Not everybody understands the benefits of free-range produce. I'm not just talking about meat here either, but also things like eggs or even dairy products sourced from ethically raised cows. There are some obvious reasons but also some less obvious.
To me this is the big one, and is enough on its own to warrant a change to produce where the animals are raised ethically and where that provenance is well known. This is clearly an emotive topic, and can easily be clouded with passion and rhetoric. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as this should be emotive and people should be passionate about it, but it does make robust debate a little hard at times.
Much of the animal-based produce you get in the supermarket is farmed in an intensive system of one form or another. The aims of these systems is to create the maximum amount of a product in the most efficient way possible. While that's not at all a bad aim, it normally comes at the expense of the animals involved. When people are concentrating on efficiency and the bottom line, they are not always concentrating on the animal's wellbeing.
To me, the animals that are treated the worst are chickens and pigs, and that's mostly because their biology lends itself to abhorrent intensive farming practices. Pigs are amazingly efficient when it comes to converting feed to meat, and their breeding potential is huge. They can be kept indoors and continually pump out babies, up to 5 litters every 2 years, and those babies can then also be kept indoors and produce 70+ kilograms of meat in around 5 months. Similarly, chickens are easily kept in large indoor structures where they're given all they can eat and drink, and due to selective breeding a good-sized bird can be grown inside of 6 weeks. Sounds like a farmer's dream right?
The problem is that the animals are miserable. Practices over recent years have improved, but the animals are still miserable. For example, sows used to be put into farrowing crates - frames that are about 2m long and 1/2m wide - as soon as they were pregnant. They'd be able to lay down and stand up but that was the extent of their movement, and they'd be like that until their babies were weaned. That's almost 4 months of pregnancy and then another month feeding her babies. That's almost 5 months in the most restrictive conditions you can imagine. Now they tend to only put them into the crate a week before farrowing and then until she weans, so the 5 months has been reduced to 5 weeks. That's better, but is it acceptable?
The thing that gets me with the intensive pig farms is that I know first-hand just how smart and sociable pigs are. Containing them, keeping them away from their social group, raising them inside for their entire lives would hurt them horribly. And by "hurt" I mean hurt their feelings. Hurt their little piggy souls. Come to my place and look into the eyes of one of my ladies and then tell me that she'd be happy raised in an intensive system. Watch them lay in the sun, interact with each other, show true affection to their herd mates and to us, and tell me that intensive farming practices are acceptable.
The state of intensively farmed chickens is no better, and physically is probably much worse. People see chickens as stupid and unfeeling, and so seem comfortable with intensive chicken farms. I mean, it's no secret. Everybody has seen it on TV or read about it in newspapers. Let's have a quick recap here on how it works:
By the time the birds are at slaughter-weight, you can't see the floor of their housing. They have no external stimulus and are raised in a way that minimizes their activity and increases their rate of weight gain. If you want to see an excellent show on how this all works, look up "River Cottage Hugh's Chicken Run". This is a 3-part series where Hugh tries to get access to intensive farms, and when he can't he actually builds one himself on a relatively small scale. He raises birds both in an intensive and free-range context, so you get to see exactly how it all works.
In all of these intensively farmed systems the animals are kept, for the most part, physically healthy. I find this questionable personally, as this often involves the application of preventative antibiotics, as living in their own filth tends to lead to health problems. That over use of antibiotics has a whole range of knock-on problems, but I won't get into them here. Suffice it to say, the animals come out the other end alive and as large as they can possibly get in as short a time as possible. My question is this: Is the fact that the animals are alive and large, but are completely miserable, acceptable? Do you as a consumer feel comfortable knowing that the meat you're buying comes from an animal who has lived in misery? Surprisingly, some people have no problem answering "yes" to those questions. I find that bothersome, but that's okay because animal welfare isn't the end of the debate.
This is a subjective measure, but is important, and to some people is the most important. People might not care if the animals their meat comes from are happy or not, but they should care that the meat is lower quality. It's completely logical if you think it through. The meat you eat is muscle. If the animal it comes from doesn't get a lot of exercise, and in some cases is actively discouraged from exercising, then the muscle tone will be terrible and the resultant meat of a lower quality.
This is especially apparent in pork. The pork that comes from intensive farms is pale, has poor texture, and relatively poor fat marbling. We've seen it ourselves at our local abattoir and I saw it even in the outdoor pig farms in the UK. Our pigs are free to dig and do all of the destructive things that pigs do. As a result, about 2/3 of their weight is in the front, and especially apparent around their shoulders and necks. Seriously, they're built like linebackers. However, indoor-raised pigs, or pigs that have nose-rings to stop them digging like those I saw in the UK, don't have that muscle tone or weight. It took me a while to work out why the other pigs at the abattoir and the ones I saw in the UK looked different. It eventually dawned on me that they were symmetrical from front-to-back - their shoulders were half the size of those in our pigs.
The same applies to chickens. What you're buying is a sedentary and fatty bird. People think they're buying a good source of protein but they're wrong. The best discussion I've seen on this also came from River Cottage, and I've found just that part uploaded to YouTube here. Here they consult a brain scientist, and they raised some excellent points, including:
I encourage everybody to watch that show in its entirety, or at least the snippet I've linked above. It's fascinating.
This is a measure that people would have to try themselves to really understand. Trust me though, we've spoken to many, many, many people who have tried free-range alternatives, including the meat we raise, and we've never had anybody who didn't notice the difference and who didn't prefer the free-ranged meat.
There's a theory that human development got a huge kick-start when we started to eat meat. It was nutrient-rich and full of protein, and gave us the kind of evolutionary boost we needed to become the species we are today. The problem we face now is that our farming practices have largely removed many of those nutrients, including those we need for brain development in our kids.
The brain scientist consulted in the River Cottage snippet I linked above talks about the nutrients we should have in our chicken. In particular, we need Omega-3 for brain development, and that has dropped by 85% since the start of intensive farming practices. He calls it the "dumbing down of the food chain". It is of very real concern for health professionals as they are forecasting a huge increase in mental ill health in the coming decade.
He tests various chickens in that show, and found that the intensively farmed birds had 0.1% Omega-3 and were nearly 13% fat. The free-ranged bird had 10 times the amount of Omega-3 and a quarter less fat.
Birds need three things to develop the nutrients we need:
Fifty years ago it took about 14 weeks to grow a bird on to around the 1.5kg mark. Now it can take as little as 37 days. That's almost a third of the time it used to take, and the result is that you're buying nutritionally denuded meat that is full of fat.
Our birds are free to range, though sometimes we restrict that a little otherwise they'd be in the neighbour's yard eating their garden. Again. :) They get time, as we feed them on to the 12 to 14 week mark, and over Summer we supply them green forage either through green-grocer waste and/or growing wheat or barley in a micro-green context. The result is amazing. Our birds are large, healthy, robust, and hands-down the best tasting chicken I've ever tried. I swear I feel healthier after eating the soup Linhda makes from our whole birds.
Intensively farmed systems are easily the best way to efficiently grow the maximum amount of meat/eggs. They also have the advantage over free-ranged systems when it comes to things like atmospheric and predator control. The result of that is a cheaper product which many people find attractive. However, the meat you buy comes at the expense of the animal's well-being, is of a much lower quality, and is nutritionally barren when compared to the free-ranged alternative.
Yes, free-ranged meat or eggs are more expensive, and that's because to raise those animals properly requires more effort and expense. What you get is a better product that has the nutritional profile you need to maintain your health and you know that the animals involved lived happy lives (assuming you can be assured of the provenance of said animals). To my mind, there really is no argument.