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Why become vegan? (four big reasons)

1. Say no to factory farming

If you manage to find a factory farm you’ll likely wish you hadn’t. There’s a reason they don’t put them in town centres and offer guided tours. In fact, for all the massive amounts of animal products I have access to within a 10 minute walk from where I live, I haven't seen a factory farm for 20 years and never knowingly been near a slaughterhouse. It's clever, and completely deliberate.

Most of the meat you buy in supermarkets and get served in restaurants, unless otherwise stated, comes from factory farmed animals. My Dad was a pig farmer, so I grew up around a factory farm and even helped out at weekends. As a teen I did a few shifts at a local battery hen farm and did work experience at dairy and sheep farms. Twenty years later, it’s safe to say that conditions have not been improved. It wouldn't be profitable to do so. Here are some key facts about the lives of the animals that provide meat and dairy products for you to eat today.

Pigs

Pigs are intelligent (comparable to dogs and cats), curious, playful and social animals with distinct personalities and, like dogs, can be trained to perform tasks. Like us, pigs are omnivores, which means they can eat animal and plant foods, and their wild ancestors forage for plants, fruits and roots. Contrary to the stereotype, pigs are clean animals, only taking mud baths to cool themselves in hot weather. The stinky stereotype is entirely due to the conditions they are kept in, spending their lives in crowded, dark, windowless sheds on dirty wet concrete or on perforated metal flooring, where the smell of ammonia from urine is overpowering due to poor ventilation. I always remember pulling my jumper up over my nose when I was a child, as I walked through the sheds with my Dad. It was eye-watering, and ear-piercingly noisy. The short and painful lives of pigs begin with teeth clipping, testicle removal and tail docking with a scalpel - all without anesthetic. As part of my childhood job, I'd catch and pass piglets to farmers as they did this. I can remember the sickening clipping sounds and squealing.

Pigs in factory farming conditions frequently suffer from injury, sores and disease, so they are fed antibiotics and drugs as preventative measures. During their short lives of around five months, pigs receive no veterinary care and conditions are so poor that many simply die before they reach slaughter age. I remember pushing a large squeegee-type sweeper down the central aisle of the long sheds, where faeces was collected, shunting dead piglet bodies along with the muck. It was incidental and meaningless.

Pigs kept for breeding give birth in farrowing crates, sometimes with a little straw. They are unable to turn around or interact with their babies. Farmer’s argue that the sow will squash her piglets if she is allowed to move freely, but the Winter 2012 edition of Viva! Life printed a study by the Universities of Warwick and Bristol revealing that the number of piglet deaths are the same in factory farmed and free range animals. The piglets are removed at three weeks, long before they’d be separated from mother in the wild. The sow is impregnated again five days later to go through it all again, treated like a machine.

Dairy cows

Like other mammals, including humans, cows must have a baby in order to produce milk. Like us, cows have a nine month pregnancy. Two million dairy cows are made pregnant in the UK each year. The mother’s calf is taken away within only 1 or 2 days of being born - long before he or she would naturally stop drinking her milk. Mother is made pregnant again after only a few weeks whch means producing milk for the calf she’s lost whilst carrying a new one. Dairy cows never get a break from this yearly cycle of birth and constant milk production, and the strain destroys their bodies. Most only manage three cycles and are killed at four or five years old. Cows in natural conditions can live for up to 21 years.

A dairy cow can produce up to 10,000 litres of milk each year. That’s ten times more than her calf could drink. Cows haven't naturally evolved to do this.

Around half the calves born are male. They are either killed for meat, shot as waste, or transported overseas for veal. He is considered a byproduct of the dairy industry: too skinny to be reared for beef (he’s not a pure-beef breed) and he can’t produce milk. Female calves face the same fate as their mothers. This disposal of the male calf happens in organic farming too.

There’s a one in three chance of a cow’s udders producing pus and becoming inflamed (mastitis). It’s so common that there’s actually an allowable pus quantity in the EU of up to 400 million pus cells in each litre of milk sold in UK. But you won’t find pus listed as an ingredient on bottles in the supermarket.

