Different people would define history according to how they look at their past, whether as an individual or part of a collective. Whatever you deem significant to the formation of your person and identity is your history. During the height of intolerance in the 17th century, François-Marie Arouet’s definition of history would be different. Better known by his nom de plume Voltaire, the French writer declared that “history is only the register of crimes and misfortunes."
What History Tells Us: Animal Agriculture
Taken from his many satirical writings, Voltaire spoke for the many victims of a strict and arbitrary ruling. While Churchill writes that "history is written by the winners," Voltaire’s writing rings equally true. There are often two sides to the story, and often the victor’s song is the similar cry of those who lost the battle.
As humanity has developed the ability to record different historical events, we know the winners and the losers of our stories. It can be a small event in our personal life: we might have won a school championship or have lost a sentimental object. As a general rule, we try to learn from our past and prevent history from repeating.
However, in the Earth’s entire history, we have victimized nature in our pursuit of innovation.
Unfortunately, we are only starting to learn from our past mistakes, as many ecologists agree that animals are the primary victims of human ignorance and violence. Human progress is filled with ecological disasters, dating back to the Stone Age when our ancestors began domesticating animals.
According to scientists, the first humans who reached Australia about 45,000 years ago caused the extinction of 90% of the large animals. This was the first major man-made event that caused a significant impact on the planet’s ecosystem. A similar event occurred when the first humans arrived in America about 15,000 years ago. 75% of the large mammals in the land were wiped out. The same happened to species in Africa, Eurasia, and smaller archipelagos. As hindsight gives us 20/20 vision, we can see a pattern.
The lands were rich with myriad wildlife, their homes untouched by Homo sapiens. When our nomadic ancestors arrive on the land, spears and campfires appear. Their growing need for food and safety has caused the extinction of 50% of all large terrestrial mammals on Earth even before they turned to agriculture and farming as a way of life.
After the stone age, our hunter-gatherer ways shifted to settling into permanent plots of land, tilling the soil and domesticating animals. While it might seem unimportant at that time, having only tamed around 20 species of mammals and birds, this way of life has become our way of life until today.
Scientists report that more than 90% of all large animals are domesticated. Let’s take a look at cows, for example. In a study last 2012, Dr Ruth Bollongino and her team found that the common cattle that we take care of today descended from wild oxen in Eastern parts of the world. Who might have thought that the 80 domesticated oxen back then would amount up to around a billion cattle today?
If we take a look at these species in terms of numbers, chickens, cows, and pigs are the most successful results in animal agriculture.
How Has Animal Agriculture Affected our Environment
However, let’s take a closer look at what successful animal agriculture looks like. For if we compare the supply of these animals to just how great the demand is, then we can see the commercialisation of what was once a means of survival. Over the years, the agricultural revolution has only increased the suffering of millions of animals.
Initially, domesticated animals look better than their wild cousins and ancestors. Wild chickens are easy prey to wild dogs and larger birds. Wild buffaloes also have to spend their days searching for vegetation, water, and shelter. In the wild, these animals are plagued by parasites, natural disasters, and predators. By contrast, animals that live on a farm are cared for, fed daily, and protected from disease and predators. In the end, most of the farm animals find themselves at a slaughterhouse sooner or later.
Are the cold steel blades any better than being devoured by a wild animal?
And yet, one of the main reasons why intensive farming is detrimental to nature is not in the way that these animals are slaughtered but in the way that they are raised. In this type of business, animals are treated as commodities in the farming process.
When livestock becomes sick, it becomes more profitable to slaughter them than to invest in medicine that will help them recover. People who raise swine know that 4 out of 5 of them can have severe health conditions and make them more susceptible to pneumonia.
Along with health issues, the younglings are weaned off earlier to encourage the mothers to be ready for another pregnancy. Piglets are usually weaned within two weeks of birth, and they are either brought to a different farm or are slaughtered for food. Calves are taken away from their mothers only days after their birth to encourage milk production.
Family separation is a stressful time for both the mother and child, where the mother is forced to bear more calves only to be separated from them. In these types of farms, the average lifespan of a dairy cow only lasts for 5 years when it should normally last for 20. Many researchers noted that the mothers will search for their offspring even days after their calves were taken away.
When it comes to chickens, hens are forced to lay more than 1 egg each day, isolating them in darkness without food or water. In this stressful situation, chickens may go through their moulting process again, causing 1 in 10 deaths.
Intensive farming methods also prevent animals from basking in the sunlight, as farmers mostly keep them indoors that could be filled with waste. And these farms are normally packed to the brim, so the animals don’t have enough space to do anything apart from sitting or standing. As these shelters are not cleaned as often, farmers also install mesh floors to allow the feces and urine to go through. While this makes their job easier, the metal can damage the hooves of cattle and cause them pain.
As many farming methods focus on the results of production, many of the species are crossbred to get offspring with favourable genes. More often than not, breeders will find and breed larger chickens or livestock to generate more growth. Other farms use artificial stimulants to add more weight to the animal. Though this is seen as a “best practice” in the farming industry, the animals experience pain in the process.
Lastly, animal agriculture can also encourage soil erosion when there is a lack of agricultural activity. Eventually, the lack of greenery in the area can affect the land’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide and increase greenhouse gases. Overall, contributing to the climate change issues that the planet is experiencing.
