The “Ethical Butcher”: Co-opted by the Unethical Food Industry


This piece ran on the Atlanic’s website two days ago. Here’s the link:


Check out the comments. Crazy.



I’ve repeatedly argued that supporting alternatives to the industrial production of animal products serves the ultimate interest of industrial producers. The decision to eat animal products sourced from small, local, and sustainable farms might seem like a fundamental rejection of big business as usual. It is, however, an implicit but powerful confirmation of the single most critical behavior necessary to the perpetuation of factory farming: eating animals. So long as consumers continue to eat meat, eggs, and dairy — even if they are sourced from small farms practicing the highest welfare and safety standards — they’re providing, however implicitly, an endorsement of the products that big agriculture will always be able to produce more efficiently and cheaply. And thus dominate.

Until the act of eating animals itself is made problematic, “voting with our forks” will be little more than a vacuous slogan. Critics claim that it’s unrealistic to expect a substantial transition to veganism, and advocate the support of small-scale animal farms as a more achievable alternative. What’s truly unrealistic, however, is the expectation that small, more eco-friendly and “humane” farms will permanently defy economic logic and convince a meaningful percentage of meat and dairy eaters to spend substantially more money to buy a nobler egg or pork chop. I’d bet on a massive transition to veganism before a massive transition to economic irrationality.

A point that’s germane to this issue, but frequently muted, is how the preexisting power and amorality of industrial animal agriculture enables it to manipulate the rhetoric of alternative animal-based systems to its profitable advantage. Agribusiness has been conspicuously nonplussed by the rise of the food movement, shrugging its shoulders as it markets itself as “sustainable,” “supporting family farms,” and steadfastly oriented toward the “welfare” of animals. Industry grasps, then thrills in manipulating, the axiom that language is both cheap and powerful. Industrial machinations are helped along by the fact that the food movement’s buzzwords are slackened catchphrases that allow the largest pig farm on the planet to advertise itself as “humane” and “sustainable.” This fungible verbal lexicon, with every well-meaning new term appropriated by the marketers at Big Ag, is the food movement’s Achilles’ heel.

A recent confirmation of this point is the emergence of an organization called Contrary to how it sounds, HumaneWatch is the self-appointed watchdog — think Cujo — of a group that actually does watch out for dogs, and many other animals, with admirable dedication: the Humane Society of the United States. Calling HSUS a “stealth animal rights organization” that’s stealing money from the public to promote secret agendas, is a propaganda tool of the Center for Consumer Freedom. According to Source Watch, CCF is “a front group for the restaurant, alcohol, tobacco, and other industries” that “run media campaigns which oppose the efforts of scientists, health advocates, doctors, animal advocates, [and] environmentalists.” Its website offers a sordid example of how the pursuit of sustainable animal agriculture, so long as the consumption of animal products is encouraged, easily plays into the hands of influential industrial interests.

CCF — through — claims as one its “allies” the “Ethical Butcher.” The Ethical Butcher (a concept I find absurd, but that’s for another post), is a blog run by a guy named Berlin Reed. Reed describes himself as “driven by personal relationships with small local farmers, a deep love of food, respect for the animals we eat, and the environment on which we depend.” He lives in Brooklyn, by way of Portland. If you called central casting to find a character to oppose the evils of industrial agriculture, all the while appealing to the gluttonous impulses of the foodie elite, Reed would be your man.

But now it’s the CCF — inspired by the ethical butcher’s staunch advocacy of meat consumption — that’s doing the calling, highlighting his website as consistent with CCF’s industrial values. Reed, who I would imagine isn’t thrilled with the CFF association, can complain all he wants that he’s been appropriated by a charade organization working to promote the idea that, in the face of the HSUS’s apparent threat to carnivorousness, it’s your God-given right to eat animals. The meat industry doesn’t care. As it sees it, any perceived threat to eating animals (HSUS) far outweighs any threat that consumers will source their animal products from the farms so close to Reed’s heart (and butcher block). Hence the co-opting of the Ethical Butcher.

