Commercial enterprises are such good distracters. Climate meltdown is the ultimate threat, the nemesis to agribusiness — and CEOs duly respond with the cleverest forms of greenwash. They promise to reduce emissions by using new kinds of animal feeds. They boast of plans to convert methane into electricity. And a significant segment of the industry claims to use animals as part of a natural ecology, touting idyllic conditions or organic methods.
What’s worse? Seeing animal and environmental advocates drawn into this dangerous game. Activists try to improve husbandry practices or promote supposedly sustainable animal farms because it’s an easier sell than the go-vegan-or-else approach; but many experienced and thoroughly practical gardeners consider dabbling in animal agribusiness reforms misguided.
In 1944, when just over two billion people occupied the planet and before the era of mass-scale industrial farming, Donald Watson and a few like-minded people founded The Vegan Society based on the opinion that the truly idyllic and sustainable animal farm didn’t exist in the early 1900s, and never will. Watson was a vegan-organic gardener — steering clear of animal manure, bonemeal and blood, and instead using compost for fertility. Why aren’t more animal and environmental advocates following this example?
In the 1970s, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (followed by Animal Factories, authored with Jim Mason in 1980) described large animal processing plants as horrifying places; but Singer has steadfastly maintained that breeding and killing can co-exist with the idea of treating animals fairly. In other words, Singer appears to believe that the animal factory, not animal farming per se, constitutes the ethical problem. Singer is often credited with propelling the animal-rights movement; but by framing advocacy as a challenge to factory farming, Singer interrupted vegan activism.
Today, major grocery chains are asking producers to be less like assembly lines and more like old times — then cashing in. Whole Foods Market claims “to assist and inspire ranchers and meat producers around the world to achieve a higher standard of animal welfare excellence while maintaining economic viability.” Peter Singer, together with an alarming number of animal-protection groups, endorsed Whole Foods’ Animal Compassion Foundation, which turned out to be quite lucrative in North America — and beyond. “Sausages made from humanely treated animals,” the Guardian Observer announced in early 2006, summing up the hype surrounding Whole Foods Market’s British debut.
Pig Business, aired on British television just this summer, is a much-heralded documentary by Tracy Worcester, who has worked on behalf of Friends of the Earth. Brimming with disturbing images (some of which were excised for the television audience), the film decries pig crates, rough handling, and cheap meat. Worcester points out that foreign pigflesh — from the US-based multinational Smithfield, for example — would fail British expectations of handling and housing standards. The film’s promoters laud small farms and local butchers. Agreeing is Zac Goldsmith, former editor of Ecologist magazine and now Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Richmond Park, London: “I think small farming in a localised economy is the answer.” Goldsmith cites Pig Business as helping to “address the unfairness of the system allowing local farmers to be out competed [sic] by cheap imports of much lower standard.”
“I think we all fundamentally like pigs, don’t we?” asks Tracy Worcester, who is married to Henry Somerset, Marquess of Worcester — heir of the Duke of Beaufort and a farmer. But is this factory-crit trend its own form of denial? Worcester will eat bacon, the Telegraph assures its readers — as long as it’s from “really, really happy pigs.”
Those pigs aren’t happy, dear readers; they’re dead. Meanwhile, all this idyllic farming of the affluent people, by the affluent people, for the affluent people pushes free-living animals out of once-thriving biocommunities to make room for the supposedly thrilled pigs. Moreover, animal agribusiness is notorious for its heavy use of fuel to transport crops and animals from place to place.
To get around that, our affluent role models give us the “locavore” trend — exhorting us to buy dairy, eggs, and animal flesh as well as vegetables from area farmers or hobby farms, and to eat roasts and quiches at restaurants with local sources. But even Forbes has run an opinion piece questioning these ideas, citing a study by Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture that connects transport to just 11% of food’s carbon footprint. “No matter how you slice it,” the comment observes, “it takes more energy to bring meat, as opposed to plants, to the table. It takes 6 pounds of grain to make a pound of chicken and 10 to 16 pounds to make a pound of beef.”
The conclusion? “If you want to make a statement, ride your bike to the farmer’s market. If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, become a vegetarian.”
The word “vegan” would have been more straightforward, because egg companies use space and feed and are significant polluters; dairy cows, who live longer than beef cattle and are overfed to stay as productive as possible, are associated with high methane emissions and feed demand. If you really want to reduce greenhouse gases, become a vegan.
And support vegan-organic growers. They’re offering a new path for the human journey. They’re cultivating respect, shielding and celebrating the freedom that’s still possible for animals who live in local ecologies. They are genuine liberators, freeing the land from grazing and fodder production, taking no more water than necessary, avoiding pollution, and returning part of the harvest to other beings and to the land. They know much of global grain harvest is fed to domesticated animals, and that feed crops are invasive — planted where rainforests once flourished. They know financially well-off regions siphon vast quantities of grain unnecessarily from others, and that animal husbandry puts enormous pressure on the world’s water. They point to a way out of these problems.
Activists who prefer to pursue humane animal agribusiness say we must do something for animals suffering in factory farms right now. Some think vegan education is just too slow, or that a vegan humanity isn’t possible anyway. They sound like realists, so they’re pretty effective at making vegans sound marginal. But are they right?
Copernicus must have felt marginal in a society that generally assumed our planet was the central fixture in the cosmos. Relatively quickly in the course of history, humanity’s perspective was radically changed; likewise, the vegan movement offers a fresh perspective, and it’s poised to make human the supremacist view obsolete. Environmentalists have discovered how incorrect that old view is. Earthworms, bees and other supposedly insignificant beings are now understood as enormously influential in the biocommunity. Meanwhile, the vegan philosophy has posited that we cannot give animals some kind of moral rank; all are entitled to live on their own terms, bees and earthworms included.
We all have the wonderful potential to accept this philosophy today. Trying to get there in increments — say, by switching to “cage-free” eggs or supporting free-range concepts — means forgetting that Earth’s space is finite, that animals are displaced by commercial landscapes, that the spread of pasture-based farming uproots free-living beings and snuffs out their lives.
When the idea of human supremacy — and its corollary, the treatment of the world as our warehouse — is understood as a destructive myth, it will be replaced by a new paradigm. By learning to cook vegan dishes or to cultivate vegan-organic gardens, many people are preparing for that shift today. The social change could become apparent relatively quickly, and that’s good. By most predictions, we have little time to spare.