Free-Range Almost as Bad as Factory-Farmed?


Check out this James McWillams article called Why Free-Range Meat Isn’t Much Better Than Factory-Farmed. McWilliams says that “when it comes to farming methods and harm, free range is better,” but “better does not mean acceptable.” He goes on to suggest that it is nearly as harmful and morally dubious to kill a factory-farmed animal as it is to kill one that was not raised in confinement (follow his logic from start to finish and see what you think.)

As far as I know, McWilliams is a vegan. If he wants to personally and/or publicly object to raising animals for food that we don’t need, I have no problem with that. I understand and appreciate that a notable contrarian like McWilliams needs to be careful about flat-out telling people what to do, but in a way I’d have a lot more respect for this article if it were called Be A Vegan. By working to discredit free-range farming, he is in practice giving us all an excuse to buy into a system of industrial livestock production that he admits is worse. McWilliams may be right that none of it is perfect, but if it’s truly a more moral and less harmful system that he’s after, wouldn’t his time (and ours) be a lot better spent rallying against what’s worse (and ubiquitous) than picking on what’s better (and small)?

I’d really love to hear your thoughts on all of this. Please post them in the comments section below.

(Photo Credit: Socially Responsible Agricultural Project via Flickr)


29 thoughts on “Free-Range Almost as Bad as Factory-Farmed?

  1. Obviously, my handle gives away my perspective on this. But I think it is important to keep in mind that people shouldn’t grant too much credence to the marketing campaigns of companies trying to sell them meat. The only way to really know if the treatment lives up to our personal values is to visit — unannounced — to see how the animals live and die. See the Polyface section here:

  2. I advocate visiting farms and purchasing on site. It is easier to decide whether the conditions are acceptable. I only buy meat from farms I’ve visited and approve of the conditions. This means that there is meat I simply do not buy because I don’t agree or cannot attest to the quality of the farming practices. I find it helpful to meet and talk with local farmers before purchasing. This often means that I buy meat, all at once and keep it in my freezer. I’ve had huge arguments with friends and family over my refusal to "just go Kroger."

  3. I thought the article close to dishonest, and agree that he should come out and say he’s making a general argument against meat eating and not against free-range practices.There is ground for criticizing what can be called "free range," because of how little has to be done for an animal to get that labeling. But like every improvement involving social and political systems, I don’t expect anything to move other than by increments.I recently cooked a couple of chickens that had been raised truly free range, living in the open on a dairy farm near here. Even the smaller of the two would have startled folks used to grocery story chickens of any variety, with much denser bones, very little fat, and pretty taught muscles. We’ve been trained to expect something else.

  4. Hi Mark, I think it’s a pretty reasonable ask for James to be a little more transparent in what he’s arguing for here ("Be a Vegan" would certainly have been a more appropriate title). However, I do believe there is merit in exposing both the positive and negative aspects of "farm raised" meat. He shouldn’t shill for farm raised simply because it’s a lesser of two perceived evils, but at the same time he shouldn’t one-sidedly demonize it without a constructive proposal on how to create a morally sustainable ecosystem.

  5. James logic is somewhat faulty in his article. The term "free range" does not automatically mean animals are able to pursue happiness. For example, according to the USDA (for chickens) free-range is granted if the animals have access to the outdoors. No other criteria–environmental quality, the size of the outdoor area, the number of birds confined in a single shed, or the indoor or outdoor space allotted per animal-are considered in applying the label. As with "free-range" laying hens, many "free-range" broiler chickens live in a facility with only one small opening at the end of a large shed, permitting only a few birds to go outside at any given time. James defines the "happiness" as the ability to make choices, socialize, and to have sex. Sure, being cramped together with all of the other chickens may make "socializing" easier… but males are taken out because they aren’t typically raised as food in these scenarios (unless you’re making traditional coq au vin) and because they do not lay eggs. So no sex. I also submit that the creation of the chickens life was not a choice made by the mother chicken, but by a human…thus the chickens were devoid of choice making the moment their life was created. It seems that James thinks that on a free-range farm, animals are lazily basking in the sun and flirting with one another. Philosophically and logically, James’ argument fails…

