The Economics of Animal Welfare

» April 18th, 2014

Pistol v. Poleax: a Handbook on Humane Slaughter was published in London in 1932. The book’s opening line explains, “If there is one quality in the British character which is so ingrained as to be almost universal, it is love of animals and hatred of unnecessary cruelty.” This sentiment underscores the book’s 500+ page effort to justify the transition from one form of stunning animals to another before killing them.

The poleax was primitive. Men swung it like crazed cavemen and, more often than not, missed their target, which was described as the size of a teacup. Or they hit it too hard, rendering the animal’s brain unsellable. Or they didn’t hit hard enough, which created a prolonged tragedy for the poor animal. As one slaughterhouse employee recounted in 1922:

I have seen three, four, five, and even ten blows levelled at an animal before it has been brought to the ground; and I have known cases, though these are exceptional, where all efforts have failed to bring the animal down through the repeated blows having caused the head to swell.

Hence the pistol: the supposed source of humane reform. Efforts to promote this new devise, avidly supported by the RSPCA, included having one Madame Douchez Menebode, President of the Council of Justice to Animals, dressed in heels and a coat fringed with fur delivering a mechanized death blow to a cow (see above). The gun was called the Temple-Cox Killer.

For those who currently follow efforts to reform animal agriculture in order to make it more humane—for example HSUS’s ongoing effort to eliminate battery cages without a corresponding effort to eliminate animal agriculture—you will quickly realize that history is as much about continuity as change. One form of death replaces another, sensible people feel better, and everyone has their meat and eats it, too. This axiom was as true in 1922 as it is today.

But there’s an interesting change that’s possibly obscured by this so-called humane transition form one form of killing to another. With the adoption of the pistol over the poleax, slaughter became much more efficient. One slaughterhouse owner, after adopting the pistol form of stunning, exhorted his colleagues (upon retiring):

Have you for your own business adopted a certain method of stunning?—In September, 1922, after a lifelong study, I was persuaded that something required to be done to get rid of the antiquated poleax. My firm agreed to my recommendation to adopt the use of the RSPCA gun, and from that day to this was have slaughtered approximately 12,000 cattle. . . . .  It is a decided improvement.

Readers of the abolitionist activist Gary Francione will be nodding their heads knowingly. Francione has long argued that welfarist efforts to reform animal agriculture backfire by making animal agriculture more efficient and, in turn, more profitable. This claim certainly seems to be the case with the historical example of the poleax/pistol transition.

It is not, however, the case today—and this is an important point to keep in mind as we evaluate the viability of welfare reforms. In 1922, humane reforms came through new technologies that happened to blend increased welfare and efficiency. This is no longer the case. Today, humane reforms come at a cost, as readers of Jayson Lusk’s and F. Bailey Norwood’s Compassion by the Pound will fully understand. The upshot is that the economics of welfare reform are, unlike a century ago, in trouble.

Whereas seeking humane reforms in animal agriculture once led to cheaper meat, today the situation is exactly the opposite. As a result, there will never be a mainstream transition to humanely raised animal products. Ever. As long as there’s a cheaper option—and until we seek to stigmatize eating animals rather than only stigmatizing eating industrially raised animals, there always will be a cheaper option—all efforts to improve the experience of animals before they are killed for food we don’t need will merely benefit those who can afford to feel virtuous.




23 Responses to The Economics of Animal Welfare

  1. Rucio says:

    Great points. As well as consumers indulging a self (or Pollan)–defined virtue, purveyors of that “virtuous” meat can sell it a correspondingly inflated price. Clearly a niche that has no actual effect on how animals are used for food.

    Coincidence: Along with the Temple-Cox Killer we now have the Temple Grandin killing system to make it even more efficient and less harmful to the quality of the end product, oh, and “virtuous”.

  2. Karen says:

    “Whereas seeking humane reforms in animal agriculture once led to cheaper meat, today the situation is exactly the opposite. As a result, there will never be a mainstream transition to humanely raised animal products. Ever. As long as there’s a cheaper option—and until we seek to stigmatize eating animals rather than only stigmatizing eating industrially raised animals, there always will be a cheaper option—all efforts to improve the experience of animals before they are killed for food we don’t need will merely benefit those who can afford to feel virtuous.”

