Last year I wrote about research that shows that cows have best friends and suffer when separated. What was surprising about that study was not the results themselves—but the fact that people found this news at all.
We have become so desensitized to animal cruelty and industrial processing of farm animals, that most of us—myself included—need reminding that farm animals are sentient beings little different from our beloved pets at home. As evidenced by the outcry when a TV chef equated eating pork with eating puppies, the majority of us meat and dairy eaters would desperately like to hold on to the notion that farm animals are somehow "different", and hence can be treated as a pure commodity.
Riffing off the book Every Twelve Seconds by Tim Pachirat, Mark Bittman penned an excellent piece last week in the New York Times, explaining the human cost of animal suffering, and demonstrating how it's the system's routine normalization of suffering, not the outlying cases of abuse, that should be the largest cause for concern:
What makes “Every Twelve Seconds” different from (for example) a Mercy for Animals exposé is, says Pachirat, “that the day-in and day-out experience produces invisibility. Industrialized agriculture perpetuates concealment at every level of the process, and rather than focusing on the shocking examples we should be focusing on the system itself.”
At that point we might finally acknowledge that raising, killing and eating animals must be done differently. When omnivores recognize that our way of producing and eating meat reduces not only slaughterhouse workers but all of us to a warped state, we’ll be able to bring about the kind of changes that will reduce both meat consumption and our collective guilt.
Like Bittman, I am in no place to start advocating a vegan diet. Despite my recent epiphany that vegan pizza doesn't suck, like most of the world I continue to eat some meat and dairy—although I am increasingly working to both limit my intake and get ever more selective about supporting humane animal farming and "processing" (aka killing) operations. I suspect there is little point in vegans and meat eaters trading "you should eat this"/"you shouldn't eat that" admonitions back and forth.
As Bittman points out, 80% of Americans believe farm animals are capable of suffering. That's a potentially huge constituency and powerful force for change that reaches far beyond those who have committed to veganism, vegetarianism or even "ethical" meat eating. Mat has already argued we must end dietary fundamentalism if we are to end factory farming—but we must look beyond diets all together.
Yes, making more informed choices will help fix the system—and yes there is a moral inconsistency in folks who recognize animal suffering and yet fail to make changes in their diets—but by-and-large humans are morally inconsistent creatures. Even folks who indulge in a factory farmed steak every night can still raise their voice and demand systemic change from our legislators and our corporations. We should do what we can to make that happen.