  6. Anytime you spend several opening paragraphs explaining yourself makes anything posted after suspect. ‘It’s too bad that you have to kill the animal to actually eat it and that’s cruelty no matter how it was raised.’There I summarised it in a sentence. It’s also a waste of time since he gives no alternative save not killing animals. The second theme is that ‘you think that you are better eating non-factory animals but you’re not. ‘WHY did I keep thinking about the monkey brains dish while reading this? Guess I’ll rot in hell or come back as livestock. 😉

  7. Morality aside, McWilliams ignores the issues that free-range animals are better for the environment and better tasting. And considering that societies and cultures are going to continue to "choose the seduction of taste over an animal’s right to its future," regardless of how much vegans rally, I think it’s important we continue to support free-range practices, not put them on the same level as factory farming for the sake of defending veganism.

  8. wow, the article is just not very clear on what he really wants people to know…my problem with it: its based on the opinion that meat is not needed (so many great arguments for needing meat)

  9. I feel that all the vegan explanations verge on the fundamentalist side, where it’s all or nothing.It’s very hard to live up to that extreme standard, and seems to me that if you go on, shouldn’t we get rid of cats and dogs? After all, we’re feeding them that very same meat. Wouldn’t euthanizing them all remove the need for all that meat they’re going to eat over their lifetime? It would be more efficient.What about the class issues around meat? Meat is for the rich, and the developing world has quite the appetite for it.

  10. I buy eggs that are supposedly from "free range" chickens, but I hear these chickens don’t exactly live under ideal conditions either. It’s a start, though, and I hope that I’m signalling to the egg company that I care enough about animal welfare to vote with my wallet if they made further improvements in the conditions on their farms.

  11. I have a mixed reaction. (full disclosure, I am mostly vegan) On one hand, I agree the argument is a distraction from 99 percent of the problem. On the other hand, the author is attempting to make a moral argument, which I mostly agree with: that the act of killing animals for food is still problematic. The real issue I have with the piece is that it’s too narrowly framed, leaving out the economics of true "free range" systems, however that’s defined. As Mark has argued, and I agree, if animals were raised humanely, the economics would require far fewer animals being killed and eaten: win, win. Now, for a more eloquent response to the ethics of killing animals, see my blog post: "Why humane meat in an oxymoron."

  12. I also think that the article is misleading and doesn’t try to solve the problem at hand. Look, I’m not going to become a vegan. And most people in this country is not going to become vegans either. But I do believe is that people in this country over-consume meat and meat products. I think the more sensible route is to advocate for some type of compromise – people need to consume less meat and eat more fruits and veggies. And I try to do my best in being a more responsible consumer when I buy meat. But the last thing I want is to hear from some holier-than-thou vegan fundamentalist who wants to vilify all those who eat meat. In fact, the McWilliams article just makes me want to give up on buying more expensive "free range" farm-raised meat and just say hell with it all, it doesn’t matter what I buy so I’m just going to keep buying factory-farmed animals. It’s such a damed-if-you-do and damed-if-you-don’t attitude. I think more people would be more open to the idea of cutting back on the consumption of meat rather than just completely going without. If everyone cut back just a little bit, I would think that would cut back on the total number of animals we all consume than just a few more hard-core vegans would. I should add that I don’t think eating meat is the "right" or "ethical" thing to do. I have my own issues about coming to terms with eating meat. I have seen farm animals and I feel guilty that I consume meat. But I know that I won’t stop eating meat but I try to assuage my guilt by making more responsible choices as a consumer. If there are those out there who want to attack the people at least trying to make more responsible choice, I think that’s really sad.

