How should animal welfare factor into dietary choices?

Admittedly, not much of the blog posts below have focused directly on animal welfare issues. While humans have a clear interest in mitigating many of the negative impacts associated with livestock — global warming,  pollution of air and water, massive consumption of land, grain, and fresh water, and chronic diet-related health problems — the welfare of farm animals does not directly threaten humans. Arguments against the intensive confinement of farm animals primarily center around pollution, antibiotic resistance, risk of super-viruses such as H1N1 that originate in livestock, and even the decline of the family farm in the age of vertically-integrated livestock corporations, though animal welfare is often only a secondary or non-existent consideration.

Even if people put human interests first, the animal welfare argument at least demands some attention, and certainly does not detract from the various positions against the negative externalities arising from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or against the livestock sector in general.  According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (the FAO), roughly 56 billion land animals are raised each year for human consumption; that comes out to about 8 animals per each human per year excluding all marine life (see post below from May 28). If one believes that each individual animal is worthy of some ethical consideration, then the fact that the majority of these animals are confined to crowded CAFOs that deny them some of their most basic needs should prompt one to at least consider the possibility that most livestock practices are unethical from an animal welfare perspective (for further information, see Humane Society International‘s page on ‘Intensive Confinement.’)

Those who give ethical consideration to companion animals such as dogs, cats, and horses but completely deny it to farm animals ought to consider the basis for this ethical position. Such a view would be inconsistent if it were argued on the basis of sentience (the ability to perceive or feel things), as all farm animals are sentient and pigs, for instance, have higher cognitive abilities than dogs. There is also a flaw in the argument that farm animals do deserve ethical consideration, but that the need to feed humans is of greater importance; since humans can receive all of the necessary nourishment from plant-based sources and since producing animal products requires so much more  land, water, and grain than producing crops for direct human consumption, a diet low in or even void of animal products is more likely to increase food security.

A major challenge for our civilization as we seek sustainable diets capable of nourishing a growing population (bear in mind that the UN’s business-as-usual projections are that demand for agricultural output will increase 70% by 2050) is that the negative externalities associated with livestock occur because there is massive demand for animal-based foods. As if the high consumption of these products in developed countries was not enough, much of the developing world is now adopting such diets as they grow more affluent. So until there are changes in the demand for these products, livestock will continue to grow, with their negative impacts increasing in magnitude. This will only occur if people can become aware of these externalities and make dietary choices based on an unbiased cost-benefit analysis that takes into considerations the aforementioned factors related to food production, including a consideration of animal welfare on some level (and of course there are other food issues to consider, though the ones mentioned above are some of the most urgent ones).

Advocacy groups, policy makers, and all of those concerned with the negative impacts of livestock — and in particular, of intensive livestock — have at their disposal many arguments about why modern livestock negatively affects humans and the planet. Their position can only benefit from also including a consideration of the welfare of the some 56,000,000,000 animals that are involved in livestock production worldwide.

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