Dairy cows spend approximately six months in sheds during the winter months, usually in small concrete cubicles. ‘Zero-grazing’, which denies cows of grass and keeps them indoors, is becoming more popular. This system allows the farmer to control how much and what type of food the cow consumes, denying the cow any semblance of a natural existence while maximising profit. Clapped-out dairy cows are turned into cheap meat products, like burgers, pies and pet food.

Humans are the only mammals that continue to drink milk past weaning, and that of another species too. This is why many people have problems digesting it and suffer from allergies. Simply, we weren’t designed to consume it. Yet cow’s milk is still promoted as the ultimate health food, created by happy cows who are more than pleased to provide it. Read about calcium, and why dairy products aren't the best source here.

Sheep and lambs

On the surface it might seems as though sheep get a better deal than other farmed animals. They mostly live in the open; experience an environment that’s more natural to them; have a more natural diet; are allowed to nurture their young and have contact with other sheep. But one million sheep out of 17.7 in the UK die each year from cold, hunger, sickness, pregnancy complications or injury, and four million lambs die from exposure within days of birth. That’s around one in four newborn lambs, no doubt regarded as acceptable loss.

Sheep naturally breed once per year, having one or two lambs. Female sheep (ewes) come into season (ready for mating) in the autumn or winter and a five month pregnancy means a spring birth when the weather is warmer and there’s more food around. But farmers have altered this natural cycle to cash in on Easter trade, meaning lambs are born earlier. Many don’t survive the cold. The skewing of the natural reproductive cycle is achieved by giving the ewe hormones or keeping them indoors and controlling lighting.

The most profitable part of British sheep farming is lamb meat. Lambs - or baby sheep - are slaughtered at 4 months old. Ewes are slaughtered at 4-8 years. Sheep can live to 15 years. Ewe mutton (meat from older sheep) isn’t tender like lamb and is mostly used for processed foods or sold overseas. It’s cheap, and I remember in my catering days using mutton in curry recipes. We’d have to boil it for hours to be edible.

Wool isn’t a byproduct of the meat industry and accounts for 5-10% of total sheep farming profit, with 27% of UK wool production coming from dead sheep and lambs. Sheep are bred to produce more wool than is natural, and it needs to be shorn each year before the weather becomes too hot. Shearing is a stressful experience for sheep because they're not used to being handled. To avoid maggot infestation, sheep sometimes suffer the practice of mulesing - common in Australia - where folds of skin are cut from the back of the sheep’s body without anesthetic, leaving open wounds.

Chickens kept for meat

Meat chickens (broilers) are kept in huge windowless sheds (broiler houses) where they are crammed tightly together on a concrete floor with a litter of sawdust, wood shavings or straw. This litter isn’t changed during their short lives, and becomes soaked and filthy; broilers are forced to spend their lives standing in their own crap, leading to blisters and foot ulcers (this is hidden from consumers because feet, and a good amount of leg, are chopped off). Any chickens that drop dead may not be removed from sheds for days.

Controlled artificial lighting in the broiler houses tricks the birds into sleeping less and eating more. They live on a diet of high protein feed to facilitate weight gain, with added growth-promoting drugs and antibiotics. Selective breeding has meant that birds now grow so quickly that they can’t support their own body weight, with deformed bones and feeble hearts that frequently fail because they can’t pump blood around their freakishly large bodies. Up to 4/5 of broiler hens have broken bones, deformed feet or skeletal defects by the time they are slaughtered at only six weeks old.

Eight million broilers die every year before their six week slaughter age.

Chickens kept for eggs

Two thirds of Britain’s 30 million egg laying hens are kept in battery farms where they spend their lives in tiny cages, unable to explore any of their natural behaviours.

Thousands of cages are stacked on top of each other in huge windowless sheds, where each 45cm by 50cm wide cage houses five hens whose average wingspan is 76cm. They stand on a wire mesh floor, as many as 30,000 birds in each shed. This life begins at 18 weeks and ends at 72, once the bird has passed its peak egg-laying period. Hens can naturally live to seven years. The spent layers are made into cheap meat products like pies and pet food.

