Archive for the ‘Industrialization’ Category

Grow, Pick, Cook, Eat

» June 21st, 2014

Paul Greenberg’s piece on the global seafood trade in the Times underscores vividly the reality captured in the article’s headline: why are we importing our own fish? Although Greenberg never gets around to really answering his own question (the piece simply insists should localize and participate in local seafood–novel!), the answer is easy: we import our own seafood because it’s cheaper to do so. Boom.

Critics of our out-of-control food system don’t get this. They jump at any opportunity to grab a juicy headline* with some bizarre geographical distortion of global trade—such as why we export seafood and then buy it back—in an effort to urge consumers fight the powers that be by pitching their local food tents. What these utopians** fail to realize is that the bizarre manifestations that they so earnestly (and rightly) lambast are the result of the simplest economic logic—a logic that everyone other than the one percenters tends to follow. Again, it’s cheaper. And that’s bad news for locavores, who will have to pay more for local shrimp. Or oysters. Or salmon.

The good news here is that the food system’s global boomerang effect is easily fixed: stop producing food that requires processing. Processing. When you hear that term you think about all that corporate junk food that Mark Bittman and all the food purists lament as the downfall of modern culture. But it’s more than that. Or less. Processed food is basically food that has to be altered before it’s sold. And food that has to be altered before it’s sold is food that enters the churning matrix of the global food trade, a Smithian crucible wherein it’s radically less expensive to have subalterns shuck, smoke, and can your oysters than to pay a federally mandated minimum wage for U.S workers to do the deed. As far as I’m concerned, that’s much worse than a locally-sourced syrupy soda.

Once again, food reformers favor the predilections of their own precious palates—must have shrimp, must have oysters, must have lox on my bagel— over the simple solution that stares them in the face: eat plants. How often do we need to say it? Eat Plants. Plants grown for people to eat generally have the great benefit of not needing to be sent to one part of the world to be manipulated by pennies-per-hour employees before being sent back to “America” to be massively consumed and then lamented in the pages of the Times. When you grow plants for people to eat you box them up and put them on a plane, train, or automobile. People grow and pick it; people cook and eat it. Nobody needs to peel it or smoke it or filet or slaughter it or de-vein it into edibility. The Times’ agriculture writers would only publish good news.

When we demand food that only needs to be grown, and not processed, we’ll not only put an end to the kind of articles that Greenberg (and I) write but, in favoring plants over animals, we’ll radically improve the environment, our health, and the welfare of critters. It’s that god damn*** simple.

 

*To be fair, this writer grabbed his own juicy headline last March doing the same sort of stunt.

**Yes, I know, calling for a global plant based diet is, well, a bit utopian, but work with me on this one. . .

***The Pitchfork usually eschews profanity, but I’m in a mood.

A Nine Billion Straw Revolution

» May 21st, 2014

A vibrant discussion has developed around my recent piece on GMOs, both here at The Pitchfork and in Slate. When people discover that I’m both an advocate for animals and sympathetic for some forms of agricultural biotechnology, they’re often miffed. Vegan advocates are supposed to be crunchy hippies waving the organic flag and foraging for purslane, right?

Well, not exactly. While I get that Monsanto is the Devil Incarnate and that Big Agriculture benefits immensely from the production of GM corn, soy, beets, cotton, and canola, I am also deeply wary of opposing any technology that could be of tangible benefit to the future of an exclusively plant-based form of agriculture. For starters, if we expect 9 billion people to eat a healthy, diverse, plant-based diet, we will need industrial agriculture. The world’s poorest need it the most.

Biotechnology can make the right kind of industrial agriculture more ecologically and economically equitable and efficient. If we want both the poor and the rich to eat a wide array of crops grown all over the world, we must be prepared to develop global food systems that produce a great deal of foodstuffs with as few resources as possible. GM technology might not be a silver bullet, but it’s a tool in the toolbox dedicated to helping plants deal with drought, floods, and the many fluctuations that characterize agriculture in the age of anthropocentric climate change.

