SOURCE: Harvard Political Review
DATE: May 4, 2020
SNIP: As the U.S. economy reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s meat producers are facing a logistical disaster. Social distancing measures have forced restaurants and industrial food service providers to stall their operations, and meatpacking facilities across the country have shuttered or reduced capacity. With nowhere to send their chickens, pigs, and cows, farmers have been overwhelmed by a growing glut of animals within their crowded production facilities. Now, facing pressure to “depopulate,” they have begun to slaughter their livestock populations by the millions.
The situation is ghastly — on this point, farmers, consumers, CEOs, and animal rights activists can all agree. The Food and Environment Reporting Network has described it as “an orgy of waste that turns the stomachs of even the most pragmatic.”
Faced with overcrowding, farmers are presented with two options: limiting the growth of their animal populations (via induced abortions or withholding food to limit the animals’ physical size), or “depopulation,” also known as culling (pick your euphemism). For the latter, there are many methods available. Daybreak Foods Inc. recently used carbon dioxide saturation to euthanize 61,000 egg-laying hens in Minnesota. Other companies may choose to cover their flocks in a layer of foam, which blocks the birds’ airways and gradually suffocates them. The American Veterinary Medical Association also lists ventilation shutdown, which induces organ failure as temperatures rapidly rise, as an appropriate form of euthanasia.
Pigs may be killed by other means, including “gunshot, captive bolt, electrocution, and injection of anesthetic overdose.” One method called “blunt force trauma,” otherwise simply known as “thumping,” is specifically recommended for baby pigs, whereby the piglets are slammed headfirst into the ground.
By a conservative estimate, 2 million animals have already died in these ways, and many more will perish in the coming weeks.
David Newman, a farmer in Missouri, echoes the public impulse to return to business as usual. “We want to … see consumer confidence returned,” he told FERN. “Let us get back to work, to doing what we do best.”
But the pandemic is an opportunity to ask more probing questions about the nature of our system of animal agriculture. If what we do best is slaughter animals, will returning to that system be any less tragic? What is the material difference between sending millions of animals to their untimely deaths due to the coronavirus, before they are fully fattened, and sending over 50 billion animals annually to the slaughterhouse under the status quo?
The only consistent logic, as Matthew Scully writes in a breathtaking article comparing China’s “wet” animal markets to the United States’ factory farms, is that our fundamental relationship with animals is based on domination. “The most basic animal needs are always to be subordinated to the most trivial human desires,” he says.
Beyond this underlying rule, there is no coherence in the moral framework with which we regard and treat animals. Our perceptions are circumstantial, invoking justice in some cases but disregarding it in others. The differences are frivolous and arbitrary: The suffering of a pangolin in a Chinese wet market is abominable, but that of an American pig is inconsequential. The culling of two million chickens is gut-wrenching under pandemic circumstances; normally, their demise is unexceptional.
If America’s animals could make it to the market, would their suffering then be defensible? We have developed a justificatory framework that says yes: Human benefit legitimates the erasure and subversion of animals’ inherent status as living beings.