We love our animals. We talk to them, let them sleep on our beds, give them parties and buy them gifts. In short, we treat them as furry four-legged humans. Many of us have come to deeply believe in the inherent “soulfulness” of animals, and don’t doubt they are intelligent, emotional and intuitive.
But what about the animals that go into making the food our companions eat? Humans can become vegetarians if their concern for the humane treatment of animals extends to cows, chickens and pigs, but that isn’t usually an option for dogs, and never with cats. Carnivores need to eat meat, which seems to indicate other animals must suffer in order to keep them healthy. So what’s the solution? Can we share our lives and homes with companion animals while making life better for livestock animals, and the planet?
What needs fixing?
The overwhelming majority of meat-based commercial pet food and treat ingredients come from “factory farms” and mega feedlots instead of humanely raised, grass fed meats. The term CAFO, which is an acronym for “Combined Animal Feeding Operation”, is used by the USDA to identify mass “meat factories” and mega-feedlots in which thousands of animals are raised in unnaturally cramped conditions, with very little freedom of movement and little or no intra-species socialization. While such operations succeed in producing lots of meat per square foot, they negatively impact not only the health and well-being of the animals, but also the larger environment and even human health.
• Cramped conditions foster disease and lead to the overuse of antibiotics. This has resulted in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which threatens both animal and human health since it reduces the likelihood that antibiotics will work when needed to treat an infection.
• The use of added growth hormones to help confined livestock grow more quickly also introduces these hormones into the human and animal food stream, bringing many possible long term side effects.
• The negative environmental impact of various types of CAFOs is well documented. The unnatural concentration of thousands of animals in small areas creates huge waste disposal problems, leading at times to serious groundwater pollution. Soil erosion is another by product of CAFOs.
• Livestock eating only commercial feed and no grass produce meat that is much less nutritious than those with at least partial access to grazing. Grass-fed animals produce meat that is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids and other important vitamins and minerals. CAFO-raised animals do not provide these benefits at anywhere near the same levels.
“Since people are responsible for breeding and raising farm animals, they must also take the responsibility to give the animals living conditions that provide a decent life and a painless death,” writes Temple Grandin in Animals Make Us Human, co-written with Catherine Johnson. “During the animal’s life, both its physical needs and its emotional needs should be satisfied.”
The mass feedlot/factory farm meat production model does not satisfy these criteria. A large animal cramped in a tiny space that lives only to eat, eliminate and eventually be slaughtered doesn’t really have a life in any sense that we would recognize. His physical needs to graze and exercise are unmet, and his emotional need for interaction and socialization with members of his own species is denied. In short, CAFOs are an unsustainable and inhumane model for the management of livestock.
The quality of life for farm animals and our environment can be improved dramatically by supporting the shift away from CAFOs and back to humanely raised, grass fed, free range and pasture kept livestock. But many feel this would hurt our economy at a time when we need American businesses to grow, not shrink even further.
We have tremendous land resources in North America. When you fly coast to coast, you can see there are large areas of the country which are sparsely populated. At least some of this land could be sustainably used for responsible ranching without harming the environment.
Worldwide awareness of the problems associated with factory farms and the use of antibiotics, added growth hormones, and steroids has created a huge and growing demand for naturally and humanely raised meats. So shifting more of our meat industry to the humane and sustainable model would actually help increase American exports while improving human health and animal welfare. It’s a win-win proposition.
Where do you fit in?
It’s really quite a simple plan. If you start to demand products made from humanely raised meats, and pet food manufacturers meet that demand by offering products designated as humanely produced, you could become a powerful force for change. By increasing the demand for humanely produced meats, you decrease the demand for meats produced by “factory farms” and create an economic incentive to shift livestock management to a humane and sustainable model.
You can start by looking for quality pet foods and treats made from humanely raised meats, thereby supporting those who run humane and sustainable farms, and the companies that support them. Research and study pet food products, and don’t be afraid to contact companies and ask questions about how and where they source their meat. A growing number of premium pet food manufacturers are using humanely-raised and sustainable ingredients in their products, so the range of choices is becoming larger.
Clean and humanely produced muscle and organ meats are much healthier for your animal companion than those that come from CAFOs. By proactively searching out these humane products, you can help reconcile your love for your dog or cat with the practice of meat consumption, while also doing the planet, and your furry friend, a big favor.