Earlier this summer, 200,000 hens died in a massive fire at Forsman Farms, an egg farm in Wright County. Birds trapped inside the barn suffered excruciating deaths, their flesh melting away as they frantically searched for a way out of their cages.
Tragic barn fires like this are not uncommon. A report released earlier this year estimated that more than 6 million farm animals died in barn fires between 2013 and 2021. Barn fires are especially common in cold weather, where heaters can malfunction in winter. Minnesota ranks in the top ten states for barn fire frequency.
According to a spokesperson for Forsman Farms, “no one was injured (in the fire)”. This thoughtless comment highlights the values of today’s livestock industry. Animals are considered commodities and not sentient individuals. The suffering and death of animals are only understood in terms of profit and loss.
Research shows that chickens are social beings with thoughts and feelings. They can recognize and memorize up to 100 faces. Chickens also exhibit self-control, resisting small food rewards in anticipation of bigger rewards. And when living in family units, chickens even pass on knowledge from generation to generation.
A barn fire is a terrible way to die, but unfortunately the entire lives of chickens trapped in factory farms are filled with suffering. For most of these birds, life begins in an industrial hatchery. Shortly after hatching under heat lamps, they run on a treadmill to be “sexed”. The male chicks, which have no industrial use because they do not lay eggs, are thrown into a macerating machine where they are ground alive.
The surviving female chicks are sent to a dimly lit grow-out barn, where they spend the next 16 weeks, until they are old enough to lay eggs.
Once mature, the hens move to a production barn. Here, each hen spends its life producing eggs, permanently confined to a wire cage the size of a standard sheet of paper – a space so small it can’t even spread its wings. At less than two years of age, her egg production declines and she is sent to the slaughterhouse to be processed into lower quality meat.
Most people believe animals deserve better. A 2017 poll found that the majority of the public are not comfortable with how animals are used in the food industry.
Even some farmers are changing their attitude towards the use of animals for food. A 2021 peer-reviewed study finds animal keepers show higher levels of meat avoidance than the general population – citing health and safety concerns. The study also revealed growing ethical concerns about the use of animals for food among farmers, although for them to voice those concerns explicitly would be, in the words of one subject, ‘high treason’.
Fortunately, animal and environmental organizations support farmers who choose to switch to farming instead of ranching. One such initiative, The Transfarmation Project, provides ranchers with the resources to begin growing crops used in increasingly popular alternatives to meat and dairy, and then connects farmers to businesses that need support. their new crop. The success stories that have already emerged from this young project show that these transitions can be both personally rewarding and profitable for farmers.
Consumers also play a vital role in creating change for chickens and other farm animals. Choosing cage-free eggs, for example, can mitigate damage. Over the past decade, the percentage of hens living in cage-free operations has increased from 4% in 2010 to 24% in 2020. This remarkable change, which has already affected the lives of 70 million birds, is the result of the state battery ban. cages, corporate welfare promises and consumer demand. In non-cage operations, the hens still suffer from a grim existence, but the absence of cages is a significant improvement.
A growing number of consumers are reducing or eliminating eggs and other animal products from their diets and exploring plant-based foods instead. According to an analysis by the Good Food Institute, consumers spent $7.4 billion on plant-based foods in 2021, a 54% increase from the previous three years.
Minnesota is no exception to the plant boom. The Twin Cities now host the largest free veg festival in the Midwest – Twin Cities Veg Fest. Since 2015, festival attendance has quadrupled to 10,000 annual attendees. This year, the festival will take place on September 18 at Harriet Island Park in St. Paul.
The big corporations that profit from animal exploitation cannot be trusted to prioritize ethical choices, but consumers and small farmers can. With innovative programs like The Transfarmation Project and the growing availability of great-tasting plant-based foods, we have the resources to build a more compassionate food system. A kinder world is possible.
Julia Knopp is president of Compassionate action for animals in Minneapolis.