Posts Tagged ‘factory farming

Grass-Fed Gas

» June 21st, 2013


Here’s a copy of my New York Times article on grass-fed beef, which ran in April 2012. It’s a distillation from research I’m doing for my book Modern Savage. In a chapter that I recently finished, I demonstrate how the logistics of grass-fed farming won’t even work to ensure this method’s status as niche approach, much less a standard alternative, to raising cattle for food. In this sense, it’s much more detailed than what you’ll find below and what was in my more recent Slate article on Allan Savory. In any case, I had a piece on fish that I was planning to run today (and will likely run tomorrow), but a reader’s comment suggested that I post this piece instead and, as Mountain observed in a recent comment, it’s my blog. Sorry if this post is tedious. If you’re bored, you can always skip back to the “sexism and PETA” discussion, which is still smoldering, from two days ago. 

April 12, 2012

The industrial production of animal products is nasty business. From mad cow, E. coli and salmonella to soil erosion, manure runoff and pink slime, factory farming is the epitome of a broken food system.

There have been various responses to these horrors, including some recent attempts to improve the industrial system, like the announcement this week that farmers will have to seek prescriptions for sick animalsinstead of regularly feeding antibiotics to all stock. My personal reaction has been to avoid animal products completely. But most people upset by factory farming have turned instead to meat, dairy and eggs from nonindustrial sources. Indeed, the last decade has seen an exciting surge in grass-fed, free-range, cage-free and pastured options. These alternatives typically come from small organic farms, which practice more humane methods of production. They appeal to consumers not only because they reject the industrial model, but because they appear to be more in tune with natural processes.

For all the strengths of these alternatives, however, they’re ultimately a poor substitute for industrial production. Although these smaller systems appear to be environmentally sustainable, considerable evidence suggests otherwise.

Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.

Advocates of small-scale, nonindustrial alternatives say their choice is at least more natural. Again, this is a dubious claim. Many farmers who raise chickens on pasture use industrial breeds that have been bred to do one thing well: fatten quickly in confinement. As a result, they can suffer painful leg injuries after several weeks of living a “natural” life pecking around a large pasture. Free-range pigs are routinely affixed with nose rings to prevent them from rooting, which is one of their most basic instincts. In essence, what we see as natural doesn’t necessarily conform to what is natural from the animals’ perspectives.

The economics of alternative animal systems are similarly problematic. Subsidies notwithstanding, the unfortunate reality of commodifying animals is that confinement pays. If the production of meat and dairy was somehow decentralized into small free-range operations, common economic sense suggests that it wouldn’t last. These businesses — no matter how virtuous in intention — would gradually seek a larger market share, cutting corners, increasing stocking density and aiming to fatten animals faster than competitors could. Barring the strictest regulations, it wouldn’t take long for production systems to scale back up to where they started.

All this said, committed advocates of alternative systems make one undeniably important point about the practice called “rotational grazing” or “holistic farming”: the soil absorbs the nutrients from the animals’ manure, allowing grass and other crops to grow without the addition of synthetic fertilizer. As Michael Pollan writes, “It is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients.” In other words, raising animals is not only sustainable, but required.

But rotational grazing works better in theory than in practice. Consider Joel Salatin, the guru of nutrient cycling, who employs chickens to enrich his cows’ grazing lands with nutrients. His plan appears to be impressively eco-correct, until we learn that he feeds his chickens with tens of thousands of pounds a year of imported corn and soy feed. This common practice is an economic necessity. Still, if a farmer isn’t growing his own feed, the nutrients going into the soil have been purloined from another, most likely industrial, farm, thereby undermining the benefits of nutrient cycling.

Finally, there is no avoiding the fact that the nutrient cycle is interrupted every time a farmer steps in and slaughters a perfectly healthy manure-generating animal, something that is done before animals live a quarter of their natural lives. When consumers break the nutrient cycle to eat animals, nutrients leave the system of rotationally grazed plots of land (though of course this happens with plant-based systems as well). They land in sewer systems and septic tanks (in the form of human waste) and in landfills and rendering plants (in the form of animal carcasses).

Farmers could avoid this waste by exploiting animals only for their manure, allowing them to live out the entirety of their lives on the farm, all the while doing their own breeding and growing of feed. But they’d better have a trust fund.

Opponents of industrialized agriculture have been declaring for over a decade that how humans produce animal products is one of the most important environmental questions we face. We need a bolder declaration. After all, it’s not how we produce animal products that ultimately matters. It’s whether we produce them at all.

Selective Moral Consideration

» June 26th, 2012

Ethical vegans are often criticized for not supporting the non-industrial alternatives to factory farming. My response is typically to say, as a sort of mantra, that as long as we produce animal products the factory farms will always dominate. I add that while one system is arguably more ethical than another, the alternative still suffers from a fundamental ethical flaw, one I could never support. The problem with saying these things over and over is that it’s easy to lose sight of the underlying justifications for them. It is thus in the spirit of (perhaps plodding) explication that I’ve written the following thoughts. It’s refreshing, every now and then, to subject your own ideas to your own analysis.


The moral standard we apply to animals in factory farms goes something like this: animals have feelings; they are not objects; their welfare matters, thus they deserve, as a matter of basic moral consideration, to be liberated from the abusive confines of factory farms, where they suffer excessively and unnecessarily.

