The documentary Cowspiracy is enjoying a steady stream of well-deserved praise. Its core message—that leading environmental organizations ignore the detrimental impact of animal agriculture—is absolutely essential to exposing the hypocrisy within organizations whose financial foundation depends on membership donations. In highlighting this irresponsible gap in the mainstream environmental message, Cowspiracy brings to the fore a disturbing but unavoidable question: are we pursuing navel-gazing environmental reforms that only make us feel like we’re saving a dying planet?
Given that animal agriculture (in every form) emits at least 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses (including 62 percent of nitrous oxide emissions), that livestock are the world’s largest users of land resources, that a pound of beef requires nearly 2000 gallons of water, and that there are 70 billion farm animals on the planet, it’s nothing short of a bad joke that the advocacy of a diet devoid of domesticated animals is not an integral element of any environmental organization’s defining platform. But it’s not, and Cowspiracy makes this point and drives it home with powerful assurance. As a critic of animal agriculture, I’m proud to have that film on my side.
In fact, I think it should become a model. Indeed, what the directors—Keegan Kuhn and Kip Anderson—have done to expose the underlying hypocrisy of environmental organizations needs to be done with the “sustainable” food movement’s effort to reform agriculture. Much like leading environmental organizations, the leaders of the food movement deliver big manifestos illuminating pervasive problems, but they do so while ignoring the dominant cause of our agricultural predicament: animals. The entire project of reforming the global food system, in so far as it continues to support eating farmed animals, is marked by denial and cowardice. It’s a shame, really.
Instead of putting reality behind its rhetoric, the movement promotes the fiction that we can reform agriculture, and the food system, while continuing to perpetuate animal agriculture. The only difference, as they present it, is that animals need to be raised on pasture, outdoors, and without antibiotics and growth hormones. There’s no doubt that, in many ways, such a transition is better for animals and the humans who consume them. But to think that this change would in any way contribute to real ecological or ethical improvement is to indulge in a kind of fantastical thinking, the kind that evades pragmatic and achievable action—eliminating animals from agriculture—in exchange for an ersatz sense of ecological responsibility, one that seems to be most enthusiastically embraced by, um, ranchers.
It is often said that raising animals (especially cattle) on pasture can improve the land and increase the sequestration of carbon. This has been shown to happen on a small scale. But it’s extremely rare. There are several caveats to consider when thinking about scaling up.
The first is that a rarified and almost mystical form of knowledge is required to make rotational grazing work as advertised—even Joel Salatin, the guru, can’t do it without importing commercial feed into his venture. The second is that animals on pasture aren’t allowed to live their lives to natural completion. Instead, they’re “harvested” about 1/5th of the way through the deal, denying the land the benefits of their hoof action and manure production while requiring resource-intensive slaughter and breeding programs to keep the happy farm in play. Third, these animals are animals—they continue to require water and feed (grass is typically supplemented with alfalfa), and they generate more greenhouse gasses (per pound of beef) than their confined counterparts. Dozens of studies confirm these realities, as well as the fact that pasture-raised animals are not necessarily healthier for humans to consume.
How can a transition to this form of animal agriculture ever be considered a viable strategy of reform? I’d love to see a documentary explore that question, stressing the fact that pasture-based animal agriculture would continue to consume excessive resources, generate excessive greenhouse gasses, and deny us an agricultural future based on a realistic paradise: growing a wide diversity of plants for people to eat. How nuts is that?
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.”
“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.
There’s a moment in The New Yorker’s recent feature on Modern Farmer, the magazine dedicated to small-scale farming by a younger and hipper demographic, that’s equally telling and moving. It’s sort of the like the foodie’s Drover’s magazine. In it, the author and the magazine’s founder Ann Marie Gardner, visit a local farm to pick up fresh chicken. But there is no fresh chicken so the farmer asks his customers to hang on a sec so he can kill a few right quick. Here’s what follows:
[Gardner] walked out to the parking lot and called the chef who was to grill the chickens. “I’m having a crisis, because they haven’t killed the chickens, and he’s going to kill them for me,” she said. “I’m really seriously thinking, Couldn’t we just do pasta?” She walked in a tight circle. “It’s true, it’s very fresh chicken,” she said, nodding. “That’s one way to look at it.” When she walked back inside, the man said, “Next ones coming through the window are yours.” Gardner took out her checkbook. “I love the chef’s attitude,” she said uncertainly. “ ‘It’s very fresh.’ They’re not sentimental about it.” Another bird squawked, and Gardner put her hands to her cheeks, then pressed her fingers to her eyes. “People who raise chickens say that if you saw the individual personalities they have you’d never want to eat chicken again, so I guess my next up is to get some animals, huh?” Sniffling, she wrote a check for $84.93, and took the chickens, which I had to carry, because when she touched them she discovered that they were still warm.
