Beyond Resistance

Conservative ResistanceMartin Rowe

The recent decision by the USDA to remove animal welfare reports from its website (the agency argues that these can be obtained by Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] requests, which, notoriously, take a long time to process) is a further example of how those industries that exploit animals want to hide what they do from the American people. “Ag-gag” laws have sought to criminalize those who video or photograph what goes on in slaughterhouses or factory farms and efforts are currently underway on a federal level to override state-wide initiatives that improve animal welfare. In such circumstances, anyone coming to these pages for the first time might find the notion that America might be vegan not merely idealistic but delusional.

I’m neither surprised nor appalled by the government’s actions. Industry—whether it’s big tobacco, big oil, big pharma, or agribusiness—is going to do what it can to hold on to its privileged, subsidized, or otherwise governmentally  sanctioned position in the marketplace. It will restrict access to information; it will generate confusion among policy-makers and the public by funding studies that contradict an overwhelming consensus among scientists and thus making it a “debate” rather than an actionable item; and it will attempt to discredit those segments of society it considers a threat to its monopoly.

At the moment, it’s more my belief than a proven reality that this strategy will only  delay the inevitable. But I feel there’s  too much money to be made in alternatives,  the price of those alternatives is now so competitive, and the costs associated with shoring up fossil-fuel technology and agribusiness continuing to rise to keep things the same. The U.S. is no longer the only global economy that matters; green jobs around the world are growing at an enormous rate in comparison with either fossil-fuel or agribusiness; and the efforts (however manipulative and lacking in transparency) to disguise the inevitable collapse of the old-fashioned behemoths of corporate America will fail. Too many people are circling the bodies for them not to.

Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute notes in his presentations about the future of cellular agriculture that one of the benefits of a technology where cultured meat is grown in fermenters is that there will be no need to hide how animals get raised and then turned into meat. No blood will need to be swabbed off the floors or viscera swept up; there’ll be no shrieking or flailing of animals’ limbs; no scalding tanks will depilate the pigs and no chickens will hang, flapping their wings uselessly, from hooks on conveyer belts; no electric prods will shock animals up the chute to be stunned by a bolt through the temple. None of this will be necessary to hide under the cover of food safety or anti-terrorism legislation; the citations of abuse won’t need to be hid because they won’t happen any more.

As that point nears, you can bet the animal agriculture industry will do countervailing things. It will continue to increase its investments in technologies that no longer raise or kill animals. At the same time, it will call cellular agriculture “unnatural” or “un-American.” Food “experts” will be rolled out to cast doubt on the safety of these products. They will lament that this “unproven” new technology threatens the livelihood of the American farmer (by which is always meant the rancher or dairyman rather than the grower of broccoli or kale). Chefs will ridicule the new meat as lacking the body and texture of “real” meat, even though the cellular meat will have exactly the same components and be an improvement on the processed dreck that makes its way into beef patties, chicken wings, and other forms of fast food, and which is how the vast majority of meat is eaten in the U.S. Urban hipsters will be encouraged to speak to their generation about how cool it is to raise a real animal and kill “it” rather than have everything manufactured by a fermenter, even though their artisanal beers grow in such a manner. And we will waste several years “debating” the merits of one versus the other before the safer, cleaner, ethically superior, more transparent, and ultimately cheaper form of food production takes over.

I am in favor of transparency and accountability, and want the USDA to be honest about the violations. I hope the courts force the government to retreat. But, for me, this decision to hide is a sign of weakness not strength; and the notion of a new vision for agriculture is not quite as delusional as it currently seems.

Humane Meat and Sustainability

Martin Rowe

MeatSeveral years ago, Jenny Stein and James LaVeck of Tribe of Heart produced Peaceable Kingdom, a documentary film about Farm Sanctuary, the animal protection organization and farmed animal sanctuary. They wanted to put a face to the creatures who end up as shrink-wrapped slabs of meat in our supermarkets. Shortly after Peaceable Kingdom‘s initial release, Jenny and James they decided to revise the film. Their reasons were several, but one they articulated  to me was that in Q&A sessions after a screening, the first or second inquiry invariably went something like: “What animal products would you recommend?” Jenny and James were frustrated that the conclusion they felt was obvious from the film—that we should stop eating and exploiting animals—was being ignored. They reshot the film so its message was more clearly vegan.

