Archive for the ‘A Thousand Words’ Category
The following review essay appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of The Virginia Quarterly Review. A link to the complete article is below. Please leave comments there.
The worst thing about sausage is that it has to be made. We know this because a generation of journalists has infiltrated North America’s feedlots and slaughterhouses to expose the apparatus that churns out mass quantities of commodity meat. American agribusiness—wreaking havoc on animals, laborers, consumers, and planet Earth—is generally understood to be irredeemable. Today, enlightened consumers wouldn’t be caught dead near a Big Mac. For what it’s worth, that’s progress.
The reformist lexicon that fuels the outrage resonates with the political right, left, and everyone in between. A libertarian Virginia farmer fumes over the “industrial agriculture complex.” An Oxford-educated activist vents that “globalized corporate agriculture” has left us “stuffed and starved.” A poet-farmer whose horse-drawn plow breaks up Kentucky soil laments how “the ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.” Yikes (and yuck).
Such visceral disgust makes one wonder: Just who are these people monopolizing the world’s food supply? Indeed, the strangest thing about antiagribusiness angst is that it rages full tilt without a real understanding of the machinations that empower the corporate leviathan. We’re routinely hit with dramatic visuals: the slaughterhouses, endless corn and soy fields, obesity charts, deforestation photos, undercover animal-abuse films, and battery-caged birds. But we ignore the sterile office space where the sausage-making playbook is written
Two books—Ted Genoways’s The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food and Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business—begin to fill this gap. Genoways, a contributing writer at Mother Jones (and former editor of this publication), and Leonard, an investigative reporter, offer respective portrayals of Hormel and Tyson Foods that show how the brutality of the abattoir reflects the sangfroid of the boardroom, where cuts of a more metaphorical sort enhance the wealth of salaried executives at the expense of disposable wage workers.
Gene Baur, a friend and fellow marathoner, is what you might call the activist’s activist. He’s articulate, charismatic, and a rare blend of incredibly friendly but serious at the same time.
The range of his activism runs the gamut. He travels relentlessly to give talks about his work at Farm Sanctuary and the benefits of living a compassionate “animal-friendly life” (in fact, when I first met Gene he was rambling through town in a VW Bus on a cross-country tour promoting veganism); he lives out his ideals by rescuing and raising farm animals at the nation’s leading farm sanctuary that he founded in the late 1980s; and, to top it off, he is a best-selling and elegant writer—author most recently of the Living the Farm Sanctuary Life, which is just out in paperback.
Gene’s book is a rare combination of attributes. It’s a strong plea for a plant-based diet, a guide to animal-friendly consumer and environmental ethics, an overview of farm-animal sentience, and a range of recipes that help us put our values on the plate in an especially delicious way. My favorite recipe section is “handheld meals”—and the Just Mayo chickpea salad sandwich (p. 164) has become a go to (in fact, it’ll be my lunch today).
What comes through powerfully in this book is the inspiring notion that—and I admit to doing battle with this idea—individual choice matters when it comes to creating a better world for animals. “I believe that everyone can make a significant change in their lives when they’re ready to make that change,” Baur writes. Don’t let the simplicity of the statement fool you. After reading this book, even the most worn skeptic will be softened to the possibility.
If all this sounds too good to be true, you can check Gene out for yourself. This evening he’ll be on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Tune in.
And tune in.
Chipotle is a fast food company that talks a big game about sourcing animal products from responsible farms. The company’s “food with integrity” slogan assures customers that, “when sourcing meat, we work hard to find farmers and ranchers who are doing things the right way.”
But a careful examination of Chipotle’s animal welfare rhetoric quickly confirms the lack of any hard commitment to the welfare ideals it so breezily espouses. Without going into a systematic analysis of Chipotle’s marketing verbiage, it’s quickly apparent that the most common qualifier anchoring Chipotle to factory farming is this: “whenever possible.” Yes, Chipotle will “work hard” to support welfare standards “whenever possible.”
But these qualifiers have proven meaningless for the once McDonald’s-owned company. In 2013, when the supply of antibiotic-free beef dropped, the company allowed factory-farmed antibiotic-laden beef into the supply chain. As this was happening, the company’ co-founder was telling the media—who acted as scribes—things such as “The more consumers understand the benefits of eating food from more sustainable sources, the more they’re going to expect it from everyone.”