The scene is poignant. The recognition of life, the apparent suffering at the prospect of death, the admission that the birds have personalities and interests, the inability to handle (literally) the consequences —all by the head of a magazine about farming! Rather than condemn or judge Gardner here, my inclination is to appreciate the honesty of her reaction, her refusal to plaster over the experience with stupid terms such as “meat chickens” or “harvest,” and her willingness to spill our her emotions in front of the writer whom she must have known would document them for readers to witness and, naturally, judge.
The easy part, from the animal advocate’s perspective, would be to focus on the fact that, as the next scene confirms, she and her dinner party guests ate the birds, and then deliver a stern admonishment. Lord knows I’ve done my share of that. The harder part, though, is to grapple with the implications of the emotional reaction that preceded the meal. I’m not sure exactly what, but something tells me there are truths being expressed in that moment that animal activists are not fully appreciating or exploiting to the benefit of farm animals.
Scroll down and check out the list of endorsements for Nicolette Hahn Niman’s latest defense of beef production. Blurbs from Marion Nestle, Temple Grandin, Allan Savory, Alice Waters, Joel Salatin, and Dan Barber surely must make Hahn happy. But what’s strange to me—and I’m genuinely wondering if I’m missing something obvious here—is that NHN is a rancher. My point being this: isn’t there something intellectually disingenuous about endorsing as truth a book defending beef written by a person who makes a living from what she defends? Can there be real objectivity in this arrangement?
Let’s look at it this way. Imagine if big wig representatives from the United Beef Council, National Corn Growers Association, and Dow Chemical plugged a book written by a Monsanto executive about the brilliance of GMOs. Would the likes of Nestle, Grandin, Savory, et al. take such an arrangement seriously? Do you think they’d say, “well, gee, let’s give Big Ag the benefit of the doubt and assume they can deliver an unbiased review”? Of course they wouldn’t. They’d mock the hell out of this shameless plugging. They’d call foul and take to social media and pitch a fit.
Well, if the defenders of intensively managed beef production—a principle element of the sustainable food movement—want to be taken seriously, they need to practice what they preach. Instead, they accept a double standard when they condemn every study supported by Big Ag as automatically tainted while allowing–and endorsing–a study defending ranching by a rancher.
I hope Hahn’s readers are smarter than her blurbers.
I just finished a challenging but deeply edifying book called Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, by Cal Tech biologist Kristof Koch. The book is the finest example of making hard science accessible without dumbing it down that I’ve encountered in some of the modest reading I’m doing on the physical basis of consciousness. My underlying goal is to get a sense of what the most knowledgeable experts on the brain have to say about the connection between neurological sophistication and consciousness.
Koch, for one, certainly posits a correlation. He writes, “Consider simpler animals—simplicity measured by the number of neurons and their interconnections—such as mice, herrings, or flies. Their behavior is less differentiated and more stereotyped than that of dogs. It is thus not unreasonable to assume that conscious states of these animals are less rich, filled with far fewer associations and meanings, than canine consciousness.”
I know this line of thought makes some animal rights advocates, many of whom prefer to view all animal life as deserving the same moral consideration, nervous. But I like the proposition in part because neurological complexity is the same physical basis that biologists use to distinguish a category of life that we do not grant equal moral consideration: plants. This distinction is one that animal rights advocates very much need to preserve at all costs. Consider this excellent overview of the plant/animal distinction on the basis of evolutionary cellular development by Oliver Sacks:
The calcium ion channels that plants rely on do not support rapid or repetitive signaling between cells; once a plant action potential is generated, it cannot be repeated at a fast enough rate to allow, for example, the speed with which a worm ‘dashes … into its burrow.’ Speed requires ions and ion channels that can open and close in a matter of milliseconds, allowing hundreds of action potentials to be generated in a second. The magic ions, here, are sodium and potassium ions, which enabled the development of rapidly reacting muscle cells, nerve cells, and neuromodulation at synapses. These made possible organisms [i.e., animals] that could learn, profit by experience, judge, act, and finally think.
The proposition of a continuum of consciousness based on neurological complexity does not necessarily mean that humans will use that continuum as a justification to abuse animals with nervous systems that are nominally less complex. Curious about Koch’s stance on this issue, I poked around the Web. In an interview with Scientific American, he was asked if his research influenced his own behavior. I put a fist in the air when he explained, “I have stopped eating the flesh of mammals and birds, as they too share the wonders of experience with us.”
