Veganism: It’s What Gives Big Ag Real Nightmares

A good friend just wrote to compliment my Times piece. However, he wondered if the message could backfire, encouraging consumers to source animal products from factory farms rather than from “less bad” small farms. His concern is valid. And that’s why it annoys me so much.

Many readers who know my work, and understand my commitment to veganism, find it strange that I’m often slandered as an advocate of industrial agriculture. This accusation sticks, though, because our current discourse on food is trapped in a simplistic—and deeply harmful– dichotomy: industrial (bad)/ non-industrial (good). Even the most intelligent consumers have succumbed to the logical fallacy that if an animal product isn’t industrially produced, then it’s automatically beyond criticism.  Thus, the fact that I spend a lot of my time criticizing the small alternatives automatically makes me a shill for Big Agriculture.

That’s crazy.

Because who’s really shilling for Big Agriculture? As I’ve argued before, small farms—by virtue of their impassioned commitment to killing, selling, and eating animals—are the real enablers of industrially produced meat. They’re the ones legitimating the very act—eating animals—that’s at the core of industrial animal production. So twisted is the Food Movement’s logic that my call for ending the consumption of animal products—something that would harm industrial animal culture in an instant—is deemed an affirmation of the status quo.  So twisted is the Food Movement’s logic that the radicalism of veganism is mocked, debased, and erased.

While disdaining veganism, the food movement gets excited about incremental improvements within industrial models. The fact that McDonalds and Burger King are no longer purchasing pork from suppliers who use gestation crates is surely good for pigs. But it’s nothing to celebrate in and of itself.  As I’ve noted, if the improvement does not explicitly move in the direction of ending animal agriculture per se, then there’s little long-term good that will result from it. One could easily argue that, in accepting welfare reforms, industrial producers are actually making it easier for welfare-minded consumers to choose factory farmed animal products in the first place.  In this sense HSUS joins the small farms in shilling for animal agriculture.  Still, none of this keeps the Food Movement from blaming an advocate of veganism for pepetuating industrial agriculture.

Admittedly, the point here is to rant a bit. But it’s also to insist that veganism must to be hammered into the public discourse as not only a viable third option, but as the single-most powerful action an individual can make to confront the horrors of factory farming.  To silence that message out of fear of being distorted would be a disservice to the one demographic that the Food Movement never fails to marginalize: farm animals themselves.

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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.

19 Responses to Veganism: It’s What Gives Big Ag Real Nightmares

  1. John says:

    James — really good rant. Important you clarify this as your work is truly important and, as you point out, may be deliberately misconstrued. In China the government is using the melamine dairy scandals as a pretext for mandatory collectives where all the dairy cows are confined to being encouraged and subsidized in regards to pig factories. The reason propounded is that smallholders will add contaminants to animal feed and the farmland is needed for factories and housing anyway.Here, the happy meat people are more delusional than the CAFO managers who at least know they are in a cruel business. Towards a new radical vegetarianism!

  2. CQ says:

    Rant on, McDuff! I mean McWilliams. 🙂

  3. Morna Crites-Moore says:

    Spot on!

  4. Ellie Maldonado says:

    Onward, James McWilliams and fellow advocates!

  5. marlarose says:

    The biggest threat to animal consumption, whether it is delivered via industrial agriculture or smaller farms, is the vegan model. That is the clear paradigmatic shift. I have worked with “family farm” advocates for many years and I can tell you that they are far more defensive around vegans than conventional meat consumers, partially because they no longer have the higher ethical ground. (And I have to say that after working with many of these activists and going out to eat with them since the mid-1990s, I have never ONCE heard even one ask about the origins of the animal products he or she was consuming. Believe me, too, I’ve been listening for it, too.) As more big ag gets into smaller, more niche, feel-good brands, the cozy relationship becomes more clear, too. Tyson is not threatened by organic chicken consumers: they are threatened by those who opt out of that model of consumption all-together. Organic chicken consumers are still reinforcing the status quo of domination. The bottom line: animal agribusiness cannot make money off of vegans so WE are the threat to their livelihood.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      Imo, if “family farm” advocates are defensive around vegans, their egos are showing, and that’s a problem in animal advocacy.

