Contrary to common belief, Senator Cory Booker’s best idea wasn’t dropping out of the 2020 presidential race. That was his second-best idea. His best idea was introducing the Farm System Reform Bill of 2019 to the U.S. Senate.
This legislation would curtail concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs), so-called factory farms, in the U.S. Let’s hope it becomes law. Factory farms are an abomination, cruel to animals and a bad deal for humans, too. The sooner we abolish them, the better. Until then, we should take steps to reduce them.
Let’s first consider the costs to humans. Factory farms are hazardous work environments, and they produce enormous amounts of untreated animal waste that we have to deal with. But of the many anthropocentric considerations against factory farms, the most compelling is that they elevate the risk of pandemic diseases.
Many pandemics are the result of zoonotic pathogens, diseases transmitted from animals to humans. The COVID-19 coronavirus, which has lately been dominating headlines and rattling markets, is believed to be zoonotic. The H1N1 “swine flu” virus likely originated in American factory farms. H1N1 is believed to have killed more than 12,000 Americans from 2009 to 2010 and hospitalized over 274,000 in the same period.
We’ll see what kind of damage COVID-19 inflicts, but both COVID-19 and H1N1 are tame compared with what we might see. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918–20 killed between 50 and 100 million people at a time when the global population was less than 2 billion. It’s believed to have originated on a pig farm before the creation of factory farms.
Modern factory farms are even better breeding grounds for diseases. Animals are packed tightly together, and the stressful conditions weaken their immune systems. It’s common for farmers to feed them antibiotics at low levels to prevent outbreaks and spur growth. Over time this erodes the effectiveness of those antibiotics, including those useful for treating infections in humans, as pathogens adapt. This is what is meant by “antibiotic resistance.”
Since each use of an antibiotic potentially increases resistance, health experts advise doctors to prescribe antibiotics sparingly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is clearly very worried about this issue, offers guidelines for “antibiotic stewardship” in hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions. According to the CDC, “each year in the U.S., at least 2.8 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria or fungi, and more than 35,000 people die as a result.”
A 2011 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report revealed that 80 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. in 2009 were used for animals. Most were antibiotics that could be effective in treating humans. A 2017 GAO report noted that “there is strong evidence that some resistance in bacteria is caused by antibiotic use in food animals (cattle, poultry, and swine).” This is dubious “antibiotic stewardship” indeed.
Granted, we could regulate the use of antibiotics in CAFOs more stringently, as Denmark has done, without abolishing factory farming. But Denmark hasn’t eliminated antibiotic use in CAFOs, so even supposedly progressive Danish CAFOs jeopardize our shields against germs. Other risk factors, such as confining many animals close together, are intrinsic to factory farming. So as long as factory farms exist, they will endanger human welfare.
Let’s turn now to cruelty. Animal advocacy is often associated with causes such as feminism and anti-capitalism — misleadingly, in my view. Certainly left-wing activists concerned about animals could do more to win converts from across the political spectrum. If activists concerned about animals did more to win converts from across the political spectrum, they’d find that conservatives can get on board with the argument that factory farms are cruel. Conservatives in turn should be careful not to reject sound arguments just because they come from the mouths of liberals.
It’s common sense, and not at odds with capitalism, to think that some profitable pursuits are immoral and shouldn’t be legal. Few conservatives, or Americans of any political stripe, would legalize dog fighting even if they knew that doing so would create jobs. When I hear defenses of factory farms based on their alleged economic importance, I can only think that the moral considerations haven’t really sunk in (and neither, in all likelihood, have all the economic considerations).
If you think there should be laws against animal cruelty, then you agree that how we treat animals matters morally and should matter legally. This doesn’t mean that animals have the same moral worth as humans do, just that they’re categorically different from inanimate objects. Dogs, cats, elephants, dolphins, and gorillas all have moral significance of some kind, and so, I think, do chickens, pigs, cows, and other farm animals.
