Animal suffering is a legitimate Occupy Wall Street concern

The Georgia Straight Online

October 28, 2011

One of the criticisms levelled at the Occupy Wall Street movement is that its apparent lack of focus has encouraged any group with an axe to grind against corporations to jump on the bandwagon to get its particular complaint heard. It might be true, but is there anything wrong with that?

Animal welfare advocates, for example, found it gratifying to see that Occupy Wall Street’s first official declaration included this charge against corporations: “They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals, and actively hide these practices.”

Not only is the statement true, but it’s also perfectly legitimate for Occupy Wall Street to connect it with the economic, social, and environmental concerns engendered by the lack of restraint on corporate power. The issues may seem disparate but they share a single root cause: the sacrifice of too many significant moral values on the altar of economic gain.

Nowhere is this truer than in modern agribusiness—and that’s why animal activists are legitimately on this bandwagon. Billions of animals suffer in what the food industry calls concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs), better known as factory farms. Battery egg farms, the first form of CAFO, produce more than 95 percent of the eggs in Canada—by packing 26 million hens into cages so small they can’t even flap a wing. Most beef cattle end up in huge feedlots (of up to 40,000 animals) where they are intensively fed on grain (instead of their natural diet of grass) and given growth hormones and antibiotics. Modern hog barns house up to 5,000 pigs in crowded pens, with breeding sows kept in stalls so small they can’t even turn around.

Industrial agriculture is not only an animal welfare nightmare but also a major cause of environmental degradation and a risk to public health. CAFOs produce enormous amounts of animal waste, which can contaminate the local environment. (An intensive pig farm of 5,000 pigs is equivalent to a small city of 20,000 people with no sewage treatment plant.) The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has said: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

The economic imperatives inherent in factory farming ensure that animal welfare and the environment are low priorities. Humane treatment of animals and protection of the environment incur costs, so they are disregarded. In Canada, the intensive confinement systems that cause so much suffering among hens and pigs are perfectly legal. Farm animals are hot-branded, castrated, debeaked, dehorned, detailed, and detoed—all without anesthesia. Producers must only follow voluntary codes of practice for farm animal welfare, which are not audited.

All of this happens because no government in Canada, federal or provincial, is willing to upset agribusiness by banning intensive confinement systems like battery hen cages or sow stalls (as the European Union is doing). Yet, according to a 2010 Harris/Decima poll, 71 percent of Canadians say they are concerned about the humane treatment of farm animals. The frustration felt by animal advocates over this disparity between public concern and the monolithic indifference of government and business is exactly what the Occupy Wall Street movement has identified across a host of other issues.

Some media commentators will have fun stereotyping the variety of causes that have been woven into Occupy Wall Street (tree-huggers, bunny-huggers, et cetera) and will fail to see the thread that runs through all their concerns: that corporate profit should not always come before principles like fairness, kindness, and compassion.