Note that the identified problem, as opponents of factory farming frame it, comes down to the way animals are raised. No mention is made of slaughter, which is assumed to be equally abusive. Also note that this articulation assumes that animals, by virtue of their ability to experience suffering as a result of being raised inhumanely, are considered to have emotional lives and, in turn, moral relevance.

This means that animals’ capacity to suffer, while different in degree from our own, is nonetheless meaningful and familiar enough to demand that these animals remain free from the abuses endemic to industrial animal agriculture.  The fact that we believe these animals should not suffer in confinement affirms our moral consideration of them. There’s very little to dispute at this point. Vegans and non-vegans alike can happily agree on this consistent application of moral consideration to farm animals raised on factory farms.

It is when we apply our moral consideration to non-industrial farms that a serious problem emerges. The moral standard applied to non-industrial farms is the same as that applied factory farms. The core premises still hold: animals have feelings; they are not objects; their welfare matters; thus they deserve, as a matter of basic moral consideration, to live lives conducive to their welfare. Matters undergo an abrupt change, however, when we extend the question of moral consideration beyond the matter of how animals are raised to a much more morally complex matter: their death.

It is, in fact, at this crucial moment in a farm animal’s life–the human choice to slaughter–that the staunch moral consideration that we once applied to factory farming falters.  Recall that in our application of moral consideration to factory farming, the animal’s death is never mentioned–it doesn’t have to be. The entire cycle of life on a factory farm is so abhorrent as to be dismissed outright as a morally corrosive apparatus, so there’s no reason to ever draw a distinction between how an animal is raised and the reality of his slaughter in this setting. Every aspect of life within an industrialized system of animal agriculture is, ipso facto, a moral abomination. The bathwater is tossed and nothing of worth goes with it.  The question of death is rendered moot by our broad dismissal of factory farms on clear moral grounds.

Recall, the primary reason concerned consumers believe farm animals should be raised in non-industrial settings is because they assume correctly that animals otherwise suffer in factory farms.  A pasture-based agricultural system is thus favored as a system that restores to animals a chance to live lives more-or-less free of human-imposed suffering. I’m not convinced of this claim, but for now let’s assume that our desire for farm animals to be treated well is adequately fulfilled on a humanely managed, non-industrial farm.  Animals that have space to roam, can choose what to eat, and even have the option of reproductive freedom are almost certainly suffering less than animals confined in a feed lot or farrowing crate.

This reduction of suffering is obviously consistent with our moral consideration of farm animals, the same moral consideration that has led us to thoroughly condemn factory farms and support their non-industrial alternatives. The moral benefit of a non-industrial farm, after all, is that it grants to animals the pleasure-inducing freedoms denied to them by factory farms. Hard to argue with this as far as it goes.

However, we have to also apply our moral consideration to the entire life-cycle of the “humane” alternative as well. Doing so reveals that, on non-industrial farms–just as in factory farms–farmers, more often than not using an industrial slaughterhouse, eventually kill and commodify the animals they are raising.  It is at this exact point that our moral consideration hits a brick wall.

The decision to end a sentient animal’s life–in essence, to objectify it–before it reaches even the prime of her life is not only similar to the most essential practice of factory farming, it’s radically inconsistent with the moral consideration we once applied to animals in factory farms and to living animals on non-industrial farms.  We say we care about animals enough to urge a radical transition away from factory farming to systems that promote their welfare. Great. But then we kill the animals enjoying that new and improved system.

This death, no matter how “humane,” no matter how respectfully administered, ultimately undermines the moral consideration that drove us to condemn factory farms and support non-industrial farms in the first place. You can’t care about an animal and kill it for no vital reason. Doing so is morally and logically inconsistent.

The Amnesia-ville Horror

» June 12th, 2012

Pink Slime!

I’m sick and tired of hearing stories about the disgusting aspects of industrial animal agriculture. I know, I know. It’s important to broadcast these messages—pink slime!, E.Coli! cows eating chicken poop! And, I know, people need to hear the straight dope on factory farming. Still, these stories get on my nerves for at least two reasons.

First, they’re redundant, and their redundancy is alarming. It’s alarming not because the stories themselves are horrific (which they are), but because the muckrakers delivering these messages act as if they’re unearthing some deep dark secret and the consumers hearing the messages act as if it’s never been said before. It’s like we’re living in Amnesia-ville.

Folks! We’ve been bombarded with nauseating narratives about the evils of factory farming for over 40 years. The fact that we have not, as a collective gesture of consumer outrage, monkey wrenched these hellholes into oblivion speaks either to the human tendency to procrastinate or, worse, our pathological indifference.  At some point you have to wonder: are journalists hacking away at this door to no avail?

Well, they may be, as my second point of contention suggests: I despise the way that supposed food activists take these stories and cynically use them to justify a transition to small-scale animal agriculture. This one really galls me because, in making such a suggestion, the so-called activists are doing nothing more than feeding the monster they aim to starve. They fail to realize that all the monster needs to thrive is a cultural acceptance of eating animals. The activists, in their small-farm fetishization, do absolutely nothing to confront this pervasive acceptance. In fact, they only encourage it. In so doing, they encourage factory farming.

