Only When Meat Is Stigmatized Will Factory Farms Stop Thriving

An unfettered demand provides technological, political, and scientific incentives to produce all varieties of meat as efficiently as possible


Humans have never before shown greater intolerance for violence against animals. As Steven Pinker reiterates in his (heroic) new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, rates of hunting have declined; bullfighting is going the way of bearbaiting; more consumers than ever seek "cruelty-free" products; vegetarians have tripled their numbers in the last twenty years; and scientists who work with animals follow increasingly rigorous welfare standards -- willingly.

Meat production has tripled over the last forty years, growing 20 percent in the last 10 years alone.

This unprecedented sensitivity to animal welfare manifests itself in less obvious ways as well. The movie industry adheres to stringent guidelines for how animals can be used on movie sets; thousands of vegetarian and vegan bloggers are spreading the message of non-violence through Facebook and Twitter accounts; and -- hold onto your seat! -- just last week the New York Times included a vegan dinner menu on page two of its normally meat-centric "Dining In" section. A breakthrough, if there ever was one.

But -- and there's always a but -- earlier this month we learned that the global production and consumption of meat is skyrocketing. Indeed, according to the Worldwatch Institute, meat production has tripled over the last forty years, growing 20 percent in the last 10 years alone. What's particularly distressing about this recent 20 percent increase is that it's occurred as campaigns against factory farms have reached a fevered pitch. Never before have so many interest groups and so many consumers been so committed in their opposition to factory-farmed meat. Never before have so many consumers become so keenly aware that industrial methods of meat production are unsustainable. Nonetheless, meat consumption continues to rise (and it is doing so in industrial countries more than in developing ones).

So how do we make sense of this contradiction?

One place to start is the Worldwatch Institute's own assessment of the problem. After highlighting the truly horrific environmental and human health costs of our collective and ongoing meat fest, the organization's press release proceeds to instruct consumers to eat "organic, pasture raised livestock" and to support "pastoral farming systems." This advice sounds sensible -- support the production of animals raised outdoors! -- and it certainly fits nicely with the foodie creed that there's a viable alternative for every food preference. But it's fatally flawed. In fact, it's advice that only perpetuates the problem we're trying to solve.

In all my thinking and writing about meat production, there's no point I believe more strongly than this one: As long as we eat meat factory farms will be the dominant mode of production. In other words, as long as humans deem it culturally acceptable to consume animal flesh -- that is, as long as eating meat is an act that's not considered taboo -- factory farms will continue to proliferate. The reason for this strikes me as intuitive: An unfettered demand for meat, in conjunction with basic human choice, provides political, technological, and scientific incentives to produce meat as efficiently as possible. Unless you have a plan to displace capitalism, density of production will rule, billions of animals will suffer, and our health will continue to decline.

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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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