The Paradox of Sustainable Animal Agriculture

I remember the first college course I took on the topic of ‘sustainable development.’ Over a period of three classes one week, we watched and discussed a documentary about how large corporations all over the planet are ‘greening’ themselves to express an apparent concern for the environment. Of note, I remember that an office building of Nike was highlighted for its use of bamboo in the building’s construction, the presence of plants in its office space, natural lighting, and rooftop gardens.

I also remember thinking it was all a load of crap. Is sustainability really nothing more than superficial ‘green’ changes to industries noted for their pollution, neo-colonial worker exploitation, and never-ending production of disposable products built to fall apart and be replaced? This same mindset seems present in today’s romanticized ‘sustainable’ or ‘permaculture’ animal farms.

Slaughter with a Coexist Bumper Sticker on it

No matter how much rainwater we capture and divert, no matter how local our bees and cows are, no matter how dirty our fingers, nor how cooperative our business models, farming animals is an industry built on the enclosure of wild land, domestication and domination over wild species, forced motherhood of animals, and the unavoidable slaughter of animals produced in this system who no longer serve any value as free laborers or who no longer can be accommodated even by vegetarian operations that won’t personally kill them.

We cannot greenwash away the exploitation and slaughter of these living beings. And in that regard, all that remains is an ethical devaluation of their lives which is shared by the factory system and economic model these ‘humane’ farms brand themselves in reaction to. The differences are superficial. Farmed animals suffer the same fate whether slaughtered in high speed factory lines or butchered in a backyard between bong hits.

A Mathematical Impossibility

As idyllic as backyard and small-scale farming sounds, it presents a mathematical impossibility to achieve in practice beyond the lifestyles of a privileged few.

Think about this logically. Why does factory farming exist? Why don’t industrial societies use the smaller-scale animal agricultural systems some sustainability advocates idealize? The answer is quite simply that supply cannot meet demand on that scale. There isn’t enough land, there aren’t enough animals, there is too much demand for cheap meat by too many people at too many meals. The demand for meat cannot be met by grass-fed or ‘free range’ farmed animals.

This is the paradox of sustainable animal agriculture. It brands itself as an ethical alternative to industrial agriculture, yet in reality it functions as just as a niche market of this industry. It cannot feed the insatiable human demand for animal products. Instead it permits a smaller population the smugness of claiming an ethical superiority that most people will never be afforded. It occupies larger quantities of land which could be rewilded to support wildlife and balance greenhouse gas emissions, or used for fruit, vegetable, and herb production to feed exponentially more people, and instead devotes them to maintaining an ethical ‘middle class’ between truly sustainable and factory farming.

Sustainable animal agriculture is a bourgeois recuperation of anti- and post-modernist critiques of industrialism that neither results in true freedom for farmed animals nor greater food sovereignty for human animals. It is sustainable only in the sense of sustaining class distinctions: human over animal, ‘humane’ meat consumers over factory meat consumers, farmed animals over starving humans.

It is not sustainable in the sense of environmental impact or equitable, economic distribution of resources—it requires more land than factory farms, farmed animals still require food to be grown and processed somewhere, and the destruction of wild lands to provide these resources are ecologically devastating to people, wildlife, and planetary climate alike. Nor is sustainable animal agriculture sustainable in the sense of social justice—slaughterhouses have been linked to psychological trauma for workers, and the entire industry requires a cognitive dissonance for societies trying to end rape, forced motherhood, and violence.

What makes this industry anymore ‘sustainable’ than bamboo plants in the lobbies of executives whose wealth is built on sweatshop labor? It is simply a trick of branding under industrialism.

But What if We Decrease Demand?

Once we are talking about decreasing demand for animal products we are already halfway to veganism. Why even consume animal products in the first place? If we can decrease our demand, then we can live without these products, right?

And if we can live without these products, why live any differently? Why waste space to house, breed, feed, and slaughter farmed animals? Why waste space growing food for them when the same space could grow food or medicine for people, or be rewilded for the sake of our planet’s health if not the health of the wildlife the totalitarianism of agriculture is slaughtering?

There are countless reasons to divest from and overgrow modern industrial living, from its agriculture to its governance and economic models to its healthcare systems and beyond. Sustainable animal agriculture represents a likely earnest step in this direction, but its design is largely a superficial change that is still built on animal exploitation and an inadequate level of concern for the world’s ills from starving people to disappearing wildlife.

With such need in the world and such dire consequences for our actions felt in the changing climate, our innovations in sustainability ought to be based more so on living in harmony with the wild and in protecting her from human greed and vice, not in recuperating exploitative industries or greenwashing Earth’s destruction.


Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to