Animal Activists Get it Wrong: Farmers Are Not the Problem

Clothing-coordinated activists who stormed an Australian farm take a group photo for Facebook

The Australian state of New South Wales has introduced on-the-spot trespassing charges of $1,000 for each animal activist caught illegally entering private farmland. The penalties follow a series of recent demonstrations and instances of direct action staged by activists at private farms and slaughterhouses. There is apparently consideration of adding jail time and additional fines to the possible punishments. The NSW deputy leader has labeled those who engage in the prohibited activity as “domestic terrorists.”

In targeting farmers, animal activists have gotten it wrong. And I say this as an almost forty-year vegan who is a staunch advocate for animal rights.

The problem is not farmers. They fulfill a demand. The farmers would not be farming animals if there were not a demand for animal products.

The problem is not slaughterhouses. They fulfill a demand. There would be no slaughterhouses if there were not a demand for animal products. You can close ten slaughterhouses today and if the demand for animal products stays the same, ten new ones will open up tomorrow or ten existing ones will increase production capacity.

The problem is that most of us eat animals and animal products.

The only way that we will end the practice of eating animals is topersuade people through productive, non-violent education and engagement (i.e., not yelling at them; confronting them in adversarial ways, etc.) that they should stop fueling the demand that keeps the animal farms and the slaughterhouses in business.

When I say this sort of thing, many animal activists become upset with me and claim that what I am proposing — a widespread transition to veganism — will never happen because people will never give up eating and otherwise using animals.

There are two replies to these activists.

First, if people cannot be convinced to stop demanding animal products, then trying to stop the supply is a completely useless endeavor. If the demand is there, the supply will continue. That’s a simple and irrefutable fact. It’s called economics.

Second, the task of vegan advocacy and education, although certainly daunting, is not only not impossible, but it actually reinforces what most people already believe. Although some people do not care at all about animals as a moral matter, many — dare I say most — do. Indeed, it is part of our conventional moral wisdom that animals do matter morally. And just about everyone who does care about animals agrees that it is morally wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals. If that principle has any meaning, it must exclude suffering that is imposed merely for pleasure, amusement, or convenience.

Football player Michael Vick was involved in a dogfighting scandal. But how is dogfighting any different from eating animals?

Because we reject imposing animal suffering for pleasure, we excoriate people like American football player Michael Vick, who operated a dog fighting ring; or Mary Bale, who tossed a cat into a garbage bin in Coventry; or Walter Palmer, the dentist from Minneapolis who shot Cecil the lion.

Our widely-held belief about not imposing suffering and death on animals for reasons of pleasure or amusement explains polling released in May 2017, which showed that almost 70 percent of British voters were opposed to fox hunting, and half were less likely to vote for a pro-hunting candidate in the general election. Opposition is not limited to fox hunting. A 2016 poll indicated that, in addition to major opposition to fox hunting, significant numbers of people in the UK were also opposed to deer hunting (88 per cent), hare hunting and coursing (91 percent), dog fighting (98 percent), and badger baiting (94 percent). Most Britons object to the fact that the Royals blow away scores of birds on Boxing Day (December 26) just for fun.

It is clear that we take seriously the idea that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals even if we do not all subscribe to the idea of animal rights. The key to getting people to stop eating animals is to educate them about how eating animals is no more necessary than hunting foxes or badgers, or fighting dogs, or throwing cats into wheelie bins or shooting lions.

We kill approximately 70 billion land animals every year for food. We kill an unknown number of fishes. The lowest estimate I have ever seen is one trillion per year. We kill more animals every year for food alone than the total number of human beings who have lived on the earth from the beginning of time. Think about that for a minute.

None of that killing and death is necessary. We do not need to eat animal products to be healthy. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that vegan diets “are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The UK National Health Service says that a sensible vegan diet can be “very healthy.” Mainstream health care professionals all over the world are increasingly taking the position that animal products are detrimental to human health. Even large insurance companies are promoting veganism.

Eating animals is no less an instance of unnecessary suffering than is Michael Vick fighting dogs or Prince Charles shooting birds for amusement.

It is not only not necessary to eat animal products, it is clear that animal agriculture is causing an environmental catastrophe. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than all transport exhaust. According to Worldwatch Institute, animal agriculture is responsible for 51% of greenhouse gasses. And when you consider the other environmental effects — water use/pollution, soil erosion, etc., and the fact that methane is much more destructive than CO2 in a 20 year time frame, it becomes clear that reasonable minds cannot differ: animal agriculture is the biggest environmental threat to our planet.

One of the Oxford University researchers behind a recent study about climate change stated: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.” He added that going vegan “is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”

Another Oxford research team found that massive reductions of meat consumption was necessary to avert climate catastrophe. We are not talking about “Meatless Monday” or “vegan before 6.” We are talking about everyone eating 75% less beef, 90% less pork and half the number of eggs. And dairy also has significant adverse environmental impacts. Because it is unlikely that everyone will reduce their intake by that amount, those of us who do care need to reduce to zero on environmental grounds alone.