In this respect, I think the pursuit of a physical understanding of consciousness—even if we never uncover it—can be a benefit for animals. That is, as humans begin to understand that the nature of existence originates and is sustained exclusively by measurable physical forces, the less we will seek answers to our existence and its meaning in traditional spiritual frameworks that impose unfounded hierarchies that arbitrarily favor human exceptionalism over “brute creatures.”
That catch, of course, is that to pursue the quest for consciousness, scientists seem to think that the only way to do so is to experiment on the animals their findings suggest have qualities that demand our respect and moral consideration. Therein lies a conundrum I hope to address soon.
The author—Carol Adams— of one of my favorite books written about animals and humans—The Sexual Politics of Meat—will be speaking this Monday at Texas State University in San Marcos. The event is at 11 am and it’s free. Details here. If you’re in the area, please come. Her evolving presentation is widely recognized as a signature statement at the intersection of feminism and animal rights.
At the risk of being a total bore, I have a few more thoughts to shake out on the proposition that vegans are morally obligated to eat insects. Some readers have suggested that insects might very well be sentient. The underlying fear, a legitimate (if unlikely) one, is that if we’re wrong in our assumption that insects don’t experience pain, we’d end up being complicit in the horrible infliction of mass suffering.
But would we be? Is that true? Consider this proposition: even if insects could suffer, they wouldn’t suffer while being raised. In fact, unlike farm animals, most insects thrive in densely packed conditions and tight spaces. They would eat a diet that was “all natural” by insect standards—agricultural and food waste—and they would in no way have to be manipulated to enhance breeding (they have that one covered). An insect farm could reliably replicate natural conditions. Whereas farm animals can never be themselves on even the most humane farms, this would not be true for insects. Insects could be insects.
As I imagine it, the only stage in the cycle of production when an insect would suffer would be during slaughter. But that’s not quite the right, either. Think about slaughter. Slaughter implies a process, one in which too many procedures could and do go awry. A multi-hundred pound beast never goes gently. By contrast, the death of an insect—a quick and massive and singular and decisive whack—would happen so quickly that the critter wouldn’t experience pain in any meaningful way. Little room to screw that up. The lights would go out, that would be that, and I’d have my non-supplemental B-12.
Relatedly, the lights would go out when the insect had lived almost the entirety of its life. Given the rate of insect predation in the wild, insects might actually even be better off on a farm being raised for human food than living “natural” conditions where they’d be prey to everything that so much as twitches (even plants!). Think about it: a life in an environment where even plants prey on you or a life of leisure where you are thwacked painlessly in your 11th hour? I know what I’d choose. I almost wish for it.
What follows are some blurbs that have come in for The Modern Savage. I’m deeply grateful for them and hope you will pass them on to people you think would benefit from reading my forthcoming book. Once again, preorders are very helpful. You can do that here.
“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.”
—Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Ph.D., bestselling author of Dogs Never Lie About Love
“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.”
—Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University
“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.”
—Paul Shapiro, vice president, The Humane Society of the United States
“James McWilliams accomplishes something at once simple and profound. He explains in plain, accessible, and highly readable language what follows if we reject factory farming as morally reprehensible animal abuse, as most of us do. First, if animals matter morally, then killing them in any context is always wrong when we have a vegan alternative. Second, consumers of “humane” or “sustainable” animal-based foods will be surprised to learn that animal suffering routinely attends local and small-scale animal farming. McWilliams tells a riveting story while building an unassailable argument for veganism as the answer to our well-justified revulsion towards industrialized animal agriculture.”
—Sherry F. Colb, Professor of Law, Cornell University, and author of Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger and Other Questions People Ask Vegans on The Modern Savage
Unlike the farm animals that we slaughter by the millions, there’s no hard evidence that insects experience suffering. The most convincing scientific defenses of that possibility all concede this point. Of course, there’s also no hard evidence that insects don’t suffer. I appreciate the argument that we should, in light of this ambiguity, err on the side of caution and avoid intentionally harming them, and I equally appreciate readers reiterating that perspective. That said, I disagree. I’m still going to argue that we have an obligation to (possibly) harm insects.
By eating them.
I’m not going to lay out the physiological data at this point (I’m still gathering and interviewing), but there’s enough very strong evidence that insects do not suffer for me to consider the essential competing moral consideration: the untold number of rats, mice, bunnies, moles, voles, prairie dogs, wolves, deer, coyotes, snakes, and, yes, insects, that interfere with the crops grown for vegans to eat. Looking over my previous two posts, and the array of comments that followed, my sense is that this calculus was poorly explained.
So . . .
