The new site is up and working! IF YOU SUBSCRIBE to you will have to RE-SUBSCRIBE at I apologize for this inconvenience. In any case, check in now, subscribe (and invite a friend to subscribe!), and look for a post later today.

On another note, I just want to thank all readers and subscribers. When I started this blog less than a year ago I never could have imagined that it would grow the way it has. Close to 60,000 hits, hundreds of subscribers, and counting. I’m humbled.

Peace and Courage,

James McWilliams

ANNOUNCEMENT: Eating Plants is Moving . . .

I will be moving this blog to a new location–the addrress of which will be posted here on Monday. In order to prevent the loss of content during the transfer period, I’m “shutting down” operations this weekend.  So, no new content this weekend, and if you post a comment during this period it will likely not make the transfer.  That said, I appreciate very much the active and engaged and intelligent participation of those who follow my blog. In fact, I’m honored. So, check in on Monday and plan to experience a larger, more involved website. Thanks!

James McWilliams

HSUS: Hero or Villian?

Nothing divides animal advocates more than the gradualist/abolitionist debate. My report on HSUS’s investigation into a Wyoming pig farm sparked a fierce but mostly civil deabte here at What follows are a few of the highlights (with light editing). Personally speaking, this HSUS story did not raise for me the perrennially explosive question about welfare strategies. I think I was too much overcome by the video, which, I think all would agree, could easily drive a behavioral omnivore (note the wording change!) to become a vegan on ethical grounds. In any case, the issue, as you will see below, isn’t easily resolved and, as with every genuine debate, there are serious points to consider on both sides of the divide.


-As despicable as this cruelty is, I don’t think these videos [of abused animals on factory farms] are the answer. HSUS knows full well that no matter what cruelty is exposed, no matter what reforms are in place — even if industrial farming is ended — it is impossible to monitor the breeding, raising, and killing of billions of farm animals. Still, it continues to promote reforms and so-called “humane farms” because truth be told, HSUS would collapse without animal exploitation. These videos embarrass specific farming operations that will probably wind up with no more than a fine, but by singling out one farm, it allows consumers to think other farms are ok, especially if they’re labeled “free-range” or “humane.” That’s good for HSUS since it benefits from animal use.

 -It is seriously misguided to shoot HSUS down, even weakly, for their strategy to effect animal welfare reforms rather than taking a stance to eradicate cages immediately and demand everyone go vegan today. I mean, how well are Francione’s dictates working? What measurable results has he or his followers gotten? Excuse me if my impatience with [abolitionsist Gary] Francione shows. In my opinion, he has done more harm to animals than good by leading well-intentioned animal activists astray . . . Despite the criticisms from a splintered little group of animal activists (abolitionists), HSUS battles on against big, mean, powerful, and moneyed opponents (factory farmers, puppy millers, canned hunters, seal clubbers, would-be horse slaughterers, dog fighters, cock fighters, CCF goons, and others) who hate them BECAUSE they are getting results.

-I think there’s a larger convo here– I don’t follow Francione (I like his ideas and have read his books but frankly I think he presents them in public as a total wing nut and I think his following, at least the hard-core part of it, borders on cultish…) and it’s a shame that he has co-opted and in effect put his peronal Brand on the word “abolition”, which really just means liberation. This is partly why I use the word liberation instead of abolition. I am frustrated about all that too, but just as much as I am frustrated about those who unblinkingly make apologies for reform  . . . Because I think there need to be reasonable discussions about strategy and what works and what doesn’t, I don’t think most AR activists (including Francionites) are well-versed in that, and I think there are good reasons to believe that we need to talk about liberation not reform, and fight for it. I wish there were a better way to talk about this, because I think we all want liberation, and I think there *are* reasonable ways to act on that.

 -It is HSUS, not Francione, who leads activists astray, including myself, until I woke up to the reality that when no one is standing over the animal producer’s shoulder, laws are meaningless! For just one example, some years ago they were amending the Humane Slaughter Act, and I worked with other activists to get this legislation passed. Victory, I thought …. until I learned that many farm animals are being dismembered while they’re still conscious.  . . I support honest advocacy that doesn’t feign victories for animals, that admits we are doing far more harm than good by promoting so-called compassionate farming, as HSUS, Mercy for Animals, Animal Legal Defense and other groups are doing.

-I’m a vegan and I understand [the] dismissal of “humane farming”. . .  I cannot wave my magic wand and make the whole world over into my image of an ideal world. I can’t make the world vegan, today. I must live in the real world. That means that I will work with the HSUS, PETA and humane farmers to alleviate suffering wherever and whenever I can. I believe that I am morally obligated to do so. If I can get a hen out of a battery cage, I will do so. It has been accomplished. If I can get pigs out of gestation crates, I will do so. It has been done. Thanks to groups like the HSUS, PETA, MFA and COK, their advocacy and their undercover videos.

