Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Bad Ranchers, Bad Cows

» February 27th, 2015

Livestock have been severely depleting public rangelands for decades. They do so by trampling vegetation, damaging soil, spreading invasive weeds, polluting water, increasing the likelihood of destructive fires, depriving native wildlife of forage and shelter and even contributing to global warming—all of which has been noted in study after study. Global studies. Peer-reviewed studies. Government studies. Lots of studies going back many years.

So why do people get up in arms about drilling for oil in the Arctic national wildlife refuge, demolished forests and polluted streams, but accept cattle trampling wildlife refuges and national parks, forests and grasslands as if that’s a productive use of our nation’s shared landscape?

Why does that damage—amounting to as much as a one billion dollar subsidy to a very small slice of the livestock industry every year—go unmentioned by a media that so eagerly condemns climate change deniers and proponents of fracking? (Read the Daily Pitchfork’s analysis of the destructive economics of public lands ranching here).

Perception.

Everyone can recognize an oil-soaked sea bird, a clear-cut forest, a stream that’s been ruined by industrial pollutants and extreme drought and other destructive weather. But few Americans visit the nation’s public grass and forest lands; fewer still know what livestock damage actually looks like on them.

Read more here.

Upcoming Speaking Engagements

» February 18th, 2015

 

I’ll be speaking this Friday in Boulder, Colorado and this Saturday in Denver. Details here and here. Please attend if you can. I’ll be discussing my book The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals.

Is Foie Gras Unimportant?

» January 15th, 2015

Mark Bittman’s recent column on California’s overturn of the state’s foie gras ban is—for lack of a better term—weird. Really weird. The gist is that Bittman thinks we’re paying too much attention to the cruelty of foie gras—“the most overrated of luxury ingredients”—while ignoring the reality that the vast majority of animal agriculture is cruel. In and of itself, this claim seems sensible. But it’s the way that Bittman makes his case that ultimately turns his column into a (perhaps unintended) defense of foie gras. Read more here.

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The Times Scrambles Story On Eggs

» January 12th, 2015

Early last week the animal activist group Direct Action Everywhere released a harrowing video based on an undercover investigation of Petaluma Farms, a Northern California operation that supplies eggs to Whole Foods and Organic Valley. In it, hundreds of chickens are shown crammed into sheds and suffering several obvious ailments, including respiratory distress and being stuck in feces.

Read more here. And subscribe.

Whole Foods Cracked Open

» January 10th, 2015

If you haven’t headed over to The Daily Pitchfork (dailypitchfork.org) here’s what you’re missing out on:

This new Whole Foods ad appeals to the increasingly popular dictum to know where your food comes from. It reads: “Know What Kind Of Life Your Dinner Lived.” On the face of it, the movement to better understand the inner-workings of the food system is a noble endeavor. But when the means of achieving that ideal are reduced to a morally illogical slogan, and clouded in a bogus certification label, the larger effort itself is deeply compromised.

When it comes to chickens raised outside of factory-like conditions, we often have very little idea about what their lives were like before they (or their eggs) graduated to the dinner plate. Chickens who are raised on pasture might appear to be happy chickens. But experts on chicken behavior repeatedly note that chickens are most at ease in forested environs. It is there where they have access to low-hanging branches that they fly into when threatened by predators. It is there where their ancestors, Asian jungle fowl, lived.

Factor in poultry genetics and matters become increasingly ambiguous. Most chickens are bred for commercial purposes. As a result, breeders have favored traits that lead to greater productivity, the most notable of which is larger breast size. Larger breast size, however, can often spell foot and knee trouble for chickens who were genetically shaped to be enclosed for a few months before being slaughtered. There’s every reason, as a result, to think that commercial birds on pasture are walking around in pain. The vast majority of consumers, even Whole Foods consumers, have no clue about the genetic history of the birds they buy. So how can we know how they lived?

In a more concrete vein, when it comes to knowing our dinner, what to make about today’s release of video footage taken undercover by Direct Action Everywhere on a “Humane Certified” Northern California farm that supplies Whole Foods? In it, birds are crammed into sheds, obviously distressed, suffering respiratory disorders, and stuck in their own feces.

This is hardly what Whole Foods has in mind when it insists that we know how our “dinner” lived. But as Direct Action Everywhere reveals–in perhaps the most strategically incisive undercover strike ever in the age of “humane” animal products–the shameful reality behind the bogus ad is that our dinner lived in squalor and suffered immensely.

