The Problem With Animal Agriculture

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Earlier this semester, I wrote a piece, Why You Should Eat Less Meat, in which I discussed some of the moral issues of modern meat production system and some of the reasons I choose not to eat meat. Since then, I have researched and thought a lot more about animal agriculture. I have identified problems with it that I had not fully considered before. I have also thought about Swarthmore’s cultural relationship with animal agriculture.

In this piece, I will briefly summarize a few of the fundamental and practical problems I see with contemporary animal agriculture. I will then discuss what I would like for the Swarthmore community to do differently regarding this issue.

Sustainability Issues:

Many of us have some familiarity with the environmental degradation that meat production causes. In 2006, the United Nations released a report entitled, “Livestock’s Long Shadow”. This report included much information about the environmental degradation causes by using animals for food and other purposes, including that, globally, cattle farming produces more* greenhouse gases than all cars and airplanes. The report also addresses a number of other sustainability concerns of animal-rearing, including land use, water pollution, and biodiversity.

This report suggested a number of less polluting production methods, such switching to animal feeds that will result in less methane output from the animals’ digestion processes. The report also warned, “The environmental costs per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the level of damage worsening beyond its present level.”

Instead of seeking marginally less degrading production methods, I ask a more fundamental question: Why use animals to produce food in the first place? In introductory biology, students learn the “ten percent rule”. This biological rule of thumb states that for every ten calories of energy an organism consumes, only one calorie is stored in that organism’s flesh. The other nine calories are lost mostly due to incomplete digestion and the organism’s metabolic activity (bodily function of any sort).

People often forget that we must grow plants to feed livestock. Right off the bat, this tells us that for every ten calories we produce in plants (wheat, corn, etc.), we will yield approximately one calorie in meat. In practice, meat production is often much less efficient than that. For every one hundred edible calories we produce in plants to feed animals, we yield only 20.6 in edible calories of milk, 11.2 of eggs, 18.1 of chicken, 6.7 of grass-fed beef (6.4 grain-fed), 3.7 of pork, 1.2 of lamb, and 5.7 of farmed salmon.

Simple biology tells us that it is necessarily more resource efficient to produce foods from lower trophic levels (levels of the food chain), i.e. plants.

To me, this is the most convincing environmental argument against animal agriculture. It is not only inefficient to use animals for food in practice, but also in principle. From an engineering perspective, there is an inevitable inefficiency in filtering the food energy we produce through another level in the food chain. Animal agriculture is not an intelligent or sustainable way to feed a growing world population.

*cattle-rearing does not necessarily produce a larger mass of greenhouse gases, but rather the set of greenhouse gases that it does produce have a large total Global Warming Potential (GWP) than those produced by cars. For example, cattle-rearing does not produce as much mass of CO2 as transportation, but it does produce 65% of all human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the GWP per unit mass than CO2. Further reading.

Further reading

Pain and Suffering:

How many animals do you think you will eat during your lifetime?

Each year, for every ten U.S. meat-eaters, 252 chickens, 1.2 cattle, 3.7 pigs, 7.7 turkeys, 0.2 sheep are raised and slaughtered. This means that, during his or her lifetime, the average American meat-eater (which, most likely, is you), eats 9 cows, 28 pigs, 58 turkeys, 2 sheep, and 1890 chickens. Many estimates also suggest that the average American will eat around 4,000 fish in his or her lifetime too.

If you eat meat as much as an average American, you will literally eat thousands of animals throughout your life.

At any given point in time, there are 1.4 billion cows, 1 billion pigs, and 19.6 billion chickens in the world. The number of livestock animals we raise to eat (not including fish) is three times our population. Keep in mind that animals are regularly slaughtered and cycled through, so the number of these animals who are killed for food during the course of a year is much higher. Estimates vary heavily but are typically on the order of 10 billion land animals and 50 billion sea animals per year. The world population of humans is around 7.6 billion.

The animals we eat experience life in that are, in many ways, very similar to the way we do. They develop relationships and care about each other. They can experience stress, anxiety, and boredom just as we can. They are certainly capable of experiencing physical pain. When determining  whether or not we are justified in causing non-human animals to suffer, what is the more relevant factor: their capacity to understand and communicate complex ideas or is it, well, their capacity to suffer?

The animals we raise for food are often confined to extremely tight spaces their entire lives. They are physically and sexually abused by workers. Their bodies are often mutilated and modified through the use of hormones in ways that cause them incessant pain and discomfort. They are killed through brutal means that make little or no effort to reduce physical pain. This is not a fiction crafted by a select few animal rights activists; it is the reality of the process through which the animal foods we eat every day are produced.