As with most matters in life, what’s critical here is management and regulation. With the world’s leading health organizations having declared transgenic technology to be no more or less dangerous than traditional plant hybridization, structures should be put in place to encourage the intelligent and humane application of biotechnology. Will some one profit at someone else’s expense? Yes. Does this disparity have to be egregious? No. More to the point: would anyone have a problem with GMOs if they were used to produce a broader diversity of nutrient rich beans for African farmers to consume and export for human consumption?

I’d love to think we could all live a one straw revolution. But I’m afraid the revolution will have to be more ambitious in scope. I’m seeking a 9 billion straw revolution.

An Animal-Based Environmental Ethic

» May 13th, 2014

In the May 12 issue of The Nation Naomi Klein, with manifesto-like intensity, situates our environmental crisis in the rise of industrial capitalism. The first step in atoning for our ecological sins, she explains, requires “recognizing that we are part of an industrial project.”

According to this premise, one shared by much of the environmental movement, the conventional culprits of ecological disaster—big technologies, hyperactive mobility, and the “bullet train” of contemporary consumption—have alienated humans from nature, erected “structural barriers to the next economy,” and ensured the darkness of our doom.

Klein is right—but only to a point. Industrial capitalism obviously accounts for systematic ecological destruction. But, in privileging the influence of industrial capitalism, Klein overlooks a neglected but critically important historical reality: human societies were decimating the environment well before the emergence of industrial capitalism. And they were doing so with staggering efficiency.

With primitive technologies, minimal geographical mobility, and haphazard rates of consumption, pre-industrial cultures in North America created ecological crises from which we have never fully recovered. Pre-industrial ecological devastation could be seen in the elimination of the New England shad fisheries, the deforestation of colonial American East Coast, and the near total depletion of Virginia’s topsoil–all before 1820. And that’s just a short list.

The upshot of this largely unappreciated context is a somewhat terrifying reality. Re-situating today’s environmental crisis in the pre-industrial era, after all, strongly suggests that Klein’s earnest prescriptions to avoid complete environmental doom—slow down, consume less, and observe/appreciate our surroundings—are, if the past is any indication, effectively useless. We cannot go to the past to save the future.

What’s needed, and what views such as Klein’s ignore, is a radically new kind of environmental ethics. The XL Pipeline or the snail darter is what seems to best capture our attention. But it’s the larger mindset within which we situate these issues that matters.

There are all kinds of environmental ethics out there–the land ethic/biocentrism, a sustainability ethic based on human access to resources/an aesthetic based ethic/bioregionalism/social ecology. But one ethic strikes me as superior to all others, especially in light of the fact that humans elevated preindustrial ecological befouling to a science.

That, of course, is the animal ethic. Ponder the deepest origins of our grandest ecological failures and you will likely find the systematic exploitation of animals (and not just nonhuman). That Virginia topsoil devastation required oxen and slaves to pull plows. Those trees were felled to build ships to trade salted fish and slaves. Yes, there are many exceptions, but you get what I’m saying in general.

So, yes, we might consider slowing down, consuming less, and better appreciating our backyards. But if we got truly serious about the conflict we now face and stopped the intentional exploitation of animals—and, in many cases, even unintentional forms of exploitation—then we could walk through an environment of—at the very least—hope.

GMO Labeling: Do We Have A Right To Know?

» May 2nd, 2014

 

A version of this piece ran in Pacific Standard last November. Given the vocal response to my last post, I thought it made sense to run it here at The Pitchfork.

The push is on to require foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to have a label. Last year, California missed passing a labeling proposition by a hair. A similar initiative failed again this year by just a fraction of a hair in Washington. In June, Connecticut became the first state to pass a GMO labeling law(although it remains ineffective until four other eastern states, one of them bordering Connecticut, pass similar laws). Nine days after Connecticut’s bill passed, Maine followed suit. Other states are clamoring.

Despite considerable push-back from the predictable corporate interests, including Monsanto and Dow, there’s every reason to believe that some form of GMO labeling is on the horizon. This development, for all of the controversy it generates, is probably a good thing for both producers and consumers. But not for the reasons one might assume.

