Applying Earth Law to the Humane Treatment of Factory Farm Animals

Figure 1 Concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), Unionville, Missouri, United States, owned by Smithfield Foods via Socially Responsible Agricultural Project

Figure 1 Concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), Unionville, Missouri, United States, owned by Smithfield Foods via Socially Responsible Agricultural Project

By Janay Brun 

“People feed, shelter, and breed cattle and hogs, and in return the animals provide food and clothing. We must never abuse them, because that would break an ancient contract. We owe it to animals to give them decent living conditions and a painless death,” Dr. Temple Grandin.

Rethinking bacon 

Studies have proven that pigs are smart; show empathy; have a sense of self and complex social lives; good long-term memories; and problem-solving abilities on par with chimpanzees. So why do humans treat animals they depend on for sustenance so poorly and with such little respect for their complex inner lives? 

Figure 2 Gestation crates for sows via

Figure 2 Gestation crates for sows via

It is estimated that 80% of sows live their lives crammed into cages only big enough to allow them to stand or lie down in – that is it! Pigs in factory farms spend their lives with their own waste decomposing under grates beneath them, emitting poisonous gases such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. If the big industrial fans pumping in fresh air fail, then the pigs can be asphyxiated. Such a scene is described in Barry Estabrook’s Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat. 

But milk is ok right? 

Research has shown cows are smarter than people give them credit for and possess high cognitive abilities. Cows form social hierarchies, develop friendships, and hold grudges. In addition, scientists have observed that cows and their calves are affected physically and mentally when separated after birth. All cattle also suffer during de-horning. The lasting effect of these traumas lead to changes in the bovines’ brains that result in “a negative cognitive bias akin to pessimism.”

Yet, calves are taken from their mothers after birth so their milk can be bottled for humans. Calves are then sold as veal. Most cows are kept separated on factory farms, housed in stalls or tied up. Beef cattle are left to their own devices out in the American west to survive drought, famine, fires, and getting stuck in dried up water tanks — only to then be shipped to feedlots for “grain finishing.” The cattle kept in the feedlots are usually confined in close quarters indoors, creating a stressful situation for the animals. As a result, they become more susceptible to disease and the change in their diet can result in digestive issues. 

Eggs don’t hurt anyone right? 

Figure 3 Baby chick Photo by Designer VietNam on Unsplash

Figure 3 Baby chick Photo by Designer VietNam on Unsplash

Chickens are highly communicative and use sophisticated signals to express their intentions. They empathize with others in danger; are problem solvers; and can reference past experiences and apply those to current situations. In addition, unhatched embryos can communicate with each other and the mother hen.

Nevertheless, male chicks have been filmed being ground up alive on factory farms. Chickens raised for breast meat have been genetically selected and pumped with antibiotics so they become top heavy and distorted to produce the meat coveted by consumers. Egg laying hens are crammed into cages for the extent of their short life span, one to two years, and even “cage free” chickens can live in cramped, indoor, artificially lit spaces. Most chickens have some disease from living among their waste and feathers and in such cramped quarters. Since chickens naturally form small groups to establish a social hierarchy, the cramped, over-crowded spaces lead to stress, fights (chickens are routinely debeaked because of this), sickness, and death.

Turkeys, the “bird of courage” according to Benjamin Franklin, share much of the same behaviors as their wild counterparts. Just like chickens they are crammed into spaces so stressful that they can attack one another. To prevent further injuries to their stock, factory farms routinely debeak, de-snood (the red flesh by the beak that is used for attracting mates) and remove several toes of the birds without anesthetic. Turkeys get so big in the chest from selective breeding for the prized meat consumers love that they cannot mate naturally and must be artificially inseminated by workers known as “milkers.” A 2013 Washington Post article found that over one million turkeys and chickens are not properly stunned before being thrown into the scalding pot to loosen their feathers, thus are conscious while being boiled to death.

The Web of Life

The premise of Earth Law is that all components of the Earth have a right to exist, thrive, and survive. So how do we juxtapose this view when it comes to eating animals? When it comes to animals Earth Law is not just a matter of animals having a right to exist but also having a right to live and behave as they are naturally inclined to do.

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) – a 20th century switch from small farms – have led to some devastating environmental impacts violating the basic tenets of Earth Law. The Chesapeake Bay has been negatively affected by farming practices, including factory farms of animals, for decades. An overabundance of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment from animal manure, chemical fertilizers, and compaction of the soil has contributed to the bay’s dead zones, algae blooms, fish kills, and the polluted streams that run into the bay. 

On the U.S. northwest coast there is an additional threat besides the nitrogen and phosphorus run-offs from factory farms. Fish farms threaten wild populations of fish and have the potential for upsetting the local aquatic ecosystems. There are no barriers between the “farms” and the ocean. This allows other marine life to get stuck and die in the nets. Farmed fish loaded with antibiotics can and have escaped poorly maintained farm nets, creating devastating environmental impacts such as the cross breeding with and eating of native species, not to mention competing with them for food and introducing new diseases to ecosystems.

Figure 4 Typical animal waste lagoon, North Carolina. Bob Nichols / Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Figure 4 Typical animal waste lagoon, North Carolina. Bob Nichols / Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

And across America where small family farms have been replaced with the factory farm, local communities are at risk of detrimental environmental impacts. The use of antibiotics on factory farm animals has led to “superbugs,” which create health risks for all species. 

