Earlier this summer, 200,000 hens died in a massive fire at Forsman Farms, an egg farm in Wright County. The 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 one are not uncommon. A report released earlier this year estimates that more than 6 million farm animals died in barn fires between 2013 and 2021. Barn fires are especially common in cold weather states, where heating devices can malfunction in winter. Minnesota ranks among 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 sheds light on the values of the animal farming industry today. Animals are seen as commodities, not sentient individuals. Animal suffering and death are understood only in terms of profit and loss.
Research shows that chickens are social beings with thoughts and feelings. They can recognize and remember up to 100 faces. Chickens also show self-control, resisting smaller food rewards in anticipation of bigger rewards. And when living in family units, chickens even pass down knowledge from generation to generation.
A barn fire is a terrible way to die, but sadly, the entire lives of hens trapped inside factory farms are rife with suffering. For most of these birds, life begins in an industrial hatchery. Shortly after hatching under heat lamps, they travel down a conveyor belt to be “sexed.” Male chicks, who have no use to the industry because they do not lay eggs, are tossed 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 her life producing eggs, permanently confined to a wire cage roughly the size of a standard sheet of paper – a space so small that she cannot even spread her wings. At less than two years old, her egg production decreases, and she is sent to slaughter to be processed for low-grade meat.
Most people believe animals deserve better. A 2017 poll found that the majority of the public is uncomfortable with the way animals are used in the food industry.
Even some farmers are showing changing attitudes about the use of animals for food. A 2021 peer-reviewed study reveals that animal farmers show higher levels of meat avoidance than the general population – citing health and safety concerns. The study also found growing ethical concerns about the use of animals for food among farmers, although for them to explicitly state these worries would be, in the words of one subject, “high treason.”
Fortunately, animal and environmental advocacy organizations are supporting farmers who choose to transition to growing crops instead of raising animals. One such initiative, The Transfarmation Project, provides animal farmers with the resources to begin growing crops used in increasingly popular meat and dairy alternatives and then connects the farmers to businesses in need of 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 critical role in creating change for hens and other farm animals. Choosing cage-free eggs, for example, can mitigate harm. Over the past decade, the percentage of hens living in cage-free operations soared 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 state bans on battery cages, corporate welfare pledges, and consumer demand. In cage-free operations, hens still suffer 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 in their diet 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, constituting a 54% increase over the previous three years.
Minnesota is no exception to the plant-based boom. The Twin Cities are now home to the biggest free plant-based festival in the Midwest–Twin Cities Veg Fest. Since 2015, the festival’s 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.
Major 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 increasing availability of great-tasting plant-based foods, we have the resources to build a more compassionate food system. A kinder world is possible.
Julie Knopp is president of Compassionate Action for Animals in Minneapolis.