It doesn’t really matter why you think animals are morally significant. Maybe you think that God gave humans stewardship over the earth, which includes a responsibility not to abuse His creation. Maybe you accept some secular philosophy, such as some form of consequentialism, that directs us to minimize all suffering, human or animal. Maybe you have no grand theory; it just strikes you as obviously wrong to torture a dog. That’s fine.
Moral significance isn’t in the eye of the beholder. Pro-life conservatives recognize this when they insist that the moral status of a fetus can’t depend on whether the mother wants to keep her child. Likewise, whether an animal deserves moral consideration can’t depend on whether it looks cute to you, or to humans generally. Do you think that dogs have moral standing, but that chickens, pigs, and cows don’t? Then identify the difference in their capacities that justifies drawing that line.
Cards on the table: I think there are no good grounds for denying that the sentient creatures in factory farms have moral standing. Our current practices can’t be justified. If you haven’t seen any of the videos documenting the cruelty of factory farms, I encourage you to do so. The possibility of having a moral insight is worth a few minutes of uncomfortable viewing. (“Meet Your Meat” and “Face Your Food,” both short and available on YouTube, are suitable.) In his Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism — which is excellent and available for free online — philosophy professor Michael Huemer summarizes some of these routine cruelties:
Chickens and pigs are commonly confined in tiny cages where they can’t move for their entire lives. Cows are branded with hot irons, to produce third-degree burns on their skin. People cut off pigs’ tails without anesthetic. They cut off the ends of chickens’ beaks, again without anesthetic. These tails and beaks are sensitive tissue, so it probably feels something like having a finger chopped off.
Globally, humans consume about 74 billion land animals per year, nearly all of which are raised and killed in factory farms after living miserable lives. That’s a staggering figure, about ten for every human being on the planet (though they are concentrated in rich countries — the average American consumes the equivalent of 31 animals per year). None of these animals would exist without factory farming, but they’d be better off not existing. We shouldn’t cause this much death and suffering unless we have some extremely compelling reason for doing so.
The one obvious benefit that factory farms provide Americans is cheap meat, mostly for domestic consumption. According to one pro-beef-industry website, the U.S. exported about 3 billion pounds of beef in 2019 and was projected to produce over 27 billion pounds. The U.S. also produces about 20 billion pounds of pork and 50 billion pounds of chicken, exporting only a fraction of each. Nearly all of this meat comes from factory farms.
So ending or curtailing factory farming in the U.S. would entail reducing domestic meat consumption (dairy too). If you love meat, then you might think that would be terrible. But it would probably be a dietary improvement if we substituted vegetables, beans, lentils, and other foods for some of these animal products. We don’t have any imperative to maintain current rates of meat and dairy consumption that competes with the imperatives to reduce animal cruelty and minimize the risk of pandemics.
Booker’s bill puts a moratorium on the creation of new factory farms and the expansion of existing ones and makes “large” CAFOs, as specified by the Environmental Protection Agency, illegal by 2040. At that point, legally operating CAFOs would need to have, e.g., fewer than 1,000 cattle or cattle–calf pairs, 2,500 swine (weighing over 55 pounds), 82,000 laying hens, and 125,000 chickens other than laying hens.
It also sets aside $100 billion over ten years to help owners of factory farms repay debts, and for transition to “alternative agriculture activities, such as raising pasture-based livestock, growing specialty crops, or organic commodity production.”
I don’t rejoice in those expenses, or in the fact that smaller, but still large, CAFOs would still be allowed to operate. Passage of this bill would nevertheless move us away from the dreadful status quo and, hopefully, toward the eventual abolition of factory farming. It would reduce the risk of deadly diseases, including pandemics that could kill millions or more. By reducing animal cruelty on an unprecedented scale, it would also represent a moral advance that future generations could be proud of.
I think that if you reflect on this issue with an open mind, you’ll agree that ending factory farms is a good idea — even if Cory Booker thinks that it is.
This article appears as “The Case against Factory Farming” in the April 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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