  13. This is a classic case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good… an attitude that has been sadly common among vegans and vegetarians I’ve known over the years. For some, self righteousness seems more important than animal welfare. Bottom line: free range farming reduces animal suffering relative to factory farming, and that makes it a good thing… even if (especially if!) you think that the absolute best thing is not having animal products involved in our lives. Having animal suffering raised to the point where it’s a mainstream topic seem to be a huge step forward… so why would anyone belittle such progress, even if it’s incremental?

  14. His argument rests on two points, both highly debatable.The first point is that the ethical difference between "raising an animal in hellish conditions vs. raising an animal in idyllic conditions" is not as important as the ethical difference between "killing an animal vs. not killing an animal". That is a highly subjective opinion. Frankly, I’ve found one either agrees with this opinion – and becomes a vegan – or one doesn’t agree and cannot be convinced otherwise. I’ve participated in enough debates of this nature to believe there is no point to the debate. One either feels animals shouldn’t be killed by humans or they don’t feel that way. End of story.His second point seems to me a very strange one – that by killing the animal we are denying it future happiness. I’m not sure what he is proposing here. That no creature should ever die? That is impossible. That we should strive to ensure every creature lives as long as possible given the limitation of science and medicine? That is impractical to the point of being impossible. Should we open the gates to all the farms and let all the animals run free? Does he imagine such an act will ensure their future happiness? Because it seems to me it will only ensure death by predator, or starvation, or sickness, or being hit by a car.And while we’re talking about denying futures, let’s remember that without animal farms most of these creatures would simply NEVER BE BORN; the wild simply could not support as many animals as a farm. So by this article’s logic, by not raising animals for meat we are denying them even those few years of "idyllic happiness" and leaving instead non-existence. This "denying future happiness" argument seems to me so strange as to be absurd.I have always found any vegan argument to come down to either nonsense or to a subjective opinion of relative values. This article is no different. If you choose to be a vegan that is a fine choice, but I think you must give up the idea that there is some sort of definitive, fool-proof, objective argument to be made.

  15. Frankly, in North America and some other places, we all should just probably eat less of everything — meat included. This would mean we would need fewer factory farms and fewer free-range as well.

  16. I’m an urban farmer and my husband and I raise my own meat animals. My husband and I slaughter them and then eat them. We are also intimately involved in their lives every day, we love and nurture them and make sure they have good lives. Killing animals is not easy, but an argument can be made that everything dies. It’s just a matter of when and how. My meat animals don’t know what pain or sickness are. They don’t have to suffer. McWilliams’ argument could also be made against euthanizing pets that are terminally ill or injured and suffering. Should we then allow them to suffer and die slowly because it’s more "harmful" to euthanize them?

  17. So where do you draw the line between mercy and cruelty when euthanizing an animal that has, say, cancer? When the animal is in pain or before it is in pain? Wouldn’t it be cruel to allow it to advance to where it is in pain?

  18. Sadly, if animals were not beneficial to us for food, they would likely go extinct. In fact, it is agricultural purpose that ‘allows’ certain species of fowl, cattle, and fish to continue existing on small farms who are not just benefitting economically, but who are also fighting for the cause of biodiversity in flora and fauna. Those who care about making agriculture sustainable–and they do exist, talk to your local farmers–often do care about using less cruel methods, even at an economic loss. Is natural selection really that much more humane, considering these animals no longer have natural habitats or resources. Would you prefer natural extinction, Jo, because if they’re not viable economically, the whole of society doesn’t care one way or another. Show me a happy cow in India.

  19. Then you must acknowledge all of the animals that are killed growing crops (caught/crushed in farm equipment, pesticides- even organic ones, habitat degredation, etc.) . Unless you forage all of your own food out in the wild your hands aren’t any cleaner than my own. The only difference is that salad you enjoy killed more animals than my roasted chicken. We do not have enough arable, tillable land for everyone to be vegan. Eating grassfed meat is efficient because they turn a food we cannot digest (grass, leaves, etc) into one that we can (meat). Meat animals can coexist with wildlife and help increase biodiversity. The exact opposite of what crops do.

