Why Everyone Knows a “Humane” Small Farm

Though people, in my experience, seem to be less willing to offer up this canard in face-to-face conversations, something we frequently come across in online forums is the claim that “my [relative] owns a small farm, he treats his livestock humanely, and this is the exception rather than the rule” in response to an exposé of farm animal cruelty.

It is important to note that small farms are extremely common, so people most likely aren’t usually lying when they make this claim. But a recent graph posted on the r/vegan subreddit demonstrates why this fact has virtually nothing to do with the consumption of meat. Though the graph (embedded below) specifically relates to pig farms, we see this same trend in all other livestock farms as well.

Graph posted on r/vegan by juicytoad

Upwards of 65% of farms are small, with 24 animals or less. Yet nearly 70% of pigs come from the largest 5% of farms, and approximately 90% of all pigs are raised on farms with at least 2,000 animals.

What does this mean, exactly? It means that, despite what farms you’ve been to and thought were “humane,” unless you buy meat directly from that farm or others like it, the animals you are eating are not the ones you hoped. (This all aside from the fact that killing something, even “humanely,” is not particularly humane if the alternative is simply not killing it.)

This evokes what the economist Daniel Kahneman calls the “availability heuristic.” In essence, we are biased toward that which is stored in our memory. For example, the letter “k” is more likely to appear as the third letter in a word rather than the first, yet participants in research on the availability heuristic are more likely to falsely believe that the letter “k” is more frequently the first letter in a word simply because it is easier to think of words that start with it. In the same way, when we think of “farms,” we think of the farms that we have visited, not the unimaginably massive ones we don’t see.

So even though everyone on the internet has a relative that owns a farm and who supposedly treats each of their animals like kings, they’re fooling themselves if they think that means the meat they buy at the grocery store comes from farms just like that one. And not only would that make little to no economic sense for producers, but the land required for all livestock animals to be raised in such conditions is prohibitively massive.

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