The intensification of agricultural production has been a focus of debate because of its profound effects on food availability, rural populations, use of resources, biodiversity, and many other issues. In the case of animal production, however, the debate over intensification has taken on a distinctive tone because at the centre of the process are animals. In many cultures animals are viewed, at least to some extent, as sentient beings with interests of their own. Moreover, animals are the focus of ancient moral beliefs about the relation of humans to the natural world and about proper human conduct towards other species. Thus, to confront ethical concerns about the intensification of animal production, we need to begin by understanding how intensification affects animals and their welfare, and how it relates to ethical beliefs about the care and use of animals.
This essay explores key features of the intensification of animal production in relation to animal welfare and animal ethics. It looks at some traditional ethical ideas about animal care in order to help explain why the intensification of animal production has become such a prominent social and ethical issue. It suggests that some of the standard claims made by critics of intensive animal production are seriously flawed, and proposes an alternative interpretation to account for some of the key developments in the intensification of animal production. Finally, it explores how this interpretation, if correct, leads us to a different set of actions to address animal welfare concerns in intensive production systems.