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Sustainable, Free-Range Farms and Other Tall Tales

Factory farming’s not the problem — it’s animal farming

Large health care corporations are doing it. Trendy groceries are doing it. Environmental advocacy groups are doing it. Suddenly, it’s all the rage to tout animal-based farming that’s sustainable and healthful.

Kaiser Permanente, the largest U.S. health maintenance organization, is co-sponsoring FoodMed 2005, “the first conference on healthy food in health care.” Registrants will learn how they can avoid growth hormones when purchasing milk products, thereby supporting a “step in the restoration of a healthy dairy system.”

Trader Joe’s has announced plans to “improve its laying hen welfare policy” by marketing house brand eggs that aren’t from “cruel cages.” The implication is that there will be more space for hens who lay Trader Joe’s eggs. Male and worn-out female birds don’t get a mention; but competitive market value does. As CEO Dan Bane says, “Customers looking for cage-free eggs will need to look no further than the Trader Joe’s label. We expect this change will help further boost the proportion of sales of cage-free eggs at Trader Joe’s.”

The Sierra Club now vaunts tours arranged by an organic dairy business, and lauds Buchmayer’s Dairy for “continually offering exceptional products” and “encouraging our youth to be involved in agriculture and teach sustainable methods that will leave future generations with a farm and family lifestyle that will be attractive and profitable.” Machetta’s Organic Meats win praise that strongly suggests that health benefits will accrue to customers. And the Sierra Club calls Larry Sansom’s grass-fed cattle “a success” because Sansom has run out of cattle every year.

What if we took such models of agribusiness seriously? We’d still be in a heap of trouble. Of course, the heap would be spread about over a lot more pasture.

The elite meat

Even if eating animal products could make us healthy — and that’s not a particularly persuasive proposition — animals fed an all-organic diet would make for an end product that’s beyond financial means of most of the world’s households.

And if corporations were to take free-range seriously — not just removing cages, but buying access to pasture — then it’s a matter of finding those communities able to pay for the bodies of animals who, when living, took up the most space. That flunks the straight-face test. From both an animal rights and an environmental perspective, space for animal agribusiness doesn’t need to be expanded; it needs to be phased out.

Already, most of the landmass of the contiguous United States is taken up by agriculture — primarily for resource-guzzling animal processing. Worldwide, the demand of six billion humans for physical space is vastly expanded as animals are bred into existence to be food commodities. These domestic animals now outnumber us by an estimated factor of three to one. There is nothing sustainable, let alone kind, about animal agribusiness.

Meanwhile, as precious time passes, the other animals of the world — those living on nature’s terms, those who might have a chance to keep their territory and thus their freedom — are pushed to the margins of the land.

Animal protectionism is often considered separate from environmentalism, so such losses tend to go unnoticed. But why? Why do animal advocates spend comparatively little time intervening for free-living animals’ interests in simple freedom? Some campaigners will answer that animals used for food are always in our midst, whereas free animals are often so far away.

That begs the question: Why is it taken for granted that other animals always have the “yield” sign and we’ve got the right-of-way?

If campaigners are too busy to supply thoughtful answers, chances are they’re busy negotiating concessions with industries. Agreements with corporations can effectively promote both the industries that use animals and those that advocate for welfare improvements. Hence, many an animal advocacy group spends the better part of its time focused on dreary details about the use of antibiotics, the numbers of animals in a cage, the dimensions of a shed, an animal’s age at the time of slaughter, or whether an animal is properly stunned before dying. An eerie aspect of the bulk of today’s animal advocacy — and it grows bulkier each year — is that it’s primarily concerned about how to treat animals once they’re already under our collective thumb.

A plain-speaking movement

Environmentalists warn that the chemicals and sicknesses which plague animal factories can also contaminate soil, water, animal products, and our own bodies. These concerns about factory farms are warranted. But ecological problems don’t stop there. A cow with access to fresh air and pasture is still a cow, and cows need plenty of water and food — in the industrialized world, about 70 percent of grain is fed to domesticated animals — and somewhere to eliminate it all, once digested. The rumination of cows produces methane gas, which matches the global warming potential of carbon dioxide 21 times over. And the animal-based farm uses far more land than that taken by the growing of vegetable crops and the use of sloped areas for fruit trees. Animal agribusiness is associated with vast deforestation, the creation of monocultures, and reliance on massive doses of chemical pesticides.

Which brings us to another reason that we just cannot afford to waste any more time attempting to reform animal farms: the exigency presented by the biggest set of extinctions and the most ominous climate indicators in modern history. Designing campaigns around more space for animals destined to wind up on plates at trendy restaurants and pricey grocers is environmental malpractice.

Joining their energies and educating relentlessly, the environmentalist and the animal advocate could effectively shield what little pristine environment is left in the world, and what freedom is still possible for animals who call it home. Thinking and working together, they could replace the fantasy of sustainable and humane animal farming with a plain-speaking movement that gets to the point: We just don’t need to buy what animal agribusiness is selling.

If we’re agreed on this point, good. Expect a whole lot of people (especially the ones with a penchant for goat cheese) to try to argue you out of it. It’s unreasonable to believe that the consumption of animals will end in their lifetimes, they’ll say — you utopian, you.

But it can end in their own lifetimes, and that’s what it takes. If we put our energy where our vision is, reasonable people can consider the message and act accordingly. Each one who does makes a revolutionary change, and it’s a matter of plain and simple sanity to start a revolution that arrives at respect for other beings and our global commons.


This article, written by Lee Hall, was first published on Dissident Voice on 18 November 2005.