I'm the kind of person who admires vegetarians but has never made the decision to become one. I have all sorts of excuses, many of them legitimate, some less legitimate (meat is so delicious!), but this year's drought will make my lack of action somewhat harder.
All of the moral arguments against eating conventionally-raised meat convinced me. It's wrong to subject sentient creatures such as pigs, chickens, turkeys and cows to concentration camp-like conditions. The lives of many of the animals whose flesh is sold at grocery stores are short and miserable. They are kept packed tightly together, unable to express normal behaviors and experience a comfortable life. Artificial lights are used so they experience longer days, and animals are given caffeine so they will stay up and eat longer and Xanax so they won't get too hyper. Often they are kept in horribly confined and crowded conditions. The high-stress, frustrating environment sometimes makes it necessary to take extreme measures to keep the animals from killing each other. In factory farms, a large portion of a chicken's and turkey's beak is routinely cut off to prevent it from pecking at others and engaging in cannibalism. They are fed an unhealthy diet of corn, soy, hormones and antibiotics to make them grow as quickly as possible. Not only are these practices abhorrent, but they're unnecessary.
There is no justification for this kind of treatment. Yes, people want cheap meat (and corporations like McDonald's and Wal-Mart want the cheapest meat possible to increase their profit margins), but humans can get all the protein and many more vitamins their bodies need from plant-based foods if they can't afford their beef. The products of these factories are less nutritious than those that are grown naturally and contain wider access to varied protein sources, such as plants and insects. Factory farms don't exist because we are all going to suffer from a lack of hyper-efficiently grown meat, but because we just happen to have a preference for it and we want to buy it cheaply, regardless of quality.
I'm not only upset by the suffering we impose on animals, but I am also uneasy about the environmental and health effects of raising them industrially.
For thousands of years, farmers have exploited a very simple cycle where farmers feed the animals, the animals roam on and fertilize their land, and the animal's by-products and meat eventually feed the farmers and the local population. In factory farming, however, the cycle is completely broken. The animals are numerous and packed together in one place, and the waste they produce en masse is often dumped into rivers or pollutes the air and land, which overloads the local ecosystems and greatly reduces species diversity. Plant growers then buy synthetic fertilizers for their lands, increasing the waste and pollution produced.
There are additional health concerns to think about when it comes to factory farming. Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States go to chickens, pigs, cows and other animals that people eat, because they are raised in conditions that encourage the rapid spread of disease. Antibiotics are given to cows partially to prevent ulcers from forming in their stomachs, which did not evolve to digest the corn that is fed to them due to its relatively cheap cost. These practices are dangerous, because the indiscriminate use of antibiotics can breed multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is a hazard to the animals, the farmers who raise them and the public in general. Industrialization is an effective mode of production for a lot of things, but not for living beings.
Because of the reasons I've just mentioned, I've made the decision to only eat organic, humanely raised, antibiotic and hormone-free meat. This is an expensive choice, and it will only keep getting more expensive. After the drought the country experienced this summer, corn and other animal feeds will be much more costly, and the price of animal products will rise considerably. Maybe I should start making some moves to become a vegetarian. More likely, though, I'll just extend my Meatless Mondays to a few more days of the week.
— Ana Segovia is a senior in ecology and evolutionary biology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.