Needless to say, the ad leaves no hint of this reality.

Subscribe Button is Now Up at The Daily Pitchfork!

» January 9th, 2015

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Food Is Life

» December 16th, 2014

I had an interesting conversation with my friend Bob the philosopher the other day. When I talk to philosophers, I realize how much I love philosophical thought. But I also realize that, much as you might rather coo-coo over someone else’s adorable baby rather than have one of you own, I’m glad I’m not an actual philosopher. I suspect I’d fall into a cycle of premise questioning that would suck me into an abyss.

But anyways. We talked about the meaning of life. What gives life meaning? There’s nothing ironic or tongue-in-cheek about this question when you discuss it with a real philosopher. Bob raised an idea that has stuck with me. He explained that many philosophers posit that life is given meaning by the experience of pleasure. That is, our sense that life has worth is rooted in the soil of subjective experiences that make us happy.

This all seems rather simple–until you think about it in terms of food. Eating makes us happy and, in this sense, eating gives us reason to find meaning in life. Meat and dairy. moreover, gives most people added pleasure. These items, from what I recall, can taste very good. I realize that committed vegans often reach a point at which animal products lose their appeal. But it’s very likely that at one point in time, these goods puts a smile on their faces.

The implications of this connection strike me as important. In an environment that fails to question the ethics of eating animals—which is to say, in most environments—there’s nothing to interrupt the conclusion that, as the saying goes, food is life. And if you include animal products as food, well then animal products are life.  If eating meat becomes synonymous with a meaningful life, any attempt to disrupt the association will be met with wrath.

Two lessons to draw from this observation. First, understand the wrath. Rather than scoff at it, or get in yet another facebook fight, just be appreciative of why the call to stop eating animals sends so many people into fits of apoplexy. Second, do not stop delivering the message that we must stop eating animals raised for food. Too often we think it’s a matter of convincing individuals, one by one, to stop. Really, though, it’s about creating an atmosphere in which the assumption that eating animals is integral to the meaning of life is questioned.

It’s the larger culture that must be destabilized. The converts will then follow.

Please check out my latest Pacific Standard column here

Agricultural Fantasylands

» November 30th, 2014

In the field of sustainable agriculture, there’s enough magical thinking going around to cause vertigo. I hear it from purveyors of humane meat especially. They’re going to provide “cruelty-free” meat from livestock cuddled with love, pastured pork from pigs who were never harmed before their trip to the slaughterhouse for that “one bad day,” and—the perhaps the most common but least plausible of all—cattle whose manure and hoof action are going to restore global grasslands and reverse global warming.

The magical thinking continues with those who promise to end the use of fossil fuel. Solar (and, to a lesser extent, wind) will take over oil and gas. Animals will help us convert sun into flesh. Led by the organic lobby, farmers will replace synthetic fertilizer with composted manure. Biological control will replace chemical insecticides, especially in the organic sector. Fuel required to truck produce will diminish to virtually nothing as local farmers stock our larders. And so on.

As an advocate for the abolition of animal agriculture, I work hard to negotiate this fantasyland of hopeful thought. I certainly do envision a day when the domestication of animals is no longer a part of modern agriculture. When I indulge that vision, I feel fairly confident that it’s doable. That it’s grounded in reality. But when I contemplate the animal rights’ endgame—the abolition of all animal suffering in every arena of life—I agree with the sentiment while quietly wondering if I’m not engaging in the same sort of fantastic thought that Allan Savory engages in when he argues that cattle can reverse global warming. “Do I really think that’s possible?”, I ask myself. In my more honest moments, I’m unsure.

While maintaining our ideals, advocates for animals must also be ready to reluctantly compromise. Not doing so lands us in the same arena of unreality that allows agrarian tricksters to tell us agriculture can provide a cruelty-free free lunch. There are no free lunches. There is no perfection in agriculture. Nothing even close. As long as we eat, there will be some level of animal suffering. We should work to reduce it without losing touch with this reality. The past is littered with magic thoughts that lasted a long time and then faded into the past, brought up as evidence of a loony generation.

That’s no fate for animal advocacy, but if we lose touch it could be.

 

Cutting Through The Fat

» November 21st, 2014

Food writers behave like a school of fish. The arrange themselves into a tight pack and swerve in unison, seeking safety in numbers. The newest bait is the idea that our food problems are not really food problems. They are poverty problems. I include myself in this school—note a recent column—and I join a pool of writers including Bittman and Tracie McMillian in highlighting the pressure of poverty on food choices.

