Why Free-Range Meat Isn't Much Better Than Factory-Farmed

But this position—the idea that free-range is automatically a responsible choice simply because it's more attentive to animal welfare—is morally blurred. Better does not mean acceptable. Consumers of free-range meat who oppose factory farming on welfare grounds (however partial) cannot escape an inconvenient question: Doesn't killing an animal we don't need constitute the very thing that factory farming perpetuates—which is to say, harm? This, as I see it, is the free-range albatross.

The confined animal lives a mercifully short life of brutality and is dispatched; the free-range animal lives a much longer life full of relative freedom and is dispatched.

The predictable response to the conundrum is to note that there's a difference between raising an animal in hellish conditions and killing it and raising an animal in idyllic conditions and killing it. Sure there is. But such a difference is less than it might seem, and hardly enough to justify the radical distinction we draw between free-range (good) and factory farming (bad). For one, in both cases the ultimate denial of happiness is the ultimate reason for and outcome of the farm's existence. That's a pretty strong common denominator.

Here's another (admittedly experimental) way to consider the comparison between free-range and confined. The confined animal lives a mercifully short life of brutality and is dispatched; the free-range animal lives a much longer life full of relative freedom and is dispatched. From the perspective of happiness lost, the latter scenario is more tragic. After all, ending the life of a free-range animal living under relatively natural conditions takes more happiness out of the world than does ending the life of miserable animal suffering in confinement. Either way, what cannot be denied here is that whenever animals are raised to feed people, animals are harmed—something that opponents of factory farms vocally seek to avoid.

A common rationalization for the killing of free-range animals is that, from the animals' perspective, they've no idea of the future freedom denied them. They're pampered and coddled and then, often painlessly, killed. What did they miss out on other than experiencing a great life on a farm that offered them both relative freedom and protection? How would they know what hit them? And is nitpicking over such a philosophical problem worth the cost of giving up the savory taste of meat? In order to fully grasp these questions, we must consider an unusual concept: It's possible to harm an animal without hurting it.

Farm animals have a sense of individual identity within time and space. They are beings with potential. To kill them is to erase that potential. It is to deny them a future of attempting to seek pleasure. It is to erase all the natural preconditions for happiness that a free-range farm works so hard to approximate. It is, in essence, to do them the gravest harm.

Plus, the same argument—the notion that animals have no idea what they're missing—can be used to justify the most horrific forms of confinement on factory farms. Does a confined pig sit around all day envying his undomesticated cousins? The fact that he doesn't know what he's never experienced has assuaged the guilt of many factory farmers.

In any case, by choosing death for an animal, humans choose the seduction of taste over an animal's right to its future. Until someone can convincingly prove that this denial does not constitute unnecessary harm, I'll continue to view free-range farming and factory farming as gradations on the scale of cruelty.

Presented by

James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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