A sinister calculation is at work for Chipotle. On the one hand, it waxes rhetorically about its high welfare standards and this rhetoric serves to improve the company’s popularity. On the other, this intensified popularity means that Chipotle’s demand for meat and dairy will outstrip the supply of meat and dairy available from the farmers it earnestly claims to support.
Read more here.
Temple Grandin is perhaps the world’s most-recognized authority on farm-animal welfare. As the subject of an admiring HBO film, she has a lot of fans. Foremost among them are journalists on the agriculture beat. Whenever an animal-welfare perspective is required, it seems the first person tapped for a quote is Temple Grandin.
But Grandin is a paid industry consultant. She profits financially by designing industrial slaughterhouses. She supplements her income by writing books and delivering speeches about those designs. Whatever animal welfare advice she offers should always be framed in the context of her monetary connection to industrial agriculture.
It should also be noted that big agriculture—big beef in particular—adores Grandin. She approaches agricultural “reform” from a compellingly safe perspective, one as much informed by her Ph.D. in animal science as her autism.
The notion that Grandin’s autism provides unique insight into animal perspectives curries considerable favor with the general public, thereby further enhancing her credibility and reputation as a person who cares deeply about animals. Big Ag plays on this association brilliantly. Journalists help them do it.
Grandin’s allegedly unique connection to animal lives is routinely reified through visually arresting images. Here’s Grandin hugging a horse. Here she is surrounded by a brace of cows. Here she is petting a pig. Never do we see Grandin with an animal being slaughtered. That would sully the image.
Obviously, one would think, Grandin’s empathy for these animals runs deep, deep enough at least for us to trust her as a viable source of information on their welfare.
But her real job is to help agribusiness kill them.
I’ve been alluding to this project for a while now and, finally, it has come to fruition. I introduce you to The Daily Pitchfork. The site is dedicated to evaluating and exploring the intersection of animals and the media. To keep up with my posts, you should head to the site and subscribe (it’s free) and stay tuned to this site for upcoming interviews and guest posts. Thanks, and I look forward to your feedback. I also thank you in advance for spreading the word.
Happy New Year friends. The upcoming year will see some changes here at The Pitchfork. Much of the critical commentary on eating animals and animal rights will take place on a new site, which will be launched in the next few days, called The Daily Pitchfork. TDP will focus specifically on the media’s coverage of animal issues, but it will also serve as an editorial outlet for the site’s editors–Vickery Eckhoff and I–and others to develop ideas regarding the role in animals in contemporary life, much as I have long done here. When the site launches I’ll let you know so you can subscribe.
Of course this site still lives. On it I’ll be indulging one of my New Year’s resolutions: I want to listen more. Specifically, I want to listen to those with whom I disagree. I want to air the opinions of those I’d normally dismiss. Why? Many reasons. But I think the biggest is that animal rights activists–for all the power of their arguments–are less successful at trying to see the issues we engage from other angles. None of this is to necessary lend legitimacy to these opposing ideas so much as it is to lay them bare. In that I see value.
I will also be posting more on The Fumarole section of this blog. Lately I’ve been excited by the idea of identifying a beautiful sentence I’ve come across in my fiction reading, quoting it, and matching it with an image. I’m not sure why but I find doing this gratifying but I do. As always, I look forward to your ceaselessly intelligent feedback.
The following quote is from George Monbiot’s most recent Guardian column. It’s worth reading in full, but for now:
“[W]hile researching my book Feral, I came to see that our perception of free-range meat has also been sanitised. The hills of Britain have been sheepwrecked – stripped of their vegetation, emptied of wildlife, shorn of their capacity to hold water and carbon – all in the cause of minuscule productivity. It is hard to think of any other industry, except scallop dredging, with a higher ratio of destruction to production. As wasteful and destructive as feeding grain to livestock is, ranching could be even worse. Meat is bad news, in almost all circumstances.”
That’s good stuff. He continues:
“So why don’t we stop? Because we don’t know the facts, and because we find it difficult even if we do. A survey by the US Humane Research Council discovered that only 2% of Americans are vegetarians or vegans, and more than half give up within a year. Eventually, 84% lapse. One of the main reasons, the survey found, is that people want to fit in. We might know it’s wrong, but we block our ears and carry on.”
And he concludes:
“Rather than mindlessly consuming meat at every meal, we should think of it as an extraordinary gift: a privilege, not a right. We could reserve meat for a few special occasions, such as Christmas, and otherwise eat it no more than once a month.”