We’ll never beat the devil at his own game. Industrial agriculture is not in the least bit threatened when earnest “muckraking” journalists come on the radio or print long stories urging concerned consumers to avoid factory farmed meat in favor of “humanely raised” and “sustainably produced” options. To think the big guys are threatened is a joke. The factory farms will always ensure that the small fetishized farms are never anything more than boutique options for foodies, culinary libertarians, and pin-heads who peck away at their Mac’s in college town coffee shops (oops, that’s me).

The factory farms can ensure their dominance for two simple reasons: consolidation and scale. I don’t like this fact one bit, but it’s a fact—subsidies notwithstanding, it’s cheaper and quicker and more efficient to raise animals in concentrated conditions on a large scale. These measures lead to cheaper animals products and cheaper animal products will, as sure as gravity, lead to the mass consumption of cheap meat. Unless small-scale farms have a plan to upend the most basic principle of classical economics–not to mention human nature–their endorsement of eating animals will continue to be, however inadvertently–an endorsement of factory farming.  They will, of course, deny this.

And they will, of course, be deluding themselves. Worse, they’ll be harming animals. Indeed, their delusions are just as complicit in the senseless killing of billions of animals as are the factory farms they claim to hate so vehemently.  And that gets on my nerves. A lot.


Reason to Go Vegan #5: Factory Farms

» January 27th, 2012

Writing in the American Spectator several years ago, Julian Gough noted that “there is nothing more powerless than a corporation.” I love this quote. In an age when so many of us feel overwhelmed by consolidated systems of corporate power, Gough’s counterintuitive assessment reminds us of something fundamental: if we buy stuff, we have the final say in a corporation’s fate. No matter how many political punches are pulled, no matter how many marketing geniuses are hired, and no matter how many members of congress are bought and sold, consumers ultimately hold the cards.  With will power and organizational acumen, consumers have the ability to take down whomever we want. This is why there is nothing more powerless than a corporation.

This point bears heavily on the delicate dance that conscientious consumers are now doing with animal products. Influenced by the food movement’s imperative to buy local, buy organic, and buy from small farms, we’ve convinced ourselves that by “voting with our forks” and choosing more virtuous meat and dairy alternatives, we’ll prove Gough’s little axiom right. Down will fall Monsanto, Tyson’s, Cargill, and all the other bad boys of industrial animal agriculture. Left standing will be the good guys, the small farmers, the local organic dairy, the grass-fed operations.

Dream on.

Indeed, we’re dreaming if we think that our support for the farmer next door in any way compromises the ultimate power of industrial systems. The alternatives might give animals a nominally better life, but as a threat to industrial agriculture, they’re pointless. Although I’ve blogged about this point here before, it bears repeating: until we boycott animal products per se, rather than settle for supposedly more humane alternatives, the industrial production of animal products will dominate the business of bringing these goods to our plates. As long as we live in a capitalistic society bound by basic consumer freedoms, and as long as animal products are considered legitimate consumer items (i.e., commodities), the vast majority of consumers will act the same way we act when it’s time to buy a i-pad or a pair of socks. We’ll choose the cheapest option. Factory farms–which, even if you remove subsidies, still produce more meat and eggs at a lower price–produce more for less. This is why the business consolidated in the first place. This is why we eat so many animals. This is why we cannot eat animals and end factory farming. 

Even if smaller and (again, supposedly) more sustainable farms did come to dominate the landscape (which is very unlikely), their hold on the market would be ephemeral. In a relatively free market economy marked by consumer choice, these farms would inevitably compete. Competition would lead to consolidation. Consolidation would lead us back to where we are today. I’ve been making this case to audiences for over a year and have yet to hear an argument that even comes close to defying the logic of this hypothetical scenario. No to be redundant, but once again: we cannot eat animals and end factory farming. No chance.

Which brings me to my last point. Should we truly want to teach the mavens of agribusiness the lesson that there is nothing more powerless than a corporation, our best option is to go vegan. I can think of no act more expressive of our oft repeated disdain of industrial agriculture than the decision to boycott the products that keep it in business.


Reason to Go Vegan #4: My Recent Talk

» November 1st, 2011

What follows are the notes for talks I gave at the National Conference Against Factory Farming in Washington, DC and the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival. These took place last weekend, October 2011. 

There is a lot to celebrate when it comes to growing awareness about the evils of factory farming. We are becoming increasingly aware of both the obvious and hidden consequences of industrial animal agriculture. We’re becoming upset about killing 10 billion animals a year–every one of them as smart and emotionally aware as our dog. One could say that many consumers are at a crossroads, a point at which, given the clear harm caused by factory farming, we–or at least a critical mass of us– are in a position to make a decision about our relationship to farmed animals.

Most consumers have thus far chosen to seek alternatives in the form of local, sustainable, and more humanely raised meat produced on smaller farms, often by people we know. This option, often referred to as “happy meat,” enjoys enormous, largely uncritical, support from the food media, environmental groups, and advocates for animal welfare. But this path, I would contend, is not nearly as beneficial as it’s portrayed to be. In fact, in the long run, it will do precious little to help the fate of animals, the environment, or humanity as a whole. In many ways, it’s a choice that actually perpetuates the very system of factory farming we want to abolish. This is the argument I want to make in the next 30 minutes.

