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The Question of “Humane” Farming

I have been asked by a well-meaning and genuinely curious friend about my opinion about family farms.  I explained that while they would be the lowest on my list of concerns in terms of animals raised for food, I still don’t think that they are ethical.

I recently came across the Humane Myth website and found a statement from Harold Brown, a former beef farmer who was raised on a farm.  I felt that his response was so appropriate for this question because he grew up in that environment and can relate in a way that I cannot.  Please give it a read and explore the website because it addresses the idea of “free range,” “cage free,” and “humane” farming.  Some of the stories are just heartbreaking.

“I was born on an independent family cattle farm in south central Michigan, and I have spent over half of my life in agriculture. I started out as any farm kid does who has grown up around animals. There was an indoctrination involved as to how I should relate to farm animals. My indoctrination started with my parents, then family, then community, our church, 4-H, FFA, a land-grant college, and finally, the reinforcement of advertising on TV and elsewhere that portrayed meat, dairy, and eggs as essential to human wants and nutrition. With these influences, I hardly thought twice about the things I had to do on the farm: driving cattle, castrations, dehorning, and I did my fair share of butchering too. I also worked in the dairy industry for three years. All of these life experiences have been part of a journey that has taken me from thinking about farm animals in the context of animal husbandry and as commodities, to thinking about them as something more.

I have often heard the word “humane” used in relation to meat, dairy, eggs, and other products like cosmetics. I have always found this curious, because my understanding is that humane means to act with kindness, tenderness, and mercy. I can tell you as a former animal farmer that while it may be true that you can treat a farm animal kindly and show tenderness toward them, mercy is a different matter. In 4-H, I saw many, many young people treat their animals as they would a cat or dog, actually more like a dog because it is kind of hard to lead a cat on a halter. And I saw many young people cry their eyes out when they auctioned off their animals at the end of the county fair. I always wondered about that. Why do we have a double standard?
As a grown man, after a personal health crisis, I was forced to look at the cause and effect of heart disease in my family. This led me down a path that really pushed me to look at the connections of my lifestyle choices. The process of looking at connections also opened another door in my mind concerning my relationship to the animals I called “food.” Opening that door was one of the scariest things I have ever done. I had been programmed throughout my life to think of farm animals in one way, now I needed to find the moral imagination and emotional courage to think about them in another way.
Eventually I realized that all animals, including humans, exist for their own reasons, with their own interests. This was a profound revelation for me because that nagging little voice in the back of my mind had always, since childhood, told me that I wasn’t living to my full, authentic potential, that there was something inherently wrong. All my life I had observed the community that existed in a cow herd, how they grieved for a dead calf or herd mate that had been shot by a deer hunter. I had witnessed the joy a cow experiences when she is let out into a fresh new pasture or calves running and kicking up their heels with each other in the field. I now knew for certain that regardless of the rationalizations I had created, when I killed an animal and saw that light leave their eyes, by extinguishing that divine spark, I had broken a sacred trust.
Nowadays I ask myself from both the perspective of the old me and the new me, what does humane mean in the way it is being used? The old me says, “That is an odd word to associate with meat, dairy, and eggs, but hey, if it sells more products, why not?” The new me asks, “Back in the day, I could, and did, raise animals with kindness and tenderness, but how did I show them mercy?” Mercy–a unique human trait of refraining from doing harm. I generally think of mercy as a blessing, too. Animals who are destined for an abbreviated life that ends in a violent death now called to my conscience and required me to show up, and where I could, show what little bit of mercy I can. Since I have made this conscious decision to show mercy, my life has been blessed a million, million times over and I have found a deep peace.
If I was going to be true to myself and live to my full potential I had to reevaluate, think, and choose. I chose life. So no, in my experience, there is no such thing as humane animal products, humane farming practices, humane transport, or humane slaughter.”