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.

McDonald’s Ends Use of Gestation Crates: Victory?

So, as you may have heard, McDonald’s has decided to require its pork suppliers to phase out the use of sow gestation stalls–the cruel apparatuses designed (ostensibly) to keep pigs from fighting. Animal advocacy groups are predictably thrilled. “The HSUS has been a long time advocate for ending the use of gestation crates,” explained president and CEO Wayne Pacelle, adding, “It’s just wrong to immobilize animals for their whole lives in crates barely larger than their bodies.” Mark Bittman (sigh) went all wobbly in the face of the news, calling it “a major victory.”

Major victory? Really?

It’s hard to deny that McDonald’s decision, assuming it’s effectively carried out, will result in millions of sows living more fulfilling lives before they’re culled for slaughter. It’s also hard to deny that factory farmers are all in a huff–which is always a sign that a good decision has been made. An editorial in Beef Magazine explained, “Can pork producers meet these demands? Yes. Will there be a cost? Yes.” In this limited sense, McDonald’s commitment to ending the use of gestation stalls can be called a victory. Fine. But why am I not uncorking the champagne?

I’ve addressed this conundrum in past posts through the analogy of wrongful imprisonment. If I’m wrongfully imprisoned, I sure as hell would want advocacy groups working tirelessly to improve the conditions within prisons, especially the one holding me. More time outdoors, cleaner facilities, and better food would all improve the quality of my imprisoned life. That said, I’m not sure I’d ever use the word victory, or feel the corresponding urge to put on a party hat, unless wrongful imprisonment itself were ended and I was freed.

I appreciate HSUS’s efforts in encouraging McDo’s to end the use of torture devices for sows.  I genuinely do. But I’d be a lot more inclined to punch the air with a triumphant fist if Pacelle had gone a critical step further and declared not only that it’s “just wrong to immobilize animals for their whole lives,” but that it’s also wrong for humans to raise animals for food, period, and the elimination of gestation crates is a step toward the elimination of factory farming.  Now those would have been words worth celebrating.

Critics of organizations such as HSUS frequently condemn their efforts as “welfarist,” aiding and abetting, it is said, the very system central to widespread animal suffering.  Well, until advocacy groups who fight for incremental changes within current systems of animal production contextualize such “victories” in the larger quest for a world without animal agriculture, the welfarist charge will stick all over them like sap.

Mark Bittman (sigh) declared (or at least his headline did) that “McDonald’s Does the Right Thing.” It’s due to this widespread failure to rhetorically cast welfare victories in the larger framework of veganism that Bittman (sigh) can endorse such a view. We need to remind ourselves that the only right thing McDonald’s can do is vanish.