The most common justification offered for labeling GMO ingredients is that consumers “have a right to know” what’s in our food. So pervasive is this explanation that the most conspicuous lobbying initiative for GMO labeling is called “Right to Know GMO.” The claim has become a catchphrase in the movement’s promotional rhetoric. The GMO Awareness organization explains how “it’s your right to know if it’s GMO.” Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield—of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream fame—condemn the corporate effort to prevent our “right to know.” Food Democracy Now! touts our “fundamental right to know” whether or not GMOs are in our food.

But do we have a fundamental right to know what’s in our food? The ring of empowerment behind the right to know justification is undeniable. But, on closer inspection, this is rights talk run amok. Counterintuitive as it sounds, we don’t necessarily have an inherent right to know what’s in our food, or how our food was made. This is the case for many reasons.

Embracing a right is premised to some extent on the reasonable ability to achieve its fulfillment. Pragmatically speaking, the steps required to produce food today are too numerous, too complex, and too elusive to realistically satisfy the consumer’s right to know. This claim holds equally true for all methods and forms of agricultural production—local or global, organic or conventional, factory farm or Old MacDonald’s.

In a way, we sacrificed our right to know when we left the land. And even when we were on it, we still may not have had a right to know what was in our food for the practical reason that, again, knowing wasn’t remotely possible. In many cases, whatever right we may have to know is undermined by the fact that we often don’t even know what we might have a right to know.

Consider: Do we have a right to know how close a farm was to a pollution-spewing petrochemical plant? Do we have a right to know if the composted manure used to grow organic kale came from a factory farm? Do we have a right to know if growers used conventional fertilizer that contained industrial waste? Do we have a right to know how many pounds of legal herbicides were sprayed on our lettuce? Do we have a right to know how often food handlers washed their hands? Closer to the GMO mark, do we have a right to know what kind of hybrid corn was used to make our non-GMO tortillas?

All of these conditions directly influence the food we eat—some of them in ways that might impact health. And, yes, it’s conceivable that this level of detail might someday be included in a bar code that consumers could scan and read. But even so, as matters now stand, it would be impractical, not to mention prohibitively expensive, to justify our access to this information, much less reduce it to a label, on the basis of a rhetorical appeal to rights.

If we agree that all the mundane details of agriculture do not belong on a label—even if only on practical grounds—why are we so insistent that GMOs are the one thing that absolutely must be called out on labels? (Other than the fact that they’ve been somewhat arbitrarily politicized?)

The rights justification also bumps against legitimate trade secrets. Let’s say a pastry chef warms his butter to a specific temperature before making his world famous tarte au citron. Consumers obviously do not have a right to know that temperature. Likewise, Coca-Cola, for it part, is under no obligation to reveal its secret formula to rights-obsessed soft drink aficionados. Brewers work with alchemistic creativity to blend hop varieties and achieve sublime flavor in their concoctions. Good luck trying to get your hands of their formulas. Advocates of that culinary philosophy known as terroir would recoil at the idea of Texas dairy farmers replicating the complex ecological matrix of conditions required for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or even Californians doing so for Champagne, on the basis of rights. In these cases, one might say that producer privilege supersedes that of consumers.

Critics of this anti-rights argument might counter that GMOs are bad for our health and, as a result, aren’t comparable to such arbitrary factors as butter temperature, Coke ingredients, hop ratios, or soil composition. There are two points to consider regarding this objection. First, and we’ve been over this before, there’s no concrete evidence that GMOs pose a unique risk to human health. The American Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—among many other authorities—have all said as much.

Opponents of GMOs routinely note that not enough time has passed to deem GMOs safe for human consumption. This is a fair concern, one worth discussing, as are all cases involving the precautionary principle. But to get a sense of where it might lead we should begin by asking at what exact point in time corn hybrids, pioneered in the 1930s, were deemed safe for human consumption. GMOs have been a staple of our food supply for 20 years. They are in the majority of the processed food we eat. And they are fed to most of animals we eat. How much more time is required before we admit that they are, as far as food goes, relatively safe?

Second, the vagaries of human digestion and ecological conditions are such that virtually any aspect of food production—cooking temperature, ingredient blends, and trademarked formulas—can make certain consumers, or groups of consumers, sick, while, at the same time, leaving others unaffected or even healthier. Welcome to the confused reality of eating: Threading the needle between the land and the digestive tract is an unavoidably risky endeavor and, given the scientific evidence, unaffected by the presence or absence of GMOs in our food supply.

