Industrial agriculture, or one of the worst crimes in history

In the entire history of life on our planet, no one has suffered like animals. What happens to domesticated animals on industrial farms is perhaps the worst crime in history. The path of human progress is littered with the bodies of dead animals.

Even our distant ancestors from the Stone Age, who lived tens of thousands of years ago, were already responsible for a number of environmental disasters. When the first humans reached Australia about 45 years ago, they soon drove 000% of the large animal species that inhabited it to the brink of extinction. This was the first significant impact that Homo sapiens had on the planet’s ecosystem – and not the last.

About 15 years ago, humans colonized the Americas, wiping out about 000% of its large mammals in the process. Many other species have disappeared from Africa, Eurasia, and the many islands around their coasts. Archaeological evidence from all countries tells the same sad story.

The history of the development of life on Earth is like a tragedy in several scenes. It opens with a scene showing a rich and diverse population of large animals, with no trace of Homo Sapiens. In the second scene, people appear, as evidenced by petrified bones, spear points and fires. A third scene immediately follows, in which humans take center stage and most of the large animals, along with many smaller ones, have disappeared.

In general, people destroyed about 50% of all large land mammals on the planet even before they planted the first wheat field, created the first metal tool of labor, wrote the first text and minted the first coin.

The next major milestone in human-animal relations was the agricultural revolution: the process by which we changed from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers living in permanent settlements. As a result, a completely new form of life appeared on Earth: domesticated animals. Initially, this may have seemed like a minor change, as humans have managed to domesticate less than 20 species of mammals and birds compared to the countless thousands that have remained “wild”. However, as the centuries passed, this new form of life became more common.

Today, more than 90% of all large animals are domesticated (“large” – that is, animals weighing at least a few kilograms). Take, for example, chicken. Ten thousand years ago, it was a rare bird whose habitat was limited to small niches in South Asia. Today, almost every continent and island, except Antarctica, is home to billions of chickens. The domesticated chicken is perhaps the most common bird on our planet.

If the success of a species was measured by the number of individuals, chickens, cows and pigs would be the undisputed leaders. Alas, domesticated species paid for their unprecedented collective success with unprecedented individual suffering. The animal kingdom has known many kinds of pain and suffering over the past millions of years. Yet the agricultural revolution created entirely new kinds of suffering that only got worse as time went on.

At first glance, it may seem that domesticated animals live much better than their wild relatives and ancestors. Wild buffalo spend their days looking for food, water and shelter, and their lives are constantly threatened by lions, vermin, floods and droughts. Livestock, on the contrary, is surrounded by human care and protection. People provide livestock with food, water and shelter, treat their diseases and protect them from predators and natural disasters.

True, most cows and calves end up in the slaughterhouse sooner or later. But does this make their fate worse than that of wild animals? Is it better to be devoured by a lion than killed by a man? Are crocodile teeth kinder than steel blades?

But what makes the existence of domesticated farm animals especially sad is not so much how they die, but, above all, how they live. Two competing factors have shaped the living conditions of farm animals: on the one hand, people want meat, milk, eggs, skin, and animal strength; on the other hand, humans must ensure their long-term survival and reproduction.

In theory, this should protect animals from extreme cruelty. If a farmer milks his cow without providing food and water, milk production will decrease and the cow will die quickly. But, unfortunately, people can cause great suffering to farm animals in other ways, even ensuring their survival and reproduction.

The root of the problem is that domesticated animals have inherited from their wild ancestors many physical, emotional and social needs that cannot be met on farms. Farmers usually ignore these needs: they lock animals in tiny cages, mutilate their horns and tails, and separate mothers from offspring. Animals suffer greatly, but are forced to continue to live and reproduce in such conditions.

But isn’t these unsatisfied needs contrary to the most basic principles of Darwinian evolution? The theory of evolution states that all instincts and urges evolved in the interest of survival and reproduction. If this is so, does not the continuous reproduction of farm animals prove that all their real needs are satisfied? How can a cow have a “need” that isn’t really important to survival and reproduction?

It is certainly true that all instincts and urges evolved to meet the evolutionary pressure of survival and reproduction. However, when this pressure is removed, the instincts and urges it has formed do not evaporate instantly. Even if they no longer contribute to survival and reproduction, they continue to shape the subjective experience of the animal.

