There’s an increasingly common refrain that non-vegans tend to resort to in the course of a debate, often times when they’ve run out of other excuses: “If we free all the livestock, they’ll overpopulate and that will be a real disaster.” Alternatively: “If we free all the livestock, they’ll get eaten by predators and will go extinct!”
In a basic sense, it’s one of those “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there” sort of things. But it’s also typically a non sequitur, insofar as it’s not used in response to anyone actually advocating that we shut down the farms overnight and let the livestock run free. We aren’t asked for our thoughts on what should be done; it’s assumed that this is what we want.
It’s also weird to think that anyone would actually decide something like this. No one has the authority to shut down all factory farms with the snap of a finger; there’s no animal agriculture analogue to the nuclear briefcase. The only other way this would happen is if everyone goes vegan at once, which is just as unlikely.
So how might we deal with the potential problem of millions of livestock no longer sentenced to death by animal agriculture?
If a vegan world ever does come about, it will be a gradual process. As much as we would like to see it, it’s simply not realistic. It makes sense, then, that farms would reduce operations proportionately to the decreasing demand. Farmers would respond to the decreased demand by breeding fewer and fewer livestock, meaning that there would be less to deal with when the whole world is vegan.
This would probably take a long time. The population of farm animals would decrease significantly, but a huge number would remain.
There are several things that can be done to further prevent a problem with too many rogue livestock. The stragglers who still haven’t quite gone vegan might still have animals slaughtered for them to eat. That’s admittedly hard to justify on ethical grounds, but the more realistic scenario of a gradual shift toward veganism — rather than a sudden, overnight change — would mean that no one is forced to become vegan. So it’s reasonable to assume that people will still want to eat meat, even if they know they won’t be able to for much longer. The question here is whether a minority of people consuming animals for a short time before the world goes vegan is preferable to our present reality of virtually everyone consuming animals, and the answer is pretty clear. We can acknowledge that something is not ideal while accepting that it is still a positive change.
Let’s say that through these processes, we reduce the population of cows, pigs, and chickens to 100,000 each. (Yes, I am completely pulling these numbers out of nowhere.) There are a few options at this point. People could take them in as pets — I know I’d like to have a pig companion some day — which could be quite a popular move; I know I am not the only one who developed an affinity towards these animals after going vegan.
There are also numerous farm animal sanctuaries throughout the United States — which already care for cows, pigs, and chickens — that would happily take them in. I hesitate to advocate that they go to zoos, but that’s an option that’s often also preferable to living your life in a cage.
And it might make sense to release some — even many, or most — into the wild. Cattle could roam like the bison do. Chickens could engage in turf wars with their turkey cousins. And pigs could seek out boars and create some new species of hog or thrive on their own.
The latter option could cause issues, to be sure. Disturbing the ecosystem by introducing new species — which are surely to be ill-equipped for survival in nature — could have a large impact on other species. They could consume certain plants that other species relied upon, causing them to take a hit. Predators could hunt these former farm animals down and eliminate all those not held in captivity. These sorts of things have a ripple effect, meaning that numerous species will likely be affected in one way or another, and to varying degrees of severity.
But the appropriate question is as follows. Is a hypothetical scenario — in which the release of hundreds of thousands or even a million animals into the wild causes serious, irreversible problems for the ecosystem — worse than the status quo? In other words, do you imagine that the release of a sufficiently large number of animals into the wild (which, again, is not inevitable) is likely to create a situation that is so bad that it’s worse than the current reality, in which 52 billion animals are raised in poor conditions and then slaughtered every year?
I didn’t think so.