Beef has made a lot of headlines over the past year. First slaughterhouses really struggled during the early days of COVID—they had shutdowns, slaughtered massive numbers of animals, and saw terrible health outcomes for their workers. More recently, supply chain and rising cost concerns, ransomware attacks, being removed from recipes and increased competition from meat alternatives have been in the news.
It might seem as though change is afoot when it comes to meat consumption. But to me, this is misleading. It’s not even the animal-related conversation that I think we should be having.
Environmentalists should do more about animal welfare.
Given all the progress we’ve made building broad environmental coalitions and momentum on important goals, like net-zero, it seems to me that the wellbeing of animals should now be a bigger part of the environmental conversation.
More specifically, I think environmentalists should be more attentive to preventing unnecessary suffering by animals. We should do more to ensure that wild and captive animals experience a good quality of life and a humane death. Even if the environmentalist movement is not ready to make animal welfare a top priority, it can be much more sympathetic to the plight of animals.
Why should environmentalists focus on animal welfare?
- It’s the morally correct thing to do. Let’s start with the obvious. Protecting animals aligns with environmental values. Animals are an integral component of the earth’s ecosystems that we are fighting to protect. That’s why we claim to care about all species and focus on endangered species and biodiversity. Further, we know that animals have feelings and experience pain. But many animals suffer terribly and unnecessarily at human hands. That should be intolerable.
- It would address various and significant environmental risks. Bad animal welfare practices exacerbate the very climate, biodiversity, water, and environmental justice challenges we are actively trying to solve. It is self-defeating to allow these practices to continue unfettered. Take, for example, the waterways in Iowa. Nitrogen pollution—flowing from Iowa’s factory farms to the Gulf of Mexico—has increased by about 50% over the last two decades, despite hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to deter it. And what is causing this pollution? The vast majority comes from animals confined in factory farms and feedlots. This pollution not only contaminates Iowa’s water and causes great human health risks, but it also builds up in the Gulf to such an extent that there is an area called the “dead zone” where few living creatures can survive because the pollution has deprived the water of sufficient oxygen. It’s the size of New Jersey.
This is a problem that I don’t think environmentalists can ignore.
So why hasn’t animal welfare been a higher priority for environmentalists?
I can think of a few possible reasons (and I’d love to hear if you have others).