Slaughterhouse worker mid-swing in dismembering a cow's body hanging from the ceiling

Source: Remo Cassella

From exploited workers to the animals to our very democracy, animal agriculture* is bad for everyone involved—except the folks who profit from it.

The growing demand for cheap meat means the animal food industry must raise and kill animals in high volume with minimal regard for well-being, health, or safety. This in turn leads to poor working conditions in an already violent, stressful job. Poor waste management of factory farms leads to health problems in surrounding communities. And animal agriculture lobbyists pressure (and often work in) the government to channel tax dollars and create laws that protect and maximize their profits.

Eating Animals Increases Violence and Suffering

In order for bacon, steak, and boneless chicken breasts to show up behind the meat counter, someone has to kill those animals and dismember their bodies. But who would have thought that killing and chopping up animals for a living might cause someone to become violent? Many studies have shown a connection between killing and torturing animals with violent, antisocial behavior. An article from Shell Ethics lays out the connection between killing animals for food and the violence it creates in communities:

The slaughterhouse occupies a contradictory position within society that other industrial processes do not. Formal regulations about requiring “humane” slaughter directly acknowledge that sentient animals who are being killed are worthy of protection–yet those who are engaged in the work of the slaughterhouse also develop emotional constructions that allow them to actually carry this kind of work out.

It will come as no surprise that the consequences of such emotional dissonance include domestic violence, social withdrawal, drug and alcohol abuse, and severe anxiety. As slaughterhouse workers are increasingly being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), researchers are finally understanding the results of systematic killing of sentient animals for a living.

Animal welfarists and liberationists, and even Pope Francis recognize that our current food system causes immense suffering for animals. Whether or not it causes moral discomfort to recognize this, animals are sentient beings and can feel pain, fear, and anxiety when abused and killed. At least 150 billion animals are killed** every year for food.

Even with the general concern for animal welfare, animals raised and killed for food are first and foremost treated as commodities, and generally receive care needed to to meet the bare minimum legal standards for quality. While the U.S. lags far behind Europe with regards to animal treatment, nearly all animals raised for food:

Because of our globalized food system, even when animals are raised in the “best” conditions according to legal regulations, they might meet their death in another country where animal welfare (and human rights) laws are nonexistent or unenforced.

Eating Animals Requires a Desperate Work Force

Because industry leaders know how violent and miserable slaughterhouse work is, they recruit the most desperate and impoverished people. As Food Empowerment Project explains,

Many employers knowingly hire undocumented workers in an effort to satisfy the extremely high turnover rate of the industry, which often exceeds 100% annually. In some cases, they provide incentives for current workers to recruit family and friends and even help new workers to create fake social security cards. Undocumented workers are constantly faced with the threat of deportation – either by their employer or by federal raids.

Most workers are “at-will” employees, meaning they can be easily fired at a supervisor’s discretion. The threat of termination discourages workers from reporting safety concerns, injuries, or other serious issues. Supervisors use a variety of intimidation tactics to suppress workers’ concerns and make it clear that other people are always available to replace them. As a result, workers are conditioned to accept a hazardous and demeaning work environment if they want to remain employed.

Eating Animals Exacerbates Environmental Injustice

The Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) where animals are raised for food are intentionally built in poor, rural areas, often with large minority populations, where the community either cannot fight against the industry or has such high unemployment rates they are willing to accept any potential job creator. The vast amounts of animal waste that these CAFOs produce are applied untreated directly onto nearby land. As a result, these communities suffer with polluted groundwater, air pollution, and diminished quality of life, in addition to the increased rates of violence as already discussed.

The forthcoming book by Professor Randall S. Abate, What Can Animal Law Learn from Environmental Law? examines these issues from a legal standpoint and presents some possible workarounds. But the fact remains that the animal food industry is a powerful entity that is difficult to regulate. Which brings us to the next point…

Eating Animals Undermines Democracy

From “ag-gag” laws designed to criminalize whistle-blowers who document animal cruelty to generous corporate welfare (note that corn and soybean are mostly grown to feed animals), the animal food industry has a substantial and unprecedented influence on government.

In Brazil, the cattle industry receives government support to keep and expand land confiscated from Indigenous communities. In the U.S., the ties between the animal industry and government regulatory bodies are so close, many have likened it to a “revolving door”. The animal food industry’s influence on the government affects affordable food options and ultimately public health.

Eating Animals is Unsustainable

One proposed solution to these issues is to move away from factor farms and back to small-scale animal farming. But even when CAFOs are removed from the equation, raising and killing animals for food still negatively impacts the environment. In Brazil, for example, cattle grazing is responsible for over 75% of Amazonian deforestation and is a source of other environmental and social concerns, including bonded labor and land-grabbing.

As several United Nations reports have concluded, eating meat is simply not part of a sustainable future:

  • Animal agriculture is by far the single largest human use of land, and “is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America where the greatest amount of deforestation is occurring – 70 percent of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures, and feedcrops cover a large part of the remainder.”
  • It is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than transportation.
  • Globally, animal agriculture is “probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication, “dead” zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health problems, emergence of antibiotic resistance and many others.”

Additionally, “agricultural processes have an inherently low efficiency of resource use[. T]his is true especially for animal products, where the metabolism of the animals is the limiting factor. Large proportions of the world’s crops are fed to animals and this is expected to increase to 40–50% of global cereal production in 2050. (UNEP, “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production,” p. 66).


Ultimately, what we eat impacts the well-being of humans, animals, and the environment. If we as a people are serious about achieving a just, sustainable future, we must ensure our food and its production contributes to—rather than undermines—such a future.


*I speak of “animal agriculture”, “eating animals”, and the “animal food industry” interchangeably with the caveat that I am referring to the animal-based food system in the global North/industrialized world/first world. As such, this post is generally not applicable to hunter or indigenous, meat-eating communities.

**Estimates for the number of animals killed, including land and sea animals, is hard to calculate. The ADAPTT kill counter uses conservative estimates based off 2003 data, which means 150 billion is most likely substantially less than the actual number killed today. In fact, some estimates for the fishing industry alone are between 0.97 and 1.97 trillion killed worldwide each year