I have asked my vegetarian and vegan friends why they have chosen to stop eating meat.  More often than not, their answers have nothing to do with dietary issues.  Instead, they talk about the horrors of factory farming, and their choice to boycott an industry that mistreats animals and is destructive to the environment.

What is factory farming?  Why is it bad? Why should we care?

I decided to go on a quest for research.  I wanted to learn about factory farming, why it is used and how people can boycott it without becoming vegetarian.  It didn’t take many paragraphs of sleuthing before what I was reading was making me literally sick to my stomach.

The way animals in factory farms are raised, treated and killed is so horrendous I’m ashamed to say I’ll never know the extent of it because I can’t handle reading much about it.  And this is after reading pretty extensively about test-lab animals.  I didn’t think it could get any worse.

The defining characteristic of a factory farm is the existence of  an intense concentration of livestock, usually cows, pigs, turkeys, or chickens, for the purpose of producing as much meat, eggs, or milk as possible at the lowest cost.  Stressed from being over-crowded, physical restraints are used to control the animals from moving around too much, and this results in chaffing, scabbing and bruising.

The hen houses that produce most of the eggs you buy at a grocery store have thousands and thousands of pens, each holding multiple birds in a very confined space.  I bet when you’re shopping for eggs you aren’t thinking about that.  It’s because the industrial farming business doesn’t want you to.

Our demand for lower meat prices has forced small local farmers out of business.  Large industrial farms operate because they’re able to lower their costs by over-cramming pens with animals, feeding them hormones to make them grow faster, and using cheaper, less humane practices to kill them.  This has become so common-place that people view organic, locally raised meats as being over-priced.

And the environmental impacts of industrialized farming are high.  There is an unsustainable pressure on land for production of high-protein/high-energy feed for these animals and pesticides and fertilizers are used for feed production.  We see pollution of soil, water and air from fertilizer and from manure.  A large percentage of global fresh water is used for animal production, including that used to irrigate feed crops.  Concentrating large numbers of animals in factory farms is a major contribution to global environmental degradation.

The attitude that animals are merely a commodity has led to institutionalized animal cruelty.  My vegetarian friends have chosen to boycott this by not eating meat.  I believe that a better strategy for those who would still enjoy the odd chicken or pork entree is to support local farms that raise and slaughter their animals humanely, and in a more environmentally-friendly manner.  Boycotting meat altogether is just allowing factory farms to grow more rapidly, because they’re able to put smaller farms out of business that much faster.  By eating locally-grown meats, your helping support farms that treat their animals properly, and you’re sending a message to the companies that don’t.

Here in Victoria you can buy locally-raised meat at the Rootceller, Country Grocer (look for the Vancouver Island Meats section) and at local butcher shops such as the one in Cook St. Village.  And yes, it’s more expensive than what you find styrofoam-packaged at Fairways.

Farming, no matter what kind, has an environmental impact.  We can greatly reduce this by eating less meat.  And the meat we do consume should come from local producers instead of factory farms.  Its easy to forget about, or be ignorant of the realities of factory farming.  I bet if each package of meat we bought contained the anguished life-story of the animal inside it, we’d be more inclined to spend a bit extra at a local butcher.

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