Yet, we do not view this as an ethical concern. We convince ourselves that human animals are fundamentally distinct and superior to non-human animals. We tell ourselves that, because animals eat other animals in nature, it is right for us to bring thousands of animals into this world to live miserable and entirely unnatural lives for the sole purpose of satisfying our taste buds. Or, do we simply not bother to even question the practice of eating animals because it has been promoted to us and we’ve participated in it our entire lives?

The inconsistencies in the way we view animals are abundant. We love dogs and cats. They live in our homes with us and are members of our families. We admire the beauty of wild animals. We are disgusted by the thought of humans abusing animals or killing endangered animals. Many of us consider ourselves to be animal lovers. Yet, there is a select few arbitrarily-chosen set of animals (namely, cows, pigs, and chickens) that are entirely exempt to the standards of treatment that we have set for all other animals.

For the most part, I have not stated anything that you were not aware of before. Rather, I have tried to get you to evaluate the practice of animal agriculture from a perspective you may not yet have considered. Just because the practice of eating animals is nearly ubiquitous does not mean it is right.

Throughout history, advances in social justice can be generally described as expansions of the scope of who we view as worthy of kindness and respect. Humans have held other humans as slaves because they view them as unworthy of kindness and respect. Humans have committed genocide against groups of other humans who they have deemed unworthy of kindness and respect. It is clear that these perspective and beliefs are morally impermissible. Why should we not extend our kindness and respect to non-human animals, who possess an undeniable capacity to suffer and collectively do so to a much greater degree than human animals?

If you’d like to further consider the ways that the culture of eating animals robs us of our ethical agency, read here and here.

Socio-economic Issues:

I would like to rebut one argument that is often made against the practice of not participating in animal agriculture. In the United States, and many other developed countries, tasty, animal-derived foods are often much cheaper and accessible than tasty, plant-based foods. As such, it is often viewed as elitist to expect that everyone has access to plant-based foods and that adopting a plant-based diet is feasible. I agree with this sentiment; however, the socioeconomic implications of animal agriculture extend far beyond that.

Why is it the case that tasty, animal-derived foods are often more accessible and less expensive than tasty, plant-based foods? As we’ve already discussed, in order to produce a given amount of animal-derived food, we must produce many times as much plant food. Shouldn’t it be, then, that animal-derived foods are much more expensive than plant-based ones?

Yes, it should. However, the production of animal foods is heavily subsidized. Nearly two thirds of the $200 billion that the US Department of Agriculture spends on subsidies for commodity crops goes towards grains used as animal feed. Other plants produced directly for human consumption (fruits, vegetables, nuts) receive no regular direct subsidies from the USDA. Additionally, because the demand for meat is so enormous, it’s what is available at most restaurants. Meat is cheap and accessible not because it should be in principle, but rather because it is heavily subsidized and deeply ingrained in our culture.

The abundance of cheap, animal-derived foods that contemporary animal agriculture contributes to the marginalization of low-income communities. The excessive amount of animal-derived foods that are consumed by members of many low-income communities is a large cause of diet-related health crises (diabetes, heart disease, obesity) that perpetuate social inequality. When we purchase animal-derived foods, we are promoting a food system that contributes to the marginalization of certain communities and limits their access to plant-based foods.

Additionally, the pollution produced by animal agriculture directly impacts low-income communities and communities of color. In the Southern United States (particularly North Carolina), pig factory farms and slaughterhouses are disproportionately located near these sorts of communities. Factory farms and slaughterhouses cause extreme amounts of air and water contamination that result in high rates of respiratory and other diseases in adjacent communities. Additionally, these factories keep open cesspools of pigs’ feces, blood, and urine, as well as buildings in which they store rotting pig carcasses. The extreme stench that results significantly affects the quality of life of members of these communities. This is one example among many of the ways in which the animal agriculture industry practices environmental racism and classism.

So, the belief that not participating in animal agriculture promotes socio-economic inequity is misled. I agree that it is unreasonable to expect that individuals who have limited access to plant-based foods refrain entirely from eating animal-derived foods. However, I disagree that, generally, people who do not consume animal-derived foods expect everyone else to be able to so. Rather, I believe that the majority of people who do not consume animal-derived foods see the American and world populations as victims of an unsustainable, inhumane, inequitable, oppressive, and nonsensical system that causes tremendous amounts of pain and suffering in non-human animals and human animals alike. They do not vilify individuals who eat meat; rather, they are saddened and frustrated by the industry that produces it and imposes it upon us.

Swarthmore’s Role:

Swarthmore is generally a socially conscious and critically-thinking community. We work to promote equity and justice on this campus. We regularly discuss social, political, and environmental issues. This is central to our institutional history and to our identity.

The practice of animal agriculture is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we rarely even consider it as an ethical concern. Virtually all institutions and individuals promote animal agriculture. Good, kind people eat animal-derived foods. Environmentalists eat animal-derived foods. Animal lovers eat animal-derived foods.