I don’t give a damn about priniciples. My concern is what works for animals, not activists!  Pigs on “free-range” farms may not be housed in gestation crates, but do you really believe they don’t cry when their babies are taken, that “ceritified humane” producers are always nice to farm animals, or that male chicks will be spared on “cage-free” egg farms? While you gloat in your victories, I’ve talked with numerous consumers who are actually proud of eating “humane food.” Congratulations to HSUS and similar organizations for collaborating with animal producers to invent guilt-free animal products!  Further, there are other animals to consider, as well. The farms HSUS and other groups promote inevitably require more land that will rob the habitats of free-living animals who depend these areas for their own survival. For them, such farms are a death sentence. In good conscience, I am obliged do everything I can to work against HSUS and other groups that ultimately promote animal farming.

The HSUS Undercover Investigation: Wyoming Premium Farms Exposed

HSUS has been on a roll lately. Yesterday it busted Wyoming Premium Farms for animal abuse, leading Tyson’s to suspend pork purchases from this loathsome conglomerate.

As always when it comes to undercover exposes and subsequent welfare “victories,” my feelings are mixed. It goes without saying that I’m perfectly thrilled that industry will now be under even more pressure to address welfare concerns.  Considerable evidence is already showing this to be the case. (Thanks to Jim Ferguson for this tip). I’m also thrilled that, to whatever extent, some pigs will have more room to move around on some industrial farms–however nominal the added space. Paul Shapiro, at HSUS, told me that in just two days the terrifying clip above has received over 160,000 views. That’s good news, as I’ve no idea how anybody could watch it and continue to eat pork.

Thinking about matters from the consumers’ perspective, though, I just don’t know what kind of impact these investigations will have in the long run. Inevitably, many consumers of animal products will watch this video, become disgusted, and vow to purchase their animal products from more humane sources. But this will accomplish very little–if anything– in terms of reducing the horrors of factory farming. As I’ve argued before, as long as eating animals is considered culturally and morally acceptable, basic economics dictates that factory farms will dominate the production of meat, eggs, and cheese. There is simply no possible way, at least as long as we have a capitalistic economy, that a substantial portion of consumers will choose welfare over cost. And as sure as gravity, factory farms–due to economies of scale–effectively reduce costs.  Eating animals itself must be deemed–and culturally understood–as wrong.  To eat animals is, ipso facto, to support industrial agriculture.

In all fairness to HSUS, to my knowledge it has never claimed to be in the business of eliminating animal agriculture. They just want to improve it. Abolitionists dismiss this goal as accommodating the enemy–and I can see their point. At the same time, though, I’m well aware that–if HSUS would only do more to promote veganism as a response to the horrors it so bravely exposes–the kind of video shown above could have an entirely different impact. Namely, it would move consumers in the direction of eating plants rather than trying to salve their conscience by paying more to eat animals who, while given more freedoms when alive, were still killed in the prime of their lives (or even before) in order to become an entree on a menu at some impossibly virtuous restaurant filled with people who somehow think it’s humane to kill an animal for food we don’t need.

Am I hoping for too much from HSUS? And I hoping too much from omnivores? Am I hoping too much?

The Food Revolution: Vegans v. Locavores

I’m not much impressed with the local, sustainable food movement. When I’m cranky, it strikes me as insular, retrograde, solipsistic, libertarian, conspiracy-minded, and self-indulgent. When pressed, I’ll admit that the movement has a place in the overall effort to reform the food system, but it’s a small nook. Decentralizing the food system, fragmenting it into a billion little pieces, makes little sense to me with meat consumption skyrocketing and the world population about to hit 9 billion. Why not change the way we eat rather than fetishize where food comes from?

I’m perfectly fine with having my food produced for me. Fact is, I don’t want to grow my own food–there’s a million things I rather do besides farm. Moreover, I feel no need to have it grown near me. As I see it, an apple is an apple, whether it came from Washington State or my backyard.  And in this sentiment–one consistent with the historical continuum of change–I know I’m not alone. Plus, one thing I’m always noticing is that vocal locavores are always buying stuff that’s globally sourced–coffee, wine, bananas, mangoes, and such. So, in a sense, they would have to agree as well.

