The conditions that living, breathing animals are subjected to by modern factory farming are so gruesome that most Americans prefer not to think about them at all. To keep us in the dark, the factory farm industry has lobbied to make it illegal simply to record the activities inside its meat facilities. In many cases, state governments have complied, in effect legally mandating that consumers remain ignorant about the meat they put in their bodies, which has been shown to contribute to disease and poor health.
There are alternatives to industrial-scale meat production like eating less meat, using meat alternatives, or returning to the farming methods for raising animals that sustained human communities for millennia. But that’s getting ahead of things, because our consumer choices aren’t just spontaneous decisions we make at the supermarket—they reflect deeply rooted social beliefs. Before we can start talking about how to make healthier, more ethical choices, we have to examine our relationship to living animals, what we believe about meat, and where those beliefs come from.
One of my earliest memories is learning that chicken soup is made from real chickens.
Most people might take this for granted, but as a toddler, it came as a shock to me. I remember crying. The idea that someone had to kill a chicken just to feed me soup was horrifying.
But I didn’t stop eating chickens until more than 20 years later, when I finally decided to ditch almost all meat (I’m a pescatarian now) after watching Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja, a brilliant dystopian film that satirizes factory farming and genetically modified food.
Both as a child and as an adult, I relied on social messaging to guide my moral compass. I grew up in a society that told me it was OK to eat sentient animals that are raised from birth in factory farms to be confined, tortured, and manipulated until death just to satisfy my taste buds. I rejected that belief when a brilliant director’s film touched my heart and dissuaded me from my previous convictions.
Is it possible that our views about animal life are at least partially socially constructed and therefore might evolve over time with new information? Is it more than simple biological instinct that leads us to devalue the many billions of animals whose lives are snuffed out of existence every year for human consumption?
New research published late last year offers some insight into this question. In a first-of-its-kind study, four researchers asked adults and 5- to 9-year-old children about whether, in varying hypothetical scenarios, they’d choose to save the life of a human instead of either a dog or pig.
“I’ve been interested in how we think about the moral value of different people and animals for a long time,” Matti Wilks, a postdoctoral research associate at Yale University and one of the researchers who performed the study, told me by email. “It seems, to me, to be a really fundamental part of understanding others.”
Study participants were presented with scenarios in which two boats filled with human or animal passengers were sinking, and asked which they would prefer to save (they could also abstain from choosing if they believed it was too hard to decide.) For example, participants were asked whether they’d prefer to save one human versus saving one dog; another comparison asked about saving one dog versus saving two humans.
The results suggested that children had a much more egalitarian viewpoint, viewing human life and animal life as closer to equal. For instance, 71% of children prioritized saving 100 dogs over one human while 61% of adults prioritized saving one human over saving 100 dogs. The researchers note that “one-versus-one dilemmas were particularly revealing: 35% of children prioritized one human over one dog, 28% of children prioritized one dog over one human, and the rest could not decide. In contrast, 85% of adults prioritized one human over one dog, and only 8% prioritized the dog.”
Wilks cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions from the study, suggesting that a lot more work needs to be done on the subject. His team of researchers is currently trying to run similar tests in non-American populations; cultural variance in results may offer some more insight.
But if it turns out that our callousness toward animals is even partially socially constructed as we age, it stands to reason that we can deconstruct it as well. We can perhaps create a world that is more humane toward animals.
For vegans, doing so means giving up not only meat but all animal products. Vegans see even dairy foods as products of an extractive process that can be incredibly cruel to animals. But veganism clearly isn’t for everyone; a more personally sustainable choice for many people is to go meatless, becoming vegetarian while continuing to eat milk and cheese. My own deep concern for animals still led me to a moderate position, eating fish but not mammals.
While they are often portrayed in popular culture as zealots who toss red paint on meat eaters—or as the instigators of a zombie apocalypse, as in the 2002 film 28 Days Later—many professional animal rights activists advocate for pragmatic steps that can gradually reduce the suffering of animals, not eliminate it overnight.
“The majority of animal advocates, vegan advocates like myself, we view people making progress as a good thing,” John Oberg, a social media consultant who works on animal rights causes, told me. He points to the Meatless Mondays movement, which encourages people to pick one day out of the week to eat plant-based meals only.
While convincing the human race to shift away from mass consumption of animals is a gargantuan task, a more feasible goal is to curtail the proliferation of factory farms. These industrial complexes are a departure from mankind’s traditional approach to eating meat, which involved hunting animals in the wild or raising them on local, family-owned farms.