    OK! This refutes my statement of a few days ago. The all mighty $$$! The Buck stops there! Thank you JMcW once again!

  3. Pauline says:

    Talking of Temple Grandin, I don’t know if others have been following this discussion here:

  4. Karen Harris says:

    I’m not sure how you can make the statement that the insignificant reforms instituted by the animal agricultural industry have not benefited the industry by raising their profits. As others readers have commented, for example, Temple Grandin’s “highway to heaven” has resulted in greater efficiency and a “tastier” product.
    This is just one example. Another is gassing chickens instead of slitting their throats.
    More important, however, is the fact the these reforms diffuse the ethical concerns of a broader population, lessening the likelihood that they might reconsider eating meat. Fast food chains like McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the like are saavy enough to realize that without these reforms they would begin to loose a fairly sizeable portion of the market. I also take issue with the notion of humane slaughter, an oxymoron in my opinion, no matter how you “slice” it.

    • James says:

      What you are saying may be true for marginal welfare measures but for the most part meaningful welfare reforms—such as allowing more space for animals—costs the industry. Otherwise they’d all do it without the prodding of activists.

      • Karen Harris says:

        I’m not so sure about that. Although it may cost the industry more in terms of production initially, in terms of projecting future market share, I think it is an economic plus for the industry. I think they are smart enough to know that in the long run, the reforms they are instituting are great for their bottom line. By aligning themselves with animal welfare groups, in other words, being good guys, the animal industrialized food chain is assuring itself of a future with very little effort on their part.
        (On another note, I just read an earlier blog about the monetary worth of animals and your admission that you would not mortgage the house, so to speak, for your rescue animals, but you would for your family. In my own life, I have prepared for this ethical dilemma by getting health insurance for my rescue animals. Saved the day when two of my dogs got cancer. I also get insurance for my family, and could not pay their bills without it either!)

  5. Mountain says:

    “Whereas seeking humane reforms in animal agriculture once led to cheaper meat, today the situation is exactly the opposite. As a result, there will never be a mainstream transition to humanely raised animal products. Ever.”

    Does not follow. As Karen Harris points out, there are many welfare reforms Big Ag is making today because it is in the own best (economic) interest. But even if it were true that there were currently no welfare reforms that were beneficial to the meat industry (through cheaper meat or otherwise), it does not follow that this will always be the case. The fact that the opposite was the case in 1922 suggests that we live in an ever-changing world, the what is not possible today may be possible tomorrow (or many tomorrows from now)– and a transition to “humanely raised animal products” is certainly possible in the future, and may already be happening.

    Looking at the marginal costs of farming the way our farm does, it’s obvious that we’re more efficient than industrial farming. It’s always been important to me to build a model that is not only ethically superior, but economically superior. Big Ag doesn’t hate animals, they just don’t care about them one way or the other. If we can show farmers that it is in their own best interest to treat animals better (or even, one day, not kill them at all), most would be more than happy to do so.

    • Laura says:

      Oh really, would they? You assume an awful lot that’s positive about those known to hire and train emotionally deranged thugs to do the dirty cruel work of animal farming and who look the other way or even participate in the outright torture of these poor animals born and stuck in these places till their “lives” are finally taken, brutally, as if they’re no more aware than potatoes. If that’s not hatred, borne of systematic hardening and indifference, then I don’t know what is.
      You continually speak of “humane animal farming” in a world of animals viewed as nothing more than commodities, tasty treats, test objects, etc., while you have some obscure bone to pick with vegans whom you say are killers as well for any injuries/deaths caused by crop farming, etc. You seem to prefer the, “You can’t be perfectly non-harmful, so may as well eat the abused dead, or commit suicide, or just shut up vegan hypocrite” crowd over people like myself.
      Where will all these natural death farms operate to feed 7 billion people animal products? As many vegans as possible in this world should be your top desire to achieve your goals. You need to work on carnists, not vegans. Agree?

      • Mountain says:

        Hi Laura, how are you?

        “you assume an awful lot”

        All I’ve assumed is that farmers, like everyone else, tend to act in their own self-interest. Whether that helps or hurts animals matters much less to them.

      • Mountain says:

        “you have some obscure bone to pick”

        I hold people responsible for the deaths caused by their choices. Vegans do this to non-vegans; I simply apply this standard to everyone.