The physical, emotional, and social needs of modern cows, dogs, and humans do not reflect their current state, but rather the evolutionary pressures that their ancestors faced tens of thousands of years ago. Why do people love sweets so much? Not because in the early 70st century we have to eat ice cream and chocolate to survive, but because when our Stone Age ancestors encountered sweet, ripe fruit, it made sense to eat as much of it as possible, as soon as possible. Why are young people behaving recklessly, getting into violent fights and hacking into confidential internet sites? Because they obey ancient genetic decrees. 000 years ago, a young hunter who risked his life chasing a mammoth would outshine all his competitors and get the hand of a local beauty – and his genes were passed on to us.

Exactly the same evolutionary logic shapes the lives of cows and calves on our factory farms. Their ancient ancestors were social animals. In order to survive and reproduce, they needed to communicate effectively with each other, cooperate and compete.

Like all social mammals, wild cattle acquired the necessary social skills through play. Puppies, kittens, calves and children love to play because evolution has instilled this urge in them. In the wild, animals needed to play—if they didn’t, they wouldn’t learn social skills vital to survival and reproduction. In the same way, evolution has given puppies, kittens, calves, and children an irresistible desire to be near their mothers.

What happens when farmers now take a young calf away from its mother, put it in a tiny cage, vaccinate against various diseases, give it food and water, and then, when the calf becomes an adult cow, artificially inseminate it? From an objective point of view, this calf no longer needs maternal bonds or mates to survive and reproduce. People take care of all the needs of the animal. But from a subjective point of view, the calf still has a strong desire to be with his mother and play with other calves. If these urges are not satisfied, the calf suffers greatly.

This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need that was formed thousands of generations ago continues to be felt subjectively, even if it is no longer needed to survive and reproduce in the present. Unfortunately, the agricultural revolution has given people the opportunity to ensure the survival and reproduction of domesticated animals, while ignoring their subjective needs. As a result, domesticated animals are the most successful breeding animals, but at the same time, the most miserable animals that have ever existed.

Over the past few centuries, as traditional agriculture has given way to industrial agriculture, the situation has only worsened. In traditional societies such as ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, or medieval China, people had very limited knowledge of biochemistry, genetics, zoology, and epidemiology—hence their manipulative capabilities were limited. In medieval villages, chickens ran freely around the yards, pecked at seeds and worms from garbage heaps, and built nests in barns. If an ambitious farmer tried to lock up 1000 chickens in an overcrowded chicken coop, a deadly bird flu epidemic would likely break out, wiping out all the chickens, as well as many of the villagers. No priest, shaman or medicine man could have prevented this. But as soon as modern science deciphered the secrets of the bird organism, viruses and antibiotics, people began to expose animals to extreme living conditions. With the help of vaccinations, drugs, hormones, pesticides, central air conditioning systems and automatic feeders, it is now possible to imprison tens of thousands of chickens in tiny chicken coops and produce meat and eggs with unprecedented efficiency.

The fate of animals in such industrial settings has become one of the most pressing ethical issues of our time. Currently, most large animals live on industrial farms. We imagine that our planet is inhabited mainly by lions, elephants, whales and penguins and other unusual animals. It may seem that way after watching National Geographic, Disney movies and children’s stories, but the reality is not like that. There are 40 lions and about 000 billion domesticated pigs in the world; 1 elephants and 500 billion domesticated cows; 000 million penguins and 1,5 billion chickens.

That is why the main ethical question is the conditions for the existence of farm animals. It concerns most of Earth’s major creatures: tens of billions of living beings, each with a complex inner world of sensations and emotions, but who live and die on an industrial production line.

Animal science played a grim role in this tragedy. The scientific community is using its growing knowledge of animals mainly to better manage their lives in the service of human industry. However, it is also known from these same studies that farm animals are undeniably sentient beings with complex social relationships and complex psychological patterns. They may not be as smart as we are, but they certainly know what pain, fear and loneliness are. They too can suffer, and they too can be happy.

It’s time to think seriously about this. Human power continues to grow, and our ability to harm or benefit other animals grows with it. For 4 billion years, life on Earth has been governed by natural selection. Now it is more and more regulated by the intentions of man. But we must not forget that in improving the world, we must take into account the well-being of all living beings, and not just Homo sapiens.

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