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What I’ve learned about factory farming
These animals suffer horribly. This is because of how they’re bred, because of the conditions they’re kept in (particularly how little space they’re given), and because of specific physical insults like debeaking and slaughter.
The factory farming of chickens was apparently kickstarted in 1923 when a Delaware farmer named Cecile Steele was accidentally shipped ten times as many chickens as she had ordered, and discovered that farming chickens at scale for their meat could be highly profitable. (Not to say that animal farming had been unobjectionable before that point.)
Another milestone was a 1946 contest called The Chicken of Tomorrow, which inspired the breeding of freakishly heavy chickens. And since then, the numbers of factory farmed chickens and other animals has skyrocketed as people have gotten richer, e.g. in China and Brazil.
How much suffering goes into the animal products you eat? Here’s a rough calculation (based on these numbers) of how much time an animal needs to spend on a factory farm in order to produce a 100g serving of various foods:
Eggs: 1 week
Chicken: 4 days
Turkey: 2 days
Pork: 18 hours
Beef: 4 hours
Milk: 15 minutes
So if you want to avoid personally contributing to factory farming, then the most important thing is to avoid eating chicken and eggs.
Vegetarians and vegans should watch out for deficiencies in nutrients that people typically get from animal products, particularly iron, vitamin B12, calcium, omega-3s, and vitamin D. A pescetarian diet might be significantly healthier than a vegan diet.
Prospects for change
The modern animal-rights movement began in the 1970s, heavily inspired by Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation. But vegetarianism is still rare: as of 2018, only about 1% of Americans both self-identified as vegetarians and reported never eating meat, and Animal Charity Evaluators thinks outreach to get people to consume fewer animal products is unpromising. And until recently, campaigns against factory farming had received little funding, and had had little success.
This started changing in the 2010s, when groups like The Humane League started adopting a more impact-focused strategy, and received major funding from Open Philanthropy. Their biggest success so far has been a campaign to phase out the use of battery cages in the U.S. egg industry: the share of cage-free hens rose from 6% in 2015 to 29% in 2021.
In addition, meat alternatives have gotten a lot better in the past few years. The products currently on the market typically make use of proteins from plants like peas and soybeans; forecasters currently expect cultured meat to start becoming available in 2025. Consumer demand for meat alternatives has stalled recently, but in the longer term (i.e. the next 100 years), forecasters expect technological advances in meat alternatives to lead to a fall in chicken consumption.