Eat Shoots and Leaves: A Case For the Vegan Option

11/07/2012 17:58 BST | Updated 10/09/2012 10:12 BST

In the countryside the fields burgeon with pasture and crops. But where are the animals?

See the industrial-sized buildings in this agricultural landscape? The lack of life on the outside belies the fact that inside are living beings, crammed together in vast numbers, fed and watered by automation. For them - unlike the fields outside - there is nothing natural.

This is intensive farming and these are factories for animal processing.

Economies of scale are key. Like commodities on a production line the aim is to breed and rear animals so that meat, eggs and milk can be produced using the smallest amount of space, at the lowest possible cost, in the shortest possible time. Maximizing profit to produce cheap food can never be reconciled with anything approaching the humane treatment of animals. Above all the giant agri-corporations strive to satisfy the consumer for whom price, taste and food safety are what matters - in that order.

The list of animals is long. Chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese; laying hens; quail and game birds reared for sport; dairy cattle; beef cattle; veal calves; rabbits; fish, goats; and, in some countries dogs.

Not for them a life according to their kind. Ducks have no water for swimming. Unable to preen they live out their seven week lives with eyes and nostrils encrusted with dirt, their feathers curled and sticky with filth. Meanwhile those raised for foie gras are force fed to enlarge their livers, their throats so bruised and damaged that they would never be able to eat naturally again. Broiler hens spend their six week lives on a bed of mounting excrement, kept alive with routine doses of antibiotics and vaccines.

In vast barns sows in crates, wedged between steel bars, are unable to turn around or take a break from their voraciously suckling piglets. If their environment was suited to their needs they would mark out a special 'dunging' area but in these conditions they have to defecate where they stand. These animals never know what it is like to have earth to root in, to search for food. They never feel the sun on their backs or sense the passing of the seasons.

And the result? Confined in vast numbers; stressed; unable to form a pecking order or any normal social relationship, they turn on each other. And so to minimise injuries they are 'mutilated'.

Castrated males - piglets, lambs and calves - are easier to handle. Castration also improves the quality of the meat. The spermatic chords of lambs and calves are crushed. Week old piglets have their testicles removed surgically (with a knife), their screams very much louder on the second cut.

The beaks of poultry - hens, turkeys, quail - are 'trimmed' to reduce injuries from 'feather pecking'. Yet under a beak's hard outer casing are nerve endings which makes this procedure akin to amputating a human limb.

Piglets' teeth are either filed or clipped to prevent injuries to their sows' teats and each other - yet their teeth and gums are no less sensitive, nor their nerve endings any different, from those of humans. Piglets' tails are also docked - surgically - since, like human babies, they teethe and need something to chew on. In a barren environment of concrete and steel tails become obvious comforters.

In the western world most farmed animals - about 95% - are produced on an industrial scale in industrialised units. But there are systems that are more humane; where the needs of the animals are provided for and where they have a good relationship with those that rear them; where sows have straw to nest in, hens dirt to scratch in, ducks water for swimming, piglets earth to root in and calves space to play and a diet that suits their immature digestive systems.

But systems like these cost considerably more than those ultra efficient units that treat animals as if they were inanimate agricultural products. If consumers care they have to pay the price. And those that do not? They support the vast agri-conglomerations for whom animals are nothing more than a product to profit from. Even those who buy milk and cheese support the beef and veal industries. And those who buy eggs also help swell the profits of giant agri-corporations (since most eggs derive from an industry too large to care about the welfare of hens, including a large proportion of free-range hens).

But there is a way to avoid contributing to the meat industry's coffers. The vegan way. Plant based food. Leaves, shoots, stems, seeds, nuts, fungi, pulses, fruit. A huge diversity that top chefs are at last drawing attention to.

Sue Cross is author of On the Menu: Animal Welfare (Published by Pen Press, 2009) and Today's Freaks: An A to Z of How Farm Animals Live and Die (ebook published 2011 and free in PDF form from:

Both book are available from Amazon in the UK and also the US