Egg-laying chickens don’t see daylight, with artificial lighting simulating a longer day to manipulate egg yield. Along with selective breeding and a high protein diet, hens can now lay up to 307 eggs per year, where a wild chicken might lay 20. This constant egg production drains the bird's health, with the calcium in egg shells robbing the body and leading to fragile bones (osteoporosis). It’s thought that one third of layers have broken bones.

Boredom brings about pecking - and even cannibalism - of their fellows, so beaks are trimmed to prevent damage to each other. This painful debeaking of chicks is done with a machine that uses a red hot blade to slice a portion of the beak off without anaesthetic. The beak - which defines a chicken’s natural behaviours - is a complex and sensitive organ.

These inhumane, injurious and diseased conditions lead to two million bird deaths each year.

Of the eggs that are hatched to produce more layers, roughly half of the chicks are male. They are all killed on day one. Considered a byproduct of egg production, they are no good for meat because they are from a lean layer breed. 40 million male chicks are killed each year with carbon dioxide gas or shredded in a mechanical macerator (large grinding machine). I've seen footage of live chicks - some still hatching - discarded in a skip outside a farm building. Their remains are turned into animal feed or fertiliser. This mass killing of male chicks applies to factory, barn and free range birds.

Free range and barn eggs may paint a picture of happier birds within a more natural environment, but they’re not much better off than caged. Free range eggs account for 35% of sales but often involve windowless sheds once again, with small holes that allow some of these naturally territorial birds - i.e. the ones near the holes - to go outside to small enclosed areas. Debeaking is still common. Six percent of eggs sold come from barn eggs, where birds live in overcrowded windowless barns with thousands of others, as many as 15 hens per square metre. Again, debeaking is common.

New ‘enriched’ cages are to become law in the EU by the end of 2012. They allow more space - about an extra postcard’s worth - but still not enough for the birds to extend their wings. They feature one nest box, limited perching and a dust bathing area.

Fish

Fish populations are collapsing across the world, with the most commonly caught species being herrings, cod, tuna, redfish and mackerel. Huge trawling nets are used to catch popular species but many unwanted species are scooped up too, like dolphins, porpoises, small whales, rays, sharks and diving sea birds. They all die in the process and are thrown back into the sea as 'bycatch' (the byproduct of large-scale commercial fishing), which amounts to a third of all fish caught. Fish either die from suffocation, are crushed by the change in pressure from sea to deck, or are disemboweled by a gutting knife while still conscious.

It's thought that 82% of fish stocks are headed to extinction. There's been a lot of fuss recently about sustainable fishing and eating less popular species to give others a chance to regenerate, but the best way to let the oceans recover is to stop eating fish.

The EU introduced fishing quotas to control overfishing but the reality is still bleak. When, for example, a fisherman's haddock quota is hit, he continues to fish to fulfill his cod quota. This means that any further haddock caught will be thrown back into the sea - after they've already died.

They may not be cute, cuddly or expressive-looking, but fish have a central nervous system like animals and therefore feel pain. They feel fear and stress and are as keen to escape death as any other animal.

Fish farming is seen as a way to overcome overfishing problems. Commonly kept species include salmon, trout and cod. Fish that usually swim great distances are caged, dosed with antibiotics and suffer from diseases and parasites. Ironically, other fish are caught to feed farmed fish, so this system is not a convincing solution to overfishing.

No laws govern the way fish should be killed. They may be cut across the gills and allowed to bleed to death, electrocuted in a water bath, hit over the head with a blunt object or gutted alive.

Conclusion

As an eye-witness as a child and young adult and through more recent research, it is clear that factory farming denies animals even their most basic natural urges. These animals are as intelligent and feeling as those you share your home with. It's an industry defined by cruelty and secrecy, that thrives on ignorance, and where profit is all that matters.

Thanks to Viva!’s ‘A matter of life and death’ publication for many of the above facts. Several other sources and my own experiences of factory farming also informed this section. Get in touch if you'd like any references.