Do you believe that animal agriculture protects against species extinction?
You might be surprised to find out that just the opposite is true.
The animals that we use as agricultural commodities are genetically manipulated breeds (also known as varieties or races). Animals who never existed in the natural world, who have been artificially bred into existence and selectively engineered for particular traits that humans want to exploit (not naturally evolved to survive and thrive in the wild) cannot be said to go “extinct.” A Holstein cow can no more go extinct than a Big Boy tomato or a Labradoodle.
Not only do they not exist in the natural world, many of them bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors or to other members of their species.
For example, all farmed chickens have the same common ancestor. They are descended from the jungle fowl, which still live in the wild in the forests of India and South-East Asia. Chickens were first domesticated at least 3400 years ago, and humans have been selectively breeding them ever since. A wild jungle fowl might lay 20-30 eggs in a year. The variety of hens used for their eggs today each lay over 300 eggs a year on average. Even with good food, her bones may be depleted by the calcium she uses to make all those egg shells. Brittle bones are a common problem for hens. Battery (caged) hens suffer even more, because a lack of exercise can also weaken their bones. At commercial hatcheries, the day-old chicks of laying hens are roughly handled by workers called “sexers.” The boys are thrown onto a separate conveyor belt. Seventy years ago, these male chicks would have been reared for meat. Today, they do not grow fast enough or large enough to produce chicken meat economically, so they are dumped into a macerator where they are ground up alive. Their sisters are forced to lay eggs like their mothers.
Chickens that have been selectively bred for their flesh are called broilers. They grow twice as quickly as chickens bred for eggs, and are kept in crammed sheds. Many broiler chickens go lame because they are unable to support their massive breasts. Some scientists believe that a third of meat chickens suffer pain while standing. Some are unable to walk at all. Some die of heart problems, since their hearts cannot keep pace with their bodies. They are usually slaughtered at just six weeks old. Few animals which have been selectively bred would survive in the wild. This is certainly true of the broiler chicken. Broiler chickens who are rescued from slaughter often die young. This is a problem for those who wish to keep breeding broiler chickens. To keep the birds healthy, they have to be restricted to a quarter of their normal diet while they are growing. They have been bred to be hungry so they grow fast, but to keep them healthy they have to be kept hungry. How fair is that?
Wild jungle fowl still exist, so chickens will not go extinct if we stop exploiting them for their flesh and eggs. The same is true, of course, for turkeys, ducks, and other domesticated birds.
A similar situation exists with cows. Some cows have been selectively bred for meat. They produce enough milk to feed one calf. Their calves will nurse six times per day. They only need a small udder.
Dairy cows have been bred to optimize milk production. They have been selectively bred to produce enough milk for ten calves, but their calves are removed from them shortly after birth, and fed a replacement formula so that humans can take the milk that was meant for them. The male calves are either killed immediately, like the male chicks of egg-laying hens, or they are raised for a few weeks to be slaughtered for veal.
Most dairy cows are only milked twice a day. They may have to carry over 20 liters of milk. Many cows become lame carrying all this milk. Producing such a large quantity of milk requires a massive amount of energy, and this can cause health problems for the cow. Naturally, a cow can live for thirty years, but many dairy cows are in poor health after three or four years of milking and are sent to slaughter because they no longer produce milk economically.
The ancestor of domesticated cows is already extinct. Some researchers are trying to re-create the breed from modern varieties. If those efforts succeed, and sufficient land is available for the new species to thrive, or if some cows live on in sanctuary, the species will not go extinct if humans stop exploiting them for their flesh and milk.
Pigs are descended from wild pigs. Wild pigs give birth to litters averaging around five piglets. The modern sow produces 12 piglets at a time, and litters of over 20 have been known. This can put a strain on the mother. Partly to overcome this, sows may be kept in crates so small that they can’t even turn around for most of their lives. The piglets are removed from their mother at three to four weeks old, much earlier than is natural. This causes stress and health problems for the piglets.
Pigs, too, are selectively bred to grow very quickly, and most are sent to slaughter at just 6 months of age. Because the breeding sows are kept alive longer, they continue to grow until they fill the entire space allotted to them in their gestation and farrowing crates. Because of their enormous weight and lack of exercise, many cannot walk when they are finally taken to slaughter. Lameness has also been the fate of many pigs who are rescued from the meat industry.
Pigs still exist in the wild, and domestic pigs have successfully survived in the wild as feral pigs, so pigs would not go extinct in the event humans stopped exploiting them for food.
Because animal agriculture makes money from slaughtering genetically manipulated animals, they are obviously not a conservation effort. Far from conserving species, animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction. In addition to the tremendous habitat destruction caused by clearing forests for animal grazing and to grow feed crops, predators and “competition” species are often hunted because of a perceived threat to industry profits. The use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers in the production of feed crops interferes with the reproductive systems of animals and poisons waterways. The over-exploitation of wild species through commercial fishing and the “bushmeat” trade, along with animal agriculture’s significant contribution to climate change, all contribute to global extinction of more species than any other cause.