  6. marlarose says:

    The biggest threat to animal consumption, whether it is delivered via industrial agriculture or smaller farms, is the vegan model. That is the clear paradigmatic shift. I have worked with “family farm” advocates for many years and I can tell you that they are far more defensive around vegans than conventional meat consumers, partially because they no longer have the higher ethical ground. (And I have to say that after working with many of these activists and going out to eat with them since the mid-1990s, I have never ONCE heard even one ask about the origins of the animal products he or she was consuming. Believe me, too, I’ve been listening for it, too.) As more big ag gets into smaller, more niche, feel-good brands, the cozy relationship becomes more clear, too. Tyson is not threatened by organic chicken consumers: they are threatened by those who opt out of that model of consumption all-together. Organic chicken consumers are still reinforcing the status quo of domination. The bottom line: animal agribusiness cannot make money off of vegans so WE are the threat to their livelihood

    • marlarose says:

      Eek! I don’t know whose blog that is when you click on my name. Mine is VeganFeministAgitator.blogspot.com. 🙂

    • Britt says:

      This is such a fabulous point about dining out, marlarose. I used to be one of those foodies in favor of “humane” animal products (i.e. in denial). The animal products in our home were nearly always grass-fed, pastured, free-range, organic, and other meaningless terms, but never once did I question our server about sourcing when I ordered out at a restaurant. I definitely felt the hypocrisy of this at the time, but I stuffed it down inside. This is part of what upsets me now about proponents of “ethical” animal products, and especially about those that try to argue that “we don’t need to stop eating meat, we just need to source it ‘sustainably.'” I know from experience that it’s a half-assed spiel. They may get their holiday roast from the small farm upstate, but you know that they’re not hesitating to order a cheeseburger at the cheap joint down the block. It’s all a facade. If you allow animal products in your diet AT ALL, it becomes all too easy to let the factory farmed stuff in as well.

      • Morna Crites-Moore says:

        And … “sustainable” by whose definition? Certainly not the animal’s.

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        Indeed! Any farm that exists for profit employs procedures to prevent loss of money. Killing male chicks, debeaking, dehorning, tooth filing, tail docking, castration, forced pregnancies, and separating mothers from young are no different on “family farms”, even if they use different terms.

      • CQ says:

        You have a new fan, Britt: me! I’m impressed that you made yourself stop pretending — and that you’re using your experience of having suppressed your hypocrisy to help others face up to the same truth. “Humane” meat is the foodies’ version of the emperor’s clothes, huh?

        I’d also like to thank marlarose for the comment that caused Britt to make that intelligent admission.

        Also, I give props to brian lindberg (below) for citing Mark Twain’s remark about habit. I’ve been feeling badly that I am at times intolerant of those who are still wedded to the myth of sustainable farming/humane meat. In a recent post, I don’t think I responded too kindly to Mountain, who was doing an admirable job of not attacking veganism while defending his version of healthy, natural farming and eating – involving animals. The Twain quote about habit makes me realize that I can’t expect others to change their thoughts and behavior “on a dime” — any more than I did.

        All the commenters on James’ posts (and James himself) are good role models for how to argue against “the system” without damaging the self-respect of those who still subscribe to that system. Thank you, friends.

        So I’m gonna mosey on over to that thread to apologize.

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        Hi, CQ. I think many, if not most of us, believed factory farms were the problem, and that if only we could reform farming, it wouldn’t be so bad. After all, that’s what we were told by the groups that are supposed to represent animals. I know I believed them, even after I stopped eating meat.

