Here's Why Even Organic Farms Are Awful For Animals -- And How They Can Be Improved

Sonia Faruqi, author of 'Project Animal Farm,' talks to HuffPost about food labels, animal welfare and what you can do to make a difference.
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Sonia Faruqi accidentally became an animal welfare investigator.

After losing her job as an investment banker, this Type A, Ivy Leaguer volunteered on an organic dairy farm, where she discovered that the cows were kept chained up and covered in feces. It was the opposite of what the word "organic" conjured.

Faruqi's curiosity was piqued: If things are bad for animals at an organic farm, what must life be like at a conventional farm? And how can things get better?

Faruqi spent about four years exploring industrialized farming all over the world -- living with farmers, talking her way into slaughterhouses, choking on the ammonia-filled air in henhouses, learning to differentiate especially cruel veal-raising practices from those that aren't quite so grotesque.

She also lived with farmers whose husbandry is humane (even if their animals are still bound for the plate). She describes their philosophies and practices, and how they can serve as models.

It's a process she describes, in sometimes grim, always captivating detail, in the new book Project Animal Farm .

This book goes beyond familiar, gruesome instances of workers throttling sick cows and kicking pigs, to describe the systemic cruelty these animals endure as part of their daily life at factory farms -- which are home to all but one percent of the 90 billion farm animals killed last year in the U.S. alone

She also lays out steps that farmers and consumers can take, to make life better for the next 9 billion animals.

The Huffington Post caught up with Faruqi by email to find out more.

You're looking at the abuse inherent in the industrialized farming industry as a whole. What were the worst things you found?

The concept of “confinement agriculture” sums up the situation. The worst forms of confinement are egg-laying hen cages and sow crates, in which the animals can hardly move at all, trapped firmly in place. In human terms, it can be compared to being glued to a chair for a lifetime.

At an egg factory farm where I resided, hens were trapped in thousands of cages arranged in three endless columns. Each cage was the size of a microwave but confined four or five hens. There were 13,000 hens in the factory.

One of the solutions you propose at the end of the book is large-scale pastoral farming. What would that look like -- and how would it help?

Pastoral farms are those where animals are able to exercise their nature -- where they’re able to walk and roam, to feel sunlight. Industrial farms, in contrast, have crowded, barren, artificially lit, confinement environments. In every way, pastoral farms are better than industrial farms.

Large-industrial (factory farm) and large-pastoral farms have nothing in common except size, and even that, to a limited degree. We’re never going to return to a time of small-pastoral farms, but we can create a time of large-pastoral farms. It’s also important for meat consumption to decrease; a transition is required toward both improved farming and healthier eating habits.

Which food labels are important and which aren't, in terms of animal welfare?

The granddaddy of labels, the most serious and weighty of them, the one with the highest potential, is "organic." Organic consists of a range of stipulations that are stringent in areas like pesticides and drugs, but are less sufficient in other areas. Concrete lots instead of pasture, small doors leading to the outside and crowding are today the norm at many organic farms.

The minimum outdoor requirement at organic operations in the United States and Canada is 120 days a year -- one of every three days -- but it should be increased to at least 180 days, and preferably 240 days.

With regard to living conditions, the term “free run” means that animals have been permitted to roam indoors. Free run eggs are always better than eggs from cages, but the label means little in other areas where it is increasingly being applied, such as broiler chickens and turkeys, who are not kept in cages to begin with in the United States and Canada.

The term “free range” is superior to “free run” as it means that animals have outdoor access, although the level of outdoor access can vary considerably. Both “free run” and “free range” are in need of rigorous defining and tightening.

Labels like “fresh” and “natural” are not tied to any one meaning -- hence their prevalence.

What concrete steps should consumers be taking now, to try to make life better for farm animals?

The best thing that consumers can do is to alter their eating habits. Meat consumption levels today are incredibly elevated, at about 170 pounds a year in the US. Such high meat consumption is not only unhealthy, unsustainable and inhumane, but also entirely unnecessary. We can alter our eating habits to align more with our values.

If a family of four reduces its meat consumption by a quarter, that’s equal in its effect to one person being vegetarian. The point is that everyone should do something. Not doing everything is no reason for doing nothing.

Consumers are becoming more aware and interested. Some people in the industry themselves are vying for change. Among the greatest sources of inspiration to me in Project Animal Farm have been some of the farmers I met.

Change is budding among both producers and consumers; it’s only a matter of time before a tipping point is reached.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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