Oxymoronic Agriculture: Placing the Human-Animal Relationship at the Core of “Sustainable”
March 18, 2012 28 Comments
I began to write this piece this morning with the intention of sending it to the Atlantic. Then it occurred to me how nice it would be to try out these ideas here first (hint: I’d love critical feedback). Plus, I also decided it would be delighful, for once, to write a piece critical of sustainable agriculture and not have my inbox flooded with invective. Everyone needs a break from the venom now and then. 🙂
The sustainable food movement has successfully transformed the way millions of people think about food. Nevertheless, it suffers from a debilitating blind spot: it fails to take seriously the complexity of the human-animal relationship. Critics of this assessment will likely respond that the movement is under no obligation to confront such an issue. Animal ethics, they will say, should be left to the philosophers and theologians, not the heady, hands-on pioneers of sustainable agriculture. I would argue to the contrary. A serious examination of the relationship between humans and the animals we raise for food is fundamental to any food system that hopes to call itself sustainable.
To the extent that the movement has addressed the human-animal question, it’s argued that all is well if animals are raised well. This claim–this inevitable claim–is not only conveniently vague, but it runs counter to the movement’s articulated goals. The sustainable food movement, as I read it, is passionately, even spiritually, committed to the ideas that, as humans farm the earth for food, we do so a) as gently as possible, b) according the nature’s rhythms, and c) with an ethic of respect and humility. These goals have been powerfully articulated by visionaries ranging from Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver to their historical predecessors Albert Howard and Rudolf Stiener. In one way or another we’ve been offered versions of the same agricultural commandments for fifty years: tread lightly, let nature lead the way, and treat the natural world as if it were a living and breathing entity.
Of course, all agriculture is, in a sense, invasive, unnatural, and arrogant. And, yes, the human project of wresting food from the land necessarily requires artifice. In this sense, the call for farming according to the seamless dictates of nature is idyllic, if not misguided. That said, the question remains: is animal agriculture per se consistent with the aforementioned imperatives of treading lightly, farming naturally, and loving mother Earth? On each of these points, a serious consideration of the human-animal relationship illuminates an inconvenient truth: sustainable animal agriculture is an oxymoron.
First, the sustainable food movement insists that farming should cause minimal environmental harm. Should it then not also insist that farmers cause farm animals minimal harm? Unless we’re pursuing an environmental ethic that accommodates unneeded slaughter, these goals strike me as inseparable. Thus the conundrum: is it possible to seek minimal harm while, at the same time, raising farm animals to kill for food we do not need? I’ve posed this question 1,001 times to my friends in the sustainable food movement and have yet to hear an even remotely convincing explanation of how killing is not considered a type of harm. Which brings me to the last question on this point: aren’t advocates of sustainable agriculture left in the unenviable position of advocating for minimal environmental harm while simultaneously harming thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of sentient, social, and emotionally aware animals?
What about farming according the dictates of nature? On this point, proponents of sustainable animal agriculture would seem to hold the high ground. Vocal advocates of sustainable agriculture routinely highlight how smoothly the cycle of nature spins in intensively managed, rotationally-grazed systems. Animals poop in the pasture, the soil improves, plants grow, etc. What’s always omitted in this description of nature at work is that, in nature, animals are not systematically plucked from the cycle before making it though even a quarter of their natural lives. I typically respond to supporters of this form of agriculture by saying that, if they insist on treating animals as poop machines for crops, then do so. Allow the cycle to spin in full. Allow the animals to live out the entirety of their lives. Allow them to die in the pasture, returning their bodily nutrients to the soil as they decompose. Of course, farmers won’t do this because it’s not economically profitable to do so. Profit, as I have written, always trumps nature when it comes to exploiting animals. In short, there are many, many other ways to enhance soil quality without animals. Google “veganic agriculture” for a sampling.
Finally, there’s the matter of respecting the environment, lowering our agricultural footprint as much as we can, and behaving humbly in the face of our ecosystems’ complexities. I believe exploiting an animal for food (and other unneeded uses) to be the pinnacle of human insecurity and arrogance. The irony of this opinion is that those who raise animals tend to do so with a sense of pride in what they’re doing. This is something I’m still trying to understand, but suffice to say I think there’s a powerful coping mechanism at work among those who raise and kill animals, all the while claiming to care deeply for them. In any case, there is nothing humble or respectful about promoting agricultural methods–namely rotational grazing and other forms of free range agriculture–that sprawl across ecosystems. With 9 billion people predicted to be here in 2050, the last thing we need is a transition to an agriculture system that, in order to raise animals in a relatively decent manner, requires the deforestation of the planet. Instead, we need to do something that sounds so simple but is depressingly rare: grow a diversity of plants on a minimum amount of land for people to eat. Now there’s a revolutionary idea.
The only ways I can think of to advance these critiques, and to promote the superiority of an exclusive plant-based form of agriculture, is to relentlessly demand that we encourage more widespread consideration of the human-animal relationship. No topic, as I hope I’ve at least suggested here, could be more central to the deepest meaning of sustainable agriculture. My sense is that the current leaders of the movement have failed to examine the nature of the human-animal bond, and its relationship to agriculture, not because it’s irrelevant to the cause, but because doing so would mean thinking hard about excluding–or at least dramatically minimizing–the place of animal exploitation in its agenda. It’s easy for most people to eat locally raised flesh. Avoiding purposeful animal exploitation–well, that’s a genuine challenge.