It’s obvious now: Severe damage is caused by humanity’s penchant for treating the planet as our storehouse, and all living beings as our personal stock. As public awareness grows, companies sense a need to adjust. But they’ve managed, perversely, to use the need for change as a means to avoid it. Thus the rise of “greenwashing” — the appearance of cultivating ecological awareness in hopes of getting a higher profile for whatever they happen to be selling us.
Harrogate Spa, a bottled water company, says it will sell its water in lighter bottles to save plastic — avoiding the issue that we might reconsider our love for water in plastic altogether. Boeing is taking orders for what some call “green aircraft,” as though we could keep flying while the profit-driven aircraft industry solves, or at least ameliorates, the ecological damage.
Ranchers, too, are learning public relations techniques.
We know animal agribusiness plays a major role in global warming, and the resultant refugee emergencies and mass extinctions. Surely this means animal advocates are approaching their heyday as political leaders for our time. After all, who better suited to advise a concerned public on shifting our culture away from its current reliance on meat and dairy products?
Alas. Mainstream advocates aren’t taking the cue. On the contrary, they’ve made themselves a party to a new and ominous form of greenwashing. Allowing supposedly kinder, gentler animal farms to appear attractive, they have invented a new PR trend. One words fits: hogwashing.1
British and U.S. pig breeders are phasing out their smallest crates as they wrap their bacon and sausages in packaging that tells us how decent they are; and Waitrose, one of Britain’s major grocery chains, touts its milk as benefiting wildlife.2 Whole Foods Market boasts of concocting a non-profit “Animal Compassion Foundation” — and now presents sales of animal flesh as tantamount to a charitable undertaking, with the endorsement, no less, of 17 animal-advocacy groups. Similarly, advocates are promoting the use of “cage-free” eggs (a technically undefined term, usually meaning “expensive”) everywhere from the Google corporation to your local school. The eggs are so popular now that there’s reportedly a national shortage.
Ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s drew plenty of hype as the first major food manufacturer to announce it would (in a few years, anyway) use only “cage-free” eggs. At the same time, many chicken farmers say that popularizing the cage-free idea will likely mean crowding thousands of hens on shed floors, possibly leading to hunger, even cannibalism. Advocates may prefer to picture a victorious step to animal nirvana; yet all the while, plenty of animal-friendly companies produce desserts with no eggs — and, for that matter, no milk. The last thing such ethics-based firms need is competition from pious dairy vendors endorsed by animal advocates.
Then there’s Niman Ranch. This outfit exhorts us to “[s]erve with pride the world’s finest natural beef, pork and lamb” and had the audacity to show up and speak at a gathering called “Taking Action for Animals 2007.” Billed as the largest national conference of the animal-protection movement, Taking Action exemplified the trend to restyle agribusinesses as animal-welfare societies when “approved” purveyors of animal flesh held the microphone. A charitable organization called the Animal Welfare Institute evidently paid $10,000 to present this infomercial.3
In short, hogwashing offers the customer a chance to eat animals and advocate for them in the same bite. It need not mean people are eating less of the older, unholier products. Unsure if this trend is boosting the industry? Consider this: Wolfgang Puck’s branding consultant introduced the celebrity chef to the president of the world’s wealthiest animal charity.4 The branding expert, who formerly ran Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, saw animal husbandry as the key to a profile boost for Puck. Within a year, Puck unveiled a new handling plan for the animals who will wind up braised with a side of sautéed Spätzle.
Viewing animals as commodities, even well-handled commodities, isn’t animal protection. The ultimate betrayal of an animal is especially stark after the being has been treated almost like a pet (like the animals at Niman Ranch, who, we’re told, are walked into slaughter by someone who knew them by name).5 To take animals’ interests seriously is to opt out of animal agribusiness.
When animal advocates acquire too much “maturation and sophistication” for that, they’re praised by the mainstream media for gaining “influence”6 — praised, that is, for accepting their culture’s corporate values so well. “Instead of telling it like it is, we’re learning to present things in a more moderate way,” one farm rescue activist told the New York Times. So only foie gras is off-limits (for now; an award-winning “ethical” foie gras is on the way). Every other animal product, it seems, is acceptable, under the “mature” advocates’ guidance. Even veal can pass these days — yes, there’s an uncrated version of little dead cows, as Wolfgang Puck was quick to ascertain, and activists now praise Puck for renouncing cruel veal producers.
Granted, “telling it like it is” won’t give you instant popularity. For the authoritative remark on that, the New York Times quotes the CEO of a cattle ranchers’ group who declares that people opposing meat are “so off the wall” no one pays attention to them. Unfortunately, when mainstream advocacy groups seek wealth and easy public acceptance at the expense of core values, they too consider anyone committed to those values as inconvenient.
Here, then, is an inconvenient truth: While some advocates play footsie with wealthy steakhouse owners, ice cream vendors and ranchers, the annihilation of the world’s free animals — caused largely by the dairies and ranches of the world — runs out of control. Wouldn’t a true animal-protection movement consistently support work that attempts to conserve water and wilderness and avoid boosting that which deforests and pollutes it? Another popular animal protection group has called Burger King’s “preferential option to chicken plants that slaughter animals in a controlled atmosphere” (that means slaughterhouses that contain gas chambers) “praiseworthy.” Gee. Wouldn’t a true animal-protection movement promote, say, juice bars?
Ah, but roughly 97% of the potential donors to animal charities eat chickens.7 Thus, few organized groups choose to risk their growth potential as the world’s forests are cut down for animal farms and animal feed. It’s easier for the heads of charities to maintain that a return to something like the old family farm will restore an “ethic” to our relationship with the planet and its life. And that’s how Niman Ranch managed to style itself as “taking action for animals.”
