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Gene Baur: The Activist’s Activist

» April 6th, 2015

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.

 

Raw Milk=Raw Deal

» March 30th, 2015

 

On March 10 West Virginia’s legislature passed a bill authorizing the consumption of raw milk. Republicans supported the measure on the basis of “farm-food freedom” and “consumer choice.” Democrats, soberly noting that unpasteurized milk can contain high levels of deadly bacteria, opposed it on the grounds that “it’s unwise and unsafe,” as one opponent said.

There’s good reason to fear raw milk. The same day that West Virginia passed its bill, a long-awaited study from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported that raw milk consumption significantly increased the risk of foodborne illness. Detection rates of Listeria and Campylobacter—two common food-related bacteria—were seven percent and three percent, respectively, in raw milk samples. More alarmingly, rates of these dangerous bacteria rose to 20 percent and 22 percent in the milk filters used to remove specks of feces from the milk (cows’ tails frequently brush feces samples into milk containers while they’re being milked).

Dr. Wayne Anderson, director of FSAI, wrote: “While the market for raw milk is small, it remains a serious concern given the well-documented public health risks posed by the presence of pathogens in raw milk. We are therefore recommending that raw milk should be avoided by consumers.” His message reflects what the United States Food and Drug Administration has long noted: that “unpasteurized milk can pose a serious health threat.”

The effort among a vocal cult of consumers to reject wholesale pasteurization highlights how, when it comes to reforming the industrial food system, aesthetics easily trump reason—not to mention public safety. Not unlike the movement among anti-vaccine advocates, proponents of raw milk allow shallow idealizations of purity and free choice to undermine the quest for a food system that can provide safe and healthy food for all consumers all the time. . .read more

Niman’s Naturalistic Fallacy

» March 15th, 2015

 

In her book Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman absolves the act of eating meat from moral inquiry on the grounds that humans have always eaten animals. She explains that a “food web” in which animals and plants routinely consume each other (yes, plants eat animals) places all life in “an endless cycle of regeneration.” As a result, she concludes: “something so fundamental to the functioning of nature cannot be regarded as morally problematic.” Please re-read that quote to make sure it sinks in.

This logic is sloppy, commonplace, and dangerous. Critics of vegetarianism or veganism routinely chant the mantra that humans “were meant to eat animals.” This comment has a “no further questions asked” tone to it.  It seems intuitively true and, unfortunately, for consumers otherwise inclined to question the moral implications of eating animals, it serves as a convenient escape hatch from a question many meat eaters are eager to avoid: is it wrong to slaughter a sentient animal for food when it’s unnecessary to do so?

By relying on the “humans were meant to eat meat” logic, Niman fails to examine the assumption upon which it rests. At its foundation, the claim implies that any adaptive quality that humans might have evolved to survive is, to quote Niman, “so fundamental to the functioning of nature” that it “cannot be regarded as morally problematic.”

The problem here is that evolutionary adaptation—the essence of the “functioning of nature”—includes untold morally disgusting behaviors that, while perfectly natural in the same way that eating animals is considered natural, are rightly deemed abhorrent by decent people living in a civil society.

Take infanticide. The adaptive advantage of infanticide for many vertebrates is well-supported. This is true for humans as well as primates. Among the !Kung hunter gatherers of Kalahari, about one in a hundred births end in infanticide. In regions of New Guinea, according to anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, infanticide is “off the charts,” as mothers who wanted sons (or whose partners wanted sons) will often kill their daughters.

Rather than accept this behavior as beyond moral scrutiny due to its proven “natural” or adaptive quality, civil society rightly rejects infanticide as a totally barbaric practice. The human corrective, according to many evolutionary biologists, has been monogamy—a civilized arrangement often deemed “unnatural,” but certainly morally superior to the alternative.

Another (admittedly more controversial) example to consider is rape. In 2000, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer argued in A Natural History of Rape that the urge to rape is the legacy of an evolutionary adaptive trait (or the by-product of an adaptive trait, such as aggression in men).  Their theory (not surprisingly) encountered a firestorm of objection, much of it concerned that evolutionary psychology was being used as “excuse” for inexcusably horrific behavior.

Whether or not Thornhill and Palmer are right (their hypothesis is still debated), the regrettable fact remains that rape has existed throughout recorded human history, across human cultures, as well as throughout the non-human animal world. Evolutionary psychology, moreover, remains a powerful heuristic tool with which to understand the once (potentially) adaptive, if repulsive, mechanism underscoring rape.

