Posts Tagged ‘industrial agriculture

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.


Nature, Animals, and Holistic Farming: Some Raw Thoughts

» May 19th, 2012




I’ll start with two related thoughts, and then run with them. First, I’m thrilled by technology. It’s not I that I think technology will solve all our problems–I’m no determinist–but it’s just that I see technology as a vast arena of innovation, a place where humans can pour an abundance of natural creativity and, at times, reap substantial humanitarian and environmental rewards. In many ways, what makes life meaningful–what gives us pleasure and allows us to reach our potential as engaged human beings–is linked in one way or another to technological advancement. I’m well aware that technology is also the cause of immense suffering and ecological degradation. Nevertheless, there’s no disentangling humanity from technology. Systematically meddling with natural resources is, for better or worse, an important part of what defines us as a species.

Second, I’m impatient with the idea that technological advance is somehow a deviation from what’s “natural.” This is a common rhetorical strategy used by the spokespeople in the sustainable food movement to deride many agricultural technologies as artificial and destructive. It’s also a questionable pretext for insisting that we must grow plants and fatten animals according to more “natural” or–big buzzword here–”holistic” methods, drawing upon processes that occur in nature without human intervention. It’s also an intellectually lazy understanding of nature. In this formulation, nature becomes something not only falsely segregated from technology (and thus from humanity), but it becomes something that we’re supposed to think of as inherently superior to “artificial”–i.e., processes designed with human participation. Yes, the buffalo once fertilized the land that produced the grasses that fed buffalo when there were very few people around North America. That was natural, we’re told. But more people are now here. Billions more. And agriculture has to feed them. So it’s time for a new natural.

I’ll concede that my heart pulls toward the romanticized preference for natural methods. And the fact is this preference would be fine if there weren’t 7 billion people living on earth, with about two billion more on the way, and billions more on the verge of entering the middle class. But, as it now stands, to allow nature to be our farmer–which is what the sustainable food people say should happen–is to promote two of the more dangerous aspects of agriculture: systematic animal exploitation and gross inefficiency in plant production. Indeed, it’s a central tenet of the sustainable food movement that responsible and “natural” agricultural systems require the incorporation of domesticated (and thus genetically exploited) animals to enhance soil quality. Similarly, it’s a central tenet that plants should be grown without any synthetic fertilizer or fossil fuel. These flawed tenets are directly related to each other. In other words, reliance on exploiting animals is precisely what allows advocates of “natural” farming to justify avoiding synthetic fertilizer or the natural gas used to produce food. Take animals out of the agrarian equation and you have to acquire soil fertility in other ways. So, how does the ethical vegan respond to this quandary?

I’m becoming well aware of veganic agriculture. And I have hope for veganic agriculture. I imagine that–though technological progress–we may one day be able to create a global plant-based agricultural system using green manure and other non-synthetic enhancements. For now, though, my response cannot be so idealistic: if we want to take animals out of agriculture, we’re going to need to use fossil fuel and synthetic fertilizers–and even some level of pesticides and fungicides–to feed billions of people a plant-based diet devoid of intentional animal exploitation. I realize that this assessment might not sit well with many vegan advocates–who tend to be environmental advocates as well as animal advocates–but keep two things in mind: a) manipulating the environment to make it feed billions of people will always come at some cost (people who talk about a “free lunch” in agriculture–ahem, Pollan–are dreaming), and b) there are, with technology, remarkably encouraging ways to minimize the impact of these necessary synthetic inputs.

So here are a few reasons why I think it’s possible–and desirable–to remove animals from agriculture, produce enough food to feed 9 billion people, use fossil fuels and other synthetic inputs, and still have an environmentally responsible agricultural system.

–The overwhelming source of fossil fuel consumption in agriculture today is animal based agriculture. All that corn and soy is mainly the problem. Switching to a diverse agricultural system that produces plants for people to eat would dramatically reduce the need for fertilizer and fossil fuel, to the point that the environmental impact would be greatly minimized. Again, to think that any system of agricultural production in the modern world can break even in terms of energy costs is crazy talk. Holistic/sustainable advocates fail to calculate the energy wasted and required to remove an animal from a holistic system prematurely, not to mention killing, commodifying, and replacing her. As the World Preservation Institute reported late last year: a global vegan diet would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture by 94 percent. What more needs to be said?