  20. Applying pesticides to fields and trapping pest animals such as gophers and ground squirrels (yes, even organic farmers do that) is the deliberate killing of animals. So is habitat degredation. You can’t say that removing habitat doesn’t result in the death of animals. You can’t say that discing a plot of land isn’t going to kill anything when in fact you know for certain that animals will die – you just don’t know how many. It’s like getting in your car and there being a 100% chance you will kill someone whether you like it or not. I said it in my last post, but I’ll repeat it. Grassfed meat animals eat grass and leaves something humans cannot eat. They do not eat grains. They are also more expensive thus reducing the amount of animal products people eat – which is a good thing for their health. Not to mention that those animal products are healthier for us to eat. That article that you posted is referring to factory farmed meat, not pastured animals. There is a HUGE difference. It is incredibly irresponsible to use farmland to grow crops to feed to meat animals that they cannot digest. Cows cannot digest corn and can only survive on it for 180 days before liver failure kills them. Instead, raise those cows on native grassland that bison once kept in balance and on land that we can’t till, such as hillsides, and the environmental problems and concerns about hunger go away.

  21. This line of reasoning seems to be popping up (at least in my circles) a lot in the past couple of months.As much as I like taking idealistic positions, I believe Mr. McWilliams’ position is position is untenable if for no other reason that it comes off as elitist and snobbish. He’s entitled to that position.However, he’s cherry-picking his logical argument to serve his needs.If you take the line of logic that killing animals is inherently cruel, or that denying the animal it’s future is cruel, you’ve got to take it to the full extent and not just stop at humans.If taking the life of animals is bad, then we should prevent predators from doing so (thereby increasing the good in the world). I don’t see him advocating that, but why is it any different when humans do the killing than when an eagle/lion/whale does the killing?Similarly, why stop at animals? What about the glorious lives of plants? I can hear the response, "but they don’t feel pain" – to which I respond, don’t they? Plants respond to external stimuli – just much slower than animals. A frog doesn’t jump out of a pot of water that is brought to a boil, but that doesn’t make it "humane" to boil them. Same thing for killing plants. And, for plants whose lives are short-lived, by taking the fruit/seeds, you’re denying that plant its genetic future.If you’re gonna try to use moral arguments to back your beliefs, then you’d better take it through the logical conclusion. You shouldn’t be eating anything b/c you’re killing other living beings. Plants are the only blameless ones, except they too kill each other.Use whatever moral arguments you want to make yourself feel better, just don’t foist them on me.I believe you can actually argue on the basis of feed-lot farming causing environmental damage, or being unsustainable. That could be a grounded, and convincing, argument.FWIW, I eat meat occasionally, nearly all is free-range and locally grown. And the majority of my food is grown locally and/or organically. But I have the luxury of living in a location where that is easy to find, and I have made lifestyle choices to make that possible.

  22. There were once more bison in North America than there are cattle today, even with the use of factory farms. To feed the hungry we must utilize as much land as we can if our population continues to grow. Factory farming did not start because it was trying to help feed the starving. It developed purely for profit and greed. It’s cheaper to feed cows subsidized corn on feedlots. Because this is cheaper it creates a larger profit margin for companies such as Cargill and Tyson. You’re not changing your mind and I’m not changing mine. We do have some common ground. Just because I eat animal products doesn’t mean I do so every day. I only eat pastured meat and organic dairy, which means I eat very little of it because of the cost to buy and the space to raise. I eat only my chickens’ eggs. Call me selfish, that’s fine. For me, I choose to get my nutrition from whole, unadulterated foods rather than supplements or "fortified" foods. I staunchly believe that if someone isn’t willing to meet the animal they are going to eat they do not deserve to eat it. If this was a requirement then people would eat a lot less meat.Thank you for the recipes.