Considering all of these factors, a rights-based rationale for GMO labeling fails.

But this does not mean there shouldn’t be a GMO label. Although consumers might lack the right to know what’s in our food, or how our food was made, a stronger case can be made that we have a right not to be misled by a food label. This is where things get more interesting. The federal government began to implicitly recognize this possible right in 1906, with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. By 1938, with the passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, this concern was made explicit and, over time, passively embraced by consumers as a legitimate right.

And it is here that we inch closer to a viable justification for GMO labeling. About a decade ago, some food companies, capitalizing on the public vilification (and misunderstanding) of GMOs, began to add value to their products by voluntarily labeling their goods as “GMO free” (the USDA approved this label in 2013). While this initiative inspired some companies to voluntarily label foods with GMOs in them—namely Chipotle Mexican Grill, Whole Foods, and Ben and Jerry’s—the non-GMO label, in the name of clarity, ultimately fostered consumer confusion. It planted a question mark on the vast majority of the food supply—a majority that may or may not have had GMOs in them and, as a result, became (by virtue of the non-GMO label alone) indirectly misleading. It is this situation that a GMO label would help rectify, reducing the possibility of consumers being misled.

Yes, this is an odd hook upon which to hang the GMO label. (It’s a justification that, for one, questions the wisdom of allowing a product to declare on a label what’s not in it.) But, while a label shouldn’t be approved solely for its ability to shape consumer acceptance, proponents of GMO labeling who believe this technology will have concrete humanitarian and ecological benefits should take solace in what strikes me as sounder justification than a presumed right to know.

Every major food-related technology throughout history—refrigeration and canning come to mind for the past century—was roundly condemned before it was accepted as the norm. As GMOs become associated with products designed to have a clear human health benefit—oil without trans fatyeast for wine that won’t cause a hangoverbiofortified foods—they might have something to gain by no longer hiding in plain sight. If not now, then eventually.

The Vencomatic Paradox

» April 30th, 2014

There was a pretty good piece in Slate today about an innovative way to achieve antibiotic-free chicken. It involves a housing solution called the Vencomatic, a massive structure that allows growers to raise chickens in the same location where they’re hatched. Merging these phases of production obviates the need to transport chickens from hatchery to grow-out facility. This convergence, in turn, obviates the need to dose them with antibiotics, primarily because traveling chicks, who cannot be fed until they reach the “barn,” are debilitated by fragile immune systems that lead farmers to pump them with drugs.

What makes the Vencomatic especially appealing to poultry producers is the fact that it accommodates industrialized production. The Vencomatic’s promoters might tout nominal welfare improvements that the cavernous shed supposedly fosters (better ventilation, for example), but the bottom line is that the Big V crams birds  into “shelf-like stacked units” to maximize production. (Note: a flaw in the piece is that the writer bought the flimsy welfare claims hook, line, and sinker–yet another reason to push animal rights discussions into the mainstream media.)

Worse, the Vencomatic may even encourage producers who currently allow genuine free range to switch to indoor farming. The author writes, “Customers come mostly from other cold-climate areas where raising birds outdoors would be impractical: The company has installed patio barns holding hundreds of thousands of birds each in Russia, Korea, and Hungary, with three more coming in the Netherlands this year.”

There are, of course, a number of ways to critique this “solution,” but what I’d like to highlight is the fact that the Vencomatic provides yet another damning example that industrial animal agriculture will always be able to accomplish what advocates of small, humane farms insist can only happen on alternative systems.  For decades the mavens of agroecology have been insisting that the only way to avoid the horrific consequences of antibiotic abuse is to go small, go local, go “happy” chicken. But they’re wrong.  As the Vencomatic proves, Big Ag is always a step ahead of the small guys.

