Reason to Go Vegan #5: Factory Farms

Writing in the American Spectator several years ago, Julian Gough noted that “there is nothing more powerless than a corporation.” I love this quote. In an age when so many of us feel overwhelmed by consolidated systems of corporate power, Gough’s counterintuitive assessment reminds us of something fundamental: if we buy stuff, we have the final say in a corporation’s fate. No matter how many political punches are pulled, no matter how many marketing geniuses are hired, and no matter how many members of congress are bought and sold, consumers ultimately hold the cards.  With will power and organizational acumen, consumers have the ability to take down whomever we want. This is why there is nothing more powerless than a corporation.

This point bears heavily on the delicate dance that conscientious consumers are now doing with animal products. Influenced by the food movement’s imperative to buy local, buy organic, and buy from small farms, we’ve convinced ourselves that by “voting with our forks” and choosing more virtuous meat and dairy alternatives, we’ll prove Gough’s little axiom right. Down will fall Monsanto, Tyson’s, Cargill, and all the other bad boys of industrial animal agriculture. Left standing will be the good guys, the small farmers, the local organic dairy, the grass-fed operations.

Dream on.

Indeed, we’re dreaming if we think that our support for the farmer next door in any way compromises the ultimate power of industrial systems. The alternatives might give animals a nominally better life, but as a threat to industrial agriculture, they’re pointless. Although I’ve blogged about this point here before, it bears repeating: until we boycott animal products per se, rather than settle for supposedly more humane alternatives, the industrial production of animal products will dominate the business of bringing these goods to our plates. As long as we live in a capitalistic society bound by basic consumer freedoms, and as long as animal products are considered legitimate consumer items (i.e., commodities), the vast majority of consumers will act the same way we act when it’s time to buy a i-pad or a pair of socks. We’ll choose the cheapest option. Factory farms–which, even if you remove subsidies, still produce more meat and eggs at a lower price–produce more for less. This is why the business consolidated in the first place. This is why we eat so many animals. This is why we cannot eat animals and end factory farming. 

Even if smaller and (again, supposedly) more sustainable farms did come to dominate the landscape (which is very unlikely), their hold on the market would be ephemeral. In a relatively free market economy marked by consumer choice, these farms would inevitably compete. Competition would lead to consolidation. Consolidation would lead us back to where we are today. I’ve been making this case to audiences for over a year and have yet to hear an argument that even comes close to defying the logic of this hypothetical scenario. No to be redundant, but once again: we cannot eat animals and end factory farming. No chance.

Which brings me to my last point. Should we truly want to teach the mavens of agribusiness the lesson that there is nothing more powerless than a corporation, our best option is to go vegan. I can think of no act more expressive of our oft repeated disdain of industrial agriculture than the decision to boycott the products that keep it in business.



About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

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