  23. @JoTyler People are not starving because there isn’t enough food in the world, people are starving because the food is not distributed to them (whether the reasons be monetary, political, incompetence, whathaveyou). It may not be sustainable, but that’s a different argument (that you’ve not made) and sustainable food may or may not include animals.The UN report to which you refer is discussing animals raised in the feed-lot situation, which is destructive and unsustainable for many reasons. But that’s not an argument for veganism – it’s at best an argument for consuming less meat.Regarding the argument on what humans must eat to survive, a human can probably live on a diet of rice, beans, spinach, carrots and apples (choose whatever limited diet that sustains people). Why aren’t you arguing that those 4 things are what we should eat, and nothing else. We need those to sustain us, adding anything else is pure gluttony and killing plants for the *pleasure*.We all (mostly) agree that factory farming is "bad" that doesn’t imply veganism.Also, while being a vegan may eliminate the negative contributions associated with raising/killing animals – it by no means guarantees that you’re minimizing your environmental impact to the world. A grass fed cow raised, slaughtered in an environment that has sufficient rain to produce the grass it eats probably has much less impact than eating soy/wheat/corn grown in mono-crop farms (likely GMO crops) using fossil-fuel based pesticides and fertilizers as well as water pumped up from non-replenishing aquifers, especially if it’s shipped from overseas.There are places in the world where the only food that grows year round are animals – grasslands. The poor in Haiti used to raise Creole pigs (until the U.S. wiped them out). Telling people they cannot do that is inhumane.Also, I have chickens in my back yard. They live fairly good lives, and I get eggs. They live off the yard and the vegetable scraps I give them, and have plenty of room to stretch their legs. A family farm can humanely raise a milk cow. Examples go on and on.No one-dimensional solution to the world’s problems (e.g. veganism) is either practical or even possible.

  24. The Compassionate Carnivore addresses this issue simply: vegans and non-vegans must work together and accept compromise–the majority of the world (including myself) will not accept an animal-product-free diet unless absolutely and totally forced, so there will always be demand for these product. By not purchasing these products, vegans have respectfully chosen not to make an economic vote. The only reason that industrial agriculture will change it’s ways is either the complete destruction of the resources to continue or consumer demand for a better more humane product. In the meantime, wouldn’t an arguably more humane system be preferable to continuing this GMO horror show? If people are going to make the choice to consume animal products, they should be encouraged to know their food and vote for change with their purchases. Personally, vegan will never be the choice for me. I won’t feel guilt for working my butt off side by side with my local farmers to improve food systems.