        Thankfully and importantly, I had the opportunity to see a different perspective, and I realized that “small farms” and meaningless reforms are just marketing tools for the industry and the groups that promote them. I’m glad for Eating Plants and other groups that aren’t afraid of the truth, and also for organizations like Humane Myth and Tribe of Heart:
        http://www.humanemyth.org and http://vimeo.com/tribeofheart

  7. brian lindberg says:

    Reading this post, I was reminded of something that Mark Twain said, “Habit is habit, and not to be thrown out the window by any man, but must be coaxed down the stairs, one step at a time.” After spending nearly a lifetime in the cultural change game, I have learned to value most highly the direction in which a change is moving. That’s how we approach our goals. Perfection is outside of the human sphere, but perfectibility is our birthright.

  8. Gabe says:

    “Thus, the fact that I spend a lot of my time criticizing the small alternatives automatically makes me a shill for Big Agriculture”

    I did find it somewhat strange that when Joel Salatin “responded” to your article a few weeks ago, he seemed to conveniently misinterpret (misrepresent?) what you said, as if you somehow preferred gestational crates and battery cages to mobile coops.

  9. Ellie Maldonado says:

    The difference between “free-range” and battery caged hens?

    http://www.tribeofheart.org/tohhtml/truthiness.htm

    • CQ says:

      Your timing is impeccable, Ellie. After your first reference to TOH/HM, I trotted to the latter site looking for the cage-free “video” that I’d sent to an ovo-pescatarian (?) friend last week. When I found the link (www.humanemyth.org/cagefree.htm), I realized that I had mistakenly sent her a slideshow about cage-free instead of the video I intended for her to see: http://www.humanemyth.org/mediabase/1049.htm. It shows 100 free-range hens in appalling condition rescued by Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary just before their slated slaughter.

      Then I realized, based on her response, that she thinks cage-free and free-range are different — that cage-free is as bad as cages (she knows the reasons) but that free-range on a small farm actually means the hens are in an idyllic pasture. That’s what her Trader Joe’s store has assured her is the case.

      Once I realized that she was differentiating the two euphemisms, I sent her the video, explaining the error in my original email to her.

      So … we’ll see. I’ve made a point of being low-key, not trying to convince her of anything, just sharing truth (she’s a stickler for that).

      If anyone more informed that I am on this subject would like to chime in and clarify the exact meaning of the industry’s terms, cage-free and free-range, please do. Because at this point they seem to me interchangeable.

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        Yes, euphemisms! I hope Brian Lindberg will correct me if I’m wrong, but as I understand, CQ, free-range farms allow animals to have some access to the outdoors, though it need not be for long. I’ve read it can be as little as half an hour. And since most of the farm animals are used to being indoors, most don’t even try to go out. In cage-free farms, hundreds of chickens are crowded together in one room. They can hardly turn around.

        Whether free-range or cage-free, male chicks are still killed, chickens are still debeaked, although the “certified humane” people prefer to call that “beak trimming”. Other farm animals are subjected to corresponding mutilations, and forced procedures. All will eventually suffer a violent death.

        Most of my family still eats meat, and like yourself, I’m low key; but they know I won’t join them for a holiday dinner if it includes meat. They also know better than to tell me free-range or cage-free farms are “humane”. I think the reason they understand this is because I’ve stuck with the basics, which don’t change, no matter what methods are used.

  10. Provoked says:

    Of the folks that I know that have at least been influenced enough to seek out “humane” alternatives – Most efforts failed miserably. Aside from their inability to eat out with accustomed convenience it was always the cost factor.

    I heard rants over the cost of “heritage” turkeys on Thanksgiving Day… Grunting about the expense of “grass-fed” cow carcasses… And moans about the few pennies of difference on “cage free” eggs. Of course I never directed them to any of that – But I heard the complaints just the same… Some have even implied that my plant based milk (over “cheap” dairy) is “excessive”.

    At the same time, if I try to educate how economical some very healthy and delicious non-animal foods are – That knowledge just falls on deaf ears. For them, set in their old habits – A vegan option is never even considered. Consequently they are further entrenched in embracing industrialized “pork, beef & chicken”. For me and my advocacy the notion of “sustainable” or “humane” meat has made my cause that much less viable. They – the animal-eaters – are all quite comfortable accepting the current systems. Hypocrisy or reason be damned. (sigh)

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