        Vegans frequently claim they aren’t responsible for deaths from crops, since those deaths are indirect. But the deaths caused by eating eggs and dairy are indirect, too, but surely egg & dairy eaters are responsible for them. For that matter, the majority of deaths caused by meat-eating are indirect– the field animals killed in the process of growing crops to feed meat animals.

        You shouldn’t be upset with me for applying this standard. Vegans look very good by this standard. On average, vegans cause far less harm, far less death than meat-eaters. But they do cause harm, they do cause death, and they absolutely can cause less. That may make you uncomfortable, but it’s still a fact, and I’m not a bad person for pointing it out.

      • Mountain says:

        “Where will all these… farms operate to feed 7 billion people?”

        I’m so glad you asked that, Laura. We can easily feed 2 to 3 people per acre on our farm, which consists of hilly land that was considered unfarmable when we bought it. There are 900 million acres of farmland in the U.S., so we could feed 1.8 to 2.7 billion people with U.S. farmland alone. I trust there won’t be any trouble feeding the world.

        • Laura says:

          How am I?…in your other reply: I’m good, considering everything, thanks.
          But you’re still assuming things you have no right to. Am I “uncomfortable” to the point of doubting my decision to be vegan because crop farming may cause injury and death to lives? No. No more than I’m uncomfortable that a walk in the park may inadvertently kill some insects I cannot see. So does eating deliberately abused/slaughtered animals somehow become the same thing to you?? Accidental is the same as deliberate, so Ted Bundy et al really did nothing wrong… same as a motorist who accidentally runs over a child on a bike? Where does this, “nothing is wrong except for vegans not being 100% perfect” end?
          To expect vegans to be so purely perfect or else we’re phony is just plain wrong, and antagonistic. After all, the animals on your farm walk about and kill many insects, possibly mice, frogs, lizards, even newborn kittens if a pregnant cat has given birth and animals accidentally walk over them. Then there’s the food you feed them, crops involved there? I could go on and on with the possibilities. I see no good point in that sort of thing.
          All this time and effort you invest in needling and trying to make vegans doubt ourselves would be better spent on other people who do, indeed, deserve your critiques and picking apart of every aspect of their diets and lifestyles.
          I’m doing something very right, and so are other vegans… we are not doing wrong in this aspect of our lives, as you continually try to assert. What, exactly, is your real motivation for this?

          • Mountain says:

            As I’ve said before, I don’t think you should doubt your decision to be vegan. Going vegan has massively reduced the amount of harm you were causing. There are still ways you could cause less harm now, but none of them require eating meat or any other animal product. So keep being vegan, and keep looking for ways to reduce the harm you cause.

          • Mountain says:

            “Then there’s the food you feed them, crops involved there?”

            No, as a matter of fact. We don’t feed our animals, for three reasons:

            1) Animal feed kills. By my estimate, feeding 100 chickens will kill 10-15 field animals per year. So for every 100 chickens an industrial egg farm has, it is killing not only the chickens (who are killed before they’re 2 years old), but an additional 10-15 sentient beings. Pasture-based farms are better, since chickens are free to forage some of their own food, but they still give chicken feed to their chickens. So, instead of 10-15 field animals killed per hundred chickens, it’s more like 5-10. With us, it’s zero.

            2) Animal feed costs. In addition to killing field animals, it creates an incentive to kill farm animals. Industrial farms kill their chickens before the age of 2 because egg production no longer matches the cost of feeding them. Many pasture-based farms let their chickens live longer, since they don’t feed them as much, but they still kill them eventually. Eventually, egg production always drops below the cost of feeding them. But not on our farm, because we don’t feed them. So, even roosters and old hens who no longer lay eggs are welcome to live on our farm. After all, it doesn’t cost us anything.

            3) Animal feed covers up problems on a farm. In order for chickens to feed themselves, they need to be free. Also, you need to take good care of your soil, so there are plenty of things growing for them to eat. Finally, you need trees and shrubs, so chickens can safely search for food. By not using animal feed, we know right away if something isn’t right on our farm. Animal feed covers this up.

