Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer offers alternatives
Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer has argued for more than 30 years that animals can feel pain and suffering and that we should treat them as fellow beings, not material resources to be exploited. With debate over factory farming growing in intensity, public opinion may be moving in his direction.
Singer's 1975 book Animal Liberation, which opened with the proposition that “All Animals are Equal,” condemned so-called factory farming and the use of animals in scientific experiments. In 1980 Singer and attorney Jim Mason coauthored Animal Factories, a grisly tour of large-scale animal farms that shocked many readers with descriptions of practices like debeaking chickens. In their new book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, Singer and Mason show what has and hasn't changed on large animal farms and look at what foods people buy, why they make their choices and the impacts of their decisions.
“There's huge interest now in animal agriculture,” says Singer. “A lot of people are concerned about animal welfare, a significant number are worried about health and many others care about supporting local farmers.”
Comparing U.S. animal-welfare policies to steps already taken in the European Union (EU), such as banning hog gestation crates, Singer says the United States would rate a zero or a 1 on a 10-point scale, while the EU might be a 5. But he doesn't think public attitudes on the issue in the United States are very different from those in Europe.
“There are significant differences in the political systems. Public attitudes in the EU have more influence on legislation,” Singer argues. “Florida and Arizona voters have both given thumbs-down to hog gestation crates, and those are not terribly liberal states. American politicians are the ones lagging behind Europe, not American voters.”
Although he's a vegetarian, Singer does not believe that renouncing meat is the only moral way to eat. Nor does he think that all food animals should be raised outdoors. “Europe isn't abandoning confinement, but they are outlawing sow crates, and we could do better without moving all the way to open-range grazing,” he says. As an example, he notes that Niman Ranch — a major producer of natural, humanely raised meat based in Marin County, Calif. — lets its farmers raise pigs indoors, but they have to give the animals outdoor access, more indoor space than pigs have in CAFOs (concentrated animal-feeding operations), and deep straw for bedding.
In The Way We Eat, Singer and Mason shop and eat with three American families. One household eats the “standard American diet,” buying lots of conventional meat, dairy and processed foods at Wal-Mart. The second family, described as “conscientious omnivores,” tries to buy organic and humanely raised products that also provide fair returns to workers. The third family eats a vegan diet, avoiding meat, poultry, fish and dairy products. Comparing how each approach affects animals and the environment, Singer and Mason conclude that the standard American diet is cheapest and easiest but not an ethical choice, especially since alternatives are available nationwide.
Ethicist Peter Singer believes growing concerns about animal agriculture could reshape the U.S. food system. (Derek Goodwin)
If you're going to eat meat and dairy foods, you should avoid factory farm products,” says Singer. “Find a source that doesn't get them from large, confined systems. It's more expensive, but spend the same amount of money on better-quality products made from animals that have had better lives, and make up the difference with grains and other substitutes. You'll consume less animal protein, so you'll do yourself a favor healthwise as well.”
Singer believes that growing concerns about animal agriculture could reshape the U.S. food system in the coming decades. “It's quite possible that within 20 years, raising animals in permanent, close confinement could become illegal,” he predicts. “Eliminating systems that concentrate large numbers of animals and feed them on grain would take longer, because that would cause significant price hikes. But we might decide, for example, that raising cattle on grain is too wasteful of fossil fuel and contributes too much to global warming.”
Not everyone is willing to spend more for alternative meat and dairy products, as Singer urges. But Singer and Mason argue that while conventional products seem cheap, they impose hidden costs outside of the production chain — like water pollution from CAFO discharges and increased risks of antibiotic-resistant infections. “It is understandable that people on low incomes should seek to stretch their dollars by buying the lowest-priced food, but when we look at the larger picture, the food produced by factory farming is not really cheap at all,” they write.