As animal farming technology has become more efficient over the years, it has damaged natural habitats by polluting waters, clearing out forests, damaging biodiversities and affecting soils over the past decades. Yet, despite the factory-like production of meat, dairy and eggs, products sold from these farms are of poor quality.
Sustainable Animal Agriculture: Humane and Mindful
There is some good news about the malpractices of current animal agriculture. In recent years, there has been an increase in societal concern for animal cruelty and environmental damage. The greater the public awareness, the greater the outcry. Organisations such as People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have released information on these farming practices. Different documentaries on factory farming have also illustrated how animals are poorly treated.
There are several responses to the problems of factory farming.
More people are starting to reject any forms of animal exploitation. Back in 2014, the “The Food & You” survey declared that there were 150,000 vegans in the UK. By 2020, there are around 720,000 vegans. In a study called “Vegetarianism in America,” the number of vegans went up from 0.4% to almost 3.5% in the last two years.
However, not everyone can commit to a meatless lifestyle for personal or even health reasons. Alongside the vegan community, other farmers are making moves towards sustainable animal farming.
Sustainable agriculture is more mindful, planned and humane. The goal is to meet today’s food needs without compromising the next generation’s ability to get their own needs. Farmers who practice this type of agriculture follow three things: fostering a healthy environment for both workers and animals, economic profitability from high-quality products and social and economic equity.
Because of these integral aspects, stewardship of both natural and human resources is essential. When taking care of human resources, this means we consider the working and living conditions of the labourers, the needs of the local community and the ultimate health and safety of consumers. Taking care of natural resources involves maintaining the health, safety and welfare of the animals.
This is a more holistic and interdisciplinary approach, as farmers will need experience with crop production and livestock management. In recent years, research shows that pastured livestock are generally healthier and under less stress than those raised in confinement. Instead of just eating hay or feed, your livestock can roam freely and express their natural behaviours such as rooting and scratching.
Though grazing is appropriate for cattle, farmers should still give them access to fresh water and supplement their diet with vitamins or minerals. The ruminants can stay outdoors during the spring and summertime, and go back to their shelter during the colder seasons. As they will spend long winter months in their shelter, it’s also important to give animals enough clean space in their shelter. Cleaning out their shelters can prevent surface and groundwater pollution, ultimately making their place a healthier place for them and the towns nearby.
Other farmers may opt for a “free stall” barn where cows can move about freely and spend time on the pasture when they are not milking.
These benefits also extend to the consumers who purchase these products. Research shows that pasture-raised meat, eggs and dairy products are lower in calories and fat and higher in vitamins and minerals. When looking at cows, their milk will contain five times healthy fatty acid that contributes to the taste and the nutritional content. Free-range chickens also have 21% less fat and 28% fewer calories, as they can move around more and are not forced to live sedentary lives.
As pastured livestock places the welfare of their labourers and livestock first, it is more labour-intensive and more expensive. More often than not, pasture farmers need to be more creative in raising their animals in different environments. When compared to industrially-raised animal products, their prices are cheaper because they make large cost-cutting decisions and overcrowd their spaces.
With sustainability in mind, the true cost of sustainable stewardship will reflect on the prices of pasture-raised meats and dairy products. Because there aren’t many farms that practice sustainable methods, the products tend to be more expensive than their industrialised counterparts. As the demand for alternative foods such as organic and local produce is also growing, we expect that more farms will follow suit and switch to a different food production model.
Making the More Empathetic Choice
As human intelligence and technology have improved over the millennia, we can now make the conscious decision to choose the more humane option. If you’re not able to go completely meatless, try eating less meat per week to help the price differential of industrially-produced and pasture-raised meat. Go to your local farmers’ market or grocery store and purchase brands that practice sustainable farming methods.
It’s important to look for brands that are certified by third-party labels. It helps to stay informed of which labels follow sustainable farming practices and try to slowly incorporate more pasture-raised products into your meal planning. Eventually, you may even start branching out into sustainably planted fruits and vegetables.
You can also look for smaller farms who might not be certified, but still works hard to provide an excellent breeding environment that let the animals walk outdoors.
These farmers spend more time and effort to do what they feel is right. You can show your support by purchasing higher quality food products, we should not always be choosing the lowest priced items on the market. Also, when it comes to special promotions, we should avoid marketing traps and stop buying too much items that we will never use. We don't want these surpluses to go waste.
With your help, the world can become a better place, its possible for us to slow down or perhaps reverse the damage done to earth. All you have to do is to make the right purchasing decisions and choose the right products. It might be things like saying "No" to using plastic straw or become a vegetarian once a week.
If you feel your personal power is too small to impact the world, think again. If everyone can just make their own contribution to the environment, the earth will become a better place. Everything adds up, so everyone's contribution will help make the world a better place. When purchasing products, think about long-term gains, think which brand's product you want to support. Try to avoid short-term gains where you are getting upfront discounts but those products will damage earth in a long run.
There are many ways that we can protect our beloved planet and continue being stewards of the resources that we have. It is never too late to start making more ethical purchases, thanks to the lessons we have learned from our past. When it’s the future generation’s turn to take a look at their history, may they look back in triumph and not in defeat.
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