Animal waste is often stored in “lagoons.” They are vulnerable to flooding after rain or heavy storms, threatening local waterways and the main body of water into which they drain. In addition, pathogens that are naturally occurring in fecal matter such as E. coli, salmonella, and fecal coliform have the potential to contaminate the environment, including the ground water.

Concentrated animal farming operations create even more health risks to local communities. Gases emitted from the manure can cause flu like symptoms, create respiratory problems, and even neurobehavioral issues in humans.

Lastly, the production of fertilizers to grow the animal feed and the animals’ transportation to market are established contributors to the enormous production of greenhouse gases.

Thus, the intertwining of factory farms and natural ecosystems cannot be separated – it is all one system. And the denial of animals’ right to exist as they would naturally leads not only to their torturous existence for human consumption but also to the mistreatment of water and land ecosystems so they, too, cannot survive and thrive. Fortunately, consumers are starting to become aware. 

Consumer Demand for Ethical Meat 

Social media has brought the plight of factory farm animals to the public. Activists from around the world have been able to film (sometimes covertly) the mistreatment of factory farm animals so that humans can become aware of their role in today’s food paradigm.

Most recently activists were able to film turkeys that had been marketed as “humanely and ethically treated.” The birds were diseased and dying in an industrial farm in Utah. Similarly, activists in California filmed sick, injured, and dying chickens in crowded conditions on a factory farm that marketed its animals as “free range” and sold them to Amazon and Whole Foods. If one peruses YouTube one can view literally thousands of videos of animals being abused to feed people. But there is some hope. 

Wilcox Family farms  has three locations: Washington, Montana, and Oregon. The Wilcox family “farms” chickens and sells them to grocery chains – large and small – including CostCo. Over the past twenty years Mr. Wilcox’s customer base has been asking questions about how he farms. Mainly, concerns have been raised about the welfare of the chickens and the surrounding environment. And Mr. Wilcox responded. 

Wilcox Family Farms is now certified as humane, organic, all natural, cage free, Non-GMO and salmon safe – respecting the natural waterways in and around the properties by keeping chicken manure out of the water and eliminating the use of pesticides for the benefit of the watershed and all its inhabitants.

The fast food giant, McDonalds has also felt the pressure from its customers to change to more humane and respectful treatment of the animals and environments in which it sources its profits from. It was reported that in 2013 McDonalds began using 100% sustainable fish. The company has also committed to transitioning to cage-free eggs and sourcing sustainable beef for its products. They’ve also pledged to end gestation crate use for all pork they buy by 2022.

Walmart, the leading food supplier of America has also pledged to change its standards. The company now “believes animals should be treated humanely throughout their lives.” Walmart supports the “Five Freedoms” of animal welfare; transparency; the responsible use of antibiotics; and a sustainable food system. Walmart has also pledged to take corrective actions when they become aware of animal abuse cases in their supply chain. Subway and Chipotle have also pledged similar promises.

Earth Law as part of the solution

Animals, just like the environment, have scant legal rights internationally. In the U.S. domestic pets are still viewed as property under the legal system. Farm animals have few federal legal protections and are mostly exempt from state anti-cruelty laws. People who try to expose animal cruelty on farms are subject to so called “ag-gag” laws that target whistleblowers. Big agriculture continues to push legislation that benefits them like the “Right to Farm” bill. Europe, on the other hand, has led the way for decades.

The London based group, Farm Animal Welfare Council first published the “Five Freedoms” of domestic animals in 1979. These include: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress. The Five Freedoms were adopted into legislation by the European Union in 1998. Why can’t the same happen in the U.S. and across the globe?

In the U.S. changes are starting to occur. In 2016 Massachusetts was the first in the country to ban the sales of any products produced from confined animals. Currently — thanks to activists and supporters — California will introduce a ballot measure in the November 2018 election that would ban ALL cages of hens and chickens, gestation crates for sows, and veal crates for calves. This initiative would apply not just to California farmers but to ANY farmer that wanted to do business in the state. 

Earth Law recognizes that rivers and cattle should have individual legal standing under the eyes of the law. Waters should be legally protected to flow freely and sustain themselves like cattle should legally be able to move freely and have access to everything that supports their nature. As watersheds and oceans are starting to gain legal status through the work of Earth Law Center and their partners, animal rights need to be included in order to complete the picture. Earth Law Center has now initiated such action.

As of April 2018, Earth Law Center has partnered with Legal Rights for the Salish Sea, PETA and the NonHuman Rights Project to launch the Puget Sound Initiative. This initiative aims to support the local and indigenous communities of the Puget Sound and Salish Sea, including the endangered Southern resident orca population.

The orcas of this population are not only vulnerable to noise pollution, vessel activity, and underwater military exercises, but also contaminants and prey availability. Their main source of  prey, wild salmon were just recently protected by Washington’s Governor Islee thanks to an initiative launched by the Wild Fish Conservancy known as Our Sound, Our Salmon. The new law will ban open-water Atlantic salmon aquaculture to protect the ecological diversity of the Puget Sound, specifically the wild salmon that the orcas are dependent upon for their survival. 

In conclusion, water and land can only be protected from pollution and destruction if we recognize that Nature is not property but a complex web of interactions on which we depend for our survival. The humane treatment of animals equals the human treatment of our lands and waters. 

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