First, there’s the matter of ethical consistency. When we choose alternative options we’re engaging in inconsistent welfare consideration for the animals we purport to care about. Think about why we dislike factory farms so much–much of our disgust has to do with the way animals are treated: they’re overcrowded, they cannot run free, eat what they want, reproduce on their own, and are forced to live in squalor, caged and covered in feces. It’s for these very reasons–which are all based on the correct assumption that animals have inherent worth– that we support systems in which animals are treated with greater dignity. And that’s wonderful. We know farmed animals are beautiful creatures. We know they have feelings, emotions, intelligence; we know they are social; we know they suffer; they matter; that they are worthy, ultimately, of our moral consideration. In giving them this moral consideration, we improve ourselves; we embrace compassion; we evoke the better angels of our nature.

How, then, can we nurture this belief in the moral worth of animals, so much so that we act on this belief by rejecting factory farms, and then turn around and support an alternative system that raises animals to kill, commodify, and market for food we do not need? I don’t care how big or small the farm is, but when the market tells the farmer that the animal must die to feed us food we don’t need, all welfare considerations for that animal come to a screeching halt. All previous acts of kindness become little more than material for marketing. Never underestimate the similarities between the factory and the alternative farm, nor the power of the human mind to think away the essential similarity. Indeed, these animals that we’re fine eating are killed in the prime of their lives–even before then. Their slaughter is just as painful as is that of a factory farmed animal. Let me be very clear: they do not want to die.

Do we really want to build a new system of animal husbandry on the back of this troubling reality? Even granting that the animals in this system do have a good life, do we want to rebuild our food system on the premise that, just as in factory farming, a human who owns an animal can end that life because there happens to be a market for its flesh and milk? In the end, does this essentially inhumane act confer to an animal any real sense of dignity? Who are we to say we respect an animal and then kill it to sell at a restaurant that will charge a mint because it was humanely raised. Who are we kidding here? I urge everyone to think seriously about this problem, this contradiction.

Second, there’s the problem of inadvertent support of factory farming. In a way, our choice to go alternative might not mean what we think it means. It’s worth considering that the decision to eat happy meat directly reinforces the most fundamental prerequisite for factory farming’s existence: the belief that there’s nothing wrong with eating meat per se. Indeed, supporting the production of happy meat reiterates the belief that it’s perfectly acceptable to eat the flesh of what was once a sentient animal. In many ways, the rhetoric of localism and the bucolic imagery of the free range ideal encourages this perspective. But here’s the crux of the problem: unless eating meat is culturally and morally stigmatized (sort of like smoking is today), factory farms will always remain the dominant mode of meat production. They will always be the default choice for the vast majority of meat consumers. The reason is simple enough. In a capitalistic society, unfettered demand for anything provides the political, economic, and technological incentives for producers to achieve efficiencies of production. He who produces more with less wins. This is great if we’re talking about inanimate widgets. But it’s utterly tragic if we’re talking about animals. We shouldn’t tolerate it. But again, as long as it’s considered ok to eat meat, factory farms will always have the upper hand.

Then there’s the environmental/health issue. We actually know very little about the environmental impacts of alternative systems of animal husbandry. We know the ecological impacts of factory farms are horrible: livestock produces more GHG than any other sector, including transportation; 80 percent of the antibiotics produced are given to animals; we can blame virulent influenzas on the existence factory farms; manure lagoons destroy aquatic ecosystems; I could spend the next hour rattling off such stats. My guess is that you’ve heard them. But, simply because the alternatives are not factory farms, we automatically assume that they are okay. But there’s a lot to say they are not. With grass-fed beef, there is a methane problem. With free range, there is a land problem. There are still diseases on free-range farms. There’s deadstock. Right now alternatives account for about 1 percent of production; the hidden environmental costs would become more evident as these operations proliferate.

Why are we not directly confronting these problems? Why are we failing to critique the alternatives? Why are the objections I’m currently making not on the national radar screen? One reason–the whole debate about meat is defined by sloppy logic. We tend to assume that simply because a system of animal husbandry is not an industrial system that it is automatically good. If a is bad and and b is not a, then b is good. Obviously, this is faulty logic. Alternative systems have gotten a huge pass in terms of critical inquiry. “At least the alternatives are better” doesn’t cut it. But this is almost always what I hear.

Two, alternative systems effectively promote themselves as local, and local, as we all know, is about the sexiest word in food these days. Call something local and you add value and win hearts, minds, and dollars. To say some something is local is to enshrine it in the cloak of goodness. Granted, much of the time the credit is deserved, especially with fruits and vegetables. But when it comes to locally sourced animals, there are problems. The reason I hear more than any other for buying local meat is that it’s important to connect with our food, to know where our food comes from, to shorten the distance between farm and fork. Well, our meat comes from a slaughtered animal. So, in light of this reality, I wonder: are we really connecting when we buy local?