An estimated 99% of farmed animals in the United States today reside on factory farms, but some religious minorities continue to raise and slaughter livestock based on ancient traditions. Mennonites, who shun much of modern technology, largely continue to raise their animals on traditional farms, while Jews and Muslims follow their own kosher and halal practices (although much of today’s kosher and halal meat is also produced in institutions that increasingly resemble factory farms.)
Although the movement to end factory farming is still in its infancy, some federal lawmakers have pushed legislation to rein in the industry. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey authored a bill in 2019 that would place a moratorium on the construction of large factory farms and aim to phase them out by 2040.
Booker has been a vegetarian since 1992, when he read Gandhi’s autobiography as a young student at Oxford University. Two decades later, he took the leap to becoming a vegan. “I think so many of our likes and dislikes are childhood memories or family traditions, and you associate the foods you’re eating often with such good emotions—but now, suddenly, eating those eggs for me was something that didn’t align with my spirit, and I could feel it,” he said in 2019. “I finally made a decision that I was going to become vegan. I remember my last non-vegan meal was Election Day, November 2014.”
Not all vegans believe that every use of animal products is immoral, but they do point to the cruelty involved in dairy farming on an industrial scale, and in packing chickens into cramped buildings with basically no sunlight and no time to nest or care for their offspring.
While not necessarily slaughtered for meat, the calves of dairy cows are typically separated from their mothers within 24 hours of birth. It may ease our consciences to think of cows as dumb organisms that don’t need the nurturing presence of their mothers in order to function properly, but research has shown that early maternal separation has long-term negative consequences for calves, including for their ability to become sociable adults.
Rather than asking people to choose between veganism and the industrial torture of animals, people like David Finlay are offering a third way.
Finlay spent a decade as an agro-chemical consultant who devoted little of his attention to conditions at farms. But eventually he and his wife came to feel repelled by the cruelty inherent to the animal farming process, so they set out to create an alternative method, starting the Ethical Dairy in southwest Scotland.
Unlike most dairy farms, the Ethical Dairy keeps calves with their mothers for around half a year. During this period, the cows are milked once a day. This process is of course less efficient than what you might see at other farms, which emphasize extracting as much milk as possible from their cows. Unsurprisingly, Ethical Dairy cheese is expensive.
A cynic might argue that alternatives to the cheap meat and other animal products produced by factory farms are luxury items and First World indulgences—that Ethical Dairy may assuage the consciences of the well-off, but its consumer products are too expensive for ordinary people.
But if you survey the food landscape, you’ll find that alternatives aren’t just showing up at Whole Foods and other high-end markets. In the summer of 2019, a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Atlanta, one of the capitals of America’s meat-loving Deep South, decided to team up with Beyond Meat to offer a meatless alternative designed to taste like real fried chicken, for a single day. A decade ago, nobody would have blamed you for thinking that such an experiment would be a disaster. Why would Southerners want fake fried meat when they can get the real thing?
But crowds lined up around the building to get a taste of the meat alternative. Within five hours, the entire supply of Beyond Fried Chicken was sold out. Now, everywhere you look, it seems like major eateries are trying to get into the meatless game: McDonald’s is trialing the McPlant burger, Taco Bell is working to bring Beyond Meat’s offerings to its customers, and Dunkin’ Donuts already does.
If fake meat isn’t your bag, scientists are working furiously to produce the real thing without the cruelty that goes into farming and slaughter. Late last year, Singapore’s government authorized San Francisco-based startup Eat Just to sell its cultured chicken to Singaporean consumers. This isn’t a vegan meat alternative—it’s actual meat grown in a lab from animal cells. Cell-based meat-growing technology is still in its infancy and is likely to remain prohibitively expensive in the near run, but in the future it could allow us to humanely satiate our desire for “real” meat.
Most of us have been raised from childhood with the idea that we needn’t concern ourselves with the origins of our food, and it’s easy to think we’ll never move away from industrial-scale meat production. But we may be in the early stages of a moral revolution, in which human beings are fundamentally rethinking their relationship to animals. As Wilks’ study shows, the desire to coexist peacefully with our fellow sentient creatures may be more innate than we originally believed.
Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist who has previously worked for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress. He also writes a newsletter at inquire.substack.com. He is a graduate of the University of Georgia and received his master’s from Syracuse University. He is originally from the Atlanta area.