Animal Rights

If You're Like Most Americans, You Think Farmed Animals Are Treated Well: That's Simply Not True

Katie Cantrell wants to educate people about what really happens on factory farms.

In the United States, an estimated 3 out of 4 mother pigs remain in steel cages for life, so small they can't even turn around.
Photo Credit: Ggamies/Shutterstock

The California-based nonprofit Factory Farming Awareness Coalition has a simple mission: to educate people about what really happens on factory farms. Why is this necessary? Most Americans think farm animals are treated well, despite the fact that 99% of animal products come from factory farms. And factory farming, in addition to being extremely cruel to animals, is a leading driver of global warming, deforestation, species extinction, water waste, and pollution.

FFAC executive director Katie Cantrell founded the organization in 2010, shortly after graduating from UC Berkeley. She’d read the book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer’s gripping exploration into why we eat some animals and not others, and she was inspired to expose the truth about factory farming.

Cantrell hopes to raise awareness, not just about the cruelty inherent in raising animals industrially, but the often-overlooked social justice, environmental and public health impacts of factory farming. Since its inception, FFAC has delivered highly visual, compelling, and even life-changing presentations (see for yourself) to more than 75,000 people in schools and businesses, including Stanford, Google and Tesla, convincing many to embrace a plant-based diet. (Request an FFAC presentation for your own workplace or group.)

The FFAC approach, which is to reach out to consumers directly, makes even more sense under the current administration. Just this week the USDA overturned a popular rule that required animals raised for organic-labeled meat and eggs to have enough space to move around in. As Cantrell says, public-policy solutions to end factory farming will require a different political landscape than the one we currently inhabit. For now, what we choose to put on our plates has never been more important.

There is no way to sustainably raise 9 billion animals, Katie Cantrell says.

Nate Lotze: Are most people genuinely ignorant about the conditions on factory farms, or do they just prefer not to think about it?

Katie Cantrell: I think it's a combination of the two. By now most people know that factory farms exist, but they have no idea of the scale or scope of the problem.

There was a recent study by the Sentience Institute that found that 58 percent of U.S. adults think most farm animals are treated well, and 75 percent say they usually buy products from animals treated humanely. The reality is that 99 percent of animal products come from factory farms. We start our presentations by asking people to guess how many animals are bred and killed for food every year in the U.S., and most people (including adults, and even environmental educators) guess somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-100 million. The answer is over 9 billion.

So people lack even a basic understanding of key parts of our food system. That's caused partly by agribusiness' extensive PR, but it's also caused by people not seeking out the truth. I think at some level people know that it will cause discomfort, it will disrupt their habits, and that deters them from pursuing information. So it comes back to framing the information in a way that motivates people to learn, and that empowers them to make change.

After graduating from college, Cantrell founded Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, an organization working to reduce animal product consumption for the good of the planet. 

NL: What is the primary goal of FFAC in terms of actual behavioral changes?

KC: Our primary goal is to lower animal product consumption, because there is no way to sustainably raise 9 billion animals. The only way to end factory farming, to stop climate change and deforestation, and to ensure enough food and water for the growing global population, is to scale back the number of animals raised for food.

We emphasize that there is no one right way to go about dietary change; you don't have to be fully vegetarian to order a veggie burger instead of a hamburger, and you don't have to be fully vegan to put flax milk in your cereal instead of cow milk. Many people have this idea that if they can't be 100 percent perfectly vegan, it's not worth trying. We emphasize that small changes add up to a large impact, and that every time we decide not to eat an animal product we're taking action against one of the most destructive industries on the planet.

NL: Why do you think showing people the realities of factory farming is an effective strategy?

KC: Right now the overwhelming majority of Americans still have no idea where their food comes from. Agribusiness has spent billions of dollars over the past several decades to promulgate the myth that products in the supermarket come from Old MacDonald's farm. We believe it's important to create a more informed consumer and citizen base to create demand for plant-based products and for legislative and regulatory action.

In my experience, people who see the realities of factory farming are horrified and say they will avoid factory-farmed products in the future. However, most end up falling back into old habits. How can we make the initial commitment translate into lasting change?

Consumers have to have at least a baseline literacy about where food comes from and the impacts of the food system so we understand why change is good. The more veg foods become culturally accepted and even desirable (witness Beyonce encouraging her 112 million social media fans to go vegan), the less stigma and social pressure people will face, which is a leading driver of recidivism—people going back to eating meat. Ensuring that veg foods are delicious, affordable, and easily accessible is also critical to allowing people to follow through with behavior change. Luckily, the market is very much headed in that direction, with even Tyson introducing a new line of plant-based meals.

NL: Besides educating people about factory farms, what else will it take to end factory farming? Are there any new developments that you are particularly excited about?

KC: There are a few different routes I can envision that could lead to the end of factory farming. I think the most likely is that clean meat technology succeeds in supplanting factory farming because it is cheaper, more efficient and safer (which means less risk for corporations and investors). That's the one that makes me the most hopeful.

There are also political solutions that would require a landscape very different from the current reality, and are unlikely to come to pass without some type of political revolution eliminating the influence of corporate money on politicians. These include: changing subsidies to favor the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and legumes, rather than meat, dairy, corn and soy; instituting a tax on meat; regulating animal welfare and environmental pollution such that factory farming practices are either outlawed or become prohibitively expensive.

Of course, there are also more apocalyptic scenarios that could lead to the end of factory farming, such as a widespread zoonotic disease outbreak that kills a large percentage of livestock and disrupts the centralized food supply, or a disease that causes a human pandemic and leads the public to declare that factory farms are too great a risk to public health. Increasing devastation from climate change could also lead to a more clear consensus around the need to end factory farming to stave off climate catastrophe.

But again, I hope we can proactively move toward clean meat and plant-based foods before we are forced to change the food system due to disasters.

NL: Where should people go if they decide they want to stop eating factory-farmed products?

KC: I love the website ChooseVeg. It has a fantastic array of recipes, sample meal plans, nutritional info, tips for eating out. Stone Pier Press has its own delicious good food recipes. Also, good old Google searches are a great way to get information about local, humanely raised sources of animal products. 

Learn more about factory farming

Here's how to schedule a presentation at your school or place of work. Many people who have heard Katie Cantrell's talks say they have been inspiring and life-changing. Listen to Cantrell's talk at Google or check out her advice on "How to talk about factory farming so people listen."

This article was originally published by Stone Pier Press. Reprinted with permission.

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Nate Lotze, a News Fellow for Stone Pier Press, works for a statewide conservation organization in Pennsylvania and has also spent time as an environmental organizer and organic farmer.