“I Only Eat Free-Range Organic Meat.” This is a statement said by many when you tell them you are vegan, as if they are defending themselves. First of all, no need to defend, no judgement here! It is a tricky topic because often times their head is in the right place. People are trying to buy ethically sourced and humanely raised animals. However, the truth is many of these terms such as ‘free-range’, ‘organic’ and ‘grass-fed’ are not all they crack out to be. Also many people do not realize the environmental downsides to these practices as well as the inevitable animal cruelty that comes with making meat, dairy and eggs.
This is because in the end it ultimately comes down to profit. These terms are used as a marketing tactic. Information about the facilities where the animals are raised, bred and killed are hidden from consumers. Lastly, because of the incredible demand for animal products, it is unlikely we will be able to meet demand in both an economical, humane and environmentally sustainable way.
Standards and Regulations
When we buy free-range meat, we picture chickens running in a field while a girl in a white dress skips around and tosses fresh grains into the grass for them. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In the US and Canada there is no common standard or regulation to the word ‘free-range’. This does not mean that the animals get to go outdoors. It could mean each animal gets 3 more inches of space or that there is a window in the barn. In fact, many common practices on a factory farm are also used on free-range farms. These ‘free-range’ farms are not audited by third-party inspectors so, unless you visit the farm yourself, you really don’t know how the animals are treated.
Unless you are purchasing from a very small family farm which does not focus on profit (only produces food for themselves) it is likely the animals were treated very similarly as they would be in a factory farm. This means they are kept in tight spaces, fed hormones, and many are diseased and hurt.
Many people view eating foods such as ‘grass-fed’ beef as the more sustainable choice. Although it may be better for the animals, it has a significant environmental impact! For example a grain-fed cow requires 3-acres of land while a grass-fed cow requires 9-acres. Similarly, a grass-fed cow uses 35% more water than a grain-fed one, produces 33% more methane and produces 500% the amount of greenhouse gasses. This is not to say we should be eating grain-fed cows, yogurt etc. This is just to give an idea of the environmental impact of eating meat and dairy in general, and how this increases as you try to make it more ethical.
When we talk about free-range animals, we are only referring to how they are raised. We do not think about how they are bred, and killed. As mentioned previously, many practices from factory farms are also used on free-range farms such as debeaking, confinement, artificial insemination (through what the industry calls a ‘rape rack’) and in the end, slaughter. Regardless of where an animal is brought up, it must be slaughtered in a USDA certified slaughter house. These are anything but humane and often include strangling, beating and hurting live animals.
All animals are slaughtered when they are babies, and could live for years more. Below is a chart of when an animal is commonly slaughtered compared to how long it should live. Keep in mind these animals would live even longer if they were not raised on a farm, and fed hormones to make them grow larger than their bodies can support.
18 – 25 Years
When it comes down to it, in order to make profit as a farmer you have to have a large number of animals. When you have 80,000 pigs (for example) there is no way of providing proper care for them all. It is impossible to know which is sick, injured, what they are fed etc. Therefore in order for a farm to be profitable, it is unlikely the animals are treated humanely. Additionally, many smaller farms are owned by larger meat-packing companies such as Tyson, Cargill and Maple Leaf. Fun fact: 2 companies control 80% of the beef industry in Canada. Do you still have the picture of furry animals running around on a free-range on a farm?
These companies force smaller farms into contracts, to which they must deliver a certain amount of meat to them per week/month, in order to keep up with consumer demand. Therefore in order to remain profitable, small farmers must deliver these large quantities of meat, eggs or dairy to the larger corporations in the most efficient and effective way. If the fail to do so, they will loose their contract and most likely go out of business as they will not be able to compete with the large corporations. So although, they may have started as a small family farm with ‘ethical’ treatment of animals, it is almost impossible to continue these practices in present time, because of the immense power of meat packing corporations.
Why this hasn’t changed
The reason why farmers must produce such large quantities of meat is because there is a demand for it! It is clear that small farms, and sustainable practices are not economically or environmentally efficient for producers and consumers. This has created the factory farming system we have today. By not eating animal products you are not supporting these industries! Although you think one person cannot make a difference, at the end of the day supply = demand! By decreasing our demand for meat and dairy products companies will not produce as much!
We can already see companies diversifying to plant-based options because of the shift in demand. For example Dean Foods a large dairy company purchased Silk (the soy milk brand). Daiya the vegan cheese brand was purchased by the pharmaceutical company Otsoka. Because these plant-based options are now seen as profitable and sales of dairy products are decreasing, there is no option except to join plant-based companies! Click the link below if you want to see how much of a difference you are making by following a plant-based diet.
Sneak peak: if you went vegan for just 1 month you would save 30 animals, over 100,00 L of water, 500+ kg of grain and 85 km of forest. http://thevegancalculator.com/#calculator
Food Inc. (On Netflix) – has a lot of great information about factory farming practices and the controlling industries.
Check out Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s podcast about a visit to a free-range farm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VoSdM30Fqn0
On a lighter note, don’t forget to check out the blog to find some vegan inspo!