If we use factory farming as a barometer for ethics, any alternative animal husbandry practice will of course appear more humane. Indeed factory farming is a horrible yardstick to measure the ethical treatment of animals, and treatment has become a block for those otherwise well-intentioned conscious eaters to fully understand the broader experience behind the animals that become food, a truth that extends well beyond treatment. That must change if we are going to see a truly sustainable or humane way of eating.
The online jungle
One of the most disheartening and disturbing phenomena I have found today in the online world of commentators and talking heads is the below-the-belt joking about animal suffering. Farmers, small and large, ridicule urbanites about how naive they are to care about animals. They are often referred to as the “First Worlders,” people completely disconnected from the source of their food and ignorant about the realities of farming. Farmers claim that through experience we get real about animals and, out of economic necessity, quickly adopt the belief that animals must be treated as property, a commodity. It is no surprise then why these same farmers are so baffled and frustrated over all the fuss about animal cruelty these days. Why do consumers care about animals? They are just property? These farmers have long since shed their empathy, so they are understandably baffled by those who still empathize.
The focus of attention on animal cruelty is often shifted to large corporate food interests. Smithfield, the largest pork producer, has taken a defiant stance against the call to phase out gestation crates. Even when faced with many of their own competitors’ pledge to phase out gestation crates for sows, Smithfield makes public statements saying that they see no ethical issues with the use of these crates. Since a handful of corporate interests determine the animal husbandry practices for the industry at large, it is wise for us to focus our concerns here. Finding this level of desensitization to animals on an institutional level is not surprising. But does this mindset penetrate even deeper than we think, into the sustainable food movement as well?
Does sustainable farming have a conscience?
Almost every day I come across a story about a humane attempt to farm that went terribly wrong. Last week on the huffpost.com site a young urban farmer named Megan Paska of Brooklyn describes her story of how she rescued an abandoned and ailing hen from a slaughterhouse, nursed it back to health and then decided to slit its throat and eat it for dinner. Many commentators praised her for her bravery and courage while others sympathized with her hard decision. Today I read a story on The Australian Telegraph site about a medium-sized rancher, Nico Botha, who threatened to shoot (not euthanize) all of his 3000 heifers in response to a government ban on live animal exports to Indonesia. If these are the humane stories about ethical, well-intentioned farmers, what does humane really mean in the context of farming animals today?
When we find such apathy in the everyday, hard-working independent farmer types that have become the underdogs of the sustainable farming movement, it becomes a deeply troubling moral quagmire for many trusting souls. The comments I hear in online forums are a good barometer of what people think today, and what disturbs me is how frequent and disparaging are their comments about animals, consumers and their concerns for animal cruelty. Instead of trying to understand these concerns, they generally ridicule them. So then how humane is the sustainable farming movement? Author Vasile Stănescu takes a provocative and thought-provoking look at this question in his paper “‘Green’ Eggs and Ham? The Myth of Sustainable Meat and the Danger of the Local.” In the opening of this paper he states: “I hope to subject the locavore movement to the same critical scrutiny they have subjected to industrialized agriculture, in order to show how they themselves create an idealized, unrealistic, and, at times, distressingly sexist and xenophobic literary pastoral that carefully elides the violence being enacted against the animals themselves.”
It certainly is not to say that all animal farmers are bad, right? Some say they love their animals more than anything else. In fact that’s the big reason why they do what they do. But let’s ask ourselves the painfully honest question: If animals are their first love, why have they not become animal protection advocates? Lord knows the 10 billion farm animals killed every year in the US need as much protection as they can get. If they really care about animals so much, why focus on a “humane” food market that impacts a mere 1 to 2% of all farm animals in this country? Why not instead join the animal protection movement to combat the largest and most egregious injustices to the largest number of animals? Why instead attack these groups for exposing animal abuse cases and advocating tougher regulation for the industry? These are just some of the questions I ask myself about the sustainable farmer’s true intentions.