–High end synthetic fertilizers can be extremely efficient when it comes to plant nutrient uptake–often more efficient than manure. In fact, customized fertilizers deliver more nutrients more efficiently than manure, which–not being in any way designed for the specific nutrient needs of the crop–has high rates of nutrient run off. Plant biologists have made great strides in matching crop nutrient needs with specific fertilizer profiles–but, they’ve only done this with corn and soy. What if we did it for 500 edible plant crops and grew them all in the United States? “That’s not natural,” the sustainable agrarians would say. To which I would respond: “Agriculture is not natural by your definition. Get over it.” Subsidizing the judicious use of these fertilizers makes more sense than subsidizing corn and soy production. The use of efficient, high grade, low run-off fertilizer could–calorie per calorie–be more environmentally sound than using loads and loads of composted manure or relying on rotational grazing.

–A plant-based system that eliminated animals would require much less agricultural space, an acute factor given the press on limited arable land globally. Rotational grazing gets people excited because it’s so “natural,” but there’s nothing terribly natural about chopping down rainforests to clear land so we can fatten animals and grow crops “holistically.” The only viable objection I ever get to this claim suggests that, under holistic systems, we would not need as much land because people would eat less meat. But this objections fails on at least two grounds. First, it’s naive to think that consumers are going to switch to more expensive animal product options so long as cheaper ones are available–and cheapness comes from industrialization. Two, and relatedly, eating limited animal products produced in holistic systems will become the domain of the elite. I see no reason to reform a food system so that wealthy people are the only ones able to eat in a way that supposedly respects the environment and the welfare of animals.

–Finally, advocates of sustainable agriculture support the holistic model because it theoretically eliminates dependence on fossil fuels. While I’ve already mentioned many problems with this goal, there is one that I haven’t mentioned that’s more important than all put together: the worth of an animal’s life should never be measured in barrels of oil.



The “Ethical Butcher”: Co-opted by the Unethical Food Industry

» February 10th, 2012


This piece ran on the Atlanic’s website two days ago. Here’s the link:


Check out the comments. Crazy.



I’ve repeatedly argued that supporting alternatives to the industrial production of animal products serves the ultimate interest of industrial producers. The decision to eat animal products sourced from small, local, and sustainable farms might seem like a fundamental rejection of big business as usual. It is, however, an implicit but powerful confirmation of the single most critical behavior necessary to the perpetuation of factory farming: eating animals. So long as consumers continue to eat meat, eggs, and dairy — even if they are sourced from small farms practicing the highest welfare and safety standards — they’re providing, however implicitly, an endorsement of the products that big agriculture will always be able to produce more efficiently and cheaply. And thus dominate.

Until the act of eating animals itself is made problematic, “voting with our forks” will be little more than a vacuous slogan. Critics claim that it’s unrealistic to expect a substantial transition to veganism, and advocate the support of small-scale animal farms as a more achievable alternative. What’s truly unrealistic, however, is the expectation that small, more eco-friendly and “humane” farms will permanently defy economic logic and convince a meaningful percentage of meat and dairy eaters to spend substantially more money to buy a nobler egg or pork chop. I’d bet on a massive transition to veganism before a massive transition to economic irrationality.

A point that’s germane to this issue, but frequently muted, is how the preexisting power and amorality of industrial animal agriculture enables it to manipulate the rhetoric of alternative animal-based systems to its profitable advantage. Agribusiness has been conspicuously nonplussed by the rise of the food movement, shrugging its shoulders as it markets itself as “sustainable,” “supporting family farms,” and steadfastly oriented toward the “welfare” of animals. Industry grasps, then thrills in manipulating, the axiom that language is both cheap and powerful. Industrial machinations are helped along by the fact that the food movement’s buzzwords are slackened catchphrases that allow the largest pig farm on the planet to advertise itself as “humane” and “sustainable.” This fungible verbal lexicon, with every well-meaning new term appropriated by the marketers at Big Ag, is the food movement’s Achilles’ heel.

A recent confirmation of this point is the emergence of an organization called Contrary to how it sounds, HumaneWatch is the self-appointed watchdog — think Cujo – of a group that actually does watch out for dogs, and many other animals, with admirable dedication: the Humane Society of the United States. Calling HSUS a “stealth animal rights organization” that’s stealing money from the public to promote secret agendas, is a propaganda tool of the Center for Consumer Freedom. According to Source Watch, CCF is “a front group for the restaurant, alcohol, tobacco, and other industries” that “run media campaigns which oppose the efforts of scientists, health advocates, doctors, animal advocates, [and] environmentalists.” Its website offers a sordid example of how the pursuit of sustainable animal agriculture, so long as the consumption of animal products is encouraged, easily plays into the hands of influential industrial interests.