Economics rig the game. The financial incentives are such that entrepreneurial efforts to reform the system will tend toward solutions that have the largest market. The Vencomatic is no surprise. It makes much more economic sense to attack the antibiotic threat by innovating in a way that’s amenable to Big Ag rather than encouraging consumers to shift purchasing habits. And thus it makes much more sense for those who really want to see the abuses of animal agriculture come to end to stop eating the products it produces rather than allowing animal welfare to be a source of capital generation for those who wantonly kill creatures for a living.

 

Butter’s Bitter Lesson

» April 26th, 2014

Environmental advocates who promote eating “real” food (a deeply problematic concept for anyone who knows the history of food) as a necessary part of an ecologically responsible diet miss the point. In doing so, they render their larger message of eating in an environmentally responsible matter irrelevant. And not just a little irrelevant. Totally so. To understand why, it helps to take a closer look at the recent enviro-foodie reaction to butter.

Foodie environmentalists love butter. In part, they love it because it’s food that their grandmother would have eaten—this prerequisite being one of the more arbitrary elements of this somewhat precious culinary ideology. But they also love it because they are foodies and, tautology aside, are reluctant to allow anything as inconvenient as ecological reality or animal welfare to come between external justice and the internal pleasures of the palate. These are people who are all for “An Inconvenient Truth” but not so much for inconvenient truths.

It’s easy to overlook this reality. Foodie-enviros spin bucolic narratives that highlight the benefits of pasture-raised this and grass-fed that as “evidence” that one can now, if she can afford it, viably eat animal products and remain dedicated to environmental causes (this is, in many ways, why such issues as pipelines and dirty coal are so appealing—the connection between the personal and the political is less obvious). The reason they get away with these stories is that our collective base of knowledge on these matters remains lamentably thin. People such as Allan Savory, who bill themselves as planetary saviors, have thus excelled at a TED-ish foodie brand of duplicity, promoting ideas that, at the end of the day, might be just as damaging as those promoted by Monsanto and Cargill. (Eat beef, reverse global warming?! You can anything at a TED talk.)

But every now and then the gentlemanly facade is lifted and a whiff of truth wafts out. Which brings us back to butter and the foodie-enviros who support it. Last month butter got some temporary good news on the health front. The prospect that butter could be healthy sent foodie-enviros into a froth of excitement. Mark Bittman, foodie-enviro extraordinaire, led the celebration, declaring in both a headline and the text of his Times column that “butter is back.” He then explicitly advised with oracular confidence: “You can go back to eating butter, if you haven’t already.”

But then the other shoe dropped. Turns out the study had flaws. Serious flaws. Flaws serious enough for important people at fancy places such as Harvard to call for a retraction. And then everyone got sheepishly silent. When critics (myself included) harped on Bittman (who has written hundreds of recipes that call for butter) for his rush-to-judgment, suggesting that it contradicted his purported green mission, not to mention that it ignored animal welfare issues that he has long claimed to care about, something strange happened. I don’t use this word lightly, but what happened was Orwellian. 

Suddenly, all discussions of health were tossed to the curb. Indeed, as criticisms of the study swirled, the foodie-enviros now switched the media focus to industrial agriculture in general. Tom Philpott blogged that, in criticizing Bittman for his premature embrace of butter, I was somehow advocating butter substitutes—a non grandma food—and, in so doing, was acting as the handmaiden of industrial agriculture. Wha? (Bittman, for his part, thanked Tom with a tweet.)

This all left me baffled, in part because I’ve never advocated a butter substitute in my life. But more so because the biggest supporters of the study that these foodie-enviros were so enthralled to promote were the meat and dairy industries themselves. I urge you to see what Big Ag had to say here, and thus whom the foodie-enviros got in bed with in order to back butter.

I’m still wondering by what logic Philpott thinks that supporting butter is not supporting industrial agriculture. Last I checked butter was as industrialized as any product on the face of the earth. To call a vegan a defender of industrial agriculture strikes me as a case of the Philpott calling the kettle black, or at least a complete lack of understanding that a plant-based diet does more to deter industrial agriculture as we know it than any other single measure.