As recently as 2013, a major peer-reviewed study has argued that, “forced sex is the outcome of an innate conditional strategy which enables men to circumvent parental and female choice when they experience a competitive disadvantage, or when the costs of doing so are low.” Other scholars are seeking to reconcile a feminist and an evolutionary psychological understanding of rape, negating the “men can’t help it” suggestion while preserving the evolutionary perspective that Thornhill and Palmer promote.

To clarify any misunderstanding on this point, the takeaway is not to equate the immorality of rape with the immorality of eating animals. Instead, it is to note that both behvaiors (one, of course, being far more common than the other) may have served adaptive functions that qualify them as “natural” and, according to Niman’s logic, beyond moral assessment.

Finally, take something much more common and less controversial: lying. From the perspective of natural adaptation, lying has likely been even more essential to human evolution than eating animals (for, as we know, some societies subsisted on plants, but lying has no plant-based counterpart!).

In Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith situates lying in our evolutionary past, one in which strategic deception had clear adaptive benefits. Lying is thus perfectly natural in the same way eating animals is perfectly natural–it’s an act humans have always done to foster evolutionary adaption. But that hardly makes it morally inert in contemporary life. We don’t like it when people lie.

Which brings me back to Niman. Today, of course, we consider all of these behaviors, in varying degrees, to be morally significant. Nobody in her right mind would contemplate infanticide, lying, or rape and declare, as Niman does of killing animals, that, “something so fundamental to the functioning of nature cannot be regarded as morally problematic.” To the contrary, she would condemn these acts as wrong. It is on the basis of such condemnation that human civil society exists and, on good days, thrives.

Why killing animals for food we do not need gets an “it’s natural” pass is a question that Niman has yet to answer. Until she does, I see no reason to accept the naturalistic fallacy at the core of her justification for eating animals.

Bad Ranchers, Bad Cows

» February 27th, 2015

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

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

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

Perception.

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

Read more here.

Upcoming Speaking Engagements

» February 18th, 2015

 

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

When It Comes To Pig Farms, Size Doesn’t Matter

» February 10th, 2015

Last year Nicholas Kristof  published a disturbing column—disturbing even by Nicholas Kristof standards—on an undercover video from the Humane Society of the United States of a Kentucky pig outfit named Iron Maiden Farm (yeah, really). The operation—a typical embodiment of Big Agriculture—was caught feeding a slush of piglet intestines to sows in order to establish immunity against a devastating disease called porcine epidemic diarrhea (PEDv). This technique, “controlled exposure,” is “widely accepted,” according to the Kentucky Livestock Coalition. Lovely.

The virus broke out last May in Iowa and has killed over three million pigs nationwide. As a way to avoid this intestine-based smoothie, Kristof urged consumers to forgo factory-farmed pork in exchange for pork produced by small farms. He sites the well-known Niman Ranch as an example. In other words, just buy your pork from the right places.

This advice seems perfectly sensible—and in many cases involving porcine disease it would be. Swine consolidation can enhance the spread of certain pathogens. However, in the instance of PEDv, the connection between farm size and disease is tenuous at best. Small farms, according to many experts I’ve spoken with, turn out to be every bit at risk of getting hit with an outbreak of PEDv as large ones. “This virus doesn’t discriminate,” says Dr. Russ Daley, a South Dakota State University Extension Veterinarian with whom I spoke the day after the HSUS expose dropped. In fact, Daley had recently spoken with a family farmer with 40-50 pigs who experienced a deadly outbreak of PEDv.

This is precisely the kind of detail that media coverage of factory farming almost never includes. Ever. Too often, it reduces the broad continuum of animal agriculture to “factory farming” and “humane farming.” But agriculture is much more diverse than that. Farms don’t break down into simple categories.

Dirigo Quality Meats, a company that provides pork farms of all sizes with biosecurity plans, draws on sound veterinary science to highlight an important culprit behind the spread of PEDv. It’s not farm size. Rather, it’s birds. DQM writes:

So what farms are at risk? Right now, this virus has been identified at large hog operations, but, that’s where the vets and research money are. Smaller producers who can’t or don’t implement practices are at very high risk. … If there are birds coming in and out of the tractor trailers parked outside, those birds are flying to other farms.

DQM advises pig farmers to “keep birds away from pigs and practice biosecurity,” but tellingly notes, “that’s all well and good for large hog farms with indoor housing and multiple trucks for transportation, but what’s a small diversified farm to do?” (Of course, the answer is hire DQM!)

