A vegan month to focus on how we farm animals
I've started this year by going vegan for the month of January again, as part of an annual international campaign called Veganuary. I stop eating all animal products for a month, using the period to read ingredients labels, reminding myself of how widespread animal-sourced ingredients are in supermarket products. And every January, I ask myself: will I start eating meat again in February?
Living in Ireland, I feel reassured that Europe-wide legislation insists that farm animals must have a life worth living, and they must end their lives in an easy way. I look at sheep and cattle grazing in green fields, and sometimes I even envy their lives. Yes, their lives are foreshortened so that that they can end up on our plates, but while they are here, their existence seems pleasant enough.
Farming is big business in this country: Ireland has more farm animals than people. There are less than 5 million humans, and we share our country with 1.5 million pigs, over 5 million sheep, over 6 million cattle and over 10 million poultry. However 90% of beef and 85% of dairy production is exported, so while these sectors make up the biggest percentage of agricultural production, Irish people predominantly consume poultry and pig products. Every Irish person eats just over 30kg of chicken and 30kg of pig every year. Surprisingly, this is over 25% more than a typical American. When I read this statistics, I was forced to reconsider my view of Irish meat eating: these facts make it seem less like green fields, and more to do with big concrete sheds.
I used to eat all animal products, but it seems that with each successive Veganuary, I find myself being more selective.
The big one, two years ago, was when I found out more about pig farming: I stopped eating all pig products after that. While it's possible to buy free range bacon and pork, it's not easy to find Irish versions on the supermarket shelf. When I looked, I could only find Danish free range bacon. To buy free range pig products, you need to find local specialist suppliers, and few people have the time or energy to do this. So most people eat bacon and pork from intensively reared pigs, and that's what's usually served when you eat in cafes and restaurants.
Over 99% of Ireland's pigs are bred and reared in indoor, non-straw bedded, slatted or solid floor systems, often in units of over 1000 pigs, with over 40% of the pig population living in pig units of over 10000 animals. The proportion of pigs kept in large herds in Ireland is among the highest in Europe. When it comes to pork and bacon production, Ireland is firmly in the area of industrial scale livestock production.
Pigs are highly intelligent and social animals, and they get bored easily. When they are kept in intensive conditions, with nothing to do, they distract themselves with whatever they can find. One of the consequences of this is that pigs tend to chew each other's tails, causing them to bleed. It's well recognised that this is preventable. The easiest answer is to provide straw or some other form of bedding that they can play with: if pigs' stress is relieved, they stop biting each other. The more brutal, old-fashioned way of stopping tail biting is to amputate pigs' tails and to trim their teeth so that they are blunt. This was banned as a routine measure in the EU back in 2008, but the ban has never been enforced: over 99% of Irish pigs still have these procedures carried out.
Tail chewing isn't the only problem that intensively reared pigs suffer from: between 28 and 48% of pigs suffer from lameness, and over 50% suffer from some degree of pneumonia. Life for Irish pigs is a far cry from those contented sheep grazing in pleasant fields.
I used to enjoy eating pig meat, but when I found out the facts of intensive pig production, I lost my appetite. I couldn't stop thinking about the pigs' miserable lives. No more bacon, ham or pork for me.
Poultry production is also intensive but it seems somehow easier to accept, given that hens don't have the large, smart brains of pigs. There are two aspects: eggs and meat.
Battery cages for egg laying hens were banned in the EU in 2012, and they now live in "enriched cages", which give them more space, a nest, a dust bath and a perch. However when you see the balding, bedraggled state of ex-battery hens that are put up for rehoming, you do wonder whether the system is working as it's meant to be. Meanwhile poultry being raised for meat are slaughtered at just 5 or 6 weeks of age, while free range birds live till they're around 8 weeks old, (which is why they're a little more expensive). Do these creatures have lives worth living? It's a good question.
A recent report showed that most Irish people have very low awareness of the source of their food. While many people say that they want to support welfare and the domestic market, this does not translate into reality: 60% of pig meat and 90% of poultry meat consumed in Ireland is imported, and other ingredients are brought in from dozens of other countries around the world. There is a big difference between people's attitudes and their behaviour.
My vegan month is forcing me to focus on these issues, and I'm enjoying the process. More beans, anyone?