It’s not that I get excited about impersonal agricultural entities sending me food from all over the world. I’m aware as anyone about the dangers inherent in such dependency. It’s just that I think density of production and global transportation have to be critical factors in a future plant-based food system that’s diverse, accessible, responsible, and–here’s a key point–nutrient dense. It is on this last point where I think the sustainable food movement especially fails. For them it matters none whether you are producing goats or groats. As long as it was produced nearby and with a veneer of eco-correctness, then all is well. Call it the tyranny of greenwashed localism.

What I envision is far more radical than anything the food movement advocates. Forget animal products–because when it comes to nutrient density, they fail. And forget corn and soy for the same reasons. Processed foods–nope. Instead, envision a food system based totally on plant-based superfoods–whole foods such as avocados, gobi berries, anasazi beans, teff, amaranth, blueberries, sprouts sunflower seeds, barley, root vegetables, lentils, nuts, kale, squash, and sprouts. Eating these kinds of foods is the healthiest and most environmentally sustainable way to produce and consume food. However, there’s simply no way we can expand the range of available superfoods without some level of industrialization and large-scale distribution.

Locavores, who cringe at the mere mention of “industrial”– have a problem with this. They see revolution in downsizing. But perpetuating an animal-based diet on the local level is not revolutionary. It’s just scaling down the status quo. Real food revolutionaries–superfood eating vegans–are the ones who work to fundamentally alter the status quo. They seek a way of eating that’s unprecedented, disruptive, compassionate, and sustainable.  I’ve said it a hundred times, but here it is again: to eat animals is to implicitly endorse the heart of the food system as it now exists. Vegans get this. They are the ones who seek fundamental, rather than merely locational, change.

Temple Grandin’s Reason for Eating Animals?: “I get lightheaded . . . if I go on a vegan diet.”

Temple Grandin is widely considered to be a leading authority on animal welfare. She’s routinely cited by organizations such as The Humane Society of the United States and Whole Foods as an expert on the humane treatment of animals. Grandin, of course, designs slaughterhouses, but I guess the term “welfare” is pretty plastic. Not unlike “humane.”

I’ve read Grandin’s books. While I find her affection for animals to be genuine, and her insight into their perspectives nuanced, her work strikes me as remarkably unthoughtful about the human-animal relationship. Her books plod, important contexts dissolve, her thinking feels mechanistic. I’m well aware that Grandin is autistic, and I admire her accomplishments in light of such adversity. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that her analysis of animal welfare can be cold, shallow, and unpleasant. Kind of like an ice bath.

Grandin wrote an essay for the Times now famous/infamous/notorious “Justify Eating Meat” contest. It wasn’t chosen as a finalist–and I think you’ll see why. Her essay is worth reading, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves how troublesome the idea of “welfare” can be. Interestingly, when Grandin found out her essay was not chosen, she published it in a beef industry trade magazine. She obviously knows who her friends are.

Temple Grandin’s essay:

Eating Meat is Ethical

Humans and animals evolved together. Our brains are tuned into animals. Research with epilepsy patients who had monitors implanted in their brains, showed that the amygdala responds more to animal pictures, compared to pictures of landmarks or people. The amygdala is an important emotion center in the brain. Pictures of both cute and aversive animals got a big response. Recordings from the hippocampus, which is involved with memory, had no differences.

Human beings have an intrinsic bond with animals, but our treatment of animals has ranged from respectful to horrendous. Scientific research indicates that animals have emotions and they feel pain and fear. It is our duty to provide the animals that we raise for food with a decent life. I often get asked, “How can you care about animals and be involved in designing systems in slaughter houses that are used to kill them?” I answered this question in 1990, after I had just completed installation of a new piece of equipment I had designed for handling cattle at slaughter plants. I was standing on a catwalk, as hundreds of cattle passed below to enter my system. In a moment of insight, I thought, none of the cattle going into my system would have existed unless people had bred and raised them.

Our relationship with the cattle should be symbiotic. Symbiosis is a biological concept of a mutually beneficial relationship between two different species. There are many examples of symbiosis or mutualism in nature. One example is ants tending aphids to obtain their sugary secretion and in return, they are protected from predators. Unfortunately the relationship is not always symbiotic and in some cases, the ants exploit the aphids. There are similar problems in poorly managed, large intensive agriculture systems. There are some production practices that must be changed. In the cattle industry, I know many people who are true stewards of both their animals and their land. Their relationship with both the animals and the land is truly symbiotic. It is mutually beneficial to both the animals and the environment. Killing animals for food is ethnical if the animals have what the Farm Animal Welfare Council in England calls a life worth living.

