McDonald’s Ends Use of Gestation Crates: Victory?

So, as you may have heard, McDonald’s has decided to require its pork suppliers to phase out the use of sow gestation stalls–the cruel apparatuses designed (ostensibly) to keep pigs from fighting. Animal advocacy groups are predictably thrilled. “The HSUS has been a long time advocate for ending the use of gestation crates,” explained president and CEO Wayne Pacelle, adding, “It’s just wrong to immobilize animals for their whole lives in crates barely larger than their bodies.” Mark Bittman (sigh) went all wobbly in the face of the news, calling it “a major victory.”

Major victory? Really?

It’s hard to deny that McDonald’s decision, assuming it’s effectively carried out, will result in millions of sows living more fulfilling lives before they’re culled for slaughter. It’s also hard to deny that factory farmers are all in a huff–which is always a sign that a good decision has been made. An editorial in Beef Magazine explained, “Can pork producers meet these demands? Yes. Will there be a cost? Yes.” In this limited sense, McDonald’s commitment to ending the use of gestation stalls can be called a victory. Fine. But why am I not uncorking the champagne?

I’ve addressed this conundrum in past posts through the analogy of wrongful imprisonment. If I’m wrongfully imprisoned, I sure as hell would want advocacy groups working tirelessly to improve the conditions within prisons, especially the one holding me. More time outdoors, cleaner facilities, and better food would all improve the quality of my imprisoned life. That said, I’m not sure I’d ever use the word victory, or feel the corresponding urge to put on a party hat, unless wrongful imprisonment itself were ended and I was freed.

I appreciate HSUS’s efforts in encouraging McDo’s to end the use of torture devices for sows.  I genuinely do. But I’d be a lot more inclined to punch the air with a triumphant fist if Pacelle had gone a critical step further and declared not only that it’s “just wrong to immobilize animals for their whole lives,” but that it’s also wrong for humans to raise animals for food, period, and the elimination of gestation crates is a step toward the elimination of factory farming.  Now those would have been words worth celebrating.

Critics of organizations such as HSUS frequently condemn their efforts as “welfarist,” aiding and abetting, it is said, the very system central to widespread animal suffering.  Well, until advocacy groups who fight for incremental changes within current systems of animal production contextualize such “victories” in the larger quest for a world without animal agriculture, the welfarist charge will stick all over them like sap.

Mark Bittman (sigh) declared (or at least his headline did) that “McDonald’s Does the Right Thing.” It’s due to this widespread failure to rhetorically cast welfare victories in the larger framework of veganism that Bittman (sigh) can endorse such a view. We need to remind ourselves that the only right thing McDonald’s can do is vanish.


A House Divided: Distilled

Having read through the responses to my series of posts on welfarism and abolitionism, I’m deeply appreciative of their thoughtfulness, humbled by their erudition, and more eager than ever to keep this conversation alive. For now, here are my distilled thoughts on the issue in general:

a) Billions of animals currently suffer immensely on factory farms. There are people and organizations fiercely dedicated to improving the lives of these animals. I simply cannot accept the claim that these efforts, while surely flawed in many, many ways, are fundamentally misguided, as many responses to my pieces insist they are.

b) Welfarists might very well fail to properly frame their ameliorative efforts–in fact, as I argue, they do–but that does not negate the basic fact that improved conditions on factory farms lead to improved (albeit still miserably exploited) lives for the animal therein. Why should we discount this tangible reduction in suffering? Aren’t there great risks to marginalizing those gains, however qualified and provisional they are? If I were wrongly imprisoned, I would want advocates to both seek improvements for my prison conditions AND seek to end wrongful imprisonment.

c) To dismiss such improvements–rather than critique them as inadequate–because they do not fundamentally challenge the ultimate problem of animal ownership strikes me as placing a human interest in moral consistency ahead of the short-term interests of non-human animals locked into a system that, at least in our lifetimes, is going nowhere. Pragmatically speaking, I see no reason why we cannot pursue abolition while, at the same time, helping the currently exploited animals who will in no way–at least in the here and now–benefit from an exclusive abolitionist approach.

d) I have yet to hear a convincing explanation for why these incremental improvements are essentially inconsistent with the ultimate quest for ending animal exploitation. The fact that more animals are exploited now than when welfarist efforts began is not especially convincing, for reasons that one responder aptly notes. (I may address this issue in a future post.) For now, as a result, I will continue to think about ways to build a bridge between abolitionism and welfarism.

As always, I will also continue to appreciate your thoughtful and intelligent remarks, for which I’m very grateful.


A House Divided?: Abolitionists vs. New Welfarists


I’m currently reading an interesting book manuscript on the history of vegetarianism in the United States. I was struck, but not terribly surprised, to learn that the earliest promoters of vegetarianism–most of them members of the Bible Christian Church– came to the United States from Great Britain and, upon landing in Philadelphia, descended into vicious infighting. One faction wanted to promote the virtues of a meatless diet from the urban crucible of Philadelphia. The other faction sought the protection of the countryside, where the air was pure and temptations few.  A relative handful of reformers to begin with, this group cleaved themselves in two and, in so doing, undermined their potential influence.

Anyone who follows animal welfare and rights issues will spot an all-too-familiar trend. Today we have “new welfarists,” advocates who generally work within the confines of current systems of animal production to improve the lives of farm animals. New welfarists will spend considerable resources working to force industrial farms to eliminate gestation crates, enlarge cage size, install cameras, or allow more free range time. The driving principle behind these efforts is largely utilitarian, and there’s no denying that, pragmatically speaking, these efforts have improved the lives of billions of farm animals.

Standing in stark opposition to the new welfarists are the abolitionists. Abolitionists, many of whom follow the ideas of the philosopher Gary Francione, advocate the immediate end to all animal exploitation.  Their approach is a moral-rights based one, their arguments are remarkably persuasive, and they have no tolerance for the incremental, issue-based tactics practiced by the new welfarists. In fact, they see such tactics as counterproductive. Many animal advocates have gone vegan and built activists platforms on the basis of an abolitionist ideology.

These groups do not care for each other. Their constant battles, however, are ultimately harmful and, at times, more about themselves than the animals they aim to help. I have contacts and friends in both camps, and what I find most encouraging about the gulf that separates them is that there’s a potential bridge to be built between them. Building that bridge starts with a basic shared premise, one that separates members of both camps from society at large: they both care deeply, and have shown themselves fiercely dedicated, to improving the lives of animals.

This is a strong bond. And it is on this shared premise that I will spend much of the next few weeks trying to hammer out an argument showing that new welfarism and abolitionism can and should be complementary approaches to a shared vision.

I look forward to any suggestions readers might have.