CCF — through — claims as one its “allies” the “Ethical Butcher.” The Ethical Butcher (a concept I find absurd, but that’s for another post), is a blog run by a guy named Berlin Reed. Reed describes himself as “driven by personal relationships with small local farmers, a deep love of food, respect for the animals we eat, and the environment on which we depend.” He lives in Brooklyn, by way of Portland. If you called central casting to find a character to oppose the evils of industrial agriculture, all the while appealing to the gluttonous impulses of the foodie elite, Reed would be your man.

But now it’s the CCF — inspired by the ethical butcher’s staunch advocacy of meat consumption — that’s doing the calling, highlighting his website as consistent with CCF’s industrial values. Reed, who I would imagine isn’t thrilled with the CFF association, can complain all he wants that he’s been appropriated by a charade organization working to promote the idea that, in the face of the HSUS’s apparent threat to carnivorousness, it’s your God-given right to eat animals. The meat industry doesn’t care. As it sees it, any perceived threat to eating animals (HSUS) far outweighs any threat that consumers will source their animal products from the farms so close to Reed’s heart (and butcher block). Hence the co-opting of the Ethical Butcher.

I realize that this example might seem minor. Think ahead on this one, though, and you’ll see how things portend poorly for the future of alternative animal agriculture. Right now industry is merely stealing words, concepts, and websites. In the unlikely event that mass economic irrationality prevails, and there is in fact a statistically meaningful transition to supporting the non-industrial production of animal products, what’s to stop industrial agriculture from building a few token sustainable farms where the animals are pastured, pampered, and publicized? Most of the small-scale animal farmers I know are literally living hand to mouth. Tyson’s or Smithfield wouldn’t suffer such hardships.

We’ll never beat Big Ag at its own game. Those of us concerned with the myriad problems of industrial agriculture will make genuine progress toward creating agricultural systems that are ethical, ecologically sound, and supportive of human health only when we pursue alternatives that are truly alternative. The most immediate and direct way to take a step in this direction is to stop eating animals.


The Hidden Pitfalls of Small Scale Animal Agriculture: An Overview

» February 7th, 2012

What follows are extended talking points for the lecture that I will give this semester at several venues. I begin this Thursday at Wesleyan University, and will move on over the next three months to Berkeley, Southwestern University, MIT, the University of Texas, Augustana College, the Ottawa VegFest, the Madison Vegfest, and a TEDx talk in Los Angeles. I plan to blog about the responses that I get to what will prove to wide variety of audiences. -jm

(note: searching for a better title!)

Why Support for Small Scale Animal Farms Will Never Threaten Industrial Agriculture

James McWilliams

There’s a lot to celebrate when it comes to our growing awareness of factory farming.  Mainstream consumers are finally becoming cognizant of the impact industrial animal agriculture is having on the environment, human health, and animal welfare. We’re coming to realize that raising 10 billion animals a year in squalid and highly concentrated conditions has impacts that reverberate throughout society. We’re turning our outrage on corporations who profit from this exploitation, from Monsanto and Smithfield to McDonald’s and Jack in the Box, where, I just read, you can know buy drink called a bacon milk shake.

One might say that consumers are at a crossroads, a point at which, given the clear harm caused by factory farming, a critical mass of us are poised to reject the bacon milkshake and make a lifelong change regarding our relationship to the industrial food system. Thus far, most consumers who have taken a close look at industrial agriculture, and been appropriately appalled, have chosen to seek alternatives in options marketed as alternatives to industrial agriculture. Influenced by The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc, we’re opting for local, sustainable, and more humanely raised animal products–goods produced on smaller farms, often by people we know, and goods that are sold at Farmer’s markets and co-ops. In general, we’ve accepted the premise that, when it comes to animal agriculture, smaller is a kinder, more eco-friendly way to bring us our meat, eggs, and dairy.

But this response is entirely inadequate answer to the hegemony of industrial agriculture. Granted, the alternatives enjoy enormous support from the food media, environmental groups, and even advocates for animal welfare.  But this path, in the long run, will lead us right back to where we started. It will do precious little to help the fate of animals, the environment, or to improve our health. In fact, it’s a choice that may very well perpetuate the very system of factory farming right minded citizens want to abolish.

