and advanced technologies such as artificial meat growth are not ready for the market. However, the industry is also responsible for facilitating abuse by promoting the consumption of meat and other animal products. It perpetuates the existing cultural connotations of eating specific products when they benefit its narrative and tries to increase the popularity of its less widespread offerings.
Guptill, A. E., Copelton, D. A., & Lucal, B. (2017). Food and society: Principles and paradoxes (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Meadows, T. (2012). Because they matter. In A. B. Harper (Ed.), Sistah vegan: Black female vegans speak on food, identity, health, and society. New York, NY: Lantern Books.
Ruby, M. B., & Heine, S. J. (2011). Meat, morals, and masculinity. Appetite, 56, 447-450.
Spiegel, M. (1988). The dreaded comparison: Human and animal slavery. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.
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Wurgaft, B. A. (2019). Biotech Cockaigne of the vegan hopeful. The Hedgehog Review, 21(1), 52-61.