Now, I don’t know whether the new film stopped all such questions, but I was surprised neither by their frustration nor the audience’s reaction. Jenny and James’ annoyance mirrored that of Upton Sinclair’s following the publication of The Jungle, his 1906 novel that exposed the horrors of the stockyards of Chicago. Sinclair had wanted to highlight the plight of the mainly Eastern European immigrants stuck in dangerous and disgusting jobs killing animals. The book caused a sensation. However, people weren’t revolted by the labor violations (or for that matter the cruelty of the treatment of animals) but by the unsanitary conditions in which their meat was being processed. President Theodore Roosevelt called for changes to be made and the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 came into being. Sinclair ruefully responded, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

I wasn’t surprised that bourgeois audience members of 2006 should be the same as those in 1906 in wanting to find a way to maintain their lifestyle in the face of discomforting information about the simultaneous exploitation of workers and animals. Nor do I believe it’s merely faintness of heart or ideological bad faith for animal protection organizations to encourage people to eat more “humanely raised” animals or vegetarian organizations to encourage people to eat less meat, or go veggie once a week, or for a whole month, or reduce their intake—which was one of the other reasons why Jenny and James wanted to revise Peaceable Kingdom.  You have to meet people where they are, and most of us don’t want to change, don’t want to be considered weird or different or anti-social, and we’d rather avoid information about our lives that requires personal examination. It’s a rare person who decides on the spot to radically alter their diet because of animal exploitation or the wretched labor conditions for workers in slaughterhouses (or, for that matter, in intensive agriculture as a whole). It usually takes time, further persuasion, and a kind of reorientation of our inner landscape toward a different mode of being for such a decision. That’s certainly how it was with me.

The Vegan America Project was conceived to get beyond the messiness of the incrementalisms that, for all the attractiveness of their packaging and (I’ve no doubt) their necessary presence in the marketplace of ideas, aren’t adequate to addressing the issue of meat and dairy’s effect on climate change. Nor, it turns out, do they address factory farming; in fact, they rely on it.

I reach this latter conclusion via a book by historian James McWilliams, entitled The Modern Savage (St. Martin’s, 2015).  McWilliams’ reason for writing was, in essence, because he was as frustrated by conscientious omnivores’ response to the raising and slaughter of animals as James LaVeck and Jenny Stein were by the demurrals of the audience members for their film. What reasons might thoughtful, decent, passionate people—who loved animals, wanted to do the right thing for the environment, and cared about healthful food—give to avoid the logical response to the information placed before them? This book is his answer.

McWilliams decided to interrogate the notion that the solution to Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) is to switch to pasture-raised, free-range, and extensive systems. He argues that not only is the central ethical issue of whether we should kill animals for food not avoided by this switch (what he calls the “omnivore’s contradiction”), but the sustainability of such ventures is questionable (to say the least) and the realities of rearing animals outside are far from idyllic. (Indeed, as the New York Times reported on January 31, 2017, the labeling of products as “humane” or “natural” is not only barely regulated, but often very misleading.)

McWilliams goes into some detail about how difficult it is to be consistently “humane” or “natural,” even if your aim isn’t to scam the consumer. He relates that chickens raised in extensive systems are preyed upon because they don’t have enough space or the genetic ability to seek shelter in trees, assuming they don’t succumb to a wide range of diseases because they’re outside rather than in a controlled indoor environment. He shows that so-called sustainable ranches rely on industrially grown seed and can only survive where there’s abundant rain, solid drainage, and good amounts of sunshine—assuming, all the while, that you possess enough acreage to allow your animals to roam without degrading the soil or adding inputs. He talks about pigs digging up fields and falling ill, and sows rolling over on their piglets—even when they’re given a chance to range free.

McWilliams notes mordantly that even if your animal survives the life outside, at the end of it all she or he still ends up dead—either at a cruel, mechanized slaughterhouse that is almost as brutal as it was in Sinclair’s day or at your own hands. (He devotes a segment of his book to the self-justifying and occasionally horrified reactions of various urban homesteaders to killing their own animals—several of whom make a hash of it and arguably bring more suffering to the animal than the killing line of an industrial abattoir.)

