Before the recent damning investigative report on the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in the New York Times, few outside the beef, pork, and lamb industries had heard of the organization. Thanks to the front page exposé by Michael Moss, however, that’s no longer the case.
MARC’s mission is to help beef, pork, and lamb producers make more money “as diets shift toward poultry, fish, and produce.” To that end, MARC has sought to create cows capable of producing two or three calves, rather than one, and pigs capable of birthing fourteen piglets, rather than the average of eight. With sheep, their goal is to engineer an animal who can survive without costly human assistance.
Toward that end, ghoulish experiments have occurred for decades, funded by our tax dollars and exempt from the Animal Welfare Act. The law exempts farmed animals used in research designed to benefit agriculture.
Moss reports that “untrained, unskilled, and unsupervised staff” sometimes conducts experimental surgeries. Animals were born with deformed genitals, making urination difficult or impossible. Defenseless lambs were abandoned by their mothers and died of exposure, starvation, or predation by coyotes. Their tiny bodies were dumped into “vast excavation pits.”
One particularly disturbing passage describes a study of bull libido in which a young cow was put into a metal headlock and raped by six bulls for hours. Her back legs were broken; her body ripped up. An attending vet was not allowed to euthanize her; she died.
As heinous as these and other MARC practices are, we miss the point entirely if we focus on rogue scientists and practices at a formerly cloistered USDA program. Similarly, we miss the point entirely if we only demand that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stop all research at MARC, an idea forwarded in action alerts by the Humane Society and the ASPCA.
The article and most reader responses make it clear that the vast majority of Americans still don’t understand the suffering inherent in the production of their food. Here’s the stark truth, friends: the Meat Animal Research Center’s practices are no worse than what all animals grown to feed us endure. Our anger is justifiable, but misplaced. MARC is not the problem. MARC is a mere symptom of agribusiness gone unchecked, driven by ravenous greed, and broken beyond fixing.
- Every year in America, over eight billion chickens are grown inside fetid warehouses and fed antibiotics to fight off infection and to promote growth. Consequently, they reach slaughter weight at just six weeks old — so young that they still have the sweet, high-pitched “peep” of newborn chicks. Along the way, they’ve suffered burning eyes and throats, broken legs and wings. Indeed, their rapid weight gain causes many to die violently from “flip-over syndrome” long before they’re gathered — grabbed by the wings, legs, or throats by “catchers” who are paid by the number of birds they catch per hour — to be thrown into packed transport trucks.
- Every year in America, hundreds of thousands of calves are stolen right after birth from their mothers who cry in protest, often for days. At the end of a few months of deprivation, confinement, and an unnatural diet that gives them diarrhea, the babies are processed into veal. Meanwhile, their mothers are indentured servants, placed in headlocks for “artificial insemination” and given bovine growth hormone (illegal in the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Israel), which forces them to produce far more milk than their bodies would normally produce to feed their offspring.
- Every year in America, billions of animals endure the removal of testicles, horns, and beaks without anesthesia.
- Every year in America, thousands of piglets deemed too small to be profitable are killed using a practice called “thumping” — workers grab them by the legs and swing their skulls against the wall until they break.
- Every year in America, untold animals die during harrowing journeys to slaughter due to exposure to extreme weather. Workers have described slicing frozen animals off the sides of trucks.
- Every moment in America, slaughterhouse killing lines move so quickly that many animals are “accidentally” boiled alive, or fully conscious as their throats are slashed.
I haven’t even scratched the surface.
“Standard agricultural practices,” you see, are exempt from cruelty statutes. Times food writer Mark Bittman hit the nail on the head recently, describing “an industry that produces cruelty on a scale that’s so big and overwhelming few of us can consider it rationally or regularly.”
And there’s more, much more. As another recent Times piece points out, man is no longer just “a terrestrial predator.” In fact, science has predicted the collapse of our oceans by mid-century for several years now, and what’s already happening is shattering: albatrosses, sea turtles, dolphins, small whales, and others are killed by the hundreds of thousands each year in fishing nets the size of small villages; many are now considered endangered. Ecologically vital coral reefs have declined by 40%. Many animal species are being forced to relocate — or are being wiped out altogether — due to ocean acidification. Bottom trawlers drag miles-long nets across the ocean floor, “turning parts of the continental shelf to rubble.”
Who would have guessed that a single species had the power to kill our mighty oceans, or to bring our planet to its knees? Through the simple act of eating, we humans allow suffering so horrific to occur every moment of every day that “unthinkable atrocities” — language generally reserved for war — is the only language adequate to describe it. We don’t intend to harm, of course. But look at the consequences of our meat and dairy-centric diet:
- a level of torture and suffering inflicted upon innocent beings most of us would have a hard time wishing upon depraved and violent criminals;
- a nation of people so sick that the obesity rate reached a new peak in 2014;
- a planet that is dying around us as climate change wreaks havoc on the environment.
Does taste trump everything, America? If I’m making you feel uncomfortable … good. We need to be uncomfortable.
Scientists at the Meat Animal Research Center argue that there must be “tradeoffs” in the effort to meet the food demands of a growing population. Don’t believe them. They know the truth as well as lots of folks do: raising animals to feed humans is breathtakingly inefficient, using over 15 times the natural resources (water, land, energy) to feed one meat eater as it takes to feed one vegan. (Go here or here to learn more.)
Nor are the increasingly popular “cage-free,” “humanely-raised,” or “grass-fed” products the solution. The terms are woefully loosely defined and the industries police themselves. Here’s the truth: they are largely marketing gimmicks designed to make sure that even as we suffer a crisis of conscience about our food-production system, we keep buying its products.
What would happen today if humans stopped acting as if we are the only species that matters?
A look at the history of social change suggests that seismic cultural shifts always happen incrementally; reflecting on the movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and marriage equality certainly bear out this truth. But in my book, we don’t have time for a decades-long shift to plant-based eating. Meatless Mondays, the one-state-at-a-time effort to ban the most barbaric symbols of industrial farming, the proposal to leave meat off of the USDA food plate … efforts like these are incremental victories, for sure.
But we must do better. For the love of God, we must do better.
As our friends well know, Catskill Animal Sanctuary believes in “leading with love.” But I have to admit that today, I feel like throwing love right out the window. Tomorrow, I will gather myself, walk out the door with a smile on my face and love in my heart. Today, however, I feel like saying, “Put down your friggin’ fork, America. Go vegan.”