Just because a certain practice is accepted by a large portion of society does not make it permissible. Numerous human practices throughout history have been widely accepted but are certainly not morally permissible.

Often times, the most effective way to improve our world is not necessarily through learning more about it; rather, it is to more fully contemplate the implications of what we already know. We know that humans are animals. We know that non-human animals have the capacity suffer. We know that animal agriculture causes extreme environmental degradation. We know that we do not need to use animals for food to survive and live enjoyable lives.

Even if your compassion does not extend directly to the non-human animals we eat (cows, pigs, and chickens), you must also recognize the negative health and social impact the animal agriculture industry has on humans.

Animal agriculture as an ethical concern is rarely a topic of conversation on this campus. I would like to see it become one.

If you eat meat, do you think it is justifiable? Is it a kind thing to do? Do you agree that it is wrong, but you pick and choose your battles? Do you not participate in animal agriculture? Is it consistent to be an environmentalist or animal lover and eat animal-derived foods? Which of my arguments do you disagree or agree with and why? What would you like to add to the conversation?

Swarthmore VEG (Vegans Empathetically Grazing) is a new club that will focus on education, discussion, and outreach while building a new community. This club is open to everyone, regardless of if they are vegetarian, vegan, or just curious. It is a welcoming environment for all. Swarthmore VEG’s meetings are on Tuesdays from 6 to 7 p.m. in Kohlberg 302. For more information, email jwoodli1@swarthmore.edu.


  1. Thank you for your work raising awareness about the ethical, sustainability, and socio-economic concerns associated with consuming animal products! I would love to see those in the Swarthmore community who focus on addressing issues of sustainability expand their activism to include veganism. For those who are intrigued, but skeptical that they would be able to limit their animal product consumption, I invite you to take baby steps. Start by limiting your animal product consumption for one meal a day, then once you are used to doing that, extend to two meals a day, etc. After you have mastered the dietary transition, start doing research to see what other products you buy or use that also contain animal products (i.e., shoes, clothes, vitamins, beauty products, etc.) Some folks make the transition over a year or even several years. The point is to make a concerted effort, be kind to yourself when you make a mistake, and get back on the metaphorical horse. I think it is important to address that not everyone can afford to be 100% vegan in all that they buy and consume, but participating in the ways in which one can to minimize animal product consumption is still meaningful.

    For those who eat in the dining hall, there are a lot of vegan options! For those who live off campus, beans and rice together are an affordable and tasty source of protein that includes the full range of necessary amino acids. Supplement with spinach from the Co-op (you can buy a bag of spinach for less than $3) for iron. Other cheap and filling vegan foods include potatoes, oats, and bananas. Make sure to get some fats in there as well with oils and nut butters.

    Thanks again to the author of this article, the members of the new vegan club on campus, and those who are considering minimizing or completely eliminating their consumption of animal products!

    • Hi there,
      Thank you for making this point! Any effort to reduce promotion of animal agriculture is positive and should be commended. It is important to not view veganism as a binary, and recognize that everyone should make changes to address this issues in a way that is personally feasible.

  2. Hi,

    This article is pretty good, but I think your socio-economic issues section doesn’t fully cover how many agriculture conglomerates treat actual farmers terribly. For example, the continued prevalence of contract farming in the chicken industry results in severe economic abuse, exploitation, and victimization of farmers, and ag-gag laws allow the corporations to crack down easily on would-be whistleblowers, creating a climate of fear that not only causes often life-threatening stress and increased risk of mental illness for farmers but also prevents them from enacting changes to farming procedures that they otherwise would enact for their own health and that of their animals.

    John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” had a very good episode on the issue:


    Again, I thought the article was quite good, but it doesn’t quite cover all the bases!

    Best wishes,
    Ian Garrison ’18

    • Hi Ian,
      There are certainly many issues, socioeconomic and otherwise, that I did not address, but are nonetheless highly important and should be discussed. So, thank you for addressing the issue of contract farming and sharing some information about it!

  3. And why use the 2006 FAO rather than the one published in 2013? Perhaps this:

    “Greenhouse gas emissions by the livestock sector could be cut by as much as 30 percent through the wider use of existing best practices and technologies, according to a new study released today by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

    The report, Tackling climate change through livestock: A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities, represents the most comprehensive estimate made to-date of livestock’s contribution to global warming – as well as the sector’s potential to help tackle the problem.

    All told, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with livestock supply chains add up to 7.1 gigatonnes (GT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq) per year – or 14.5 percent of all human-caused GHG releases.”

    In other words, your argument weakens a bit when you consider the cuts already made, but also potential cuts that could be made to livestock based emissions. Hence, you use the 2006 FAO.


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