The Dangerous Psychology of Factory Farming

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A look at the mindset that enables farmers to raise and kill thousands of animals and still consider themselves happy

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I know a factory farmer named Bill. His Texas ranch raises upwards of 4,000 head of cattle in a way that typifies industrial animal agriculture. Cows are numbered, not named. Animals don't eat food, they convert feed. The ultimate goal couldn't be more straightforward: raise cows as quickly, efficiently, and safely as possible; transform them into well-marbled cuts of beef; and, throughout the process, minimize inputs while maximizing outputs.

What does Bill think about his vocation? He absolutely loves it. Factory farming has afforded him a life in the country, an opportunity to raise his family in a rural environment, and an income healthy enough to send his kids to prestigious colleges. When I recently challenged Bill on the ethics of industrial agriculture, he smiled and shook his head, insisting that the cows he fattened and slaughtered were of no more moral worth than the iron grates that enclosed them.

Bill is an emotionally aware person who gives the impression of a quiet academic. He has a warm smile, and is as likely to be found reading the New Yorker as Horse and Livestock. As he sees it, a factory farm simply makes good business sense, much as an assembly line does for fabricating cars. Consolidation is a logical response to economic incentives.

But I think Bill misses a critical point. True, even without subsidies, there might indeed be economic advantages to raising animals under intensive conditions. But we should never fail to overlook the psychological implications of something as emotionally charged as killing animals for food. And when it comes to this endeavor, scale and density of production accomplishes something essential for all factory farming: it severs the emotional bond between farmers and animals. In the bluntest terms, it allows my friend Bill to kill thousands of animals a year and remain a happy person.

Understanding this phenomenon requires going back to the nineteenth century. Before 1850, when most animal husbandry happened on a relatively small scale, farmers viewed their animals as animals. That is, they saw them as sentient beings with unique needs that, left unaddressed, would result in an inferior product. Agricultural manuals from the time routinely instructed farmers to speak to their animals in pleasant tones of voice, to make sure that their bedding was soft and spacious, and to shower them with affection every day. Farmers never referred to their animals as objects. They knew better.

The reason they knew better was because the system of mixed pastoralism they practiced was defined by close physical proximity. This intimacy ensured that farmers interacted daily with their animals, developing an emotional sense of their individual personalities and quirks. The personal scale of animal husbandry made the slaughter—which farmers also tended to do themselves—a solemn occasion at best. No normal person, even on the hardest settlement frontier, would have been indifferent about killing an animal he spent years nurturing. Nobody could have doubted that he was taking the life of a sentient being with wants and needs.

After 1850, things changed. American agriculture fell into the grip of scientific farming. Agricultural scientists, followed by farmers, began to conceptualize farming as a strictly quantifiable venture. Beginning with plants, and then moving to animals, they became less concerned with individual idiosyncrasies and more concerned with collective evaluations of productivity. The chain of production expanded, and, as it did, farmers came to speak in terms of nutrient input, breeding schedules, confinement space, and disease management. By the 1870s, farmers were regularly referring to their animals not as animals but, literally, as machines being built in factories. "The pig," explained one agricultural manual, "is one of the most valuable machines on the farm."

The psychological salve of this rhetoric offered relief to farmers burdened with the task of mass slaughter. As early 19th-century farmers intuitively understood, farm animals are sentient creatures who have interests, a sense of identity, and the capacity to anticipate and feel pain. It is in the context of these qualities—qualities that constant interaction with animals make impossible to ignore—that the psychological "benefit" of factory farming becomes clear. Its impersonal, highly rationalized structure is designed to protect those involved from the emotional consequences of killing.

Today, many critics of industrial agriculture insist that we need to return to the pre-1850 system of animal agriculture. I'm skeptical of this argument, not so much on economic grounds—yes, it's more profitable to raise animals on a larger scale—but on psychological grounds. I wonder if, in a post-Darwinian age of animal ethology (the study of animal minds), we simply know too much about animal emotions and intelligence to look millions of pigs and cows in the eye—animals raised with sincere affection and concern—and kill them. I wonder, in other words, if we're ready as a culture of meat eaters, to do what Bill's system of industrial production absolves him of having to do: contemplate the moral weight of animal husbandry.

Image: jon smith 'una nos lucror'/flickr

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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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