But it’s back on the environmental front where the hypocrisy of the foodie-enviro position really hits home. Conservation magazine (for whom I write) recently declared that “Butter is Toast.” Why? It’s simple: “The carbon footprint of butter is over four times that of margarine.” The article is here; it’s short, it has not been called for a retraction, and you should read it. (emphasis emphatically added)

But for now, let the bitter lesson be clear: it’s time to stop trusting environmentalists who are led by their palates. These folks are perfectly happy to fiddle while Rome burns. But they forget that there are still people out there who believe in the power of personal choice to create genuine change for ourselves, animals, and the planet. Let’s not allow ourselves to be forsaken.

 

Cowspiracy

» April 24th, 2014

It has long been a source of frustration for the Pitchfork that so-called environmental leaders refuse to embrace eating an exclusively plant-based diet as an integral part of a larger environmental mission. I first wrote about the topic here and have since become so disillusioned with the sordid cant of conventional environmentalism that (with my tongue in my cheek a little) I recently wrote a piece arguing that it’s time for progressives to throw in the towel and forge a language of defeat. Throughout it all, my belief remains firm: we cannot eat animals and claim to care deeply enough about the environment to save it.

The reason old-school environmentalism won’t accommodate an animal-free diet might seem baffling, given the overwhelming evidence that eating plants would dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of food production, prevent rainforest destruction, reduce global water and fertilizer consumption, and eliminate aquatic dead zones.

But the cowardly tendency involves several identifiable factors. Perhaps the first is that the movement (as it were) is fragmented into organizations dependent on fundraising to keep the green flag flying. Competing as they do for a limited and diminishing piece of the progressive pie, these groups are understandably wary of getting between a big donor’s pork chop and check book. Get the people angry over pipelines and coal mines, but not cows and pigs—so the reasoning goes. Second, those with the most power to deliver a hard message to the masses are, to an extent, overly dependent on audiences—and, I imagine, mired in a culture—that would kick them to the curb if they impugned their pasture-raised, hormone-free, humanely-raised eggs. They not only know who butters their bread but they know their bread is buttered with butter. Finally, environmentalism and commercial culture have become so deeply entwined that few are left with either the ability or the guts to imagine an environmentalism that you couldn’t buy your way into. Behavioral change? Blah.

That’s my take on the issue, in the most general terms. But a new, feature-length documentary in the works has the potential to do much more than complain about the situation and make vague assessments. It’s called Cowspiracy and it explores the question of why mainstream environmentalism refuses to directly confront industrial agriculture. Producers Kip Anderson (Animals United Movement) and Keegan Kuhn (First Spark Media) have teamed up to do what Blackfish is currently doing to SeaWorld: radically changing public perception about our use of animals in an industry we have traditionally failed to identify as a source of profound ecological destruction. For better or worse, the film appears to focus on industrial animal agriculture alone but, given the alarming nature of the problem, that’s a start—one that I support.

If you’re interested in learning more and helping Kip and Keegan finish the film, visit their Indiegogo page here. (Warning: you will be greeted with Michael Pollan, who is identified as an environmental writer, and thus you might have a reason to be skeptical, given his fervid defense of eating animals, but I would encourage you to watch the whole trailer to get what I hope is a fuller picture of the film’s goal, not to mention the inclusion of more trustworthy voices such as Will Potter’s and Richard Oppenlander’s.)

 

The Economics of Animal Welfare

» April 18th, 2014

Pistol v. Poleax: a Handbook on Humane Slaughter was published in London in 1932. The book’s opening line explains, “If there is one quality in the British character which is so ingrained as to be almost universal, it is love of animals and hatred of unnecessary cruelty.” This sentiment underscores the book’s 500+ page effort to justify the transition from one form of stunning animals to another before killing them.

The poleax was primitive. Men swung it like crazed cavemen and, more often than not, missed their target, which was described as the size of a teacup. Or they hit it too hard, rendering the animal’s brain unsellable. Or they didn’t hit hard enough, which created a prolonged tragedy for the poor animal. As one slaughterhouse employee recounted in 1922:

I have seen three, four, five, and even ten blows levelled at an animal before it has been brought to the ground; and I have known cases, though these are exceptional, where all efforts have failed to bring the animal down through the repeated blows having caused the head to swell.

