Comment: How meat eaters can support animal welfare

By Samuel Lawes

The impassioned case for veganism made by Mimi Bekhechi on Friday may provoke one of two reactions from readers – but more often not the one she'd like.

Some will accept her damning description of the modern meat industry, of whom a few will take action and become vegans. Far more, though, will be turned off by the implicit comparison between non-vegetarians and slave traders and the suggestion that a world without any animal suffering is realistically possible.

Needless to say, the nature of evolution necessitates not only suffering but violence, cruelty and, for that matter, carnivores. There will never be a wholly vegan world, even if humanity eschews the consumption of meat products. And it is hugely demeaning to the many thousands of people still owned as slaves today to suggest that their suffering is comparable to that of poultry.

Nevertheless, Bekhechi's case is a compelling one. Anybody who has seen footage of factory farming (there is plenty on the internet, but it's not for the faint hearted) will understand that. This is not just naivety, but a rational response to seeing poultry stuffed into cages they can't turn around in – 'barren battery farming' – and often quite literally going insane. Or 'excess' chicks thrown alive in their thousands into rubbish sacks or grinders.

Disgust is a very reasonable response to this.

But why is it we have an industry that treats poultry and some livestock with this mechanical indifference? Interestingly, the world that best describes battery farming is probably 'inhumane'. And that is just it. Therein lies the problem.

The industrialisation of agriculture pioneered in Britain in the nineteenth century led to fantastic increases in production of plant crops. But the same industrialisation, when extensively applied to meat and dairy production in the United States, created ethical issues. Plants aren't conscious; animals are. The industrialisation of livestock takes no account of this, because industry isn't conscious either, and the result is a system which requires intervention in the form of either consumer demand or state regulation to protect animal welfare.

But again, while a few deeply principled individuals might choose to respond by adopting veganism (and good luck to them) society as a whole isn’t anywhere near that point.

What is needed is a supply-chain response. This could come in the form of further commitments from supermarkets to stock high welfare products, which in turn would need consumers to demand it. Alternatively it could come from higher minimum standards for food production, enforced by government.

Of the two, consumer demand is preferable for two reasons. Firstly, there must be a cost borne and new costs should ideally be consensual. The best way to gain consent is for consumer demand to determine supply. The second advantage of this over further regulation is that governments often do a poor job of regulations, and can either repeal or overcomplicate them for political reasons.

Having said this, government can drive change fast. Last year, the EU banned barren battery farming. While industry leaders warned of job losses and imported eggs replacing British ones, this initiative seems to be working well in tandem with consumer demand. A guarantee of 'British Eggs' now includes a welfare standard. Intervention and market demand are not mutually exclusive.

Sure enough, last year free range actually outsold caged eggs – unaffected by EU rules – which shows that consumer demand for welfare improvements is strong and still growing.

It is also worth nothing that much British agriculture is actually quite ethical to begin with. Cattle and sheep often graze in large, open fields – their welfare standards are almost utopian. However, some farmers are trying to move from these traditional methods to the 'mega farms' seen in the US. This would be a terrible regressive step for animal welfare and is an area where heartfelt campaigning and placard-waving can do a lot of good.

The Red Tractor initiative presents another opportunity for welfare improvements. Last year senior politicians discussed strengthening this with the aim of developing a 'British Fairtrade' system. A deal of this sort would likely include significantly higher than baseline welfare standards. Where have those discussions gone? 

All these incentives are realistic ways to improve the lot of the many millions of domesticated animals on which we depend. And the huge growth of organic, free range & Fairtrade sales bears witness to the fact that consumers – us lot, the plucky old British public – do want to see welfare standards improve.

But for goodness sake, let's not imagine the best hope for improving these standards lies in Britain going vegan.

There is an old observation that you might only vote in a polling booth twice a decade, but you vote in shops and supermarkets every day. I'll end by echoing the sentiments of an excellent endorsement of democracy by Robert Webb in last week's New Statesman.

Get voting, Britain. If you can't bring about a utopia, you might at least be able to do something about welfare standards in the egg industry.

Samuel Lawes is a freelance journalist living in Istanbul. You can read his blog here.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.