Skip to main content

Ethical Concerns Regarding Raising Livestock Animals for Food

Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in Pennsylvania and now has her own farmstead in Minnesota.

A Moral and Ethical Dilemma?

Raising animals for the purpose of human consumption appears to be something of a moral and ethical dilemma, and here's why:

  • Animals including cattle, sheep, chickens, hogs, geese, ducks, goats, and all others are living, thinking, feeling beings
  • Most people like most animals - some animals we even invite into our homes and keep as pets, a special designation not so very different from a family member
  • People, in general, eat meat - meat comes from animals
  • In order to obtain the meat that we eat, we must kill some of those living, thinking, feeling beings that we like

I think that about sums it up. So what is one to do with faced with such an issue; especially, what's a farmer to do?


A Contradiction?

I have a confession to make: I’m an animal-loving farmer.

I butcher my own chickens for food; I’ve also been known to go out of my way to isolate a sick chicken in an attempt to restore her good health, against my better judgment, and with full knowledge that I’m probably wasting my time.

I allow my dog to “get rid of” small, furry, garden-destroying animals such as rabbits and groundhogs; when my pet rabbit died, I cried off and on for a couple of days.

I sell lambs and sheep to other farmers and the livestock auction; I was devastated, in a composed fashion, the first time I had to remove a dead lamb from an ewe that had a difficult middle-of-the-night delivery – I proceeded to “beat myself up” about the mistake until my next successful delivery of a live lamb.

I eat eggs, even if I suspect that the hen who laid them was bred by one of my roosters the day before; watching and playing with baby chickens is one of my keenest joys.

I have my hogs butchered and I eat the meat, I sell piglets to other farmers and to auction, and I sell pork to others; I attempted to nurse a little newborn boar-pig from a baby bottle when his mother rejected him – he lived in my bathroom for a day and died about a day later.

Am I insane? Do I sound crazy or confused to you?

Despite what may appear to be a set of contradictory practices – eating meat, caring for animals – I can assure you that I am perfectly sane and of sound mind. So how does someone eat meat if they care so much about animals?

Furthermore, how can someone raise food animals if they like them so much? It’s one thing to buy packaged, reformed, mechanically separated meat products in the grocery store, and an entirely different matter to start off the day feeding breakfast to a chicken and end the day making that chicken dinner… your dinner, that is.

So what gives?

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Answers and Solutions

We like animals, but we like eating them, too, and you can't eat an animal unless it's killed. So maybe we're wrong to eat meat at all -- ever. Maybe we should give up the whole practice, reject it as a cultural norm, and just say "no" to the human diet as it's been throughout our history.

This would be Vegetarianism: Perhaps the most popular answer to the issue is to simply abstain from eating any meat or animal products.

Assuming that vegetarianism was adopted by every single person on the planet, here are some possible solutions for the obvious next problem... What to do with all the livestock animals?

  • Set all of the livestock animals free. Turn them into the woods, into the state and national parks, into the wild places, and let nature take its course with them.
  • Make livestock animals into pets and zoo animals, and preserve them for posterity's sake, and for the sake of the animals.
  • Stop breeding livestock animals altogether. Let them basically go extinct, because we don't need them anymore and humans have made them unnatural through selective breeding, anyway.

Honestly, none of those answers make much sense to me. I certainly don't mean to offend anyone who makes the choice to become a vegetarian, but I will say this: If you want to be a vegetarian simply because you think that all food animals are badly abused, neglected, and tortured before being brutally murdered, please read on.

The Livestock Farmer's Code of Ethics

This code is like an unwritten agreement between livestock farmers (those who raise animals for food) and the animals themselves.

While a food animal is in my possession, it is under my care. I will provide the animal with a healthy, safe, comfortable, peaceful life. In exchange, the animal will be butchered for the production of meat for human consumption, and the slaughtering will be done in a humane and respectful fashion.

Any form of meat production that differs from or breaks this code is not ethical or humane, and I would even go as far as to say that it is also not farming. Meat producers who do not respect this ethical code should not be supported, and the best way to withhold support is to withhold purchase of their products.

Let me give you some examples of what it might mean when the livestock farmer's code of ethics is broken.

Example: Chickens living their entire lives in dark or dimly-lit buildings, without access to fresh air and sunshine. Chickens are birds, and birds were not meant to live in the dark indoors. This life is not comfortable or healthy for the chickens, and the practice is therefore unethical.

Example: Calves (young cattle) chained to small huts, milk-fed, with limited or no ability to move about, for the purpose of producing veal. Cattle, like all grass-eaters, need to be able to develop their muscles and graze. They also need to develop their digestive system, and they cannot do that if they are fed only milk. This life is uncomfortable and unhealthy, as well as unnatural, and the practice is therefore unethical.

Example: Geese are restrained and force-fed corn for the purpose of producing "foie gras," a dish made from the fat liver of a goose. Geese are naturally perfectly capable of regulating for themselves how much food they need; in other words, they will not willingly overeat. This life is not comfortable, healthy, safe, or peaceful, and the practice is therefore unethical. For this reason, thankfully, many people choose to avoid the "delicacy."

Unethical: A feedlot - a pretty nice one, too, believe it or not. Doesn't look much like a farm though, does it!

Unethical: A feedlot - a pretty nice one, too, believe it or not. Doesn't look much like a farm though, does it!

Unethical: An overcrowded chicken house, meant to raise a large number of chickens at one time for a BigAg chicken producer, one that I bet you're familiar with.

Unethical: An overcrowded chicken house, meant to raise a large number of chickens at one time for a BigAg chicken producer, one that I bet you're familiar with.

Purchasing humanely-raised meat from a small farmer is the best way to stand up against the big companies that produce meat using unethical and inhumane methods.

A Sound Solution

The truth is that not everyone who raises animals for food neglects or abuses those animals. And as we've seen, any farmer who doesn't follow the code of ethics shouldn't be supported. The only way to know whether the meat you are purchasing came from a situation in which the code of ethics was adherred to is to know the farmer.

I repeat, you've got to know the farmer that raised your meat in order to know what kind of life the animal had. There's no way around this.

It's just as important to support farmers who are doing it right as it is to refuse to support any meat production that is unethical. Vegetarianism is only half of a solution, because unfortunately it won't hurt those BigAg companies to lose the support of a small percentage of the population.

The best way to speak out against unethical meat production practices isn't to adopt vegetarianism; instead, the best way to injure BigAg is to support the small farmer who follows the code of ethics.

Simply refusing to purchase meat is kind of like not voting in the election at all; instead, cast your vote for the good guy, because that's the best way to hurt the bad guy.

Take this poll, please.

Questions & Answers

Question: My neighbor is raising three young goats for their meat. Is this legal? Can I report this to the Humane Society?

Answer: It is legal to raise goats for their meat.


Elsie Hagley from New Zealand on October 11, 2015:

Congratulations for HOTD. I have been a farmers wife for 55 years, lived on a farm all my life, most of it was milking cows but the last 14 years have been on a beef farmer.

I could say a lot about this subject, but everyone has to earn a living and that's the way we do it, by farming, we love our animals and yes, sometimes it hurts to see your animals going to the sale yards, but that's our life and the years go by and they are replaced by more off-spring every year.

Yes, I eat meat and enjoy a nicely cooked steak from our own animals.

Happy days on the farm.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on October 11, 2015:

Congrats on HOTD!!

Your article pinpoints exactly why I became a vegetarian back in the early 1980's! I realized that I did not have it in me to kill any animal myself, and the philosophical / ethical dilemma that raised for me was that I decided it was a cop-out to have the process "sanitized" for me, as it were, by purchasing packaged meat from the store.