Reason to Go Vegan #4: My Recent Talk

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.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

2 Responses to Reason to Go Vegan #4: My Recent Talk

  1. Carolle says:

    Attended the Boston Veggie Fest and listened to McWilliams’ talk. Great thoughts! Agree with all! Thanks for visitng Boston and thank you for doing what you do!

  2. CQ says:

    Oh wow! I can’t say enough in support of every single idea in your talk, James.

    And extra points to you for saying this directly to the endorsers of “happy meat” who sponsored the national conference.

    I can only hope your words caused some of the attendees — no, all of them — to feel ashamed of their “deals with the devil” (so to speak). Of course, no one is a real devil, but every excuse to kill animals for any reason short of self-defense is devilish, despite the elaborate disguises concocted by those complicit in the treachery.

    Am going to forward this blog far and wide. In conjunction with the recently released essay by the Humane Myth folks (see http://www.humanemyth.org/mediabase/1413.htm), your argument against the “happy meat” delusion is as cogent and compassionate, as ethical and logical as they come.

    You’re going to run this in your space in The Atlantic Monthly, right?

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