Factory farming. The words conjure up such unpleasant images: the industrialisation of the countryside; animals treated as mere objects; and of course the pitiless mechanisation of slaughter.
Consider the following, from the BBC‘s Lucy Hooker, on the slaughter of pigs:
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“Pigs are stunned using a 70% to 90% carbon dioxide concentrate. They are typically loaded in groups of about half a dozen onto something like a paternoster lift, which lowers them gradually into ever higher concentrations of the gas.
“Once the animals have been stunned, they must be bled within 15 seconds to avoid the risk of them regaining consciousness.”
Remember, that’s in a country (the UK) that does more than most to minimise the distress and suffering of livestock.
Yet, viewed in purely economic terms, one can make an argument that there’s no such thing as factory farming. However much we think we’ve industrialised the production of meat, it is fundamentally unlike the manufacture of most other products.
It’s a case argued by Liz Specht in an eye-opening article for Wired. She explains that the transformative economic power of the modern production line doesn’t just lie in the sheer quantity of goods turned out, but also in three other vital factors.
Firstly, there’s the speed of the manufacturing process from raw materials to finished product. Depending on the industry, a shop-ready item, or batch of items, can be made in hours, minutes or even seconds – allowing supply to match any fluctuation in demand. An animal, though, is different. For all our use of selective breeding, antibiotics and growth promoting hormones, there’s only so far we can go in rushing the rhythms of life:
“Even the fast-maturing chicken is subject to these relentless cycles. Today’s chickens reach slaughter weight about six weeks after hatching, but the lag also needs to account for time in the shell and the hens’ laying rate, meaning the broiler supply must be predicted 18 to 24 months in advance.”
The lead-in time for meat is so long that matching supply to future demand is a risky business.
Secondly, there’s the fact that, with meat, the unit of supply (individual animals) is not the same as the unit of demand (cuts of meat). From the producer point of view, those cuts also come bundled up with all sorts of low value by-products – offal, viscera, excrement etc – that have to be disposed of somehow. These factors make it even harder to match supply to demand – an issue grimly referred to within the industry as the “carcass balancing problem”. Specht provides an illustration:
“The slaughter of a single cow produces only about 28 T-bone steaks, ten sirloins, and eight filet mignon. So the order of the 29th T-bone or ninth filet would drive the slaughter of an entire additional cow.”
The third inflexibility concerns product variation:
“Meat companies large and small typically specialize in one to three species (chicken, cows, and pigs). This lack of diversity is due in large part to the fact that the production and rendering process for each of these species is radically different. Everything from feed composition and barn layout to transport vehicle configuration, slaughterhouse equipment, and staffing is different for chickens, turkeys, cows, and pigs.”
There is of course the possibility of product variation within a particular species. However, switching between different rearing methods and feeding regimes is a lengthy process – and selectively breeding for a newly desired characteristic takes even longer. It’s not like tweaking the formula of a soft drink or changing the colour of the paint used on a car production line.
Liz Specht goes on to argue that hi-tech alternatives to meat – i.e. plant-based meat substitutes and, somewhat further into the future, vat-grown meat produced from cultured animal cells – are not subject to these inflexibilities. As well as removing slaughter from the equation (plus various other animal welfare issues), the economics of production are fundamentally different. The new technology makes ‘meat’ a truly manufactured product – conferring advantages of efficiency and agility. Specifically, these will come from dramatically shorter lead-in times; the ability to supply products in exactly the quantities required; the minimisation of low value by-products; and the capacity to develop variations of flavour, texture and nutritional content.
Whether or not veganism continues to gain popularity doesn’t really matter. The alt-meat industry doesn’t require people to believe that meat is murder – cold hard economics is all it needs to kill the competition.
You can already see the supermarkets preparing for what’s to come. Over the last few years the range of substitute meat products has grown in quantity and quality. Expect this trend to continue to the point when real meat becomes the niche product (and probably quite an expensive one).
Is it credible that a global industry that rears and slaughters billions of animals every year could all but disappear? The answer is yes, because something very similar has happened before.
Horses were once integral to our way of life – long into the industrial era they were absolutely critical to our transportation systems and other economic activities. In fact, ‘peak horse’ for the western world was the early twentieth century. Both the countryside and the cities were full of them – indeed, they were designed around their use. The sound of modernity was one endless, reverberating clip-clop.
But then the internal combustion engine roared into our lives. Apart from a few specialised uses like mounted policing, horses disappeared from the cities – and in the countryside have survived mostly as pets (the less said about their culinary uses, the better). Draught horse breeds that once propelled the economy would be extinct were it not for the dedication of enthusiasts.
All this happened not out of a desire to free these noble animals from our exploitation, but because new technology and hard economics meant that it was simply too expensive and inconvenient to stick to the old ways. It’ll be the same with the species we currently rear and slaughter for their meat. Their numbers too will dwindle away. The land and buildings they currently occupy will be put to other uses.
Over the decades, we’ll forget they were ever there – and what we did to them.