More people are becoming aware of the atrocious conditions that factory farmed animals live in, as well as the shocking cruelty inflicted on them. This is largely due to revelations in the media showing what really goes on behind the closed doors of intensive animal farming.
Authors including Jonathan Balcombe and Jeffrey Masson have documented the emotional lives of farmed animals, demonstrating beyond a doubt that they experience grief, pain and pleasure, and form deep social and familial bonds with each other.
Now Australia is to get its first political party dedicated to toughening animal protection laws - the Animal Justice Party - whose concerns include the welfare of farmed animals.
Many consumers are also deciding not to support the factory farm system, in which thousands of animals are kept confined in tiny spaces, often in dark sheds, with no opportunity to engage in their natural behaviours. Instead they are seeking out ''organic'', ''free range'' or ''humane'' meat.
On the surface then, it may appear things are looking up for the non-humans with whom we share the earth. The focus on so-called ''humane'' methods of farming - in which consumers are led to believe animals live a ''happy'' life, that they're eating ''happy meat'' - is being hailed as a revolution by the animal welfare movement.
For instance, the RSPCA in Britain has gone so far as to introduce a ''Freedom Foods'' scheme designed to assure consumers that an animal's life - and death - is "governed by strict and compulsory RSPCA welfare standards". Even the ethics professor Peter Singer - dubbed the father of the animal rights movement after publishing Animal Liberation in 1975 - has argued you don't have to be a "fanatical vegan" to eat ethically: you can be a "conscientious omnivore" by eating a "moderate" amount of "humane", organically raised animals.
But the rise of the ''happy meat'' movement is not good news for animals. Far from being revolutionary, it is a giant step backwards. Many people who used to be vegetarian in protest against factory farming are now becoming what they call ''ethical carnivores''. They believe it is acceptable to consume animals, provided they lived ''happy'' lives before being transported en masse to an abattoir where they are slaughtered.
By Singer and the RSPCA giving their stamp of approval to ''humane'' meat (as well as dairy and eggs), they are doing animals a huge disservice because it has resulted in a shift in cultural consciousness from a focus on animal use to that of treatment.
But there is no such thing as happy meat or humane slaughter. These are terms used by the meat, dairy and egg industries to appeal to an elitist group of consumers who can afford to pay extortionate prices to make themselves feel more comfortable about animal exploitation.
As Gary Francione, author and professor of law at Rutgers University in the US, notes, they "ensure that social discussion about animal ethics remains focused away from the relevant question of why we are eating animals in the first place given that it is not necessary for human health, is an ecological disaster, and results in our imposing suffering and death on sentient non-humans".
As we enter not only a new year, but a new decade, it's time to refocus our attention on challenging our use, not just our treatment of animals. No animal goes willingly to the slaughterhouse, happy for their corpse to be served on a plate. There is nothing humane about slitting a sentient being's throat - regardless of whether it's been raised in a factory farm or pasture.
The real revolution isn't happy meat, it will be the establishment of veganism as a cultural and social norm. This is no easy task. The perception of veganism is that it's extreme or radical, and it doesn't help when people such as Singer - who has the ability to influence public opinion - perpetuates this stereotype.
But it's important to remember many of the great liberation movements were first thought of as extreme and radical. Now is not the time for compromise. Anti-slavery advocates didn't call for better conditions for slaves, they called for the abolition of slavery. It's time to abolish the modern-day equivalent: animal exploitation, and the easiest way to start is by choosing not to eat them.
December 28, 2009)