When we buy food we are taking part in a vast global industry. No other human activity has had as great an impact on our planet as agriculture. Americans spend more than a trillion dollars on food every year. That's more than double what they spend on motor vehicles, and also more than double what the government spends on defence. Yet, with the exception of a few ethical vegetarians, eating has, until recently, been largely an 'ethics-free zone'. No politician has ever had their chances of gaining office dashed by revelations about what they eat.
Recently, however, more people have begun to regard what they eat as an ethical choice, and an even as a form of political action. That is in part because the political system has failed to grapple with the environmental, animal welfare, and social issues raised by corporate agriculture. In the United States, particularly, the disproportionate political influence of the rural states and the clout that agribusiness wields in those states has allowed factory farming to grow unchecked, even while it leads to the demise of the family farm and the depopulation of rural areas, especially in the Great Plains states. For the consumer, 'voting with your dollars' is more likely to have an impact than voting on election day.
The ethical issues raised by food production are too numerous to discuss in a short article, so we'll take a single prominent example, chicken--America's most popular form of meat. Industrial chicken production has been described by Professor John Webster, of the University of Bristol's School of Veterinary Science as 'in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man's inhumanity to another sentient animal'.
The industrial production of chicken
Almost all the chickens sold in supermarkets are raised in very large sheds, typically holding 30,000 or more chickens. If you look in a shed when the chickens are nearing market weight, they cover the floor completely--at first glance, it seems as if the shed is carpeted in white. They are unable to move without pushing through other birds, or to get away from more dominant, aggressive birds. The crowding causes stress, because in a more natural situation, chickens will establish a 'pecking order' and make their own space accordingly.
Enter a typical chicken shed and you will experience a burning feeling in your eyes and your lungs. That's the ammonia--it comes from the birds' droppings, which are simply allowed to pile up on the floor, without being cleaned out, not merely during the growing period of each flock, but typically for an entire year, and sometimes for several years. High ammonia levels give the birds chronic respiratory disease, sores on their feet and hocks, and breast blisters. It makes their eyes water, and when it is really bad, many birds go blind. As the chicks, bred for extremely rapid growth, get heavier, it hurts them to keep standing up, so they spend much of their time sitting on the excrement-filled litter-hence the breast...
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