Battery Cages, Animal Welfare, and the Environment

hen in a battery cageSeemingly simple issues seldom are, especially when it comes to food ethics. Sometimes what seems like a simple question of needing to “change how we think” or to “stop corporate greed” or “get back in touch with our food” turns out to be slightly more complex.

Check out this brief piece from the NYT:
A Hen’s Space to Roost

Which came first — consumer preference for humane farming, or pressure from animal welfare advocates?

Some combination of the two is driving big changes in the industrialized treatment of farm animals, including egg-laying hens, the vast majority of which live out their lives packed tightly in “battery cages”….

A couple of thoughts…

First, it’s worth pointing out a distinction that this story glosses over, namely the philosophical (and practical) difference between animal rights, on one hand, and animal welfare, on the other. (Basically, you can believe that the welfare of animals matters — that we shouldn’t be unnecessarily cruel to them, for example — without thinking that they are the bearers of anything as philosophically fancy or practically demanding as rights.)

Second, we ought frankly to recognize the trade-offs involved in different methods of agriculture. I’ve recently been reading Matt Ridley’s useful book, The Rational Optimist. In one passage, Ridley points out that while concerns about animal welfare are legitimate, that concern is to a certain extent in tension with environmental concerns. Dense farming (including things like the use of battery cages) uses less land and is generally more environmentally friendly than less-dense (e.g., free range) farming, per unit of output. So what we should be looking for is not just the method of raising egg-laying hens that minimizes cruelty and keeps costs reasonable; we also want a method that does those things at a reasonable level of environmental impact.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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