If the essence of meat production is turning a live animal into a dead one, I’d say no. Locally raised meat is more often than not sent elsewhere to be killed. Local meat in such cases is nothing more than a convenient fiction; the essential moment took place far away from you, administered by someone else, leaving no blood on your hands. Local meat always comes with a romantic story of connectedness. It’s a story we want to hear, but it’s not true. The paradox here is that those who are connecting more than anyone with our meat are the people who work out of site/out of mind in huge slaughterhouses. These people are far away from us, and they suffer immensely because of what they do–ptsd, domestic abuse, and violence are common; turnover is endemic; psychological trauma is very hard to avoid. But we don’t connect with that when the farmer sells us our meat at the farmer’s market.

It is true that many smaller animal farmers are using mobile slaughter units instead of industrial abattoirs. But even in this case, the critical connection to the animal we eat–the animal we think we’re connecting with– is still obscured, and the psychological impact on the workers remains the same. It’s just happening in a truck rather than a building. What consumers usually get is more agricultural pornography about how lovely the animal’s life was when it was alive–these images are perfectly bucolic and incredibly misleading. But again, with Mobile Slaughtering Units– the essential connection–the ultimate essence of knowing our food– is hidden inside the back of a truck.

Finally, there are those intrepid consumers of meat who have chosen to become producers of meat as well. I admit a reluctant admiration for these backyard slaughterers, these do-it-yourselfers. But I wish they were making clothes or soap rather than meat. There are many problems with this uber-local zeal to make our own meat. It’s unregulated, it’s unseemly to many neighbors, and–most critically, it’s a breeding ground for animal abuse and desensitization. I know this sounds crazy, but those who kill their own animals very often have no clue about they are doing, and the result is disastrous for animals and the people trying to humanely kill them. I have a very large file on my computer called “botched slaughters.” These gut wrenching mishaps come from blogger-homesteaders who have become as numbed to the reality and impact of slaughter as any suit-and tied hack from Tysons, Cargill, or Monsanto. I’m told by the leaders of this trend that this will change, things will improve. But I’m skeptical. If thousands upon thousands of urbanized denizens, motivated by localism and connecting with their food, start slaughtering and processing their own meat, I have a hard time believing we’re doing anything more than decentralizing suffering and abuse.

We can dice up the problem of suffering all we want, but it’s still there, no matter how close or numb we become to it. Bottom line: killing an animal, no matter how close or how far away, is a morally complicated act. We should not allow the rhetoric of localism to obscure this harsh, and unnecessary, reality.

A final reason for our failure to think critically about the alternatives has to do with the media. I will concede that food writers have done a fantastic job of raising awareness of the many inequities of factory farming. In this respect, I admire the work of Pollan and Bittman, and others for highlighting the problems of industrial agriculture. But their solutions are gutless at best. I mean, they sound good. But what they suggest we do with respect to meat is, upon closer inspection, not terribly impressive. Essentially, what the foodie media establishment does is expose the problems of factory farming and then cater solutions more to the desires of an elite culinary culture rather than tackling the underlying ethical implications of eating meat–ethical implications that apply to everyone. Eat meat, they say, just the right kind. Eat out–but just at places like Chez Panisse.

This is especially ironic because the foodie media–Pollan and Bittman in particular–have urged us to be deliberate about food. They have urged us to explore in great depth the food we eat. But the minute they themselves get to the truly tough questions–the questions about the ethics of raising an animal to kill it for food we don’t need–they duck for cover, parroting the mantra to eat local or be a compassionate carnivore. In the Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan just went out and shot his own hog–as if that answered the question. These guys are smarter than that. But they have interests. Thus they are essentially choir preachers. They don’t push. They don’t challenge. Frankly, they don’t have the guts to tell their acolytes what they don’t want to hear. The evidence, both philosophical and scientific, on the myriad problems with alternative systems of meat production is readily available, but the foodie media won’t touch it with a ten foot pole. It’s simply not in their interest to do so. Food must be F-U-N, a celebration.

As I said at the start, the good news is that we’re at a crossroads. We know factory farming is not acceptable. And thus far our most active response has been to become compassionate carnivores by supporting alternative systems. I’ve tried to explain why I think this won’t work. I’d thus like to finish my talk by highlighting the other path–ethical veganism.

The benefits of veganism strike me as obvious, but it’s amazing how hard it is to promote them. For example, despite the overwhelming medical evidence supporting the benefits of a plant-based diet, the AHA has said yes it’s good for your heart but too hard for people to follow, so they won’t officially recommend it. How lame. The environmental benefits are equally obvious. But again, those who would seem to be the most logical choices for promoting veganism won’t do it. Take the Worldwatch Institute, which recently put out a report on the environmental problems of meat production in a world of 7 billion, concluded that we need to eat more organic, pasture raised meat. This is astoundingly stupid. But, the point is this: there are huge health and environmental gains to be achieved through veganism–whether those who should be promoting this message are doing so or not.

