One of the most frequently expressed concerns about ending animal farming is what will happen to the workers and/or businesses if and when this change happens? The same concerns are raised in other sectors, such as renewable energy taking over the fossil fuel industry. In both cases the question ignores the fact that new opportunities for work will arise out of the growth of new sustainable food and renewable energy economies. It also ignores the billions of dollars in subsidies that artificially prop up both industries which might otherwise be allocated to some social good, like making healthy, ethical and sustainable food choices more affordable. In the case of slaughterhouse and farm workers, it also ignores all of the negative impacts this work has on workers, communities, public health and safety, world hunger, inequality, climate change and all other environmental problems we face.
To understand the evolution of industrial animal agriculture, it can be helpful to zoom out a bit and look at its beginnings. The Chicago Union Stockyards, at that time the largest meat packing and slaughtering complex in the world, has been memorialized as the hallmark of the industrial revolution. This resulted in a few families like Armour and Swift making immense fortunes on the backs of countless workers and animals subjected to horrific conditions as depicted in Upton Sinclair’s famous novel The Jungle.
We’ve come a long way since that time! For one thing, we now know of important connections between the oppression of marginalized human groups and other species. In fact, there is growing evidence that people who are more likely to believe in human supremacy and species hierarchy are more likely to also hold other prejudicial views against women, people of color and other marginalized groups. We also know that the forces of oppression against these various groups are the same private and public institutions often using the same dehumanizing tactics against all victim groups.
We must also consider the harmful effects of killing animals on workers and the communities they inhabit, according to numerous studies showing causal evidence between slaughterhouse work and domestic violence, PTSD and substance abuse. If all this wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that slaughterhouse work is often “the job of last resort” and one with high rates of accidents, including dismemberment.
For society as a whole, the slaughter and consumption of animals desensitizes us to those victims to the point that we don’t even recognize them as victims. In other words, slaughterhouses cultivate our apathy — the source of our darker natures, while it blocks our empathy — the source of our better natures.
In the end, any honest attempt to address the plight of farm workers or businesses cannot exist in an ethical vacuum. Instead, it must take into account all of the negative consequences and harms this industry imposes overall, as well as the solutions posed by a new food economy that presents fresh opportunities while leaving cruelty and unsustainability to the dustbin of history.