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

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Like many people who pay attention to how food is produced, I've come to abhor factory farming and the environmental and welfare problems that accompany it. My personal choice to eliminate factory-farmed animal products from my diet largely reflects this abhorrence.

Where I break from most conscientious consumers is in my decision to avoid meat from free-range animals and other alternative sources. This position hasn't won any popularity contests for me. My occasional critiques of free-range animal farming have led to, among other things, threats by a butcher to separate me from a particularly valued appendage as well as frequent charges that I'm a hired gun for agribusiness. Both concepts are equally difficult to contemplate.

We believe animals deserve living under conditions that allow them the chance to seek happiness (which is not to say they won't become another animal's lunch).

My typical line of attack on free-range systems has been to illuminate hidden or unpublicized environmental and health-related pitfalls—some minor, others not so—in an attempt to persuade ethically-minded consumers that although free-range might be better than factory-farmed, it is not the panacea so many make it out to be. But this approach, for a wide variety of reasons (many of them my own fault), has been a bust.

Turns out every study has a counter-study; every assumption a counter-assumption; every bold statement an angry butcher waiting on the other end to castrate, well, my argument. It took me a while to figure this out, but drawing on scientific literature to tarnish the supposed purity of free-range farming is, when you get right down to it, counterproductive. Paradoxically, by critiquing free-range animal products with the weapons of science, I've possibly inspired more consumers to eat more free-range meat than to give it up. It's a dispiriting thought at best.

So I've decided to go back to the drawing board. It's not that I'm prepared to back off my stance on free-range meat. Instead, I want to be deliberate about my choice to avoid animal products in a more philosophical manner. I'll thus begin with the basic question: Why do I think we should we avoid eating animals products produced under alternative, free-range systems?

My answer actually starts with factory farming—which produces 99 percent of the meat we eat. It's safe to say that anyone concerned with the ethics of food production opposes factory farming on the partial grounds that it's harmful to animals. Animals held in confinement are denied access to the basic preconditions of happiness—the freedoms to move, make basic choices, have sex, and socialize. The fact that animals are transformed into the moral equivalent of machinery, rather than respected as living creatures, will strike any sensible observer as fundamentally wrong. Those who promote free-range systems thus consistently do so at least partially on the grounds that animals should not be denied the opportunity to live satisfying lives.

Opposing factory farming on welfare grounds affirms an important premise: Thoughtful consumers do not want animals to be needlessly hurt. That is, we believe animals deserve living under conditions that allow them the chance to seek happiness (which is not to say they won't become another animal's lunch). Accepting this premise means more than we might think. For one, it means we have an obligation—again, in the spirit of being deliberate eaters—to consider the issue of animal welfare as it plays out everywhere, even under free-range conditions.

And it's here where things get more complicated. Relatively speaking, free-range animals experience less harm than do factory-farmed animals. It's on this point that the vast majority of concerned consumers who choose free-range meat rest their case; if we're content to think in these relative terms, there's really not much to argue about. In fact, it's on this point that nearly every popular media report on the benefits of free-range farming screeches to a convenient halt. And why not? When it comes to farming methods and harm, free range is better.

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.

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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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