I now want to focus on two other benefits–if only because they are mentioned less than the health and environmental reasons. The first is that veganism promotes genuine and full compassion for animals. And compassion for animals translates into compassion for people. We’ll never have a truly morally healthy society when we live in denial of the mass slaughter we execute on billions of innocent, sentient, emotionally sensitive animals. But when we choose to avoid animal products we help reduce suffering overall. When we find the decency in hearts to help prevent animals from unnecessary slaughter we tap something deep within ourselves. We tap our natural capacity for tolerance, empathy, and affection. This can only improve the way we treat others. Vegans are often asked why we don’t focus on human problems first, and then focus on animals. This question fails to consider that, in overcoming speciesism–in treating animals with due moral consideration–we lay an essential foundation of compassion that allows us to make essential strides toward confronting racism, sexism, homophobia–and all the other prejudices that keep us from respecting each other as human beings lucky enough to be alive, experiencing pleasure, seeking improvement.

The final benefit I would mention about veganism is that, with respect to food, it is the absolute purest form of activism. And it’s available to everyone, right here, right now. Ten billion animals are killed every year. This mass slaughter is at the core of industrial agriculture. Do we really think that tens of thousands of consumers buying locally sourced, humanely raised meat are going to do anything significant to alter the fate of these 10 billion? This is little more than boutique activism. We have to take stronger action. Veganism cuts to the heart of industrial agriculture. There is nothing more direct you can do to fight industrial agriculture than to go vegan. As a concluding remark I want to implore you to expand the anti-factory farm dialogue. We’re always going to hear about the alternatives. Let’s also hear about veganism. There’s more than one way to vote with our fork. Taking on factory farming is a battle; but taking on eating animals must be the real war.

“No Christmas Ham Has Ever Tasted So Sweet”: The Dehumanizing Impact of Slaughtering an Animal

» September 15th, 2011

The more I read, learn, and think about the ethics of slaughtering a farm animal, the more I’m convinced that it ‘s an experience that dehumanizes and numbs us. Readers of this blog know that I’ve been on a steady, if emotionally unhealthy, diet of reading blogs by people who, in an effort to be conscientious carnivores, have decided to raise and kill their own meat. The justification for self-slaughter is weirdly complex, but it usually comes down to some amorphous notion about reconnecting with our food. Too often, the act of killing a being that has no interest in dying is cast as a brave and compassionate antidote to factory farming.  I’ve been getting criticism lately about relying on these blogs as accurate representations of the reality of local slaughter. My answer to these criticisms will be to continue to present accounts like this one below, over and over, until my message is clear: there is nothing humane about killing farm animals that do not have to be killed.  Yet another example:

You hear stories about wildlife heading for the hills minutes or even hours before a tsunami hits, or an earthquake.  Well I’m convinced the same principle applies to butchering day.  When I told the old timers what I was planning, they laughed in my face.  “Have fun with that!”  Undaunted, I pressed ahead with my plans, rigging a temporary chute with cattle panels for the hog’s last walk to the truck that would take him to the butcher down the road.  I asked a few friends over to help out.

This much I learned that day.  A quarter-ton of live hog meat is strong. I maneuvered him into the chute without much difficulty, and then all hell broke loose.  Thrashing about, the pig made quick work of my temporary fencing, tossing cattle panels about like they were cardboard.  Obviously, sterner measures were required.  I had a 4×4 piece of plywood I used to push the beast along from the rear.  He promptly turned and did a full leap up over the plywood leaving me sitting in muck and mire while he calmly munched corn at the other end of the pen.  After an hour or two of these kinds of futile attempts, someone phoned a seasoned hog veteran.  “Put a bucket over his head.”

By this point, my friends wanted no more to do with this project.  So I slung a feed bucket and faced him down.  Lawyer vs. Nature–just like the Good Lord intended.  And what do you know, it worked.  I strapped my bucket over that old boy’s snout and held on for my life.  It took a few minutes of wrestling and rolling in the mud, but I did manage to work my bacon into the truck.  No Christmas ham has ever tasted so sweet.

Here’s the link:

The Vegan Dialogues

» September 8th, 2011


More comments from my article from the on the psychology of factory farming. I’ve included some representative responses from among the hundreds I received. My purpose here is to remind vegan advocates of the challeneges we face as we try to bring a genuine vegan dialogue into mainstream discussions.  The point is NOT to gang up on and mock the counterarguments presented below, but rather to use them as helpful guidelines to honing our own educational srtategies. Needless to say, the barriers we face are immense, but step one seems to be recogizing those barriers for what they are. Titles are mine.

The article: []



I can’t help but think that the author’s outlook is itself a product of the nineteenth century in which some sections of society were able to live away from animals for the first time and thus were able to romanticize and anthropmorphize them in an unprecedented was. It is absurd to talk about the “interests”of animals or a “sense of identity” when there is no real self consciousness.

The really revolutionary change in the ninetieth century was not in our orientation to other animals but in out orientation to other human beings. The extension of the concepts developed in the Enlightenment to the masses made the distinction between animals and humanity sharper than ever. This is not a bad thing. This is not to say that wanton cruelty to animals is okay but the reason it is not okay has nothing to do with the animals. It has to do with the way that sort of behavior is pointless and degrading to people.

It seems to me that the ability to feed so many people so efficiently is miraculous. If we are concerned about the moral weight of animal husbandry I suspect it comes from a disenchantment with people. We are more likely to be portrayed as destroyers of nature than the inventors of nature itself. Without humanity there is no meaning, no compassion, no self concsiousness. Our starting point should be the needs of people, the need for food and the human need to be compassionate. Animals are just incidental.