Let’s say insects do suffer. If we honored that suffering by not eating them we’d be lending the same moral consideration to their lives as we would to the obviously sentient animals we kill through pest control to protect plant crops. In other words, out of caution, we’d equate the possibility of suffering (insects) to the fact of suffering (bunnies, deer, etc). That’s a risky choice, riskier than readers have considered. But if, taking another risk, we assumed that insects do not suffer and ate them in an effort to offset the production of sentient-animal-destroying plant crops, we’d privilege the fact of suffering over the possibility of suffering. Granted this is not an ideal choice—prioritizing possibility and fact–but it happens to be the one that’s in front of us. In light of it, I conclude that we must, even if only in utilitarian terms, eat insects. Vegans too often act as if ethics is easy. It never is.
Let me make one more move here. Again, let’s assume insects do suffer. A number of scientists and ethicists who have examined this issue (such as Peter Singer) have conceded that, even if this is true, their suffering is not as consequential as that of higher order animals. Maybe suffering has gradations and maybe those gradations need to be considered. This proposition can be evaluated in concrete physical terms. To wit: do you think that a fly swatted with a magazine experiences/suffers the pain of death the same way a farm animal does? My sense is to say no. So, even if insects do suffer the experience of pain, the fleeting nature of that pain might very well justify the choice to eat them and, in so doing, offset the suffering of animals who we know suffer when they are shot and churned to death by harvesters to make us feel so incredibly great about eating plants.
My last post created quite a buzz among ethical vegans who categorically declare that it’s wrong to harm all animals unnecessarily—insects included. Trust me when I say that I understand how raising doubts about insect sentience makes vegans uncomfortable. Angry, even. Any line drawn through the animal world bearing on the extent of our moral consideration is a line that cuts right into vegan identity politics, complicating as it does the entire concept of veganism as an activist response to systemic injustice.
All that said, here we go. I want to suggest here that insects do not warrant our moral consideration because they do not feel pain, or at least anything qualitatively comparable to what farm animals experience when they suffer. Of course, I cannot make this case with airtight certainty (nobody can)—do note, though, that the same can be said for the plants we eat—but my reading of the evidence (an ongoing process that leaves me open to change) currently compels me to argue that insects are legitimately (ethically speaking) edible. We can, in essence, put them to good use in ways that reduce the harm we cause to animals who we know without a shadow of a doubt suffer. And if we can do that, we should. We are, in other words, not only justified in eating insects. We are obligated to do so.
Begin with anatomy, which is essential to pain. Pain is a sensation that goes beyond the stimulation of neurons. The stimulation of neurons might elicit a response that appears to be a reaction against pain. But, considering insects’ primitive anatomical state (compared to animals that clearly suffer), we cannot necessarily trust the external appearance of such a response, much less impose upon it a narration of pain.
As the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) explains, pain is an emotional and subjective experience, one that requires a higher ordered, much more complex nervous system. Insects lack this. They have nothing remotely close to it. Specifically, they do not have the nociceptors that transmit pain signals through our spinal cords and to our brains where the thalamus sends those signals into the limbic system for interpretation. Because insects lack the structures that foster this process—one that’s essential to feeling pain—they lack the ability to experience pain subjectively and emotionally.
Considered from an evolutionary perspective, the matter of insect pain is that much less plausible. It makes perfect sense for insects—given the biological niches they occupy, their existence as a social collective (most of the time), their relatively brief lifespans (a matter of days in some cases), and their sheer numbers—to lack a pain apparatus. We assume too easily that pain is essential for biological survival. This claim might hold true for an individual, survival-of-the-fittest view of life, which many animals require. But the collective survival of a species (such as insects) could conceivably benefit from the exact opposite: not feeling pain. Several insects propagate themselves through cannibalistic mating practices. Most famously, the female praying mantis will bite off the male’s head mid-coitus. Within the male’s head you do not find a brain, but rather a little enzyme package that protects the female if copulation is successful. From an evolutionary angle, pain would (to say the least!) inhibit this critical, if weird, symbiotic process.
Taking this logic even further, consider what pain accomplishes for the animals that experience it: it teaches them how to solve problems. This implies a life-span that accommodates a pain-driven learning process. Pain, after all, is integral to a trial-and-error process of negotiation with the external world. I would argue that one of the reasons that insects breed so effectively is to avoid trial-and-error—which can be resource wasteful—altogether. Problems, instead, are solved collectively through breeding efficiency, not through an individual insect drawing on pain to get it right the next time. In essence, insects have no evolutionary need for pain.
The default move here is to argue that we should err on the side of caution and assume they have a pain sensation. To do this, though would also require, given the research done on the behavioral responsiveness of plants, that we take the same precaution for plants. That we cannot do. Moreover, provided the pain that would be spared to obviously sentient animals if we transitioned to an insect-based diet, it would be irresponsible, or something close to it, for us to project the capacity for pain on animals that have no evident apparatus for experiencing it, much less an evolutionary reason for doing so.