I realize that this example might seem minor. Think ahead on this one, though, and you’ll see how things portend poorly for the future of alternative animal agriculture. Right now industry is merely stealing words, concepts, and websites. In the unlikely event that mass economic irrationality prevails, and there is in fact a statistically meaningful transition to supporting the non-industrial production of animal products, what’s to stop industrial agriculture from building a few token sustainable farms where the animals are pastured, pampered, and publicized? Most of the small-scale animal farmers I know are literally living hand to mouth. Tyson’s or Smithfield wouldn’t suffer such hardships.

We’ll never beat Big Ag at its own game. Those of us concerned with the myriad problems of industrial agriculture will make genuine progress toward creating agricultural systems that are ethical, ecologically sound, and supportive of human health only when we pursue alternatives that are truly alternative. The most immediate and direct way to take a step in this direction is to stop eating animals.



The Hidden Pitfalls of Small Scale Animal Agriculture: An Overview

What follows are extended talking points for the lecture that I will give this semester at several venues. I begin this Thursday at Wesleyan University, and will move on over the next three months to Berkeley, Southwestern University, MIT, the University of Texas, Augustana College, the Ottawa VegFest, the Madison Vegfest, and a TEDx talk in Los Angeles. I plan to blog about the responses that I get to what will prove to wide variety of audiences. -jm

(note: searching for a better title!)

Why Support for Small Scale Animal Farms Will Never Threaten Industrial Agriculture

James McWilliams

There’s a lot to celebrate when it comes to our growing awareness of factory farming.  Mainstream consumers are finally becoming cognizant of the impact industrial animal agriculture is having on the environment, human health, and animal welfare. We’re coming to realize that raising 10 billion animals a year in squalid and highly concentrated conditions has impacts that reverberate throughout society. We’re turning our outrage on corporations who profit from this exploitation, from Monsanto and Smithfield to McDonald’s and Jack in the Box, where, I just read, you can know buy drink called a bacon milk shake.

One might say that consumers are at a crossroads, a point at which, given the clear harm caused by factory farming, a critical mass of us are poised to reject the bacon milkshake and make a lifelong change regarding our relationship to the industrial food system. Thus far, most consumers who have taken a close look at industrial agriculture, and been appropriately appalled, have chosen to seek alternatives in options marketed as alternatives to industrial agriculture. Influenced by The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc, we’re opting for local, sustainable, and more humanely raised animal products–goods produced on smaller farms, often by people we know, and goods that are sold at Farmer’s markets and co-ops. In general, we’ve accepted the premise that, when it comes to animal agriculture, smaller is a kinder, more eco-friendly way to bring us our meat, eggs, and dairy.

But this response is entirely inadequate answer to the hegemony of industrial agriculture. Granted, the alternatives enjoy enormous support from the food media, environmental groups, and even advocates for animal welfare.  But this path, in the long run, will lead us right back to where we started. It will do precious little to help the fate of animals, the environment, or to improve our health. In fact, it’s a choice that may very well perpetuate the very system of factory farming right minded citizens want to abolish.

I should very clear and tell you that I have an agenda. I speak today as an activist more than a scholar, and my goal is to convince you that the only way to truly fight factory farms, the only way to viably take on the insidious evils of industrial agriculture and the current state of our food system, is convert to a plant-based diet. Until we do so, every act of resistance, every dollar spent on local meat, every condemnation of factory farming is, as one scholar has put it, rain without thunder.

I have three reasons for holding this opinion:

a) First, when we choose alternative options we’re engaging in inconsistent welfare consideration for the animals we claim to care about–some have called it moral schizophrenia. 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, confined, and covered in feces.

It’s for these very reasons–which are all based on the correct assumption that animals have intrinsic worth–that we support systems of production in which animals are treated with dignity. That’s wonderful, because it shows that we know farmed animals have feelings, emotions, and intelligence; it shows that we know that they are social; that they can suffer; that, as living and sentient beings, they are worthy of our moral consideration. This is why we think it’s horrible for them to be raised as they are in factory settings. This is precisely why so many of us are outraged to be begin with.