Setting a Precedent
Environmentalists rightly warn that the chemicals and pathogens which plague mechanized farms can also contaminate soil, water, animal products, and our own bodies. But ecological problems aren’t limited to high-volume producers. A cow on a pasture is still a cow, needing plenty of water and food — and somewhere to eliminate it all. All forms of animal agribusiness demand large quantities of fossil fuels and generate a potent mix of greenhouse gases. The free-range movement just spreads it around more. Nevertheless, some who are vegetarian for reasons of conscience or politics are “beginning to take that activism and shift it towards eating sustainable meat,” Reuters recently declared, quoting a chef who avoided meat for 20 years but now thinks the “grass-fed movement is the new vegetarianism.”
Such bizarre statements can easily find their way into print, given our culture’s traditional willingness to maintain our life-or-death authority over other animals. The least convenient truth of all? We must question our own authority if we would heal our relationship with our planet. We must learn reverence for life before life as we know it is gone.
Our present course is expected to extinguish half of all plant and animal species by 2100, according to biologist Edward O. Wilson. Even as you read this, free-living animals are being wiped out for companies such as Niman Ranch, Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, and Whole Foods Market. Their habitat will be converted to hold living commodities, scheduled to die in a place where human workers are driven to perform dozens of soulless acts throughout the hours of their days.
And now that biofuels, along with animal feed, vie for space with food crops, we’re headed for a serious food shortage. This crisis will be exacerbated as the effects of climate change hinder crop growth, leading to riots and political instability. Given all this, what kind of precedent do activists in well-off regions set? Imagine what the planet would look like if everybody ate as much meat and dairy as North Americans.
Indeed, within just nine years, people in developing economies will expectedly eat 30% more cowflesh, 50% more pig meat and 25% more domesticated birds. Hogflesh and animal fats in general make up a quarter of the average caloric intake in China, compared to just 6% two decades ago.8 China’s now the world’s third dairy producer, and that’s a population that has long considered dairy products distasteful. Although research has linked the switch to a Western diet with heightened breast cancer risk, Xinran, author of What the Chinese Don’t Eat, says the “dairification” of China may involve admiration for Western customs. Even India, with its substantial vegetarian population, has seen chicken consumption nearly double since 2000. What appears to market analysts as an economic-development success story is actually a strain on our grain crops, Newsweek has acknowledged, because seven kilograms of feed go into every kilogram of cattle flesh.
We the people of the already affluent world, who have been able to make time for activism, ought to provide rational advocacy models, in which the point is not to accept animal use. Excellent models are available, from community gardens and co-operative vegan-organic farming projects to educational and culinary fairs exemplified by the tremendously popular London Vegan Festival.
Last year, the University of Chicago News Office announced the work of assistant professors Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin — work that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization soon accepted as a key study — with the headline “Vegan Diets Healthier for Planet, People Than Meat Diets.” These researchers have shown how vegans spare the atmosphere about a ton and a half of greenhouse gases per person per year, compared to omnivores eating the same number of calories. The university press office distributed its release accompanied by photos of the two scientists preparing fruit and vegetable salads on a kitchen-style countertop amidst their bookshelves — offering an inspiration to others to put conscientious culinary interests right in the middle of their work and thinking. Notably, Eshel was once a cattle farmer, but now cultivates an organic vegetable farm. Everyday activism like this will start people thinking that the fertile plains of North America, and the rain forests to the South, should be reclaimed from the feedlots and the vast monocultures of corn and soybean feed crops. As demand wanes and ranches are phased out, the pressure we exert on populations of free-living horses and burros, elk and bison, and the big carnivores too, will begin to ebb, while we cultivate something we’ve long missed: a feeling of living harmoniously with the rest of our biocommunity.
How tragic if we fail to see the opportunity. How tragic if the up-and-coming activists of China and elsewhere come to see animal advocacy as purporting to treat commodified cows humanely. Worldwide, the space used by six-point-six billion humans is vastly expanded as animals are bred into existence to be food. There is nothing sustainable, let alone kind, about it. So let us stop fantasizing and get to the point. What animal agribusiness is selling, we don’t need.
- James LaVeck, in “Compassion for Sale?” (Satya, September 2006), defined “hogwashing” as “the practice of generating the public appearance of having compassion for animals while continuing to kill millions of them for profit.” [↩]
- Stonyfield Farm has partnered with various non-profits, beginning with Jane Goodall. Using packaging that described African habitats and animals, the company assured children they could be “planet protectors” by caring for the environment — presumably, in part, through Stonyfields’s dairy products. [↩]
- According to the website of “Taking Action for Animals 2007, the largest national conference of the animal protection movement,” sponsors of $10,000 and above received the “[o]pportunity to organize one event or conference session” as well as two “premium exhibit spaces at Conference.” [↩]
- See Kim Severson, “Bringing Oinks and Moos Into the Food Debate,” New York Times and International Herald Tribune, July 25, 2007. [↩]
- Nicolette Hahn Niman, Taking Action for Animals, Washington, D.C. (July 2007) (audio on file with author). [↩]
- See “Bringing Oinks and Moos Into the Food Debate” (note 4 above). [↩]
- A series of surveys by the US-based Vegetarian Resource Group shows between two and three percent of respondents consistently avoid eating flesh products, and about 1.4 percent of the total population is vegan, avoiding all animal products, including eggs and dairy. [↩]
- “Revenge of the Pork,” China Economic Review, July 2007. [↩]