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The Dangerous Psychology of Factory Farming

…After 1850, things changed. American agriculture fell into the grip of scientific farming. Agricultural scientists, followed by farmers, began to conceptualize farming as a strictly quantifiable venture. Beginning with plants, and then moving to animals, they became less concerned with individual idiosyncrasies and more concerned with collective evaluations of productivity. The chain of production expanded, and, as it did, farmers came to speak in terms of nutrient input, breeding schedules, confinement space, and disease management. By the 1870s, farmers were regularly referring to their animals not as animals but, literally, as machines being built in factories. “The pig,” explained one agricultural manual, “is one of the most valuable machines on the farm.”

The psychological salve of this rhetoric offered relief to farmers burdened with the task of mass slaughter. As early 19th-century farmers intuitively understood, farm animals are sentient creatures who have interests, a sense of identity, and the capacity to anticipate and feel pain. It is in the context of these qualities—qualities that constant interaction with animals make impossible to ignore—that the psychological “benefit” of factory farming becomes clear. Its impersonal, highly rationalized structure is designed to protect those involved from the emotional consequences of killing.

Today, many critics of industrial agriculture insist that we need to return to the pre-1850 system of animal agriculture. I’m skeptical of this argument, not so much on economic grounds—yes, it’s more profitable to raise animals on a larger scale—but on psychological grounds. I wonder if, in a post-Darwinian age of animal ethology (the study of animal minds), we simply know too much about animal emotions and intelligence to look millions of pigs and cows in the eye—animals raised with sincere affection and concern—and kill them. I wonder, in other words, if we’re ready as a culture of meat eaters, to do what Bill’s system of industrial production absolves him of having to do: contemplate the moral weight of animal husbandry.

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