How, then, can we simultaneously nurture this belief in the moral worth of animals, so much so that we act on it by rejecting factory farms, and then turn around and support an alternative system that, when you break it down to its essence, does the exact same thing? Small farms might treat animals better than factory farms, but don’t be fooled: they ultimately seek the same goal as factory farms–raising animals to kill, commodify, and send to market for food we do not need. So I ask: Is it possible to genuinely care for an animal’s welfare and, at the same time, kill it for the purposes of human indulgence? This is a very difficult question to answer logically, and, unfortunately, it is one that we are never asked to consider.

I don’t care how big or small the farm is, there is one thing that they all have in common: when the market tells the farmer that the animal must die, all welfare considerations for that animal come to a violent end. No animal wants to die. A market determined death for an animal we claim to care about renders all previous acts of kindness, to put it mildly, disingenuous. Never underestimate the importance of this basic similarity between the factory and the alternative farm, nor the power of the human mind to think it away.

[recent example of X on pig’s head]

So, to conclude my first objection, I ask you to think about the following questions: Do we really want to build a new system of animal husbandry on the back of this inconsistency? Even granting that the animals in this system have a decent quality of 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, eggs, and milk? Does this essentially inhumane act confer to an animal any real sense of dignity? Who are we to say that we respect an animal and then kill it to sell at a restaurant that will charge a mint because it was humanely raised? I don’t want the future of food to be based on such a sordid paradox.

b) My second claim is that we inadvertently support factory farming when we buy alternatively sourced animal products.  Our choice to seek alternatives is often couched in activist terms: we want to oppose factory farming so we buy meat from local farms where we know the farmers and trust his methods. But I would argue that, by eating animal products from small, local alternative sources, you are not opposing factory farms at all, but indirectly supporting them.

It all comes down to who’s defining the implications of your choice. Michael Pollan and the Food Movement have argued that your decision to eat alternatively sourced animal products means you are sticking it to industrial agriculture and supporting a fundamentally new approach to food. The media reflexively promotes the idea. Industry, however, invests your act with an entirely different meaning. From industry’s perspective, your decision to continue eating animal products–even of they are from alternatively sourced farms–is great news because it directly reinforces the most fundamental prerequisite for factory farming’s existence: the belief that there’s nothing wrong with eating animals. As long as this belief remains intact, the industry–which, recall, produces 99 percent of the animal products we eat–will continue to thrive. What big agriculture fears is not alternative agriculture–they can always co-opt that if they need to–but the emergence of a plant-eating ethic. This is what would put them out of business.

[Eat More Kale t-shirt controversy]

When you support the consumption of animal products–which you do when you buy them from small or big farms–you reiterate a cultural practice that will, however ironically, keep big business in power.Unless eating animals is culturally and morally stigmatized (sort of like smoking is today), factory farms will always remain the dominant mode of production.  As long as we eat animals, there will always be factory farms.

The reason is not only cultural but economic. 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 survives and thrives. This principle leads to many wonderful improvements in modern life. When applied to animals, however, it leads to a profound moral tragedy. As long as we eat animals, the principle of efficient production will always be applied to them.

To think that small farms can escape this reality is simply naive. They might be doing it right now. But as small animal farms proliferate, as they respond to increased demand for alternatives, the result will be competition among alternative farms for a growing demand for so called humane animal products.  The outcome of this competition, according to every economic model every created (with the exception of classic communism), will be to seek improvements in efficiency to produce more product for less. The cycle of efficiency would lead to denser, more streamlined farms that, in name of efficiency, took less and less interest in animal welfare. In no time we’d be back to the large scale systems that the small farms were designed to oppose in the first place. With India and China about to bring hundreds of millions of consumers into the meat market, to think that small farms will proliferate, remain small, and not compete is a willful distortion of thought.