But We Give them Life!

Well, the moral weight of animal husbandry isn’t as obvious as all that, nor has it changed in any obvious way. People have always killed for meat, it’s not as if in the good old days, back when you slept with your pigs, you didn’t later eat them. The personhood, if you please, of animals has always been apparent, to some more than to others. The modern farmer would not weep and say “Oh my god, you are people too!” to a chicken as he cut off its head, if he got to know his chickens more intimately. So no, the point of factory farming isn’t to make killing bearable – that’s just some bad spinoff treatment of the holocaust. Farmers are ok with killing, whether it’s 20 hogs or 20,000, and the rest of us are fine with it too. Few of us are uncomfortable with eating meat, and it’s no secret where it comes from.

The moral quandry of the practice of meat eating lies in this: if we didn’t eat them, they wouldn’t have lives at all. “Better never to live at all, than to live a short, well-fed life in amongst a herd of your own kind” is a judgement call you need a certain amount of arrogance to make on behalf of another. 

It’s a zero-sum moral equation. In the abstract, Farmer Bill could fairly congratulate himself for having created so many lives, albeit by striking a bargain about how long those lives would last. 



I’m not aware of the unimaginable cruelty of the lives of cattle. For the most part they grow up on range, which is a pretty pleasant experience, and at the feedlot they stand around eating amidst a large herd. Then they have a grim experience, dying – less so, if  Temple Grandin designed the facilities. It’s worth focusing on the fact that dying is never a ton of fun, and certainly not as if animals in the wild retire to pleasant cottages on the lake before dying peacefully in their sleep. So I”m just not connecting to the writer’s free-associational moral theorizing  in regards to “Bill”. 


Red in Tooth and Claw

Ah – I see the vegans have invaded the discussion. Fact is, we as a species have been omniverous for a very long time. So are a bunch of other species. Some are even carnivores (gasp!!).  The vegan argument essentially turns upon fluffy bunny morality, and is entirely devoid of any merit. As I said, a lot of species are omniverous, from the pigs metioned in the article, to some of our primate cousins (baboons often frequent discarded prey from bigger predators).  No this unfortunate argument miss the central thrust of the article, which turn on the psychology of the matter, namley that the disconnect that factory farming introduces is unfortunate. I would even venture to say that it has paradoxically led, not on only to the over-indulgence in inferior-quality meat, but also in the growth of the vegan-mindset, among people who, disconnected from nature, and her death-brings life circle, fall for fluffy bunny arguments.

 [Note: please see my post on this topic:

Plants Feel Pain, Too!

I know this is probably an exercise in futility, being that I’ve posted this on this guys articles before and got less than enlightening responses, but how come with all the knowledge we have of plant physiology which shows us that plants feel pain, try to defend themselves and communicate with each other even to strategize such defenses, how come it’s not seen as some horrifying immoral thing when we farm loads of corn, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, etc? It seems much more of an aesthetic issue, in that people like this guy identify with the cute animals face and not with the faceless corn or pickle.  This would mean it’s not exactly about rights or morality, but what people can identify with and what makes them uncomfortable.  That’s my two cents anyway.

Fly in My Ointment: One that I Respect but Reject

» September 2nd, 2011

From: The York-New Times

Recently, James McWilliams penned a piece in The Atlantic about the psychology of raising animals (especially cattle) for food.

Being The Atlantic it approached the subject from the left and used the terminology of animal rights activists, though McWilliams did not give the impression he was a PETA type.

His assertion is that in modern agriculture, farmers (who he refers to as “factory farmers”) are able to remain happy after raising thousands of animals for the purpose of having them killed and eaten, because they are completely detached from the animals.

No emotional bond develops, so it’s no big deal to have the animals killed for food.

In order for McWilliams’ theory to be correct, the opposite must be true.

If someone raising thousands of cattle can only be happy because they remain emotionally detached from the animals, then someone raising just a few will be emotionally attached to their animals and therefore unable to have them harvested, or they must be unhappy.

As one of thousands of 4-H families in Nebraska and across the nation who raise just a few livestock animals each year, ours like the others, is living proof that his theory is incorrect.

I know many farmers who raise large numbers of cattle who also disprove his theory.

This year our family raised two steers, three heifers, and two lambs.

Our 4-H animals were washed and brushed, well fed, groomed for the fair, taken for walks, talked to, even read to, and had musical instruments played for them (though being exposed to the machinations of pre-teens learning the saxophone and drums might be considered animal cruelty).

Each animal had a name.  Our family worked with them every day, and an emotional attachment did develop to the animals, as it does each year, especially for the kids.

Some of the animals are continuing the cycle of life in cow or sheep herds now, and some are feeding Nebraska families, including ours.  And here’s where the fly lands in McWilliams’ ointment.

We know what our role in life is and we know what purpose the animals serve.

Our family, including my children, understands that each of the animals was put on the Earth for a purpose, and that our charge is to care for them the very best we can while or until that purpose is served.

Being emotionally and worldly aware, aware of life and death, where our food comes from, and of the charge God gave us as people, is what makes us happy.

Emotional attachment or not, whether 5 or 500, because we know our role and the role animals play, we don’t have to “deal” with the psychology of harvesting and eating what we raised.  It’s not an issue.