There are other factors to include when evaluating Kristof’s advice to avoid PEDv-infected farms by sourcing pork from small farms. Many experts suggest that small farms are less likely to report an outbreak of PEDv in the first place

“Undoubtedly, more farms have PEDv than is reported in the official count,” Dr. Ron Plain, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri, told the PORKNetwork. “I think it is reasonable to estimate that the official count of infected farms is less than half of the actual total. I suspect small farms are less likely to pay for the confirmation test than large ones.”

Other considerations challenge the connection between farm size and PEDv prevalence. Transportation to and from the farm—particularly by the trucks that bring pigs to slaughter—helps spread the disease. Pigs from small and large farms typically go to the same slaughter facilities, according to Daley. Furthermore, PEDv has been linked to commercial feed, which both confined and pastured pigs consume in abundance. In fact, according to Daley, small farmers may be more reliant on externally sourced commercial feed than big farmers, which often produce their own feed on site.

Daley correctly notes that “we have no direct comparisons” on small and large farms. But in one study of PEDv prevalence on North Carolina pig farms, operations that tested positive for PEDv had an average herd size of 4,683. Those that tested negative had a herd size that was almost the same, at 4,035. What mattered when it came to the presence of PEDv wasn’t the size of the farm—they were all pretty big—but the visitation of trucks. Positive sites had double the truck traffic than negative sites. “Site capacity was not significantly associated with PEDv,” the study concluded.

There’s a common assumption among very prominent writers who cover food and farming that size matters when it comes to the spread of disease on animal farms. I wish matters were so simple. While this correlation may sometimes be the case with some diseases in some places, there’s very little to suggest that it’s true for PEDv (and other diseases—see thisthis, and this). Consumers would be foolish to trust the old axiom that “humane” small farms are inherently safer than their larger counterparts. Animals raised in low density on pasture might be happier, but not necessarily healthier.

Chipotle’s Pork Ploy

» February 7th, 2015

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.

Worshipping At The Temple of Grandin

» February 1st, 2015

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 horseHere 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.

Read more.

Wild Horse Chase At The Daily Pitchfork

» January 30th, 2015

The Daily Pitchfork, which I hope you will consider subscribing to, is off to a fantastic start. Our most recent piece is an excellent article by Vickery Eckhoff on the sloppy reporting on wild horses in the American west. It is a careful and somewhat jaw dropping revelation of how extensively journalists twist messages to avoid upsetting the status quo. Enjoy. Subscribe!

Michael Moss’ powerful New York Times’ investigation into the United States Department of Agriculture’s Meat Animal Research Center (“U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer In Quest For Profit”) predictably outraged readers. The collective angst came not just because of the center’s ghoulish and inept experimentation; not just because the research animals suffered to boost profits in the livestock industry; but because the public learned that taxpayers had footed the bill — and had been doing so — for fifty years.

Compare that discovery to the recent media attention given to a very similar program, one involving even more animals, conducted to boost livestock industry profits, costing even more taxpayer dollars, and degrading millions of acres of public rangelands in the American West: The Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burros Program (WHB).

Read more here.

The Paradox of Expertise

» January 22nd, 2015

Noah Berlatsky writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

RECENTLY I WROTE a story about Star Wars and science fiction for The Atlantic. The comments section, as these things will, featured a large number of people telling me that I was unqualified to write about the topic because I hadn’t read enough sci-fi books, or hadn’t read enough recent sci-fi books, or hadn’t read the right sci-fi books, or hadn’t seen the right sci-fi movies.

I’m sure this is a familiar experience for anyone who’s published work on culture. 

Culture? Try agriculture.

I’ve been writing about the topic for many years and perhaps the biggest blowback question I get is “are you a farmer”?

“No,” I respond, “which is why you should trust me.”

There is a paradox at the core of expertise: those who really know something well, be it sci-fi or growing corn, are often too wrapped up in it economically or emotionally to register opinions that are free of self-interest. Not always, but most of the time.

Critics can say what they will about my thoughts on agriculture but, at the end of the day, I’m a history professor who, although passionate about the topic, has no economic stake in the game one way or another. Zero. I get my paycheck from the state of Texas.

By contrast, take a close look at those who are delivering the most persistent pleas for various forms of agricultural reform, one way or another.

I’m too tired to name names, but when beef ranchers promote the beauties of grass-fed beef, or pig-farmers promote the beauties of pastured pigs, or egg-farmers promote the virtue of Humane Certified eggs, or food writers promote foods that happen to be central to the recipes they write in best-selling cookbooks, I balk.

To be fair, I also balk when—again, without naming names—animal advocates link their activism with their own entrepreneurial product development. I’m not begrudging anyone their quest to make some crumple, but I have no choice but to assume their expertise is compromised as well.

Odd as it may sound, expertise is enhanced with distance from the topic under consideration.