Two recent examples: a) the organic industry and b) Niman Ranch. Both started small and ideal, became popular, grew steadily and, many agree, lost touch with their founding values.

c) My final reason for opposing small scale animal agriculture is that eating animals is environmentally unsustainable–whether the products come from big or small animal farms. We know the ecological impacts of factory farms are horrible: livestock produces more GHG than any other sector of the global economy, including transportation; 80 percent of the antibiotics produced are given to animals; the vast majority of the world’s corn and soy are grown to feed animals; virulent influenzas breed on factory farms; manure lagoons destroy aquatic ecosystems; 70 percent of the water in the American west goes to ranching; it takes 2500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, it takes 13 to produce a pound of tomatoes. I could spend the next hour rattling off such stats. But I think you get the point: raising animals to feed 7 billion people is, by definition, an ecological tragedy.

Contrary to common assumptions, the alternatives aren’t much better when it comes to their environmental impact or safety record. With grass-fed beef, there’s a methane problem–cows that eat grass produce 3-4 times more methane than cows that eat grain. With free ranged animals, there’s a land problem–much of the Brazilian rain forest is being depleting to provide land for grazing increasingly popular grass-fed cows. Diseases prevail in free range systems as well as factory farms (recall Germans and US pork). The work of Peter Davies at Minnesota shows that, somewhat horrifyingly, confined pigs are safer to eat than free range pigs.  Then there’s deadstock: where do we take the animal carcasses without rendering plants? Right now alternatives account for about 1 percent of production; these hidden environmental and safety costs would become more evident as these operations proliferated.

Comprehensive studies support the argument that eating plants is far better for the environment than eating any sort of animal product. One recent study–by the World Preservation Institute–confirmed that a global vegan diet (of conventional crops) would reduce dietary emissions by 87 percent. This figure is compared to a token 8 percent for “sustainable meat and dairy.” If organic plants were eaten, emissions caused by food production would drop 94 percent. Another, done by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, calculated that a vegan diet was seven times more energy efficient than a diet that sourced a normal diet within 100 miles. Localism, in short, is no answer to the environmental impact of food production.

So, to summarize: the alternatives to animal agriculture are often promoted as the answer to the myriad and very serious problems of industrial agriculture. My argument is that these alternatives do very little to confront–and in some cases perpetuate–the problems of industrial agriculture. As I said at the start, though, the good news is that we’re at a crossroads. We know factory farming is not acceptable. This is a start. The next step, I would argue, is not to become compassionate carnivores and support alternative systems, but to pursue do the most effective thing a consumer can do to dismantle industrial agriculture and, in the process, improve his or her health and the health of the environment: become ethical vegans.

The health benefits of veganism are well documented, 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 lives in denial of the mass slaughter we executes 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 our hearts to help prevent animals from unnecessary slaughter we tap something deep within ourselves. We tap and nurture our innate 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 in our lives.

The final benefit I would mention about veganism is that, with respect to food, it is the absolute purest and most powerful 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? We must move beyond this 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 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 meat must be the real war.





“Ooga Booga”: I Take on a “Critic”

Here is a piece that recently ran in “CHOW.” It’s an article

opposing an article I wrote against backyard slaughtering. My

comments will follow. Here is my original piece:


From Chow:

The Unthinking Man’s Case Against Backyard Slaughter

 Writing for The Atlantic, James McWilliams offers a passionate argument against a new locavore rallying cry finding a voice in Oakland, California: deregulating animal slaughter so that urban farmers can kill their own chickens, rabbits, goats, and other edible creatures.

McWilliams’s essay against backyard slaughter (and, to some extent, animal husbandry in general) is cleanly written, emotive—and almost utterly nonsensical. When you boil it down, it’s like this:

Anecdotes exist of urban farmers improperly slaughtering animals, and McWilliams renders one vividly, which I’ll paraphrase: “One time a poorly informed woman smothered a chicken! It took three minutes! Ooga booga!” There are also stories of urban farmers mistreating animals even before slaughter (more shotgun anecdotes via Google). Those poor animals!

This makes sense for about 30 seconds, until you consider: While there are certainly incidents of individuals doing a cruddy job of raising and/or slaughtering their small herds or flocks of backyard animals, there are entire massive industries built around doing a cruddy job of raising and slaughtering millions upon millions of miserable crated animals.

