Many people are surprised to learn just how cruelly farmed animals are treated. Meat-eaters would rather just devour the dead-animal parts and not have to swallow the truth behind how they came to be. The reality is animals raised for food are often denied adequate legal protection, enabling animal agribusiness to treat these sensitive, intelligent creatures as meat-, egg- and milk-producing machines. In order to make the most profit, industrial livestock farmers confine animals to cages, crates or other small enclosures, denying them their natural instincts. Pigs, for example, are "grown" in crowded hog factories, the air filled with dust and noxious gases produced by urine and feces. Inside these massive sheds, mother sows suffer a continuous cycle of artificial insemination and birth. After being impregnated, the sows are confined in metal gestation crates just two feet wide. At the end of their four-month pregnancy, the sows are transferred to narrow farrowing crates to give birth. The sows barely have room to stand up and lie down, and they are deprived of straw bedding, which agribusiness considers "too expensive."
Pigs and other farmed animals are subjected to practices so cruel they would probably lead to criminal prosecution if those abuses were inflicted upon dogs and cats. Mutilations such as castration, detoeing, debeaking, dehorning, ear notching and tail docking are routinely carried out without any pain relief.
Though some will say eating grilled hot dogs or barbecued chicken is as much of a July 4th tradition as waving the Stars and Stripes, frankly, that's not good enough. No animal deserves to be raised and slaughtered in the name of "tradition." Moreover, history is filled with traditions and entrenched practices that most people now recognize as shameful, such as human slavery, child labor and gender or racial discrimination. Clearly, we're capable of embracing more ethical and compassionate values, even if that means challenging the status quo.
Cutting back on meat is also good for our country and the rest of the planet in a number of ways. In 2006, for example, the United Nations released a report showing that raising animals for food generates 40 percent more greenhouse-gas emissions than all the cars, SUVs, trucks and airplanes in the world combined. People who go vegetarian miss fewer days of work and have fewer health problems, meaning that our nation's healthcare costs decrease. Changing our diet would also help the hungry. It takes about 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat. That grain would go much farther feeding humans; indeed, if we were to divert the grain used in livestock production to human use, there would be enough food for everyone in the country –- and the world. The environmental cost of animal agribusiness is also staggering, filling our waterways with pesticides, antibiotics and the powerful growth hormones used on farmed animals. An EPA report from 2004 states that chicken, hog and cattle excrement have polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states.
While I don't believe that avoiding meat on July 4th will solve our nation's woes or make everyone who eschews flesh for 24 hours realize the benefits of being vegan or vegetarian, sampling ethical eating does have the power to transform us. By giving up meat for even one day, we realize just how easy and delicious it can be -- and doing so may encourage us to try it again and share it with others.
Enjoying a meat-free barbecue or picnic does not mean skimping on flavor; it just means selecting the cruelty-free versions of our favorite foods. Indeed, many of the meatless sausages, hamburgers, hot dogs and faux-chicken breasts available today fool even most ardent meat-eaters. All you have to do is try one. Replacing meat with a meat substitute is also good for our bodies: Studies show that vegetarians are less likely to develop heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, cancer (especially of the colon and reproductive organs), mature-onset diabetes and gallstones. Plus, meat-eaters are nine times more likely to be obese than vegans are.
As we commemorate our sovereignty on July 4th, please consider the billions of animals who are denied life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To learn how convenient and nutritious it is to celebrate this holiday -- and every day -- with compassion, please visit www.vegcooking.com and www.tryveg.com.
Mark Hawthorne is the author of Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism (www.strikingattheroots.com).