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.
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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.
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.
A few days ago I wrote about the connection between the pharmaceutical industry and animal agriculture. The gist of the piece was that there’s so much animal flesh to keep healthy that eating animals is implicit support for an industry that already makes too much money over-medicating humans.
Since then, I’ve realized there’s another angle to this topic, one that’s more sinister, one that I missed. An article on The Cattle Site reveals that the pharmaceutical industry is interested in more than antibiotics and vaccines. It’s also using animal welfare as a pretext to market new drugs for farm animals.
Leading the charge to sell drugs that will create a calmer cow is Merck. Recently the company announced the launch of “Creating Connections.” According to The Cattle Site, it’s “a new program designed to help producers better understand cattle behavior and use that knowledge to employ strategies that can reduce stress, improve reproduction and foster stronger immune responses.”
In other words, Merck has found a way to exploit welfare washing for profit. The idea here is that you drug the beasts into a stupor so they don’t express feelings of distress and in turn—the real motive—cooperate with their executioners. This is a tactic that makes life easier for ranchers and meatpacking plant workers while making Merck look like it’s in league with the Humane Society as a steward of animals.
But it’s a bad joke. The piece explains, “Since calmer cattle are easier to examine, diagnose, treat and move, the techniques shared through Creating Connections will help make iteasier for producers to improve the health of their herds.”
As is to be expected, asinine blather has poured forth to justify these happy drugs. “The behavior of cattle – how they interact with each other and with people – can be shaped by positive interactions with caregivers, and tell us a tremendous amount about how cattle are feeling,” said Tom Noffsinger, D.V.M., a consulting feedyard veterinarian well known for his work on low-stress cattle handling practices.
It’s not about lowering stress, but hiding it. You hook cows’ udders to milk pumping machines, send their babies to the meat counter as veal chops, and turn them into hamburger when production declines. But because you have drugged the cows into oblivion they don’t seem to mind, and so you can work more efficiency, not to mention less burdened by the suspicion that you’re doing something very wrong.
But come on. If it’s welfare that we’re really concerned about, here’s something to consider: don’t bring these creatures into existence in the first place. There will be no suffering to medicate if you just use your resources to grow flora rather than fauna. Otherwise, spare us the welfare talk.
Nobody is really that stupid.
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