So here’s the question I’m left with: is it more achievable to attain complete abstinence or, as Monbiot suggests, to treat meat as a rare luxury, a once a month kind of indulgence? I realize the ethics of this choice are clear. But what about the pragmatics? I mean, that 84 percent number is fairly daunting.
In her recent op-ed salvo, this one in the Wall Street Journal, Nicolette Hahn Niman, a vegetarian rancher (which, really, strikes me as kind of like an “Amish carpet bomber”) tells us that, in fact, a global consensus of environmental science has it all backwards and that she, again, a rancher, wants us to know that raising beef—and not just on grass (but especially so)—has environmental consequences that have not only been overstated by this global cabal of science people, but, hold up your steak knives in solidarity, “is an environmental gain for the planet.”
Read all about it here.
Let’s all catch our breath before proceeding to the main point I’d like to make about this op-ed. We know things, right? Like, empirically. We’ve known since the 1960s, empirically speaking, that beef production wreaks substantial ecological havoc on our limited natural resources and we know that, since then, since the population of humans has doubled, that, viz empirically, it’s not only factory farms that cause the trouble, but even small grass-fed operations run by good-looking environmentally conscious “stewards of the land,” and we know this because very serious research has shown that not only is grass-fed beef ecologically damaging but it can be worse so. To repeat, we know things. Even if not a rancher or a scientist or lawyer, we know them.
Ms. Niman sort of—it’s there, read the tone—mocks those who know things. She draws our attention to critics who worry about “ bovine burps, flatulence and even breath for climate change.” That, folks, is pure-grade, first-order-Fox News industry-strategizing for spinning the science to make its followers seem like ditto-head nitwits who believe anything you tell them to confirm a bias.
But what’s really real here? Those farts and burps and deep bovine exhalations might sound silly—but, unless I’ve been led by the nose into a hall of mirrors by four decades of good science—they matter. Live animals are resource intensive beings. They breath and burp and pass gas. Methane, anyone? Niman eventually gets there, assuring us that there are ways to mitigate methane’s impact and that, rest assured, how to do so is “now under vigorous study by agricultural colleges around the world.” Well.
One thing that I’ve learned over a decade of writing about this stuff is that it’s important to be charitable. Of course, deep down I want to be as right as anyone. I want the evidence to fit my bias as much as the next op-ed scribbler. But I now work more than ever before to be charitable, fair minded. That said, I simply cannot find a way to reconcile Hahn’s—again and again, a rancher’s— opening plea for us to thumb our nose at deep conventional scientific wisdom and then spend the rest of the article asking us to trust the science she has spelunked from netherworld caves of research, science that serves her financial bottom line.
Which takes me to my big point. If you study the way Hahn arranges her evidence, and examine the way she dresses it up rhetorically, it may ring a bell. You may discern a familiar pattern at work and, especially if you are a liberal-enviro-type who knows stuff but would love to have an excuse/justification/WSJ verification for eating beef, you may eventually find yourself slightly queasy by the creeping (and, actually, creepy) realization that the pattern at work is one that has been brilliantly honed by none other than: global warming deniers.
Yeah, those people. And this is my big problem with Hahn’s op-ed. It is, in its rejection of science such as that summarized here and reified by thousands of other studies, it engages in the populist politics of distrust, a weird and very American sort of suspicion-mongering that has caused immense damage to public discourse and the enlightened policies it can, in moments of clarity, engender.
My forthcoming book, The Modern Savage, comes out January 6. The book attempts to expose the cruelty that prevails on small, non-industrial, “humane” farms much in the way that Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation exposed the cruelty that prevails on factory farms.
Advance reviews have been optimistic. Peter Singer writes, “McWilliams has issued a powerful challenge to the ‘compassionate omnivore’ movement. The Modern Savage is a book that everyone concerned about food, animals and the environment should read.” Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson writes, “I think James McWilliams is far and away the single best writer the vegans have so far produced…One of the most intelligent books I have ever read. His is a powerful voice that will resonate far beyond those interested in animal rights.” Sherry Colb, of Cornell Law School, says, “James McWilliams accomplishes something at once simple and profound.” Paul Shapiro, of HSUS, writes, “James McWilliams ably demonstrates that we’ve often underestimated the mental lives of farm animals, and that we need to start taking their interests more seriously. He doesn’t skirt tough issues nor does he take positions based on what may be popular at the time. Such a moral accounting would lead to a revolution in both how we produce food and what food we eat.”