Farming on the defensive
Ask this kind of question in the commenting circles on www.huffpost.com or other such news sites and you will be predictably attacked by those righteous farmer types who are presumptuous enough to assume that you are an ignorant urbanite or suburbanite. They will attempt to discredit and dismiss your ideas as ridiculous, emotional and extreme. Their cynicism over animal empathy has reached an all-time high, perhaps a frustrated reaction to the growing number of commentators questioning how they view and treat animals. But should we not question a contradictory logic that professes its love for animals and precisely out of such love, they must raise them for the purpose of slaughter? People often resort to mythology and history to justify this contradiction. It is part of the circle of life, a tradition that goes back thousands of years, a necessity borne out of human survival, the natural order of prey and predators, etc. The virtue of animal farming is so sacred to us, we dare not question these fundamental beliefs. Michael Pollan reinforces this sacred rite of traditional animal farming in An Omnivore’s Dilemma, arming the sustainable food movement with its manifesto.
Some will make the case that farmers must treat their animals well and keep them in good health if they are to produce for them. But even in the best case scenario for egg-laying hens grazing on a beautiful pasture, the fact remains that a hen that lays an egg or more every day is not natural in the least. In nature, before man’s intervention, hens laid eggs like many wild birds do, once or twice a year, and they also raised their young. The modern hen is a product of man’s biological manipulation of the hen’s reproductive system. And the health conditions that hens suffer from as a result of this are widespread and a source of great suffering. But hens are known to hide from us when they are suffering or ready to die. Farmers don’t generally acknowledge this fact about hens and instead boast about what productive egg layers they are.
From animal lover to property owner
Any number of highly-imaginative justifications make the practice of using farmed animals for food and clothing either a necessity or a duty. How would farmers make a living if they could not use animals as commodities, particularly in the fiercely competitive age of factory farming that we live in? Economics dictate the shift from animal lover to property owner. On farms, animals are property, valuable property that supports the farmer’s livelihood. In the context of evaluating the welfare of animals on farms, this fact must be crystal clear. We must not be distracted by claims that provide false comfort and nostalgic visions of ethical farming, including “local,” “organic,” and “free range” to name just a few of the many claims the food industry makes to entice and comfort us. When a farmer tells you his goats live better lives than some people he knows, you should know that he will have them slaughtered for food in the end. Most people you know have a much more dignified end.
Finding the truth
If you are a conscious eater who cares about the impact of what you eat, no doubt you have been struggling with how to eat humane meat and dairy products. And I would bet you found how difficult and expensive it can be. But what if all this effort wasn’t at all necessary? Maybe the question you should be asking yourself is not whether the meat, eggs or milk you are considering in the store was raised humanely or not. Instead, ask yourself an even more fundamental question: Is it really humane, in the true definition of the word, to employ domesticated animals as indentured servants or slaves whose lives will be defined by a violent end (death by slaughter), sometimes carried out by the very farmers who raised them? The fact is it’s easier than ever to avoid this moral dilemma all together and make compassionate and healthy food choices that don’t involve the taking of a life. When we begin to explore these questions, we begin to awaken what some call the sixth sense.
Awakening the sixth sense
The sixth sense is a fairly new idea in man’s evolution as a species. It begins by questioning assumptions about what has been and instead looking forward at what is and what could be. It involves a willingness to reject outdated “baggage” that we honor as “traditions” like bull fighting, and acknowledges that the age we live in demands an updated set of values. Spain recently took a brave step in this direction, using its collective sixth sense, to ban bull fighting in certain provinces. The sixth sense is essentially a way of looking at the world as a whole in which choices we make to benefit ourselves have a complimentary benefit on others, on animals and on our environment. It’s a win-win-win for life and a rejection of the old idea that some prosper in life at the expense of suffering and death of others.
The sixth sense is quickly permeating pop culture, showing up in such things like the brand message of a new fast food restaurant called Lyfe Kitchen, founded by former COO of McDonald’s, Mike Roberts, and Oprah’s executive chef, Art Smith. For Lyfe Kitchen the sixth sense “is the intrinsic desire to do right and make powerful purchasing decisions that inspire good in the world.” For Gary Yourofsky, we were all born with what I am calling the sixth sense and we possessed it as children. But then we were taught to repress it as a rite of passage to adulthood.
By re-awakening the sixth sense, we begin a new life and a new era, fostering a sense of mutual respect and coexistence upon which our own habitat and survival depends.