Our family and so many others disprove his theory.  As do all the farmers who feed all of us.

They care strongly for their animals because they understand it’s their charge to do so and it’s the right thing to do.

They have countless stories of pouring their hearts into an injured cow or sick calf beyond the point of financial loss and emotional grief.

And in the end, whether they raise 50 or 50,000, they don’t avoid dealing with the psychology of killing because they’re emotionally detached as McWilliams suggests.

They don’t have to deal with it because they too understand their role in life and the purpose of the animals they care for.  Emotional attachment or not, it’s not an issue to have to worry over or deal with.

They aren’t happy because they’re detached.  Quite the opposite is true.  They know exactly what’s going on, are quite self-aware, and grasp the concepts of life and death better than most people.

Perhaps McWilliams should have explored the possibility that they’re happy because they are so aware and because they live with the satisfaction of knowing they feed a hungry world.

The Psychology of Animal Agriculture

» August 22nd, 2011

I know a factory farmer named Bill. His Texas ranch raises upwards of 4000 head of cattle in a way that typifies industrial animal agriculture. Cows are numbered, not named. Animals don’t eat food, they convert feed. The ultimate goal couldn’t be more straightforward: raise cows as quickly, efficiently, and safely as possible; transform them into well-marbled cuts of beef; and, throughout the process, minimize inputs while maximizing outputs. 

 What does Bill think about his vocation? He absolutely loves it. Factory farming has afforded him a life in the country, an opportunity to raise his family in a rural environment, and an income healthy enough to send his kids to prestigious colleges. When I recently challenged Bill on the ethics of industrial agriculture, he smiled and shook his head, insisting that the cows he fattened and slaughtered were of no more moral worth than iron grates that enclosed them.

 Bill is an emotionally aware person who gives the impression of a quiet academic. He has a warm smile, and is as likely to be founding reading the New Yorker as Horse and Livestock. As he sees it, a factory farm simply makes good business sense, much as an assembly line does for fabricating cars. Consolidation is a basically logical response to economic incentive.

 But I think Bill misses a critical point. True, even without subsidies, there might indeed be economic advantages to raising animals under intensive conditions. But we should never fail to overlook the psychological implications of something as emotionally charged as killing animals for food. And when it comes to this endeavor, scale and density of production accomplishes something essential for all factory farming: it severs the emotional bond between farmers and animals. In the bluntest terms, it allows my friend Bill to kill thousands of animals a year and remain a happy person.

 Understanding this phenomenon requires going back to the nineteenth century. Before 1850, when most animal husbandry happened on a relatively small scale, farmers viewed their animals as animals. That is, they saw them as sentient beings with unique needs that, left unaddressed, would result in an inferior product. Agricultural manuals from the time routinely instructed farmers to speak to their animals in pleasant tones of voice, to make sure that their bedding was soft and spacious, and to shower them with affection every day.  Farmers never referred to their animals as objects. They knew better.

 The reason they knew better was because the system of mixed pastoralism they practiced was defined by close physical proximity. This intimacy ensured that farmers interacted daily with their animals, developing an emotional sense of their individual personalities and quirks. The personal scale of animal husbandry made the slaughter–which farmers also tended to do themselves–a solemn occasion at best. No normal person, even on the hardest settlement frontier, would have been indifferent about killing an animal he spent years nurturing. Nobody could have doubted that they were taking the life of a sentient being with wants and needs.

 After 1850 things changed. American agriculture fell into the grip of scientific farming. Agricultural scientists, followed by farmers, began to conceptualize farming as a strictly quantifiable venture. Beginning with plants, and then moving to animals, they became less concerned with individual idiosyncrasies and more concerned with collective evaluations of productivity. The chain of production expanded and, as it did, farmers came to speak in terms of nutrient input, breeding schedules, confinement space, and disease management. By the 1870s, farmers were regularly referring to their animals not as animals but, literally, as machines being built in factories. “The pig, explained one agricultural manual, “is one of the most valuable machines on the farm.”

 The psychological salve of this rhetoric offered relief to farmers burdened with the task of mass slaughter. As early nineteenth-century farmers intuitively understood, farm animals are sentient creatures who have interests, a sense of identity, and the capacity to anticipate and feel pain. It is in the context of these qualities–qualities that constant interaction with animals make impossible to ignore– that the psychological “benefit” of factory farming becomes clear: it’s impersonal, highly rationalized structure is designed to protect those involved from the emotional consequences of killing animals that, only a century and a half ago, would have been stroked, caressed, and cared for as an individual animal. In other words, it enables some level of necessary denial.

 Today, many critics of industrial agriculture insist that we need to return to the pre-1850 system of animal agriculture. I’m dubious of this argument not so much on economic grounds–it might very well be more profitable to raise animals on a smaller scale–but on psychological grounds. I wonder if, in a post-Darwinian age of animal ethology (the study of animal mentality) we simply know too much about animal emotions and intelligence to look millions of pigs and cows in the eye–animals raised with sincere affection and concern–and kill them for food we do not need.  I wonder, in other words, if we’re ready as a culture of meat eaters, to do what Bill’s system of industrial production absolves hum from having to do:  contemplate the moral weight of animal husbandry.