Many of the ideas I develop in the book originated here, on this blog, in conversation with you. If you intend to buy the book, or buy extras for friends, please do so here. My publisher tells me the more pre-orders the better. Please also take the time to spread the message via social media.
Friends, I poured it all into this book. For you, I am deeply grateful.
PS: all those who pre-order more than one book will get a free subscription to The Pitchfork.
The more I learn about contemporary agriculture of all forms the more I’m convinced that the decision to avoid eating animals is a limited response to the myriad problems of modern farming. I’m in no way suggesting that eating exclusively plants should be abandoned as a strategy of reform. But I am saying that, in and of itself, its promises are modest at best. We need a new perspective on the issue, one that thinks bigger about agriculture’s future.
Begin with the common vegan claim that a vegan diet does not harm animals. This claim, which typically means to say that vegans do not intentionally harm domesticated or hunted animals, overlooks the fact that untold numbers of sentient little creatures—I’m excluding insects here (more on them soon)—are sliced and diced and crushed to harvest our plant-based diet. It also overlooks the fact that vegetable farmers rarely suffer larger animals—say, deer—from cutting into their profits. Lead injections are par for the course on the happy veggie farm, as are insecticides (even organic) that harm more than insects.
As much as we would like to sidestep this issue, vegans cannot declare themselves free from harm and tuck into their tofu. In fact, there may be cases in which raising and killing and eating one large farm animal, instead of clearing the land to raise kale and kill vermin, is—at least in utilitarian terms—less harmful to the animal world. I’m not at all saying eating domesticated animals is a choice we should make, but I am noting that there are arguments to be made that it could reduce animal suffering. That’s tough medicine to take, but we need to at least swallow it.
Many of you have no doubt heard some version or other of this objection. I think it needs to be taken more seriously than we’ve taken it, if for no other reason than the fact that it nudges us towards a radically new way to conceptualize food and the human-animal relationship. Again—I’m not going to any way suggest eating domesticated of hunted creatures. Instead, I’m going to ask you to think in a more radical way about animals, food, and agriculture; more radical than just saying no to eating critters.
It’s comforting and relatively easy to give up animal products and declare our hands clean. But they’re only clean in the way that the person who fails to pull the switch to kill one person instead of five in the famous trolley experiment has clean hands. As it now stands, anyone who eats has animal blood on her hands. So if deciding to give up animal products is not enough, or only a symbolic gesture in light of the problem’s severity, what are we supposed to do? What are our options.
We must be advocates, of course. But we have to maximize our advocacy. I would argue that advocating a plant-based diet is meaningless if it’s not complemented by an equal, if not stronger, advocacy for climate controlled agriculture. That is, vegans who think they are helping animals by not eating them would be much more effective if they enjoined veganism with advocacy for a farming future that could realistically eliminate all animal harm. Growing food indoors, where condition are carefully monitored, is quite possible if we’re willing to give up row crops and eat a diversity of whole plants.
As agriculture now stands, we cannot assume that not eating animals alone would necessarily reduce animal suffering. Expanding acreage in kale would expand the acreage where squirrels and bunnies and mice and birds and deer are also killed. Move agriculture inside—that is, radically rethink and advocate and invest in a new form of agriculture—and the game really changes in a way that improves the lives of animals, not to mention that of humans who, having decided not to channel our resources into domesticated animals can start cultivating the thousands of nutrient dense crops we now neglect
I would even suggest—tentatively—that this agricultural future could include room for eating animals at the margins, where the ethics of killing sentient animals intentionally don’t apply. I’ve written extensively about roadkill as a viable dietary supplement and I’m as eager as ever to support that option. I’ve also written about eating insects and, although not as convinced, I feel fairly sure that this could be an acceptable dietary choice in a future agricultural system that did minimal harm to animals, humans, and the environment. We should, in essence, eat like bonobos.
These ideas are at the core of a book proposal I’m now writing on rethinking the meaning and form of agriculture for a sustainable future. Be assured: raising and hunting animals for the purposes of consumption are not part of that future. Eating animals might be. Vegan activism has a role, but not nearly as essential a role as a new way of advocating for farming, one that would be best for the animal world and the environment.
Humans have been practicing agriculture for less than a 10th of our contemporary existence. Who’s to say we got it right the first time? It’s time to start over. Not eating animals raised or killed for food should be a starting point. But it’s not the be all and end all of a future that’s based on just food. To advocate for veganism as a singular path to justice for animals in agriculture is misguided. There so much more involved.