  25. @Jo TylerI did say that Mr. McWilliams’ position comes off "elitist", perhaps a better phrase would have been "high and mighty", and it does. His argument is basically, "hey all you free-range meat eaters, you’re no better than the feed-lot meat eaters. to be truly good you have to be like me and not eat meat at all." Snobbish, high and mighty … elitist.Mr. McWilliams’ conclusion was: > In any case, by choosing death for an animal, humans choose the > seduction of taste over an animal’s right to its future. Until someone > can convincingly prove that this denial does not constitute > unnecessary harm, I’ll continue to view free-range farming and factory > farming as gradations on the scale of cruelty.The harm is denial of the animal its future.However, if you’re not enslaving chickens, you’re enslaving carrots/tomatoes/corn. By eating the vegetables/fruits/grains/tubers, you’re preventing them from their right to their future. That’s the argument Mr. McWilliams made, and it applies to plants just as easily as animals.The argument you (and Mr. McWilliams) make decides that animal life is above vegetable life. How noble of you. And why the distinction? Because it’s convenient for you. Having a nervous system (or whatever it is that defines "animal") Rather arbitrary when you’re talking philosophical/moral arguments. You can make that claim, it just is NOT convincing. You could just as easily draw the line at being warm-blooded, at reproducing sexually, having binocular vision, at being multi-cellular. Is a bee’s life worth more than a 300′ tall sequoia? Than an entire forest of trees? Life is life, don’t destroy it. That’s my point.Once you agree that we need to *eat*, the rest is a matter of degrees, because we’re denying something living its future.Yes, degrees of "harm" make a difference, but he’s making a philosphical argument and not taking it to its logical conclusion.Your responses about world hunger and global warming are straw-man fallacies. Are you saying that if global warming were not an issue, and if nobody was hungry, it’d be ok to eat animals? And, at the same time, by bringing those arguments up, you’ve swept under the rug the horrible plant farming practices that contribute to global warming and food insecurity around the world. Being vegan does *NOT* solve global warming, and it does not feed all the people in the world. It would have impact, yes, but equating veganism as the solution is just incorrect.Humans evolved as omnivorous animals. Saying that we *can* survive on plants alone isn’t sufficient to say we *should*. For example, should Eskimo/Inuit people lose their way of life because you say they can’t eat animals?Yes, I would agree that CAFO operations are "bad" on many levels, and I do not support them. Mr. McWilliams’ argument wasn’t about CAFO operations, I’m not sure why you bring those up in your posts. Nobody is saying that it’s a good thing (morally, environmentally, gustatorially, or otherwise) to have CAFOs. However, the absense of CAFOs does not necessarily lead to becoming vegan.Lastly, I never said animals exist purely to suffer and be killed for my trivial desires. I’m not the one making a moral argument, Mr. McWilliams is, and you seem to be trying as well.I vote for a better world with my food choices. And it includes eating meat.

  26. The Compasionate Carnivore is a book. Vegan options are often tasty, healthy, and satisfying and I occasionally fit them into my diet. I don’t find it’s unnatural to eat meat–nature did it first. Nature does not guarantee any creature anything and there is no such thing as a ‘right to life’ for anything.. What is this with silly people thinking everyone has these ‘rights’. It should be the law of the jungle out there and humans should be on the bottom of the totem pole–humans should be prey.I regularly work on farms the raise cattle and egg-layers. You should try it, it’s inspiring. Lastly, you have presented my entire point that a lot of vegans are all or nothing, which makes their opinion useless, because that’s not how change is created. You won’t change anything because everyone will resist you.

  27. @Jo Tyler You are obviously passionate about the subject of veganism, and I applaud you for that. However (and I can only speak for myself) your refusal to address points I (and others) have raised leaves me with the impression you do not respect the opinions of others. You certainly haven’t given us the basic courtesy of responding to the points raised. Passionate repeating of the same dogma over and over is boorish and makes for a dull discussion.Of note: I never said my position was morally defensible, only that yours (and Mr. McWilliams’) is NOT.Good day.

  28. I think most consumers choose free range over farm raised because it’s a healthy alternative. I mean, isn’t the consumer ultimately more concerned with his/her own health first rather than that of the animals? Perhaps that is just my own selfish reasoning behind purchasing mostly free range chickens from a local farm. Mr. McWilliams’ argument here is that free range produces animals that have been raised with less cruelty but ultimately face the same tragic destiny as those that have been farm raised (cruelty included). Either way the outcome is the same, we (meat eaters) are all consuming an animal that has been killed for that sole reason.

  29. this article is’s not even worth tearing apart.but i can’t resist just a there anything more ironic than a vegan promoting the idea that animals should live short, painful lives rather than longer, happy ones? i know it must be hard trying to make sense of being vegan, but don’t concoct bullshit arguments that are so dumb they might make some people think: "oh this is so weird and backwards that it might make sense in a really weird and overly complicated way." also, when he talks about killing or "harvesting" animals he uses the word HARM.the meaning of harm is to cause mental or physical damage, or injury. not to end a can raise an animal for food and kill it without once causing it harm.harm is what articles like this are doing.

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