Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What are farming practices like

There are many things to say about Trevor's latest post but I'm sticking the detail in the post below because I want to focus on what I see as the central issue of the dialog. It looks to me like a factual question will go a long way here (Robin Hanson minds disagreeing over values much less than disagreeing over facts).

Does factory farming cause a lot of suffering?


Do the farming practices that produce the meat that Trevor eats, involve the animals suffering.

Trevor hasn't given any indication that he only eats meat that's been labelled "humanely raised" (Trevor should put me straight if I'm wrong) so the answers to both questions are probably the same.

Now this is not a controversial point and is generally assumed by participants on both sides of the argument. Defenders of factory farming do not typically defend their humane practices. There are many sources that document cruel practices, though I suspect that the very fact that they do so may make them suspect sources of information. Typical practices include

  • De-beaking chickens through sensitive tissue (they would peck each other to death otherwise).
  • Forced moulting which involves withholding water for up to three days and food for two weeks (this extends the chicken's lifespan).
  • Intense overcrowding causes bone weakness so bones break easily.
  • Pigs are also extremely confined throughout their lives and are castrated without anaesthesia. They also panic when they smell the blood of other pigs so it's very expensive to kill them without them being terrified before they die.

McDonalds once sued a group for distributing a pamphlet with the heading "McTorture" their lawsuit failed because the judge ruled that it torture was a reasonable way to describe what was going on. There was a high profile incident involving an ethics consultant at KFC who resigned because of the practices that persisted despite his presence at the company. I've driven behind trucks transporting live chickens and trust me; hearing about it is a poor substitute for seeing it. There's also the issue of the legal and ethical climate that farms operate in; the incentives do not line up to support humane treatment. Even libertarians don't claim that working conditions in Asian sweatshops are especially luxurious, they will be as Spartan as the market will allow. Farms that use ethical practices will be outcompeted by ones that don't. There is a strong selection effect in favour of cruelty. Given the strong incentive for farms to demonstrate how cuddly they are I'd also suggest that a lack of such displays isn't exactly reassuring.

Surely if we agree that practices involving suffering are wrong, there is at least some burden to demonstrate that everything I've said above is false? Trevor seems to think this is unnecessary. Why? What evidence convinced Trevor that raising veal is too cruel but that typical farming practices are not? I don't understand how Trevor can say, "the arguments are unconvincing", but endorse the argument that we shouldn't eat cruelly raised meat without tackling my claim that farming practices cruel head on?

Since Trevor has demonstrated quite a behavioural streak in other blog posts, I'd have thought he'd agree that even if we agree on his blog to only eat meat we're confident didn't involve suffering, human frailty may provide a good reason to give up meat for the time being. I'm pretty shocked by how often I read people endorsing humanely raised meat but cheerfully admitting that they will tolerate practically no inconvenience to uphold this principle. I totally understand! I don't demand organic milk in my lattes and shame on me! On the other hand I've eaten no non-fishy animal products for three and a half years. I don't think this is a coincidence.

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