A recent study by Harvard University showed that the UK would be able to sustain itself and combat climate change by returning land used for animal agriculture back to forest: “[c]onverting land currently used for grazing and growing animal feed crops back to forest could soak up 12 years’ carbon emissions.”

The United Nations estimates that we have about twelve years to act to avert this catastrophe. We need to face a simple and irrefutable fact: a widespread transition to a vegan diet may not be sufficient to save the planet, but it is certainly necessary.

And then there’s the matter of human rights: The grain fed to animals in the United States alone could feed 800 million people. If we all ate plants, no child would have to go to bed hungry tonight or not make it to bedtime because they died of starvation beforehand.

We need to educate people about the morality — both with respect to nonhumans and humans — and ecological sanity of a vegan diet. I acknowledge that this is not an easy task. Eating animals is something we have been doing for a long time. Most people think of eating animal products as an entirely normal activity that they do not really question. Many feel uncomfortable about it but, despite the availability of information about the lack of need to consume animal foods, they still think that it is necessary to consume animals. We need to educate people about the fact that it it is not necessary to eat animal products.

“Direct action” against the farmer who produces the products that the friends and families of the activists consume

Many people have been misled into thinking that eating supposedly more “humanely” produced animal foods is morally acceptable. It isn’t. Because animals are chattel property, the most “humanely” produced animal products still involve treatment that is tantamount to torture — and all animal products involve death. If we really think that animals matter morally, we cannot justify killing them — however “humanely” — if there is no need to do so. And there isn’t. We need to educate people — really engage them in constructive ways — about why according moral value to animals means that we cannot use animal as resources. If animals are resources, then they are just things.

Environmental groups refuse to focus on animal agriculture. In an effort to construct their “big tents,” which can hold lots and lots of donors, they talk — at most — about reducing our intake of meat. Neither the Green Party nor the supposedly “radical” Extinction Rebellion promotes veganism. Indeed, they go out of their way to avoid doing so. We need to educate people about the ecological facts.

Targeting farmers and slaughterhouses for direct action not only fails to address the cause of the problem in a productive way, but it perpetuates the idea that those who do not eat animals are “extremists” and thereby frustrates our moving toward a social dialogue that we need to have. This approach gives people a reason to ignore the important issues at stake. There is also a certain absurdity to it: almost every activist who engages in direct action against farmers or slaughterhouses has relatives and friends — sometimes partners — who are not vegan and who are the very people keeping the farms and the slaughterhouses in business. Most of these activists would understandably object if their friends and loved ones were subjected to direct action.

These animal activists often attempt to justify their actions by citing the need for the public to see what goes on in large, industrial farms or in slaughterhouses. That is just silly. Anyone over the age of four knows that the animal products on their plates did not come from trees. They may not know the particulars, but they certainly know that animals suffered and died as part of the process of food production.

Moreover, there is a ton of graphic imagery out there about factory farms and slaughterhouses. No more is needed.

The problem is that discussion about animal ethics is often framed by professional “activists” who need gimmicks for fundraising purposes. And that is exactly what this direct action is about: fundraising, marketing, and branding. The primary target of these efforts is not the public that needs to be educated; it’s people who are already sympathetic to the message. Very few people who are not already sympathetic will think that direct action against farms or slaughterhouses is a good idea. And those who are sympathetic need to be engaged about why the only rational response to believing that animals matter morally is to go vegan. And then the farms and slaughterhouses close for good.

It’s not about animals; it’s about branding

Even when activists are not engaging in direct action against farmers and slaughterhouses, their efforts are often counterproductive and directed more at making them — rather than the issues — be at the center of attention. For example, going into a restaurant (wearing branded t-shirts) and yelling at people who are in the midst of eating a meal is not going to result in constructive dialogue. Standing in a square (or “cube” as they call it) wearing Guy Fawkes masks and holding laptops showing gory slaughterhouse footage, or gathering in large numbers to stand silently while holding the corpses of chickens or other animals, does little more than have parents with children walk in another direction and reinforce the idea that animal advocates are strange folk. Putting on animal masks and going into the local supermarket with a megaphone on hand is about creating a scene that helps groups to brand, not about a serious and constructive engagement with ideas. Some of these activists do not even promote veganism as a moral baseline. Indeed, some support campaigns for supposedly more “humane” exploitation. None of the large animal charities clearly and unequivocally promotes veganism as a moral imperative. Not one. Frankly, the modern “animal movement” is a terribly confused mess.

Those concerned about animal exploitation need to educate people so that they stop demanding animal products. If they do so, farmers will stop producing animal products and slaughterhouses will close. If they do not, there will always be animal farms and slaughterhouses. It’s that simple.

Originally published on