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Synopsis and Commentary: The Satya Humane Meat Discussion of 2006

Synopsis and Commentary: The Satya Humane Meat Discussion of 2006

By Lee Hall


Jivamukti Yoga Studio Café, New York City, 12 October 2006 --The publisher, editors and staff of Satya hosted the Humane Meat Discussion. Catherine (Cat) Clyne introduced the Satya staff and some contributors and groups present at the session. In Clyne’s view, it is important to agree that “we all have one thing in common: we all care -- deeply -- about animals.”

Other introductory words and many subsequent good points were uttered by a variety of articulate contributors; this synopsis and commentary will focus on some of the main points which I believe most directly and importantly relate to the discussion of “humane” animal products. I’ll also add some commentary as the synopsis proceeds. This is not meant to be a comprehensive recording of the meeting. Others will doubtless have their own perspectives and commentaries.

Gene Bauston [now Gene Baur] of Farm Sanctuary commented as the question-and-comment session began. Bauston said that the people interested in this talk basically could be divided into two main classes: There are those of us, Bauston said, who have “hands-on” experience, and those who approach advocacy from an academic, or let’s say a theoretical, perspective. Bauston’s choice of words was apparently establishing Bauston as within the “hands-on” class.

It is common, of course, to hear animal-rights advocates and vegans being dismissed as idealist, ivory-tower, and so forth. Husbandry concessions are invariably justified by the claim that they are realistic, pragmatic, or derived from good business sense.

This dichotomy is merely reflecting (rather than challenging) the status quo: At this time, widespread veganism, although gaining ground, is indeed an ideal; whereas animal products are indeed a business. Going along with business as usual is easier. People serious about animal rights don’t claim that their goal is easy to achieve, but rather that it needs the strength of a movement to further it.

By the later half of the 1970s, we saw a point of view, most strongly associated with Peter Singer, that both breeding and killing (quintessential acts of domination) could co-exist with compassion. Friends of Animals suggested that if activists had kept doing vegan advocacy rather than swap it for a strategy of concessions, perhaps the animal-rights philosophy would appear more realistic today.

A speaker named Chris got visibly upset due to the co-opting of the specific word “compassion” by animal agribusiness. Chris likened the use of the word “compassion” by an enterprise enslaving and killing animals to “a knife in my heart.”

Dan Piraro said words are important but activists ought to get used to them being used in distorted ways because that just happens. For example, the “Clear Skies Initiative” takes an environmentalist idea, clear skies, and turns it into a plan that might be better termed “clearing the skies of birds.” In any case, Piraro insisted, things aren’t going to change, so activists should do anything they can. Piraro would like to see a vegan society, but: “It will never happen -- certainly it will never happen in my lifetime. Think about those guys on death row,” added Piraro, arguing that they’d appreciate better conditions.

Let’s take a closer look at Piraro’s claim. Nonhuman animals won’t be on death row insofar as they aren’t desired as consumer products. That’s the very point of vegan advocacy. Moreover, serious human-rights advocates do not accept the idea that people on death row should be killed humanely nor do the advocates negotiate rules on how to kill them.

There was, then, a brief discussion on slavery, and how it is still going on, and particularly noted was the trafficking of women in Eastern Europe and in the United States.

One participant said that it was not sensible to insist on veganism if it won’t work for people’s children. Cat Clyne suggested that it’s debatable whether breast milk is vegan but suggested reading The Way We Eat. Others pointed out that Dr. Benjamin Spock had given veganism the clearance for babies and children and so had the professional dieticians of the American Dietetic Association.

Someone said we’re all speciesist so let’s not say we’re not; after all we are not blocking the trucks now. The participant added: “And I am not out there doing it for humans either.”

The discussion was then refocused on the circumstances leading to the meeting itself.

Friends of Animals provided some historical information for participants to pick up from the information table explaining how Whole Foods Market had introduced a new foundation designed “to assist and inspire ranchers and meat producers around the world to achieve a higher standard of animal welfare excellence while maintaining economic viability.”

The day it announced the hiring of agribusiness expert Anne Malleau to direct an “Animal Compassion Foundation,” Whole Foods stock hit a record high. Heralded with posters depicting the silhouettes of a cow, pig, and chicken, and designated “First Global Five Percent Day,” the final Tuesday in January 2005 represented the investment of $550,000 out of the company’s global receipts and into the new Foundation.

Friends of Animals representatives decided on that day to distribute information at five Whole Foods locations, asking shoppers to reconsider the idea of funding a concept that will promote research on animal in agribusiness and the unveiling of yet another line of animal products. On 20 January 2005, Priscilla Feral of Friends of Animals wrote to Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey, who had previously written to Feral, “What matters most is the quality of life while we (and farm animals) are alive.”

