Sandra Kyle and Lynley Tulloch: Factory farms an assault on humanity

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Factory farms have no place in a humane and caring society.

Pigs and other intensively reared animals are often kept in inhumane conditions. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Pigs and other intensively reared animals are often kept in inhumane conditions. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Today, more than 70 billion animals are raised and killed for food worldwide annually, the majority in factory farms.

The factory farming industry strives to maximise output while minimising costs, and intensively reared animals are commodities to be bought and sold in the global marketplace.

In factory farms in New Zealand, 90 million broilers (chickens reared for meat), 3 million layer hens, and 800,000 pigs are killed annually.

Here, as elsewhere in the world, broiler chickens live their entire lives crammed by the tens of thousands into filthy, windowless sheds while layer hens are confined to tiny wire cages with sloping floors that deform their feet, without even enough room to open up their wings.

To produce our pork, pigs live indoors and sows spend a good proportion of their lives in gestation crates so small they cannot turn around. They gnaw on the bars and shriek in sheer frustration, before sinking into despair.

These industrially reared animals will never raise their families, root around in the soil, build nests, feel the sun on their backs, or do anything that is natural and important to them.

Not so long ago, to eat chicken was a treat. On the chicken industry website it is stated: "In 1976, three processing plants in the Waikato and Auckland regions were collectively processing about 4500 birds per day. Those same plants are in 2008 processing around 200,000 birds per day".

The only reason that chicken is plentiful and cheap now is because the animals are kept in horrendous conditions to cut costs. They are placed at 15-20 birds per square metre, just enough to support the rapid weight gain they are bred for. This rapid growth leads to lameness and organ failure as legs, hearts and lungs find it difficult to cope with the demands placed on them.

Enter into these barren, sunless, filthy enclosures and you will see chickens limping, or unable to walk at all; chickens lying in their own excrement; chickens lying dead, or in various stages of dying, of heart failure. The majority have sores and abrasions, and all of them are worn out and brutalised by the conditions they spend their short, desperate lives in.

This is the truth, the insane reality behind our desire for "young succulent, purpose bred chickens", the true price of cheap meat.

Of course, free-range chickens have better lives, but the discerning consumer needs to be very aware of food labelled "free-range". Some brands wearing this label barn rear their chickens with only occasional access to a barren paddock outside.

Last year, the law around battery cages was changed, and they are to be completely phased out by 2020. However the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (Nawac) have recently announced that they are considering pushing these dates back in response to lobbying by farmers.

The Government has a tendency to listen to the poultry farmers, not animal rights groups who are speaking up for those with no voice to defend themselves. According to Michael Morris (Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 2009), "the Government ... appears to have a strong antipathy to those demanding better welfare for (factory farmed animals)".

Proposed measures such as introducing slightly bigger cages for layer hens (so called "colony cages") are an example. Set to replace battery cages, they are little better. Hens will still not be able to forage for food, dust bathe, have access to daylight, walk on grass, scratch the ground, make a nest, or tend to their young. Colony cages are not an acceptable alternative to battery cages, and are no future for hens.

To quote former Green MP Sue Kedgley: "Hens are curious and sociable creatures, with a surprising intelligence, and their own language and way of communicating with each other. Scientists have identified 25 to 30 distinct calls that hens have, and say they could have many more. So, imagine how they must feel when they are locked up inside cages, even colony cages, for all of their lives."

Chickens, pigs and other intensively reared animals are living beings, with needs, desires, emotions, and the ability to feel pain just like us. How long can we keep turning our heads the other way? Are we not only accountable for what we don't do, as well as what we do? If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and die premature crude deaths to produce the food we eat doesn't motivate us, then what will? If we don't do something now, then when will we do it?

As Matthew Scully says in his book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy: "When you take the necessity out of 'evil necessity', what do you have left?"

The continued use of factory farms is unconscionable, an assault on our very humanity. It is time for them to go. We need to have a sustained dialogue on factory farming in this country, and begin to explore the alternatives.

Sandra Kyle is a lecturer at Unitec and committee member of the Bird Rescue Charitable Trust. Lynley Tulloch lectures in sustainability education at Waikato University with doctoral studies on the themes of exploitation of animals and human-nature relationships. Both are members of SAFE.

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