In early April, an Iowan farmer, Al Van Beek faced the hardest decision of his life. For months on end, the COVID-19 pandemic had been ravaging the meat industry: disrupting supply chains, delaying processing facilities, and single handedly causing the closure 40% of America’s pork plants. Nearly 8,000 pigs were crammed onto Van Beek’s farm—and now they had nowhere to go. Faced with mounting pressure, Van Beek made a desperate choice. Abortion injections were given to all pregnant sows on his farm; their dead babies, meanwhile, were composted for fertiliser.
Van Beek’s dilemma is just one example of the nightmarish crisis facing farmers across the world. Over the past few months, recurring outbreaks of disease have combined with the general economic downturn to produce a disaster unprecedented in the history of the industry. Demand is dropping. Slaughterhouses are shutting down. Farmers are left stranded, every day, with a backlog of animals numbering in the millions. Official organisations (like the USA’s Department of Agriculture and the UK’s Compassion in World Farming) have responded in the only way they know how: by issuing directives on the “depopulation” and “euthanasia” of animals.
These titles are deliberately bland. “Depopulation”, after all, doesn’t sound so different from the routine killing that maintains the day-to-day supply of our supermarkets. But behind the unassuming names lurks a slaughter of nearly unimaginable scale. Around 70, 000 pigs and 60, 000 chickens are killed each day because of lack of space and workers. To maximise efficiency, farmers are depopulating using a method known as heat strangulation: after cooping hundreds of animals in a barn, a switch is flipped to turn off the airflow and increase the heat. Birds and pigs, trapped en masse in what is essentially a livestock oven, die over a period of hours from a combination of heat stress and suffocation.
“Euthanasia” is a gross misnomer for this type of death. There’s nothing humane about heat strangulation—and there’s something troubling, in fact, about our willingness to hide behind sanitised labels. After all, aren’t humans mostly to blame for the emergent crisis? Our rapaciously carnivorous diet creates an incentive for mass production, forcing most farmers to boost productivity by using breeds with unnaturally fast growth rates and keeping animals in intensive confinement. The meat industry operates to maximum capacity, at maximum speed, with the maximum number of livestock—leaving farmers with no flexibility to hold animals longer than planned.
This train of thought becomes even more disturbing when we remember that animals have nothing to do with the pandemic. Farm animals aren’t affected by COVID-19, nor do they transmit it; we can’t justify killing them in the same way that we justify, for instance, killing poultry during outbreaks of avian flu. The outbreaks at meat plants and slaughterhouses weren’t caused by animals, but by overcrowding, poor hygiene, and employers’ lack of concern for sanitation. In other words, we’re not killing animals because they’re sick; we’re killing them because humans are.
This article began by calling the meat industry a victim of the “COVID crisis”—but perhaps that phrase is misleading. Our habits as consumers have pushed factories and farms to the breaking point, creating a culture where unclean workhouses and high-speed slaughter are treated as the norm. The conditions were already in place for disaster: we just needed an unexpected event like COVID to trigger it.
The mass killings now taking place are a graphic illustration of how wrong the system has gone. With the economy in shambles and the vaccine still a distant prospect, there’s no telling when the animal killings will end—but once they do, we’ll need to make major reforms to the meat industry to make it more resilient against disaster. Hiding behind words like “euthanasia” and “depopulation” represents a gross denial of guilt. The first step to ending the animal apocalypse may be recognising our own culpability.