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Lab Meat Or Rearing Animals On Factory Farms: Which Is the More Unnatural?

12/08/2013 12:09 BST | Updated 09/10/2013 10:12 BST
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'Cultured beef', 'shamburgers', laboratory meat. Those who are put off the idea of eating meat that has been processed from the stem cells of an animal and developed in a laboratory say its unnaturalness is the principle reason for their distaste.

But when animals are reared intensively for meat that is hardly more natural.

It is not for nothing that intensive units are called factory farms. Their aim is to produce cheap food at the lowest possible cost. As many animals as possible are kept in in as little space as possible to fatten in the shortest time. The disconnection with nature is extreme and the welfare of the animals discounted. Yet the animals that are used are living, sentient beings. They breathe, eat, defecate and have a mental perception of what happens to them.

Of all the meat eaten in British homes pig meat is the most popular. In the most intensive systems nursing sows are kept in vast sheds in serried lines of farrowing crates on concrete floors. On this scale any meaningful welfare becomes an impossibility. Little larger than the sow stalls that are now banned in the EU, farrowing crates still prevent sows moving in any normal way. Even if they had straw they would not have room to turn around and satisfy their natural instinct to make a nest before they give birth. Until their piglets are weaned they will never be able to take a break from them. These animals will never go outside; never feel the earth beneath their feet; or sense the passing of the seasons. 58% of the UK's sows are kept this way; and in the EU most are.

One third of the UK's piglets - and the majority in the EU - are fattened in row upon row of concrete pens on slatted or concrete flooring without straw for bedding.

In a natural environment pigs spend 75 per cent of their day turning over the earth with their snouts, rooting for food and exploring. Because they are so active and inquisitive piglets that are kept in barren environments find the only thing they have to satisfy their curiosity is to chew each others' tails. For this reason their tails are docked. That 80 per cent of the UK's piglets are tail-docked is a sign of how unnatural their lives are. Piglets that lead a normal life never chew tails.

The UK's second most popular meat is poultry and every day we eat 2.2 million chickens. 98% of UK chickens are reared in windowless sheds; 30,000 birds to a shed is typical. Artificially lit for long hours to encourage eating; in an atmosphere reeking of ammonia that stings eyes; routinely fed antibiotics; sprayed with insecticide; their growth forced by a high calorie diet. These birds are ready for slaughter within 35 days of hatching - three times faster than a natural rate. For these birds any semblance of a natural life is non-existent. They cannot tell night from day. They never breathe fresh air. Or experience the freedom to move and behave in a normal manner.

About one quarter of the meat we eat in the UK is beef or veal. 40% of these animals originate from the dairy industry where calves are taken from their mothers within a few days of birth so that no time is wasted in returning cows to the milking parlour. Only a small minority of cattle spend all their lives out on grass. Most are brought in during the winter months and some spend all their lives inside. The lack of space means they develop sores when they rub against each other. Slatted floors are becoming more common. They hurt feet and the lack of bedding makes it uncomfortable to lie down. Those fed too much grain for fast fattening suffer from indigestion. Poor lighting adds to their separation from a natural environment.

Two out of three of the world's farmed animals are factory farmed. Sick, mutilated, filthy, trapped, overcrowded, afraid, stressed and defenceless; castrated and artificially inseminated, each individual life is surely, by any standards, torture. To treat them as if they had no more feeling than the culture of stem cells in a petri dish is profoundly cruel. And just as unnatural.

It is easy to be duped by supermarket labels: 'Locally sourced'; 'Farm Assured'; 'Farm Fresh'. None of these have anything to do with farm animal welfare: the likelihood is that the meat they describe will have involved production on an industrial and vastly cruel scale. Will it not be a great step forward when labels on meat-based products of the future read: 'no animal has been harmed in the making of this product'?