Just over the brow of the hill from my mother’s house in Salisbury, England, is a farm I call “pig town.” About two hundred pigs live in rows of little Quonset-like farrowing huts, which are filled with straw bedding, and there’s a group feed hut as well. The pigs can seek shelter and warmth; their tails aren’t docked and they have access to the field, which because they don’t have nose-rings to make it painful for them to root, over time they turn into mud. The field slopes and as the grass disappears water pools at the bottom. However, before it turns into a quagmire, the pigs are moved to another field, allowing the meadow to recover and, indeed, flourish with wild flowers and whatever seeds blow in.

Now I don’t know about the inner workings of this farm. I assume the stock-to-land ratio is adequate so the pigs don’t catch diseases from their own fecal matter or the pooled water (although I can’t be sure); the smell of manure is not overpowering, which suggests there aren’t too many pigs in too small a space. I assume the huts keep the pigs warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer and the straw is changed often enough so it isn’t contaminated. The male pigs, no doubt, are castrated almost certainly without anesthesia so the meat isn’t tainted; I would hope the feed isn’t laced with antibiotics or growth hormones, although it might be, since the farm is not listed as organic; and these animals—like all farmed animals—are killed when they are young, so their lives are curtailed. But you’d have to be particularly hard-hearted not to find pleasure in the seemingly contented snuffling and grunts of the pigs as they go about their day and ideologically very rigid not to admit that these animals’ lives are not measurably better than those of their conspecifics in factory farms.

McWilliams is at pains to point out that he doesn’t deny that extensive systems are more humane than the moral abomination of CAFOs. He himself, he notes, has supported measures to increase animals’ welfare. Nonetheless, as he illustrates, the “humane” system only survives because of the industrial model’s remarkable efficiencies and its supply of breeds and feed: it allows consumers with enough money to salve their consciences without changing their eating habits, although if they knew just what goes on on free-range farms less apparently worthy than the English farm near my mother their consciences may be pricked once again. (McWilliams describes several farmers who aren’t in a hurry to let consumers willing to pay top dollar for their meat know about the discomforting realities lurking behind the labels.)

To his credit, McWilliams admits that he might be accused of selecting the worst “humane” farms, but he observes—I think appropriately—that animal farming is inherently a business and ultimately violent act. My English pigs need to pay their way for their short lives, and they still end up dead.

The Vegan America Project needs to take equally seriously some of the issues that might be raised against it by conscientious omnivores: the animals killed in harvesting plants, the use of insecticides and pesticides, the need for animal manure, and so forth—which is beyond the scope of McWilliams’ book. We also need to recognize that if these pigs weren’t on the land, that land might become a housing development or shopping mall. My mother’s farm is under such pressure. Also beyond the scope is the notion, also to be investigated by the Vegan America Project, that it might be valuable (for the soil and aesthetically) to let pigs to live on the land in small numbers in sanctuaries—without ending up as meat.

McWilliams touches on an important point I find missing from arguments regarding food security, environmental sustainability, and extensive animal-raising operations: and that is the fact that it’s simply impossible for everyone to eat as much meat and dairy as they do in the U.S. using only extensive systems. Either we must consume much less of it per person (which I assume is the wager of organizations and campaigns that want us to cut down rather than cut it out) or we’ll need many, many more vegans to allow everyone else to remain the same. And that, ultimately, might be how James and Jenny could have responded to those who resisted the message of Peaceable Kingdom: “Either you stop eating animals, or you ask ten of your friends to go vegan instead, so you can continue. Which will it be?”

The Nation State and Borderlands

Ideas and HistoryI’ve recently finished Claire Jean Kim’s 2015 book Dangerous Crossings: an excellent analysis of three case studies of politically and culturally charged human–animal interactions. The studies are of efforts by animal activists to ban the selling of live animals in San Francisco’s markets; the Makah Nation’s attempt to assert their rights to resume whaling; and footballer Michael Vick’s criminal conviction for dog-fighting. Kim shows how animal advocates’ efforts to assert the rights and/or interests of animals in not being harmed ran into (or, more accurately, were already enmeshed in) the profoundly complex legacies of racial exploitation and prejudice, the various meanings of what it means to be (an) American, the assertion of moral power through politics and the courts, and the fundamental social norms (themselves determined by culture) of which animals are meant to be killed and which aren’t.

The book is valuable not only because of its close and sympathetic examination of these very contested and highly emotive issues but in the essays that frame the case studies. Kim observes that Nature has been viewed in the course of the American experiment in many different, and sometimes contradictory, ways. Throughout that time, race and degrees of “animality” have been constant, with white settlers viewing Native Americans, East Asians, and people of African descent hierarchically and taxonomically. The book reinforces what is turning out to be (at least so far) a central tenet of the Vegan America Project: veganism is never just about what you put in your body; animal welfare or rights can never be just about “the animals”; and there is no one thing that is “America.”