“No, John,” answered Feral. “What matters most here is that we have the ability to decide whether to keep bringing other animals into existence simply to be sold as food, while using up land and water resources that could be left to animals who really could have free and full lives.”

Then, Whole Foods posted and circulated a statement in the form of a letter from “Animal Rights International” (ARI) to John Mackey, dated 24 Jan. 2005, and headlined “Animal Rights Groups Express Support for Animal Compassion Foundation.” The endorsement was signed by 17 animal-protection groups, following Peter Singer, ARI president. Co-signers included the Animal Welfare Institute, Animal Place, the Animal Protection Institute, the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, Bay Area Vegetarians, the Christian Vegetarian Association, Compassion Over Killing, East Bay Animal Advocates, Farm Sanctuary, Mercy for Animals, Northwest In Defense of Animals, and Vegan Outreach, as well as groups that had supported the corporation’s move more than a year in advance. Attending meetings with Whole Foods and ARI in December 2003 were animal welfare scientists Ian Duncan of the University of Guelph and Renee Bergeron of the University of Laval, and representatives from the Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Vegetarian International Voice for Animals! (Viva! USA), and the Animal Welfare Institute.

Bauston acknowledged that as of the date Satya held its “Humane Meat Discussion” of late 2006, there were still no actual “compassion” standards in place.

Nevertheless, as I stated in the Satya meeting, the corporation is touting its social responsibility promotions, which include its Global Five Percent Day, with an enormous billboard in the expensive Kensington district of London, at the construction site of its new branch. Just across from Hyde Park, the site is Barkers of Kensington, west London's oldest and most elegant department store, bought out by John Mackey for the first named branch of Whole Foods Market. Mackey had already taken over London’s Fresh & Wild chain. Fresh & Wild might not have been an all-vegetarian store before, but it never made pious claims about its false kindness to animals. “Sausages made from humanely treated animals,” the Guardian Observer announced in early 2006, summing up the hype surrounding Mackey’s entrance into Britain.

Friends of Animals reinforced the point that support for family-farming and free-range activism would mean more space taken up on the planet for agribusiness, meaning less room to exist at all for that the free-living animals who could actually have rights. Bauston countered: “If we really believe that free-range farming is bad because it uses more space, then the next step in that argument would support concentrating animal commerce in factory farms!"

Answered a Friends of Animals representative: “No, it would not. The next step in the argument is vegan advocacy.”

Farmer-activist Harold Brown stood up and reminded the meeting of the value of the moral argument. “I’m against all animal agriculture,” says Brown to agriculture students in university presentations. “Now, let’s talk.” Brown observed that students do not shrink at all from such forthright communication of a moral commitment.

Brown explained that there is no point lecturing to students about principles of “animal welfare” -- which is actually husbandry, said Brown, using the precisely correct word. Husbandry is already in the agricultural schools’ curricula, so it doesn’t need any promotion. The more we talk about the serious subject of animal rights, the more industry will respond with husbandry adjustments in an effort to pacify activists and the public. But it's not our job to compromise our views and meekly ask for those reforms. We can’t “dismantle” animal use by compromising with it.

Brown recounted having recently read an article that said one thing industry cannot fight is the moral argument. Thus, Brown continued, it is essential that advocates regain or develop “clarity of thought and purpose.” We have the truths, said Brown, and the Orwellian Big Lie is that we must depend on the market to drive the attitude of consumers. The theme of Brown’s contribution was that the market will not hand the morals to us. Animal advocates, not animal agriculture, will constitute the moral position.

Of the letter signed by 17 groups supporting Whole Foods’ Animal Compassion Foundation, Gene Bauston countered, none of those groups actually endorsed the concept of humane animal products.

James LaVeck of Tribe of Heart read from the letter itself [see http://tinyurl.com/ynqdpd]. The letter signed by Singer says:

“Dear John, The undersigned animal welfare, animal protection and animal rights organizations would like to express their appreciation and support for the pioneering initiative being taken by Whole Foods Market in setting Farm Animal Compassionate Standards. …”

LaVeck asked if anyone could argue that it was anything other than an endorsement. No one could or would reply that it was anything other than an endorsement.

Lauren Ornelas got up, spoke of promoting the concept of the Foundation with Mackey in the first place, and recounted how hard it was to be at the table and be sure that “animal rights groups” could be trusted to behave themselves. Ornelas also claimed to have persuaded Mackey to go vegan.

Disturbed by this, I got up and explained that this invocation of “vegan” was both a misuse of language and a distortion of vegan activism. Is Mackey vegan? No one is vegan who eats goat cheese and eggs. Moreover, as a significant an international marketer of animal secretions and flesh, Mackey cannot possibly claim to be striving to opt out of animal agribusiness, which is what a vegan does. But this notion of “I don’t use the prostitutes; I just sell them”: What is the word for that?

Lauren Ornelas then said that, well, Mackey was vegan.

