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Technology, Animals, and People


Steve Talbott

If you want to see the prevailing tendencies of technology in human society today writ large and clear, then look at our application of technology to animals. In factory farms around the country you will find millions of cows, chickens, and hogs engulfed in a kind of holocaust pushed a few rungs down the evolutionary ladder. Portentously, this occurs at a time when we are increasingly disinclined to distinguish those other rungs from our own.

The basic facts are hardly in dispute, and the literature documenting them is both vast and readily available to the public. Summarizing the situation a year and a half ago, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., wrote in an op-ed piece, "I've reconciled myself to the idea that an animal's life has been sacrificed to bring me a meal of pork or chicken. However, industrial meat production -- which subjects animals to a life of torture has escalated the karmic cost beyond reconciliation" (Newsweek, April 26, 1999).

And Michael W. Fox, author of "Eating with Conscience", provides more of the details than you will probably want to know, including these:

The cruelest fallout from the industrialization of agriculture is the treatment of farm animals, now coldly referred to as "production units." One particularly gruesome example of inhumane farming is that most gourmet, milk-fed veal comes from calves raised in almost complete isolation for sixteen weeks. They live in narrow crates where they can neither walk, turn around, nor comfortably lie down. They are fed a liquid diet laced with antibiotics and low in iron to keep their flesh pale. In a further effort to keep their flesh pale, the calves are kept in a state of borderline anemia by depriving them of hay and roughage, which they crave.

Another example of cruel factory farming is the extremely abusive practices used in commercial egg houses. More than 90 percent of the eggs we consume come from laying hens that live in a cage with a floor space only about twice the dimensions of a regular phone book. Four or five hens share this space. There is not enough room for the hens to lie down, fluff their feathers, or even stretch their wings. Because of the cramped cages, chickens become crazed, pecking one another severely, sometimes to death. Poultry producers solve this problem by "de-beaking" the chicks with hot knife machines....

In many commercial sheds, seventy thousand to one hundred thousand or more laying hens or broilers (raised for meat) crowd together under one roof. Diseases and infestations often sweep through the flocks at an alarming speed and require extraordinary applications of various drugs and toxic chemicals. A Maryland farmer, who now farms organically, told me that commercial egg factories hyperstimulate young hens with artificial light to get them to start laying eggs before they are fully grown. The industry uses the term "blowout" to describe what happens to some of these hens when they are forced to lay too early -- the hens' vents (posteriors) burst, and they die.

Broiler flocks have sometimes gone crazy, and in wave upon wave, bash themselves to death in mass hysteria inside the poultry shed. A Virginia farmer first told me of these things in 1976. He said that hearing seventy thousand birds become one mad wave of feathers, excrement, and death almost drove him crazy, too. Furthermore, hens are starved for up to thirty hours before they are slaughtered. Poultry producers reason that any food given during this time would not be converted to flesh, and [is] therefore a waste.

You can be sure there are technical fixes for all the more disruptive symptoms of abuse; after all, the operations would hardly remain economical if chicken flocks regularly went into a self-destructive frenzy. You can also be sure that, more often than not, the fixes are further instances of abuse, and that the technical mindset behind the fixes is the necessary foundation for the entire process of abuse.

Despite the conditions that Kennedy, Fox, and so many others have described, there has been no great outcry, and the buying public has not risen up in rebellion. Part of it may have to do with the extreme insularity of a technologizing and globalizing society. Just as the urban ghetto and disintegrating rural town are rendered invisible by superhighways, so, too, as Lowell Monke points out in his article, our efficient, technologically sophisticated systems of animal "husbandry" have put the sources of our dinner out of sight.

Even so, I still can't imagine that our society would tolerate what goes on in food production if it weren't for our increasing habituation to mechanically conceived processes governed by the sterile terms of "input", "output", and "efficiency". The reduction to numbers and mechanical abstractions is another way of concealing the world from view. These scarcely conscious habits of mind, incidentally, reveal a level of technological consequence that is rarely considered when we talk about the pluses and minuses associated with machines in the classroom or on the job.

You may think that the implications of technology for animals have little to do with the implications for human society. Tell me, then: where is there any clear articulation of distinct principles for the two cases? The language of efficiency and technical capability is the same everywhere, and by its very nature makes no such distinctions. Moreover, as Lowell's narrative makes clear, the technological manipulation of animals for human uses is already a technological manipulation of humans. Just ask those people in Iowa who have been forced, against their wills, to live with the daily stink and pollution of the hog factories.

By the way, I am a meat-eater, even if I sometimes go lengthy periods between indulgences. But there is no way I could bring myself to eat meat if doing so required me to patronize the flesh factories. Fortunately, there are alternatives, such as organically certified meat (which is typically more expensive). We face a clear choice here, and one of the choices is as sick as can be. The other one will doubtless affect your pocket book -- but in the healthiest possible way for all concerned.

© 2000 The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott is editor of NETFUTURE. This article is from Number 114 of same. See