I should very clear and tell you that I have an agenda. I speak today as an activist more than a scholar, and my goal is to convince you that the only way to truly fight factory farms, the only way to viably take on the insidious evils of industrial agriculture and the current state of our food system, is convert to a plant-based diet. Until we do so, every act of resistance, every dollar spent on local meat, every condemnation of factory farming is, as one scholar has put it, rain without thunder.

I have three reasons for holding this opinion:

a) First, when we choose alternative options we’re engaging in inconsistent welfare consideration for the animals we claim to care about–some have called it moral schizophrenia. 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, confined, and covered in feces.

It’s for these very reasons–which are all based on the correct assumption that animals have intrinsic worth–that we support systems of production in which animals are treated with dignity. That’s wonderful, because it shows that we know farmed animals have feelings, emotions, and intelligence; it shows that we know that they are social; that they can suffer; that, as living and sentient beings, they are worthy of our moral consideration. This is why we think it’s horrible for them to be raised as they are in factory settings. This is precisely why so many of us are outraged to be begin with.

How, then, can we simultaneously nurture this belief in the moral worth of animals, so much so that we act on it by rejecting factory farms, and then turn around and support an alternative system that, when you break it down to its essence, does the exact same thing? Small farms might treat animals better than factory farms, but don’t be fooled: they ultimately seek the same goal as factory farms–raising animals to kill, commodify, and send to market for food we do not need. So I ask: Is it possible to genuinely care for an animal’s welfare and, at the same time, kill it for the purposes of human indulgence? This is a very difficult question to answer logically, and, unfortunately, it is one that we are never asked to consider.

I don’t care how big or small the farm is, there is one thing that they all have in common: when the market tells the farmer that the animal must die, all welfare considerations for that animal come to a violent end. No animal wants to die. A market determined death for an animal we claim to care about renders all previous acts of kindness, to put it mildly, disingenuous. Never underestimate the importance of this basic similarity between the factory and the alternative farm, nor the power of the human mind to think it away.

[recent example of X on pig’s head]

So, to conclude my first objection, I ask you to think about the following questions: Do we really want to build a new system of animal husbandry on the back of this inconsistency? Even granting that the animals in this system have a decent quality of 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, eggs, and milk? Does this essentially inhumane act confer to an animal any real sense of dignity? Who are we to say that we respect an animal and then kill it to sell at a restaurant that will charge a mint because it was humanely raised? I don’t want the future of food to be based on such a sordid paradox.

b) My second claim is that we inadvertently support factory farming when we buy alternatively sourced animal products.  Our choice to seek alternatives is often couched in activist terms: we want to oppose factory farming so we buy meat from local farms where we know the farmers and trust his methods. But I would argue that, by eating animal products from small, local alternative sources, you are not opposing factory farms at all, but indirectly supporting them.

It all comes down to who’s defining the implications of your choice. Michael Pollan and the Food Movement have argued that your decision to eat alternatively sourced animal products means you are sticking it to industrial agriculture and supporting a fundamentally new approach to food. The media reflexively promotes the idea. Industry, however, invests your act with an entirely different meaning. From industry’s perspective, your decision to continue eating animal products–even of they are from alternatively sourced farms–is great news because it directly reinforces the most fundamental prerequisite for factory farming’s existence: the belief that there’s nothing wrong with eating animals. As long as this belief remains intact, the industry–which, recall, produces 99 percent of the animal products we eat–will continue to thrive. What big agriculture fears is not alternative agriculture–they can always co-opt that if they need to–but the emergence of a plant-eating ethic. This is what would put them out of business.

[Eat More Kale t-shirt controversy]

When you support the consumption of animal products–which you do when you buy them from small or big farms–you reiterate a cultural practice that will, however ironically, keep big business in power.Unless eating animals is culturally and morally stigmatized (sort of like smoking is today), factory farms will always remain the dominant mode of production.  As long as we eat animals, there will always be factory farms.

The reason is not only cultural but economic. 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 survives and thrives. This principle leads to many wonderful improvements in modern life. When applied to animals, however, it leads to a profound moral tragedy. As long as we eat animals, the principle of efficient production will always be applied to them.

To think that small farms can escape this reality is simply naive. They might be doing it right now. But as small animal farms proliferate, as they respond to increased demand for alternatives, the result will be competition among alternative farms for a growing demand for so called humane animal products.  The outcome of this competition, according to every economic model every created (with the exception of classic communism), will be to seek improvements in efficiency to produce more product for less. The cycle of efficiency would lead to denser, more streamlined farms that, in name of efficiency, took less and less interest in animal welfare. In no time we’d be back to the large scale systems that the small farms were designed to oppose in the first place. With India and China about to bring hundreds of millions of consumers into the meat market, to think that small farms will proliferate, remain small, and not compete is a willful distortion of thought.