And why not? There’s no doubt there’s a good reason to pursue the connection between poverty and poor eating habits. The correlation is clear and the reasons for the correlation fairly obvious, involving as it does matters of access, affordability, education, and—perhaps less obviously—a factor noted by both me and McMillian (see links above): the psychological consequences of scarcity.

That said, something about this emphasis makes me a little uncomfortable. The reason for this discomfort was recently clarified for me when I encountered the above menu in a trendy new Austin eating establishment. Click it and you’ll see that these meals are fancy. But they’re also weighed down with loads of carefully sourced but, still, unhealthy ingredients. The portion sizes, moreover, judging from the dishes being hauled out of the kitchen, were huge.  Is there, I wondered, that much of a difference between a McDonald’s menu and this one? Every plate seemed to me to far outweigh (literally) my ideal meal as a teenager: Big Mac, shake, and fries.

By the looks of the place, the comparison might seem absurd. This is an upscale, architecturally-savvy lunch spot. Business casual dominated. Elegant women drank chardonnay. As I looked closer, though, I noticed that, while there were no morbidly obese people in the place, at least 2/3 of the people in the restaurant were carrying extra weight, in some cases a lot. Take away the sheen of sophistication, strip these well-heeled lunch goers bare, and you’d pretty much have a naked reflection of our national struggle to stay fit.

Heavy and unhealthy high-end food often gets a pass when the obesity-poverty card is played. I don’t think it should. The overweight people in this restaurant—it’s called St. Phillip for those who care (good veganized pie)—were overweight in the same way that the low-income consumers of fast food are overweight. Fat is fat and flesh is flesh. Should the fact that the St. Phillip’s crowd was better dressed, had top-notch health care, and can get thee to a fat farm if matters get out of hand exclude them from our meta-analysis of poor eating habits?

I don’t think it should.  I’m not saying anyone should ditch the correlation between obesity and poverty, but I am saying we need to remember that as much as poverty leads to obesity, wealth can cover it up pretty well. Both a Big Mac and a $20 plate of homemade gourmet mac-n-cheese have the same impact on your body, at the day’s end.

Bad Will Hunting

» November 9th, 2014

This post belongs in the “no, it’s not the Onion” section. I’m referring to a piece published in the Times about raising and releasing Chinese ring-necked pheasants into Utah for the purposes of ecological conservation through the fine art of hunting.

Yeah, I know, emphasis not necessary. But on reading the article, you’d think the writer, not to mention the entire state of Utah, not to mention the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, thought it was perfectly rational to have families raise pheasants from scratch, come to adore them, release them into the wild, and allow 13-year olds, followed adults, to chase them down and blow them to smithereens.

“It’s a little bit hard,” a woman said, as the birds were set free. “You’ve watched them grow, and they’re like part of the family now.”

Which led me to consider an interesting heuristic device to place this policy, as well as the article about it, in some sort of sane perspective. Try this: read the article while replacing every reference to pheasant with dog. You’d encounter sentences such as this:

“The family of six had been raising the [dogs] since they were fuzzy, brown, palm-size [pups], as part of a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources program designed to create a greater interest in wildlife conservation and habitat preservation and to promote the sport of upland game hunting, particularly to young and first-time hunters.”

Or this:

“People are also no longer dependent on game hunting of any kind to feed their families,” a wildlife guy said. “When I grew up hunting [dogs] in Pennsylvania in the 1960s, there were no computer games, organized sports were not nearly as involved, and most people lived in two-parent households. My dad could take a Saturday off to go hunting. That’s become more difficult now.”

Weird, right? I wonder what would have happened if the author had tried this experiment before writing this horrid piece? Might she have appreciated how arbitrary it was to nurture one sentient creature for slaughter while never even considering doing so for another? And might not this inconsistency have alerted her to the ethical atrocity that she was inadvertently endorsing by not questioning it?

Try it again with another animal, one we don’t even domesticate:

“Like many states where pheasant hunting is a beloved pastime, Utah stocks its public lands with [squirrels] each fall. For 2014, the state purchased 11,000 adult [squirrels] from commercial growers and released them on public land to stoke hunters’ enthusiasm — and odds of success.”

Weird, right? And worse.