          • Laura says:

            Again, you’re telling a vegan to reduce the amount of harm she causes, yet I still want to see one instance of you telling a carnist that. I’d love to see such a thread somewhere, please share if any.
            And about your hands-off natural-death farming, chickens do eat bugs and valuable (to the soil) worms, so your “with us it’s zero (animals killed)” isn’t quite right. Since inadvertent or incidental is the same as deliberate in your view, right?
            I don’t begrudge the chickens their food enjoyment either, just the fact that people keep them as food when not needed, because plant crops are all we need, and when those same people (ahem) tell vegans to reduce the harm we cause. We’re major harm reducers already and cherish and respect others’ lives as well as our own (if I may speak for others).
            It’s like you would go to a group of people active against child prostitution and tell them they could reduce their harm to children some more. But to the actual abusers you’d say nothing. I regretfully see you as a negative force, despite wanting to see your style of farming as positive as long as most people won’t give up the carcass eating.
            I’m still wondering what’s your motivation for seeking out vegans and telling us you’re better, because essentially, that’s what you’re doing.
            And I’ve read other opinions of yours and agree, but as soon as it’s something disingenuous, your credibility sinks low, so please no more deliberate misconstruing of my points, etc.

          • Mountain says:

            “chickens do eat bugs and valuable (to the soil) worms, so your ‘with us it’s zero’ isn’t quite right.”

            Actually, it’s exactly right, for two reasons:

            1. The general consensus, among both scientists and vegans, is that insects are not sentient beings. So, when vegans talk about the number of animals killed, insects typically are not included. And frankly, you don’t want them included. If insect deaths were included, you would save far more animals by banning all pesticides and herbicides than by going vegan. So let’s stick with the community norms, and not give you more reasons to doubt yourself.

            2. Chickens are moral agents. All social omnivores are. Considering the amount of communication it takes to live in a social group, and the amount of thinking an omnivore must do to decide what to eat and what not to eat, it’s obvious that they are responsible for their own eating decisions. If they were confined and I chose what they ate, then I would be responsible for any harm. But I don’t choose. They do.

          • Mountain says:

            “I regretfully see you as a negative force”

            That’s good. My mood is inversely correlated with your opinion of me. With some people, getting their approval means you’re doing it wrong.

          • Laura says:

            @Mountain: You’re rude, snippy, while pretending to be some sort of compassion guru… I doubt your sincerity even more now. You ignore relevant questions (e.g., about where you’ve confronted carnists like you do vegans) and only focus on what you think you can condemn me on, with things like, “not give you more reasons to doubt yourself” and such. You’re disingenuous and manipulative, deliberately twist things to suit your agenda. I plan on no more exchanges with you. To each what they’ve sown.

          • Mountain says:

            Laura, you’re describing yourself, not me. I finally called you on your rudeness, and did so politely. If you’re offended, it’s because your behavior has been offensive.

            Good day.

    • Karen Harris says:

      My point was that the reforms that industrial agriculture are making are clearly in their economic interest looking out into the future, while accomplishing essentially nothing for the animals. Torture is torture, and the superficial adjustments animal agriculture is making, do not alleviate lives of suffering and misery. In my opinion, as long as animals are viewed as commodities, they suffer in so-called humane farms and industrial animal agriculture. We would all agree that less suffering is better than more suffering, but it is still suffering.

    • Maire says:

      The only thing Big Ag and most of the farmers are interested in is profit, period. And the only way meaningful gains in terms of better treatment of these animals is if not doing so hurts profits. In general, public awareness of the obscene cruelty involved in meat production is sadly lacking. I believe more awareness of these facts would prompt people to boycott many of these products. That is why so many states are passing the so called Ag Gag laws. Big Ag does not want to be exposed.
      I have not seen any challenges to these laws that, in essence, provide protection for criminal behavior while criminalizing those who expose it. Sounds a little unconstitutional to me !!

      • Mountain says:

        Ag Gag laws are pretty blatant violations of the First Amendment. If they don’t get struck down in the coming years, then we are no longer living in a constitutional republic.

        • Maire says:

          And I’m very much afraid we are moving in that direction.
          These so called Ag Gag laws need to be challenged now, not later. Sadly, so many are unaware of what is happening and perhaps too many don’t care. But if nothing is done to stop the current slide people may wake up and wonder what happened when it may be too late. Organizations such as the Center for Consumer Freedom and Humane are prime examples of how corporations and Big Ag are working surreptitiously to subvert consumer freedom.

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