At first blush, Kim’s work would seem to discourage any notion that a move toward veganism—not killing animals for food or on behalf of culture of sport—is possible. She is careful not to dismiss out of hand the (overwhelmingly white) advocates who protested live markets, whale-hunting, and dog-fighting as politically naïve and culturally and racially insensitive—even though that may have been the outcome of aspects of their advocacy. She makes clear that the communities who felt under siege did not all agree as a body that they were being victimized and nor did they feel that those who expressed their outrage spoke for them. Indeed, she notes, in the live markets case, local politicians opportunistically used the issue to push for more power for themselves and to undermine rivals.

Kim observes that inserting the rights of animals themselves into the contest over whose rights were being (more) violated complicates these issues even more. She makes it clear that many of the victimized held speciesist assumptions about who was morally valuable in a manner that depended on as rigid a hierarchy as that which had been imposed on them by white people. She gives the reader several reasons to understand why that thinking and that rigidity might be so.

A particularly suggestive and valuable discussion in Kim’s book concerns invasive species—particularly around the live markets debate. She shows how during the long prosecution of their case against live markets, animal advocates switched from accusing the markets of being cruel to animals to suggesting these same animals posed a risk to California fauna by threatening non-native species with extinction, from disease or predation. In doing so, Kim demonstrates (to my mind very convincingly) that the advocates were not only reflecting a speciesism that they accused the perpetrators of but (perhaps unwittingly) perpetuating a notion of alien invaders that mapped how East Asians felt they’d been seen by white culture ever since they arrived on the West Coast of the United States. In addition, by aligning their arguments with environmentalists as opposed to ethicists, the advocates were expressing the profound ambivalence America as a whole has throughout its history felt about immigrants, “the enemy within,” and mongrelization of all kinds.

Kim suggests that efforts by conservationists to preserve native biota and repel invasive species is entrenched in deeply held notions of Nature and American Nature in particular as a kind of pristine place, protected from the chaos, mess, and hybridization of other countries, cities, and other races and cultures. As such, Nature is racialized, homogenized, and purified through the protection of the heroic environmentalist. Needless to say, it’s but a short step to the masculinization of this figure—whether it’s Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Theodore Roosevelt, etc. Not uncoincidentally, that figure is also a killer of animals—except that the killing is called “harvesting” and the animals who are “taken” are pests, vermin, and undesirables who are harming the land and/or disturbing or impinging on other animals that, appropriately, belong to genuine Americans, such as landowners, ranchers, and farmers.

It’s evident to me that we’re now in a moment in America that, on the one hand, seems shockingly new, and yet, if I read Kim correctly, is in fact as old as the country itself, and perhaps even older. President Trump wants to build a wall with Mexico to keep out “illegals.” It may be coincidental (if not quite accidental) that the building of the Wall will also disrupt the passage between countries of larger animals, such as wolves and coyotes—animals who, as with undesirable human aliens, have been hunted and rounded up as enemies of the state. As the animalization of the people-runners “coyotes” and their victims “cockroaches” attests, the boundaries as it were between human and nonhuman, desirable and non-desirable, blur. In both human and nonhuman cases, the Wall encourages the idea that the nation’s integrity is defined by not only who is kept in and who is kept out, but how valued that animal (once in) is in relation to the animal at the top of that food chain.

In this  contrast, cities are once again outside “the natural order of things”: they are places where races mix, citizens consort with aliens, rules are broken, and disorder upends hierarchy. These unnatural “sanctuaries” (note the human and the nonhuman connotations of such a word) must be pacified and brought under control, as an ecosystem is denuded of kudzu so that real nature, American life, might flourish.

Kim offers by way of conclusion a “multi-optic” vision that fosters perspective, connections, and organic solutions rather than a contest for whose oppression “wins.” She challenges the practicability and desirability of the singular, homogeneous, and uniform in approaching relationships in America (whether between humans, between humans and animals, or between humans and the natural world). Instead, she advocates for an acceptance of America as a hybrid concept and reality—indeed, as inherently a country of invasive species that, remarkably, have discovered co-existence and can thrive off that very tangled ecosystem that was never (and can never be) pristine or contained.