Let’s take a closer look at that claim. Right before unveiling the Animal Compassion Foundation, Mackey publicly said, “Technically, I am not a pure vegan because I eat eggs from my own chickens.” Amanda Griscom Little, “The Whole Foods Shebang: An interview with John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods” (Grist; 17 Dec 2004).

There are no pure and impure vegan categories. Either one commits to a society that believes other animals were put here for the convenience and entertainment of humanity, or one does not. Eggs are currently the focus of many groups’ free-range farming promotions, including many of the groups listed on the support letter to Mackey, so it happens to be especially significant in the politics of advocacy and co-optation that Mackey promotes them, and it’s not rightly dismissed.

Eddie Lama of Oasis Sanctuary had this to say about purportedly seeking animal rights by campaigning for animal husbandry adjustments: If I want to grow figs, I do not plant an apple tree. If I want to eat pears, I do not plant a chestnut tree.

The grand focus of the animal-rights perspective is being lost, warned Lama. Few organizations support it. Lama compared scenes from FaunaVision (video footage involving the death of nonhuman animals in agribusiness) to how the vegan might view many of the aisles of Whole Foods.

“I’m so hurt,” said Lama, “When I’m in Whole Foods Market, and I see the miles of bodies, all dolled up. Then they have these posters advertising their supposed humanely treated animals. They show the pictures of them, their former selves, grazing in the field.”

Lama then said of the many animals on their way to a terrible end, I see so many. “I would buy them to save them.”

Invoking the famous Einstein quote, Lama said we cannot simultaneously expect peace between ourselves and other animals, and simultaneously prepare for war against them.

Let husbandry changes come where they will, urged Lama, but don’t waste time entrenching animal use. Lama repeated the call for clarity.

Bauston said that we have to understand reality, to stop living outside of the real world. Bauston referred to the importance of pushing Proposition 204 in Arizona. [That proposal entailed a seven-year phase-in of a new minimum size for pig and calf containment. Farm Sanctuary, its website said, “is committed to passing a measure on the ballot that would simply allow animals such as these enough room to turn around and extend their limbs.” The site also condoned promotions of animal agribusiness for children: “Prop 204 is only about massive factory farming operations, not 4-H kids. Not only does Prop 204 specifically exempt county fairs and exhibitions, but 4-H kids do not confine pregnant pigs in gestation crates.” Such campaigns play well to conservative ideas of traditional business and family values, yet completely avoid animal-rights advocacy. In fact, the campaigners argued that their goal was no threat to animal agribusiness: “There is no evidence to support this claim whatsoever, and in counties which have already banned both gestation crates and veal crates, there are still pork and veal industries.”]

One meeting participant said to Gene Bauston: You mentioned that we all need to get into the real world. There is no real world, other than what we make of it; you, telling us to get into the real world, remind me of someone from the 60s with a crew cut saying “Cut your hair and grow up.”

Bauston said: I didn’t mean it to come out that way. What I mean is that you have to understand business.

Cat Clyne ended with a prepared synopsis which cited Patty Mark’s interview in the September issue of Satya which states that 30 years of reform has done very little to help animals.

Juxtaposed against this, Clyne quoted Peter Singer, who has recently said that in one sense, the argument of Animal Liberation failed. “I sort of hoped people would read the book and say yes, this is right, I’ve got to do something about it…so the movement will rapidly spread. And these industries, factory farming, will collapse because people will stop demanding its products.” This hasn’t happened, so Singer says we “have to think about what else we can do to stop the immense amount of suffering that happens to factory farmed animals in particular. I focus on that because that’s where the greatest amount of suffering is. That’s where the numbers are so much overwhelmingly larger … I think you have to start thinking about other tactics that will lead not necessarily to a vegan world but to a world without factory farming.”

By framing animal advocacy merely as a challenge to “factory farming” (widely considered a relatively abusive form of animal commerce), Singer interrupted the holistic activism that logical vegetarians, known since 1944 as vegans, have been promoting for well over a century: the opting out of all animal products.

So is the debate properly limited to the past 30 years? Friends of Animals itself dates back to 1957. Unequivocally promoting an abolitionist position in 1944, Donald Watson and comrades founded the Vegan Society in the spirit of profound respect for animals and a clear viewpoint that small farms weren't the answer back then, and never will be. Other animals, as Watson saw them, are not to be here at our whim until they outlive their usefulness to us.

Veganism was not about utilitarianism or handing over our power to corporations, nor about attempting to derive our power from corporations, but about abolishing vast exploitive industries through conscientious objection and replacing them with clearly defined vegan initiatives. The point, as Watson laid it out, was that by renouncing dominion we’d bring humanity to the first civilization that merits the name. Handing authority to exploitive corporations (big or small) in order to get respect for other animals simply did not and does not make sense.