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?”