To some, this world is a dystopia. From birth to death, they live lives of anguish and squalor, knowing only brutality from the hands of those who forcibly created them. Factory farming is the result of an industry driven to the limits of efficiency, through a prioritization of profit and a complete disregard for ethics. This cruel practice is the source for the vast majority of meat and animal products.

In factory farms, every animal is worth only the profit it can make, and is given only what it needs to last long enough to make that profit. Consistently, animals are horribly mistreated and forced to spend their lives in truly awful conditions, just to maximize the money they make. Their lives begin in misery that doesn’t stop until their deaths; shortly after birth, most animals undergo a series of mutilations, all without any anesthetic. A few days after piglets are born, their teeth are clipped and their tails are docked, so that they can’t bite each other out of the stress of their environment, their ears are notched for serialization, and the males are castrated to improve the taste of the meat. Newborn calves undergo similar mutilations. Factory farmed egg chickens have their beaks (a particularly sensitive part) burned down in order to prevent them from pecking each other. Male chicks, since they aren’t necessary, are ground alive. The rest of these animals’ lives are no better; no animal is given the space it needs. Pigs and cattle spend their lives in cages without room to move, turn around, or lay down, and the females are kept perpetually pregnant in order to keep the farms going. In the case of cows, this is also so that they can produce milk for as long as possible. Chickens spend their lives in similarly cramped cages, without room to spread their wings. The conditions in these spaces are also extremely unsanitary, and the animals in them have very little access to medical care. A significant portion of them die of disease and infection from untreated injuries. This is not to mention the cruelty seen all too frequently but technically outside of standard practice. Sick piglets are often killed by grabbing their legs and slamming their heads against the concrete floors until they die, a practice found to be used by Walmart’s pork supplier, according to undercover videos shared with the HuffPost.

The sheer scale of the factory farming industry is truly unfathomable. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over 75 billion land animals were killed for food every year between 2018 and 2020, over nine times the human world population. Even if we valued the life of an animal at 1,000 times less than a human life (an arbitrary number I picked to demonstrate my point), it would still be equivalent to over 75 million deaths a year, easily one of the worst things to happen in human history. But how much should the life, or the pain of an animal really matter?

It’s easy to dismiss animal suffering as irrelevant, or simply as something that should hold less weight than human suffering, but why should it? People tend to point to intelligence as a reason humans hold more worth, but to apply that to factory farming suggests either that intelligence is more important than the capacity to suffer when deciding whether a thing should suffer for our gain, or that intelligence is a reliable way to determine how much a thing can suffer. Both lines of reasoning have some very obviously messed up connotations if you apply them to anything other than our very culturally ingrained views on the worth of animals. A similar, and maybe more common measure of worth is the “human experience,” the idea that due to our humanity, our experience is special, and somehow more important. This seems arbitrary if you really consider it. Even if it’s true, the part of the experience that should matter when determining how farmed animals should be treated is their capacity to suffer, which has been proven time and time again. (Or at least something that looks a lot like suffering. You can’t prove sentience, but it isn’t something I would want to gamble on.) Whatever the case, we shouldn’t be causing this level of unnecessary anguish.

It can be tempting, in the face of such a daunting problem, to give up. After all, as individuals, we can only make such a difference. One person’s dietary choices won’t topple an industry. And not everyone has the luxury to choose what they eat. But for those who can, no effort is insignificant. The scale of an industry depends on the scale of its support, and if over nine times the world population is killed every year, an individual reducing their meat consumption could reduce suffering by several animals a year that were simply never bred in the first place. And if enough people become aware, and make conscious decisions about the industries that they choose to support, real change can be made.

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