Two recent examples: a) the organic industry and b) Niman Ranch. Both started small and ideal, became popular, grew steadily and, many agree, lost touch with their founding values.

c) My final reason for opposing small scale animal agriculture is that eating animals is environmentally unsustainable–whether the products come from big or small animal farms. We know the ecological impacts of factory farms are horrible: livestock produces more GHG than any other sector of the global economy, including transportation; 80 percent of the antibiotics produced are given to animals; the vast majority of the world’s corn and soy are grown to feed animals; virulent influenzas breed on factory farms; manure lagoons destroy aquatic ecosystems; 70 percent of the water in the American west goes to ranching; it takes 2500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, it takes 13 to produce a pound of tomatoes. I could spend the next hour rattling off such stats. But I think you get the point: raising animals to feed 7 billion people is, by definition, an ecological tragedy.

Contrary to common assumptions, the alternatives aren’t much better when it comes to their environmental impact or safety record. With grass-fed beef, there’s a methane problem–cows that eat grass produce 3-4 times more methane than cows that eat grain. With free ranged animals, there’s a land problem–much of the Brazilian rain forest is being depleting to provide land for grazing increasingly popular grass-fed cows. Diseases prevail in free range systems as well as factory farms (recall Germans and US pork). The work of Peter Davies at Minnesota shows that, somewhat horrifyingly, confined pigs are safer to eat than free range pigs.  Then there’s deadstock: where do we take the animal carcasses without rendering plants? Right now alternatives account for about 1 percent of production; these hidden environmental and safety costs would become more evident as these operations proliferated.

Comprehensive studies support the argument that eating plants is far better for the environment than eating any sort of animal product. One recent study–by the World Preservation Institute–confirmed that a global vegan diet (of conventional crops) would reduce dietary emissions by 87 percent. This figure is compared to a token 8 percent for “sustainable meat and dairy.” If organic plants were eaten, emissions caused by food production would drop 94 percent. Another, done by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, calculated that a vegan diet was seven times more energy efficient than a diet that sourced a normal diet within 100 miles. Localism, in short, is no answer to the environmental impact of food production.

So, to summarize: the alternatives to animal agriculture are often promoted as the answer to the myriad and very serious problems of industrial agriculture. My argument is that these alternatives do very little to confront–and in some cases perpetuate–the problems of industrial agriculture. As I said at the start, though, the good news is that we’re at a crossroads. We know factory farming is not acceptable. This is a start. The next step, I would argue, is not to become compassionate carnivores and support alternative systems, but to pursue do the most effective thing a consumer can do to dismantle industrial agriculture and, in the process, improve his or her health and the health of the environment: become ethical vegans.

The health benefits of veganism are well documented, 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 lives in denial of the mass slaughter we executes 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 our hearts to help prevent animals from unnecessary slaughter we tap something deep within ourselves. We tap and nurture our innate 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 in our lives.

The final benefit I would mention about veganism is that, with respect to food, it is the absolute purest and most powerful 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? We must move beyond this 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 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 meat must be the real war.





“Ooga Booga”: I Take on a “Critic”

» October 14th, 2011

Here is a piece that recently ran in “CHOW.” It’s an article

opposing an article I wrote against backyard slaughtering. My

comments will follow. Here is my original piece:


From Chow:

The Unthinking Man’s Case Against Backyard Slaughter

 Writing for The Atlantic, James McWilliams offers a passionate argument against a new locavore rallying cry finding a voice in Oakland, California: deregulating animal slaughter so that urban farmers can kill their own chickens, rabbits, goats, and other edible creatures.

McWilliams’s essay against backyard slaughter (and, to some extent, animal husbandry in general) is cleanly written, emotive—and almost utterly nonsensical. When you boil it down, it’s like this:

Anecdotes exist of urban farmers improperly slaughtering animals, and McWilliams renders one vividly, which I’ll paraphrase: “One time a poorly informed woman smothered a chicken! It took three minutes! Ooga booga!” There are also stories of urban farmers mistreating animals even before slaughter (more shotgun anecdotes via Google). Those poor animals!