One of the many important differences here is that urban farmers have a presumed interest in getting better at humanely raising and slaughtering their charges, since many (perhaps most) are driven by principles of animal welfare. The industrial concerns, by contrast, have only one interest: shareholders’ value. Besides, are a few backyard farmers in Oakland really the issue for those who care about animal welfare?

Finally, I’ll let McWilliams’s closing “argument” stand on its own merits: “A final reason locavores should dismiss the Oakland initiative has to do with the psychological impact of killing animals that are kept as part of an urban household. How can we comfortably support a movement toward the local slaughter of sentient animals when we nurture and love 78 million dogs, 86 million cats, four million birds, one million rabbits, and one million lizards as companion animals?”

So, uh … what? We’d be bummed if we killed a creature that’s vaguely like another creature we like? And does McWilliams somehow think that by citing numbers of pets he’s making a logical case? This guy is an associate professor writing under the banner of The Atlantic, and yet this level of logic and research wouldn’t fly in an undergrad’s term paper. At least I hope it wouldn’t.

The widely ranging, incoherent nature of the piece raises a broad question: Is McWilliams’s essay merely an argument for large-scale vegetarianism on ethical grounds? That’s a radically different proposition than the supposed topic of his essay, Why We Must Not Let Our Neighbors Kill and Eat Their Ducks, and one not lightly undertaken.

Or is he shilling for agribusiness? In defense of McWilliams: probably not, since Big Ag’s think tanks would probably have equipped him with better ammunition than this shoddy stuff.

Personally, I have no duck in this fight, and I’m ambivalent about the issue. That said, if the best McWilliams can do to oppose Oakland’s backyard slaughter initiative is to cite a few disturbing anecdotes and a small, pseudo-statistical pile of psychobabble about Fido and Mr. Whiskers, it might just lead a thoughtful reader to conclude: “Hey, how bad can this idea actually be?”


My Response:

1) The author dismisses my argument in part because my evidence is “anecdotal.” Well, of course it’s anecdotal. I’m writing about a quasi-legal trend that’s largely off the radar screen. The key for anyone trying to debunk my line of attack–using evidence of botched slaughters from published blogs to highlight the welfare problems of backyard slaughtering–is to somehow show that my anecdotes are misrepresentative of the movement as a whole. In essence, that they are exceptions to the rule of “humane” slaughtering. Given the many examples I have amassed of similarly “anecdotal” botched slaughters, this will be a very hard thing to do. I welcome the challenge. The other problem with attacking the use of anecdotes is that it prevents one from, well, using counter anecdotes. Recently, for example, a woman chastised me for using anecdotes and then sent me a video of her expertly slaughtering a chicken. In other words, an anecdote.

2) The author delivers highly-charged dismissals of my logic(“almost utterly nonsensical”), and then offers ideas that actually are utterly nonsensical. Take this quote: While there are certainly incidents of individuals doing a cruddy job of raising and/or slaughtering their small herds or flocks of backyard animals, there are entire massive industries built around doing a cruddy job of raising and slaughtering millions upon millions of miserable crated animals. This is a common response to my criticisms of small-scale slaughter, and locavores in general. The logic goes like this: yes, backyard slaughter can be bad, but industrial scale slaughter is worse;  therefore, we should support small scale slaughter. Naturally, this logic–the lesser of two evils–only works if the two evils are in fact the only choices. And of course, as the title of my blog reminds us, it is not.  [In a less potent example of the author’s own inconsistency, he writes that my article is “cleanly written” and then dismisses its “widely ranging, incoherent nature” while mocking it as a “small, pseudo-statistical pile of psychobabble.”]

3) The article is a baseless screed against my own piece that ends, somewhat astonishingly, with the author declaring that he’s “ambivalent about the issue.” Whaaaa? Actually, the admission is telling. If he really is ambivalent about the issue, then he’s most certainly not ambivalent about ME. Which leads me to my last point. This article is a classic example of resorting to ad hominem rhetoric because the problem being posed is simply too difficult to resolve. I am ultimately asking backyard slaughter enthusiasts to justify the logic of loving animals, raising them well, and then killing them for food that we do not need. Start seriously thinking about that one. Or, like the author, you could simply toss off some quotable insults and declare: ooga booga!!