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

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.

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.

For consumers willing to pay more for pastured meat, this is a guilt-absolving distinction. We've imbued "natural food" with such virtuous connotations that meat supposedly raised according to the law of nature is, ipso facto, thought to be an ethically worthwhile choice. It's on this basis, I believe, that many morally concerned meat eaters justify purchasing meat from small, free-range animal farms. If it's raised naturally, so it goes, what's the problem? Not incidentally, the marketing imagery that often accompanies free-range meat is hardcore agricultural pornography, snapshots of agrarian glory that titillate, inspire, and suppress judgment.

But 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. They direct nature to fatten beasts for slaughter. Fences set boundaries on where animals can and cannot go, mobile feeders often tell them what to eat (very few free range animals live on a completely wild diet), temporary coops determine where animals will live when hawks arrive in menacing abundance, moving hoop houses or broiler pens often directs animals where to sleep, the castration knife tells certain animals they won't be reproducing, and the slaughterhouse instructs every beast that the game is, alas, over.

Many will point out that these measures (with the exception of the slaughter) effectively improve the lives of free-range animals. Sure. But to call this system "natural" is either to radically redefine the word or willingly ignore what, to me at least, seems pretty obvious: a free-range system, like a CAFO, is essentially a contrived arrangement ultimately designed to provide meat for humans to eat. This is perhaps the one and only thing the two systems have in common. But it's a pretty fundamental, and rather embarrassing, thing to have in common.

Furthering severing the bond between free-ranged animals and "nature" is the fact that free-range animals often roam landscapes shaped by a long history of commerce and industry. Had it not been for centuries of relentless agricultural sprawl (most of it industrial) many of these "natural" spaces would likely be densely populated with the very predators (namely wolves) that drove early American farmers to confine their beasts in the first place. Still, so many of these predators remain at large--coyotes especially--that free-range farmers are now lobbying for laws to round up and kill animals that threaten pastured livestock. Last month, a Senate panel in Minnesota passed a proposal allowing counties and townships to initiate a bounty on coyotes (as was once done with wolves).

If this proposal becomes law, we'll have a rather paradoxical situation to contemplate. Indeed, free-range farmers will be raising their animals under "natural" conditions with the help of a state law sanctioning the violent interruption of a predatory-prey relationship--one that, lo and behold, happens to meddle with their marketable version of "nature." Profitable, sure. But hardly "natural."

The fiction that free-range is somehow "natural" bears heavily on those strange experiences I have when discussing meat with free-range farmers in front of an audience of meat eaters. The underlying impulse driving farmers to take the moral high ground on the issue of animal slaughter is a vague but powerful sense that the slaughter is justifiable not only because the animal lived a life of freedom under natural conditions, but because the act itself is "natural." But what if, as I'm arguing here, the free-range experience is nothing but a more humane way to force animals into serving our culinary wants? What if the appeal to "nature" does little more than allow us to forget the reality of enslavement, to take solace in the appeal of false freedom?