Hence the pistol: the supposed source of humane reform. Efforts to promote this new devise, avidly supported by the RSPCA, included having one Madame Douchez Menebode, President of the Council of Justice to Animals, dressed in heels and a coat fringed with fur delivering a mechanized death blow to a cow (see above). The gun was called the Temple-Cox Killer.

For those who currently follow efforts to reform animal agriculture in order to make it more humane—for example HSUS’s ongoing effort to eliminate battery cages without a corresponding effort to eliminate animal agriculture—you will quickly realize that history is as much about continuity as change. One form of death replaces another, sensible people feel better, and everyone has their meat and eats it, too. This axiom was as true in 1922 as it is today.

But there’s an interesting change that’s possibly obscured by this so-called humane transition form one form of killing to another. With the adoption of the pistol over the poleax, slaughter became much more efficient. One slaughterhouse owner, after adopting the pistol form of stunning, exhorted his colleagues (upon retiring):

Have you for your own business adopted a certain method of stunning?—In September, 1922, after a lifelong study, I was persuaded that something required to be done to get rid of the antiquated poleax. My firm agreed to my recommendation to adopt the use of the RSPCA gun, and from that day to this was have slaughtered approximately 12,000 cattle. . . . .  It is a decided improvement.

Readers of the abolitionist activist Gary Francione will be nodding their heads knowingly. Francione has long argued that welfarist efforts to reform animal agriculture backfire by making animal agriculture more efficient and, in turn, more profitable. This claim certainly seems to be the case with the historical example of the poleax/pistol transition.

It is not, however, the case today—and this is an important point to keep in mind as we evaluate the viability of welfare reforms. In 1922, humane reforms came through new technologies that happened to blend increased welfare and efficiency. This is no longer the case. Today, humane reforms come at a cost, as readers of Jayson Lusk’s and F. Bailey Norwood’s Compassion by the Pound will fully understand. The upshot is that the economics of welfare reform are, unlike a century ago, in trouble.

Whereas seeking humane reforms in animal agriculture once led to cheaper meat, today the situation is exactly the opposite. As a result, there will never be a mainstream transition to humanely raised animal products. Ever. As long as there’s a cheaper option—and until we seek to stigmatize eating animals rather than only stigmatizing eating industrially raised animals, there always will be a cheaper option—all efforts to improve the experience of animals before they are killed for food we don’t need will merely benefit those who can afford to feel virtuous.

 

 

 

When You Support Eating Animals You Support Industrial Ag

» April 10th, 2014

 

The desire to eat meat often lands anti-industrial food crusaders in the sack with some strange bedfellows.

When a recent study—one that turned out to have severe problems—claimed that saturated fats didn’t correlate with heart disease, the foodie elite exalted the research as justification for eating “humane” animal products. Writing in the Times, Mark Bittman claimed “Butter is back, and when you’re looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew, you can resume searching for the best pieces — the ones with the most fat. Eventually, your friends will stop glaring at you as if you’re trying to kill them.” The general response by the sustainable food movement was very much in this celebratory vein.

That reaction was predictable. Less so was the way the saturated fat study became a cudgel to batter processed foods. Now, let me be perfectly clear: I’m not in favor of most processed foods. They’re the unhealthy result of an industrial food system that cranks out junk that makes us sick. Most of them, moreover, contain animal products. That said, I think it’s entirely misleading to use a study that makes specific claims about saturated fats (however imperfect) to make a sweeping condemnation of all processed foods. And so, in an article, I indicated as much.

The response to my piece, as I noted in yesterday’s post, was to label me a bona fide “defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional industry.” That claim, from a defender of the humane meat industry and a Mother Jones writer, not only led me to choke on my chickpeas. It inspired me to investigate whom the conventional defenders of industrialized meat would side with on this recent saturated fat report. Maybe I had it all wrong. Maybe Big Agriculture really loved my Pacific Standard critique of the saturated fat study.

So I wondered: would Big Ag agree with an ethical vegan who wrote a column condemning the rush to embrace a flawed study that suggested it was alright to eat more cheeseburgers? Or would they side with the defenders of “humane” meat products who praised the study as a green light for refined carnivorous inclinations? My assumption was that the supports of Big Ag would side with those writers whose message best supported the interests of Big Ag.

