An Inconvenient Truth: Free-Range Meat Isn't 'Natural'

A case for why free-range animal agriculture resembles nature only as much as pornography resembles real sex

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Near Boulder, Colorado, a man kneels on the head of a calf that is being branded. Rick Wilking/Reuters


It's the strangest thing. Whenever I'm on a panel discussing meat production I seem to be strategically pitted against someone who produces meat through sustainable and more humane ("free range") methods. What's so strange is the response I get when I bring up the following conundrum: even if an animal is raised under favorable conditions, we still kill the creature for our benefit and, in so doing, confront a serious ethical dilemma nonetheless.

It's at this point when the animal farmer addresses me with a condescending expression that says "Yes, James, life can be very harsh," doing everything but patting me on the head and giving me a lollipop. Then the really odd thing happens: the farmer stakes out a moral high ground on the basis that slaughtering animals is "natural." The audience smiles knowingly and nods in agreement. They've likely never seen their dinner killed, much less done it personally, but they admire their farmer's rock-ribbed stoicism in the face of what must be done.

The appeal to "nature" in free range farming, like most pornography, is essentially disingenuous. Free-range farmers carefully, aggressively circumscribe their animals' experience as animals.

This triangulated exchange is fleeting and subtle, and the outcome is always the same. Defenders of animal rights come off as naive to the ways of the world. It's as if, living in some sort of protective bubble (or, in my case, ivory tower), we simply don't grasp the harsh realities of farming, nature, or life. But sustainable farmers with animal blood on their hands somehow become hardworking servants to a noble cause, rugged stewards dedicated to the humanitarian and environmental demands of the elite palate. I'm never sure exactly how it happens, but the upshot of this exchange blindsides me every time: killing the animal is transformed from an avoidable tragedy into a badge of honor.

It's difficult to imagine any other issue where such a basic sense of right and wrong is so thoroughly perverted. But when it comes to slaughtering animals, even animals raised under the strictest welfare standards, a twisted ethical logic prevails. Killing a sentient being becomes a common good celebrated by food writers and environmentalists in glossy and well-respected publications. But trying to prevent that killing, something vegans and animal rights activists throughout the world do every day (with minimal recognition), is deemed a violation of nature and consumer choice, if not just an all-out massive bummer.

Contradiction on this issue is breezily, almost comically, tolerated. For example, as I recently learned on a panel in New York, it's possible for a small pig farm to "finish" over 600 pigs a year while assuring consumers willing to spend big bucks on pork chops that "we will not allow an animal to suffer needlessly." Huh?

Is there a viable explanation for this carnival of ethics?

One might begin by examining the powerful appeal that "nature" has for so many conscientious consumers. Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are rightly understood to be a cruel distortion of nature, a blunt interruption of organic ecological processes undertaken to satisfy human greed for cheap flesh. Because CAFOs are now accurately understood to be the essence of evil (due to the passionate work of writers such as Michael Pollan and Tom Philpott), farmers who raise animals under free-range conditions are automatically seen to offer a fundamentally different option. Indeed, in loosening the reigns of confinement, free-range farmers come off as embracing the virtues of nature while rejecting the cold efficiency of industrialization.

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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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