I have been attended grazing conferences and I have learned that when grazing is done right it can improve the rangeland and sequester carbon. Ruminant animals that eat grass are not the environmental wreckers that some people say they are. Rotational grazing can stimulate more plant growth and growing plants help remove carbon from the atmosphere.  Ruminant animals, such as cattle, bison, goats, and sheep, are the only way to grow food on rangelands that are not suitable for crops.  Ronald C. Follett with the USDA-ARS-NPA in Fort Collins, Colorado, states that grazing lands have the potential to sequester carbon.  According to researchers at National University in Panama, converting South American pastureland to soybean production will reduce carbon storage. Organic agriculture would be impossible and extremely difficult without animal manure for fertilizer.  Another issue that must be looked at in perspective is methane emissions.  It is likely that 80% of all total methane emissions come from coal burning power plants, rice paddies, and landfills.

I have a final reason why I think eating meat is ethnical.  My metabolism requires animal protein, and I get lightheaded and unable to concentrate if I go on a vegan diet.  There may be metabolic differences in the need for animal protein.  There are practices that must be changed to be true stewards of both the animals and the environment.

The Orwellian Distortion of “Humane”

I think one of the most horrific things about industrial animal agriculture is that, by any measure of decency, it’s so horrific. What I mean here is that it exists on such a deep level of hell that virtually any other approach to raising animals for food–such as so-called sustainable animal agriculture–looks comparatively angelic. Making matters even more troublesome is that industrial animal agriculture is so firmly entrenched as the dominant mode of production that any alternative–again, so called sustainable animal agriculture–comes off looking like a savior, a knight in shining armor, or at least a prodigal son. In reality, though, it’s more like a Trojan Horse.

The human mind responds well to dichotomies. Industrial agriculture is super bad. Non-industrial agriculture is thus super good. This is an easy distinction that, for most critics of agriculture, is beyond dispute. The problem, though, is that the dichotomy is false. Terribly false. It exists not because of an objective difference between industrial and “sustainable” agriculture. Instead it thrives because of what consumers choose to see. And what consumers choose to see depends deeply on a question people in the sustainable food movement simply won’t talk about: what rights do farm animals have?

Ethical vegans build their worldview on the back of this question. We believe animals deserve some level of moral consideration. The extent of that moral consideration will always be an open question, but at the least ethical vegans believe that animals are worthy enough not to be intentionally killed so we can eat their bodies. Omnivores routinely call this idea radical. I call it common decency. I call it humane. It is through this humane lens, moreover, that I view the non-industrial farm raising animal products.  And what that lens invariably highlights is how similar that good farm is to the bad farm. “Humane” and “arbitrary death” don’t go so well together.

Take another look at the short film “Free Range” (above) and you’ll get the point. The film’s perspective is tilted in such a way that the small farm looks eerily like an industrial one: on this bucolic farm chickens are still grabbed by the legs, jammed into stacked crates, stuffed into a neat row of cones, and, as if on an assembly line, summarily killed. They’re tossed in scalding water, thrown into a centrifuge to be plucked, and hung up like articles of clothing. They’re cleaned and sold. It all happens on a smaller scale, but the ultimate goal is exactly the same.  This is what the humane perspective reveals. This is what you see when you think animals matter.

 Advocates of small-scale sustainable animal agriculture do not believe that animals have a right to their own lives. They believe animals are here for our use and exploitation. They thus see something altogether different.  When they look at a small animal farm, they see happiness. They avert their gaze from the murderous similarities and, instead, relish sunny skies and happy animals frolicking in green pastures. They support these farms because “the animals are treated with dignity.” Sure. Because when you believe animals can justifiably be killed whenever a human craves their flesh you don’t stop to ask: can arbitrary death ever be dignified?

Interestingly, these people also call their perspective humane. When I hear this term used for small scale animal agriculture I’m reminded of the comedian Louis CK, who likes to joke that he often imagines himself doing something virtuous and, even though he never actually does the virtuous act, feels smug satisfaction for even having the thought.  This is what supporters of small scale animal agriculture do. They see what they want to see, ignore the underlying and ultimate reality of what they witness, and feel good about themselves for even caring about animals at all. They do this as they “give thanks” over their happy meat.

The paradox here is almost worth smiling over. Small scale animal farms can only be considered “humane” when the consumer adopts an inhumane perspective. In other words, it is only when the consumer reduces a sentient animal to an object worthy of commodifying that he can call the system–a violent system–that does the objectifying “humane.”  To call this trick of the mind “better” than industrial farming is not only far-fetched, it’s a distortion of the values advocates of sustainable agriculture so earnestly claim to seek.  One reader recently noted that I allow the “perfect to be the enemy of the better.” In light of what I argue here, I’d put it differently: I allow compassion to be the enemy of self-deception. As do all ethical vegans.


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