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The Cruelty Footprint of Food

I spent Earth Week talking to people about the impact of animal agriculture on our planet. I use a game to engage the public and start conversations. Its goal is to sort different foods by the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emitted per pound of food consumed. Beef, mutton, and cheese are the top polluters as they are coming from ruminants (their special digestive system produces lots of methane which is a GHG 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide), while chicken is the least polluting of all meats [1].

At the end of game, several people reacted to the result with “Oh good! I already eat mostly chicken.” and concluded that they didn’t need to make any diet changes. This wasn’t the outcome I expected, especially because the reason why chickens pollute so little is that they are slaughtered at 6 weeks of age and thus don’t have much time to pollute. Yes, 6 weeks, they are still babies! The natural lifespan of a chicken is 8-10 years. We’ve bred them in such a way that they grow super-fast and reach their slaughter weight in very little time.

So, what about a game where food is ranked by the amount of cruelty that goes in producing it? Or to put it in more palatable terms: “What is the most humane food to eat?”.

Some would answer “plants” right away and they would be right. Although producing plants is not harm free, it’s cruelty footprint is smaller than any animal products (see note 2). Also plant agriculture pollutes less, uses less water and land than animal agriculture. Eating plants is clearly best for the planet and the animals, and it happens to be better for our health too!

But what if we are not ready to go vegan all the way, what about reducing our animal consumption? What animal product has the smallest cruelty footprint?

I have only found a few studies [2][3] looking into quantifying the suffering of farmed animals which is not surprising both because not many people care and also because it’s really hard to measure. The systemic animal cruelty in farms itself is well documented though [4].

In this essay, I am going to give it a try in hope of starting a discussion. I offer several different approaches to tackle the topic, and make the following assumptions:

  • All animals are sentient beings who feel physical and emotional pain.

  • Each life has the same value (1 cow = 1 pig = 1 chicken = 1 fish).

  • Plants don’t feel pain.

The empathic approach

Ideally, the animals themselves should be the ones rating the suffering they endure in farms. But since they can’t quite tell us, we can try putting ourselves in their feet, hooves, or fins. Anthropomorphizing isn’t very scientific and quite subjective, but we shouldn’t forget that we are animals too and that we do have lots of things in common including most of our genes. We should also trust the power of our empathy, it often leads us to do the right things.

So, who would you rather be in today’s farms?

  • A salmon confined in a crowded cage net with the water muddied with fish excrement.

  • A pig teared away from his mother after 4 weeks and confined in a crowded warehouse for 6 months until he reaches slaughter weight.

  • A dairy cow who is forcibly impregnated with her baby taken away at birth, then hooked up several times a day to a milking machine, and this for several years in a row until her body is broken and then sent to slaughter.

This is a hard choice and one may be tempted to choose the life of the male chick in the egg industry who is killed right after hatching as it is the shortest life.

The quantitative approach

A more exact approach would be to attempt to measure and quantify the suffering.

There are objective criteria like the Five Freedoms of animal welfare [5] and more subjective ones like the psychological pain that can be observed by the animal behavior, heart rate, cortisol level in their body, etc.

  • Do the animals have constant access to fresh water and proper food? Are laying hens starved to boost their laying cycle? Are beef cows fed an unbalanced diet to get them fat before slaughter?

  • Do they have a comfortable shelter? Are they confined in small space where they cannot turn around or stretch their limbs?

  • Are they free from pain, injury, or disease? Are they mutilated (beaks, tails, ears...) without pain killers? Does their selective breeding increase their weight in such a way that their body (skeleton, heart, ...) cannot support them anymore?

  • How humane is their slaughter? Are they sedated and rendered insensitive to pain before being shackled or slicing their throat?

  • Can they express natural behaviors? Can chickens perch and dust-bath? Can mothers nurse their babies? Can they interact in a natural way with other individuals of their species?

  • How long are they allowed to live? Do they have time to grow into adulthood and get a glimpse of what their natural life would be outside of a farm?

  • Are they free from fear and distress? Do mother pigs and dairy cows feel sadness, grief, depression, and anger when their babies are taken away? Do they get to witness the slaughter of their farm mates?

Explicitly quantifying all these criteria would be the most accurate way to measure the suffering of farmed animals. However, the lack of empirical data for each species makes this approach very hard.

The simplified approach

Another way would be to not look into the details of the suffering of a specific animal, and assume that the suffering is the same for each species; 1 farmed animal = 1 unit of suffering.

This approach can be applied in two ways:

  • Look at the number of farmed animals per species and focus on reducing the consumption (thus farming) of the highest number. Today, there are 60B fish, 23B chickens, 1.4B cows, and 1B pigs living in farms [6]. So, we would have to stop eating fish and chickens as they are the most farmed. Eggs and dairy would be the last on the list as they involve fewer animals.

  • To generate the less suffering, we should eat the biggest animal possible. So, one life feeds many humans, instead of many lives to feed one. Eating an elephant or a cow is then humanely better than eating a chicken or a shrimp. This “suffering per weight” metric is similar to the one used in environmental studies (GHG emitted to produce one pound of animal product).

Both lead to the similar conclusion of not eating fish and chicken to reduce suffering.

Based on these different approaches, here is my unscientific ranking of food based on their cruelty footprint:

  • Dairy and eggs are the cruelest. This may be surprising to some as these foods are often seen as “naturally” produced. Also, dairy cows and laying hens are not raised in the sole purpose of being killed, but I personally feel that death may be preferable than living a life of constant abuse.

  • Farmed fish, pork, and chicken are close behind. They all have miserable lives confined in farms. The lack of regulations for the treatment of birds and fish (including transport and slaughter) is appalling and leads to horrific systemic abuse. And the extreme confinement of mother pigs is pure cruelty.

  • Beef is next. Despite being fattened up on a crowded feedlot for the last 6 months of their life, most get to live their first year in some kind of pasture with a herd.

  • And wild fish comes last. They get to live the most natural life of all the animals we eat, before getting yanked from the sea and killed in abominable ways.

  • Plants have the smallest cruelty footprint for the simple reason that they don’t suffer (see note 2).

I went back and forth between the ranking of the first two. Farmed fish, pork, and chicken could be listed first as they involve an enormous number of individuals. But I am quite empathic to the fate of mothers, and I can’t stand the exploitation of the female reproductive capability.

I hope this essay inspires you to critically look into the foods you eat and make more compassionate food choices. Compassion is not for the faint-hearted. It takes a lot of courage and strength to brave social norms and stand up for the voiceless.

Important notes:

  1. All suffering mentioned in this essay focuses exclusively on the animals being farmed. It doesn’t include the collateral damage done to humans and wildlife, nor the harm done to the future generations by destroying their planet.

  2. Plant agriculture is not cruelty free [7]. Animals are killed by pesticides, by tractors and other machinery when plants are grown and harvested. Wildlife habitat is destroyed to make place to food crops. Fertilizer runoff poisons fish. Agricultural workers are suffering too by routinely being exposed to hazardous conditions such as pesticides, heat stress, etc. However, animal agriculture requires producing more plants to feed the animals. So, eating animal products increases the cruelty footprint of plant agriculture.


  1. Environmental Impact of Food Production:

  2. The Impact of Replacing Animal Products:

  3. The Welfare Footprint Project:

  4. Extreme Confinement and Abuse in Factory Farms:

  5. The Five Freedoms:

  6. Crop and Livestock Products Data:

  7. If You Eat, You Harm Animals


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