Saturday, May 30, 2009

Vegetarianism is looking good

I just finished reading this interesting book. Farm Sanctuary is both a place and a movement that advocates for the humane treatment of livestock. It was founded by Gene Baur in the 1980s. Farm Sanctuary has been pushing hard against industrialized agriculture and the inevitable animal abuse it entails, and has had some successes. In California, for example, they managed to persuade the legislature to enact laws making it illegal to slaughter "downer" cattle for human consumption. Learning that in most places that a steer not being able to walk to the slaughtering chute on his own didn't prevent that sick steer from ending up as steak does make Boca Burgers suddenly look a lot more appetizing than they used to.

Theoretically, that's no longer true in this country, but it wasn't until March of this year that downer cattle were removed from the human food chain. The inability to walk is one of the symptoms of "mad cow" disease; I can't help but wonder just how many people are walking around now with BSE prions slowly wending their way into neural channels and causing dementia that's being misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's.

On one level I found myself thinking the author was more than slightly nuts for getting a little too warm and fuzzy about chickens having personalities and sheep actually being capable of thought. On another, though, the descriptions of the incredibly inhumane conditions that factory farming entails really makes a person wants to switch over to living on legumes ASAP.

The author also brought out an interesting point when it comes to livestock. All the breeds favored now for milk production, meat production, egg production, etc., have been bred to the point where they're essentially incapable of breeding naturally. I've known for a long time that the domestic turkey, for example, has been bred to the point where that humongous breast makes it impossible for the tom turkeys to get it on with the hens. Turkeys have to be artificially inseminated. That's also happening with chickens -- although in the case of chickens it isn't so much that they're physically incapable, it's more a bizarre case of the meatier the chicken the more insane the cockerels are. The mature roosters are apparently psycho, so aggressive and violent they kill the hens in the process of trying to mount them. Very, very strange.

In any case, birds have it worst when it comes to factory farming, swine are kept in appalling conditions, most dairy cattle lead wretched lives, and beef cattle have it the best. Cattle feed lots can be pretty disgusting in terms of the cattle enduring mud, dust, and crowded conditions, but they are able to move around. Of course, even if cattle feed lots are the least inhumane of the factory farming options, they're still a nightmare in public health terms because the cattle are grain-fed, which encourages E. coli, and then the e. coli gets into the watershed and ends up contaminating vegetables being grown downstream, like spinach and lettuce.

I'm enough of a carnivore that I'm probably never going to give up red meat entirely, but am thinking that it's time to explore locavore options, like tracking down some of the farms where they raise livestock on grass and sell direct to the consumer.

The sad thing with farming, of course, and the book never really gets into it, is why we wound up with these humongous industrialized operations to begin with. Some of it was economies of scale, but in other cases it was an unintended consequence of good intentions. Dairy farms, for example, became regulated to the point where a small farm could not afford the equipment needed to meet the standard for selling grade A milk for human consumption (i.e., a totally closed system that takes the milk straight from the cow to a bulk tank that's kept chilled to a certain temperature). They had to grow to stay in business. When you get beyond a certain number of cows, it's too big an operation for it to be strictly a family operation -- you need hired hands. If you have hired hands, you have to get bigger. And so it goes -- an endless growth loop with an end result of "farms" with 5000 cows. By then, of course, it's no longer a farm -- it's an industrialized factory and an environmental nightmare.


  1. I dunno, I don't find it all that incredible that a chicken might have a personality and sheep might be capable of thought. Anyone who has ever owned a parrot or a dog will tell you they have personalities and, while they are not likely pondering great philosophical truths, they do appear to have the ability to think rationally. I don't think chickens and sheep are substantially different.

    And the conditions are appalling on many so-called "farms."

    I'm not ready to be a vegetarian, either, but I am in favor of requiring more humane conditions on farms, even if the end result is that I have to pay a bit more for my steak and eggs.

  2. Having done hobby farming and kept chickens, geese, swine, and cattle in the past, I'm really, really dubious about the possibility of most chickens having even the rudiments of intelligence. Swine and geese, on the other hand, are smarter than some people I know.


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