The Four Elements – Fire

Thinking Through the Ethics of Meat

Nicole SeniorThe fairy tale farm evokes images of pigs rolling in muddy pig pens, cows grazing in green pastures, and hens happily sitting on eggs in wooden hen houses. While this may have been the scene in the 1890s, the reality today is not so pretty. Increasing demand, corporatisation of agriculture, and the expectation of low prices has encouraged the intensive production of animal products, along with a decline of our humanity and compassion for animals. Increasingly, the ethics of meat demand our attention.

Many of us are blissfully ignorant of how our meat, milk, and eggs get to the shops. But our attitudes and preferences have shifted. Social media, vegan activism, and a growing awareness of animal welfare have helped to fuel the rise of flexitarianism, or eating less meat, as well as a rise in ethical claims on food such as free-range, organic, and cruelty free. Here we take a look at the main welfare issues within animal farming and how industries are responding with more ethical alternatives.


Chickens and pigs are commonly kept in cages or crates with little room to turn around. Lack of exercise weakens their bones and as chickens are grown unnaturally fast, broken bones are a common issue. Free-range chickens and sow-stall-free pork offer a more ethical alternative.

Denial of Natural Behaviors

Chickens instinctively like to run around, roost, and dust bathe and all these behaviors are denied or severely curtailed in intensive farms. Free range farming allows chicken to engage in their natural behaviors. Similarly, pigs like to root around outside with their specially adapted snouts, and free-range farming allows them to do this.

Unwanted Chicks and Calves

Only female chickens lay eggs, yet 50% of chicks born are males. Shockingly, male chicks are killed, either gassed or – horrifyingly – thrown alive into grinding machines. Similarly, dairy cows only produce milk if they have recently given birth so most calves are slaughtered, except for a small number of female calves that are raised to produce milk themselves.

Painful Procedures

For a variety of reasons, intensive farming often involves hurting animals. Farmers may trim chicken beaks; dock horns; castrate pigs, lambs, and calves; clip teeth; dock tails; ring noses; or remove horn buds. Animals usually undergo these painful procedures without an anaesthetic.

Economic Factors

Ethical farming meat, egg, and dairy farming are more labor intensive and therefore more expensive. In the case of milk, organic milk from smaller farms with kinder practices can cost double the amount of conventionally produced milk. This is out of reach for many. Another issue is the limited supply of more ethical products. While the situation is changing, ethically produced meat is still harder to find. We can increase the supply by demanding it, and the food supply will gradually change to give us what we want.

How to Be an Ethical Omnivore

Enjoy a plant-based diet and when you eat your ‘just enough’ amount of animal products, choose the most ethical options available to you – a win for the animals and you! Eating just enough animal foods, and perhaps less than you do now, will reduce the cost impact as well.

Choose organic, free-range, cruelty-free, or humane-choice meat and dairy. Organic farming standards include welfare for farm workers and animals.

Choose wild game meats – such as rabbit, kangaroo, venison (deer) that are free to roam before slaughter (and also have a smaller environmental footprint).
Support smaller organic/biodynamic farms – as they use kinder and more environmentally sustainable production methods.

Dine at ethical eateries. Support restaurants that use higher welfare animal ingredients – e.g., cage-free eggs. There are online directories such as Choose Wisely in Australia that help locate ethical eateries near you.

Eat nose-to-tail and waste nothing. If we’re going to kill animals for food the least we can do is eat everything and not waste it. This means eating all the cuts and not just the popular ones. The bonus is they’re cheaper.

This article was originally published in the GI News. Read the latest issue here and subscribe here. Author Nicole Senior is an Accredited Nutritionist, consultant, cook, food enthusiast, and mother. She strives to make sense of nutrition science. Most of all, she delights in making healthy food delicious. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or check out her website.

Thanks to Rachel Ananin (aka for her assistance with this article.

The Four Elements – Fire, Painting by Joachim Beuckelaer / Wikimedia Commons

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October 3, 2018

4 Responses to “Thinking Through the Ethics of Meat”

  1. October 03, 2018 at 10:29 am, Robyn Flipse said:

    I’m surprised you chose to publish this biased and potentially dangerous article. It raises unnecessary fears about the food supply without presenting a sustainable, affordable alternative for most people. Malnutrition and food insecurity are a major concern for the majority of the 7 billion people currently living on this planet. They do not have the luxury of making the ethical choices this author suggests.

    • October 03, 2018 at 11:43 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for sharing your view, Robyn. Opinions on this subject are very diverse and indeed polarized. I’m not a big fan of labeling ideas dangerous. If you see a specific factual error, I encourage you to point it out.

      You’re absolutely right to identify sustainability as a key issue. I certainly read a lot of analyses from folks who have concerns about the sustainability of some approaches to meat production. This is a certainly a complex problem.

  2. October 03, 2018 at 11:53 am, Kaitlin Roke said:

    I have recently read “Omnivores Dilemma” and many of these points are similar to those discussed in that book.

    I have a few questions, and a request for some additional information.

    I was hoping you could clarify this point “organic milk from smaller farms with kinder practices”. There are many farms that treat their animals well that don’t produce organic milk. I am worried that this might be misleading. For interest, can you provide more information about how the definition of organic encompasses kinder practices?

    Some “free range” animals do not have very much “range” and thus is it hard to assume that this definition actually allows animals to move around as they would have chosen to in the wild. If you have more information on the definitions for this, I would appreciate it.

  3. October 03, 2018 at 8:15 pm, Nicole Senior said:

    Thanks to readers for their questions. And in reply:

    This article is written for an affluent, first-world audience, and thus the invitation to reduce meat if you’re eating too much. I agree millions of people have no choice in what they eat and don’t get enough nutritious food. They do not have the luxury of choice to consider the ethical implications of what they eat. Most of us in rich countries do.

    Organic food certification is a good way to ensure food is actually organic. While different certification programs may vary slightly, they contain an animal welfare and social justice component requiring welfare for animals and humans in farming as well as good environmental stewardship. This is what I mean by “kinder practices”. This isn’t to say larger farms are not kind, but that organic farming requires welfare to be a priority. Having closer relationships to the farms that produce our food is a good way for us to influence production practices (and has broad social benefits) but this is hard in large scale industrialized agriculture. To combat the detachment we have to our food, seek out farming experiences and talk to growers at farmer’s markets- and take your kids so they learn where their food comes from.

    The “free range” question is complicated as the standards vary between countries and according to the animal. In principle, free range requirements try to provide the space the animals can thrive in albeit perhaps not how they live in the wild. Animals hunted in the the wild is “game” meat which is clearly not an option to feed the world; free range farming is a workable solution to produce more without creating suffering or hardship for the animal.

    Best wishes,