This makes sense for about 30 seconds, until you consider: While there are certainly incidents of individuals doing a cruddy job of raising and/or slaughtering their small herds or flocks of backyard animals, there are entire massive industries built around doing a cruddy job of raising and slaughtering millions upon millions of miserable crated animals.

One of the many important differences here is that urban farmers have a presumed interest in getting better at humanely raising and slaughtering their charges, since many (perhaps most) are driven by principles of animal welfare. The industrial concerns, by contrast, have only one interest: shareholders’ value. Besides, are a few backyard farmers in Oakland really the issue for those who care about animal welfare?

Finally, I’ll let McWilliams’s closing “argument” stand on its own merits: “A final reason locavores should dismiss the Oakland initiative has to do with the psychological impact of killing animals that are kept as part of an urban household. How can we comfortably support a movement toward the local slaughter of sentient animals when we nurture and love 78 million dogs, 86 million cats, four million birds, one million rabbits, and one million lizards as companion animals?”

So, uh … what? We’d be bummed if we killed a creature that’s vaguely like another creature we like? And does McWilliams somehow think that by citing numbers of pets he’s making a logical case? This guy is an associate professor writing under the banner of The Atlantic, and yet this level of logic and research wouldn’t fly in an undergrad’s term paper. At least I hope it wouldn’t.

The widely ranging, incoherent nature of the piece raises a broad question: Is McWilliams’s essay merely an argument for large-scale vegetarianism on ethical grounds? That’s a radically different proposition than the supposed topic of his essay, Why We Must Not Let Our Neighbors Kill and Eat Their Ducks, and one not lightly undertaken.

Or is he shilling for agribusiness? In defense of McWilliams: probably not, since Big Ag’s think tanks would probably have equipped him with better ammunition than this shoddy stuff.

Personally, I have no duck in this fight, and I’m ambivalent about the issue. That said, if the best McWilliams can do to oppose Oakland’s backyard slaughter initiative is to cite a few disturbing anecdotes and a small, pseudo-statistical pile of psychobabble about Fido and Mr. Whiskers, it might just lead a thoughtful reader to conclude: “Hey, how bad can this idea actually be?”


My Response:

1) The author dismisses my argument in part because my evidence is “anecdotal.” Well, of course it’s anecdotal. I’m writing about a quasi-legal trend that’s largely off the radar screen. The key for anyone trying to debunk my line of attack–using evidence of botched slaughters from published blogs to highlight the welfare problems of backyard slaughtering–is to somehow show that my anecdotes are misrepresentative of the movement as a whole. In essence, that they are exceptions to the rule of “humane” slaughtering. Given the many examples I have amassed of similarly “anecdotal” botched slaughters, this will be a very hard thing to do. I welcome the challenge. The other problem with attacking the use of anecdotes is that it prevents one from, well, using counter anecdotes. Recently, for example, a woman chastised me for using anecdotes and then sent me a video of her expertly slaughtering a chicken. In other words, an anecdote.

2) The author delivers highly-charged dismissals of my logic(“almost utterly nonsensical”), and then offers ideas that actually are utterly nonsensical. Take this quote: While there are certainly incidents of individuals doing a cruddy job of raising and/or slaughtering their small herds or flocks of backyard animals, there are entire massive industries built around doing a cruddy job of raising and slaughtering millions upon millions of miserable crated animals. This is a common response to my criticisms of small-scale slaughter, and locavores in general. The logic goes like this: yes, backyard slaughter can be bad, but industrial scale slaughter is worse;  therefore, we should support small scale slaughter. Naturally, this logic–the lesser of two evils–only works if the two evils are in fact the only choices. And of course, as the title of my blog reminds us, it is not.  [In a less potent example of the author's own inconsistency, he writes that my article is "cleanly written" and then dismisses its "widely ranging, incoherent nature" while mocking it as a "small, pseudo-statistical pile of psychobabble."]

3) The article is a baseless screed against my own piece that ends, somewhat astonishingly, with the author declaring that he’s “ambivalent about the issue.” Whaaaa? Actually, the admission is telling. If he really is ambivalent about the issue, then he’s most certainly not ambivalent about ME. Which leads me to my last point. This article is a classic example of resorting to ad hominem rhetoric because the problem being posed is simply too difficult to resolve. I am ultimately asking backyard slaughter enthusiasts to justify the logic of loving animals, raising them well, and then killing them for food that we do not need. Start seriously thinking about that one. Or, like the author, you could simply toss off some quotable insults and declare: ooga booga!!