Well, guess who Bittman and Mother Jones and the like went to bed with?

The study that Bittman praised in the Times was similarly promoted by none other than Beef Magazine, an industry rag that claimed, “Obviously the theme for today’s blog is beef health news, and there has been an overwhelming amount of positive news lately. It’s hard not to share it all. Keeping with the theme that animal fats and proteins are good for your health, researchers at Cambridge University have found that giving up fatty meat, cream and butter is unlikely to improve your health.”

Equally thrilled was The Dairy Spot—a go-to source for industrial dairy farmers in the Mid Atlantic. Readers of Bittman’s column would experienced a sense of deja-vu had they heard the dairy folks write, “This latest study is a challenge to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which call for consuming mostly low-fat dairy products. And not everyone is convinced by the new studies that question the link between saturated fat and heart disease.”

Not to be left out was the poultry industry. Big Chicken weighed in on the foodies’ favorite study, writing, “Now, the meta-analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine gives further credence to the statement that current evidence suggests saturated fats have little to no effect on heart disease risk.”

So: our agri-intellectuals, those who swear that they are deeply anti-industrial food, happen to be in full agreement on the saturated fat study with the beef industry, the poultry industry, and the dairy industry. Oh, and Fox News and the Center for Consumer Freedom. As for my bedfellows, Big Ag left me alone, leaving me to go home with a bunch of tweeters and a few health websites.

So, you tell me: who is defending industrial agriculture here?

 

 

 

 

Antibiotic Use On Small Farms

» April 1st, 2014

Praising the FDAs move to address the overuse of antibiotics to promote the growth of domesticated animals, the Times editorial board wrote:

Medical experts have long been concerned that rampant overuse of antibiotics in agriculture — to speed the growth of cattle, pigs and chickens and to prevent disease among animals crowded together in unsanitary conditions — is stimulating the emergence of bacteria resistant to treatment by some of the most important antibiotics used to treat humans.

The emboldened text above highlights a major oversight in our thinking—and the editorial board’s thinking— about antibiotics and animal agriculture. They are not just used in industrial settings where confinement is the norm. They are also used by small farmers to prevent disease of domesticated animals who are not crowded together but, because of their freedom to move and natural sociability, interact often enough to spread disease. In a way, this should be common sense. Small farmers have more invested in every individual animal and, as a result, are quick to seek prophylactic solutions when the faintest sign of sickness becomes evident.

Consider this account from a chicken farmer writing about her birds on a popular forum:  ”Been treating [the mysterious disease] really well, but, I am out of Gallimycin [antibiotics that fights respiratory disease], till my order comes in! I am giving the 4 really bad ones LA-200 [another antibiotic] injections, and injections to the other sick pen. I have terrimycin [yet another antibiotic] in the water now, as well as Probios. I am also terrymincing everyone else as a precaution. All are getting Vet RX [compound that treats worms and colds] at the moment too.” (1) As for concerns over the perpetuation of resistance, “I am questioning if giving her the same antibiotic a second time might perhaps be ineffective? (may even lead to resistance in the organism causing this?).”(2)

It’s important that consumers become aware that the problems that we assume are endemic to factory farming happen on small, nonindustrial farms as well.

(1) Smoky73, April 5, 2008 (3:52 p.m.) thread starter “Aye, I am fed up with the weather causing sickness,” backyardchickens.com April 5, 2008: http://backyardchickens.yuku.com/topic/10764/Aye-I-am-fed-up-with-the-weather-causing-sickness. Accessed April 28, 2013.

(2) Eprinex Questions,” various backyardchickens.com  thread started on April 19, 2007 (907 a.m.): http://backyardchickens.yuku.com/reply/28271/Eprinex-Questions#reply-28271. Accessed April 29, 2013; dlhunicorn, November 3, 2006 (3:41 p.m.) comment on halo826’s thread starter “I have a very sick hen too…please help me again,” November 3, 2007: http://backyardchickens.yuku.com/reply/30124/I-have-a-very-sick-hen-tooplease-help-me-again#reply-30124. Accessed April 29, 2013.