Well, those operations may not be so humane now, but can’t welfare reforms eventually eliminate the unnecessary harms that we cause to farmed animals?

There are two myths at work here in this sort of thinking. The first is the notion that welfare reforms will meaningfully improve the treatment of exploited nonhuman animals. But countless reforms over the past two centuries have failed to improve conditions for them. On the contrary, tens of billions of nonhumans suffer today in more unimaginable ways than ever before.

Because nonhuman animals are human property, welfare reforms cannot provide meaningful protection for animals’ interests. This is because any attempt to ensure that nonhumans’ interests are better protected must attempt to balance those interests against the economic and institutional interests of their human owners. But because nonhumans are property, even their most significant interests can be (and are) trumped by the comparatively trivial human interests in profit and efficiency. Attempting to “balance” the interests of a piece of property against the interests of a property owner is like trying to deal a fair hand of cards with a rigged deck—it simply can’t be done, because the mechanisms in place are fundamentally unfair.

Demonstrating this point, Professor Gary Francione’s long-term research has shown that because animals are human property, the only institutional reforms adopted are those that allow property owners to continue exploiting animals in economically efficient ways. As a 2005 USDA Livestock Slaughter Inspection Training module puts it:

Prior to [the passage of The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act of] 1958 there were no laws in the United States governing humane slaughter practices. The majority of the meat industry recognized the benefits of humane slaughter practices and their use was widely accepted. Primarily there were economic incentives; humane treatment generally resulted in less bruising and therefore less trimming of the dressed carcass.

The Humane Slaughter Act of 1978 added some other handling requirements:

[…] “downers” cannot be dragged while conscious, workers are not allowed to physically retaliate against animals, water must be provided to animals at all times, and cattle prods connected to AC house current must be reduced by a transformer to the lowest effective voltage not to exceed 50 volts.

Putting aside the fact that these requirements are routinely ignored, as evidenced by videos widely available on the Internet, these minor adjustments to treatment still primarily benefit those that stand to gain from animals undamaged by handling. For example, beating or dragging a pig or cow increases the likelihood of carcass bruising and reduced meat quality, which was the primary concern of the legislation to begin with.

Recent “humane” reform campaigns highlight this dynamic. “Cage-free” eggs are still produced by birds who have had up to one-half of their beaks amputated without anesthetic. Hens, though “free” from cages, are hardly free: they are usually crammed into large sheds with tens of thousands of other birds, where they live in their own waste and suffer from a variety of painful ailments related to intensive egg-laying and confinement, even cannibalism, until they are slaughtered to be incorporated into processed foods. And what happens to male chicks in the egg industry? Because they are not bred for meat and are unable to lay eggs, over 200 million male chicks are ground up alive, gassed, electrocuted, or suffocated each year in the U.S. alone.

Keep in mind that it is not just how we treat nonhuman animals that harms them. Even if it were possible to somehow eliminate the suffering inflicted on animals through the course of their use, there is still the second myth at work in the notion of reforming animal use: that there is some way of using and killing nonhumans that is morally acceptable in the first place. But using animals as our resources puts their interests below ours, and that in itself is a harm to them because some of their most important interests, including their interest in continued existence, are denied in favor of our trivial interests. So, because using animals as our things and depriving them of their lives are harms to them, and because unnecessarily harming animals is wrong, we should not use them at all, even if they could be exploited in the gentlest of ways.