Search the Internet for the phrase “animal agriculture under attack,” and you’ll come up with two million results.
What are the problems of animal agriculture?
There are good reasons that this phrase is high profile. Consider the ongoing threat in Oregon from IP 13, a ballot initiative that would remove long-standing provisions in the law that recognize the fact that livestock are different from pets and should not be subject to the same rules on abuse and neglect. Should this initiative pass, livestock animals could not be killed for food—they could be used only for nonlethal purposes such as milk or wool and other fibers, and with much more regulation on how they are cared for. Artificial insemination would be banned. Under Oregon’s initiative petition process, IP 13 organizers have until July 2022 to gather the signatures (over one hundred thousand) needed to get the initiative onto the November 2022 ballot.1 The initiative is highly unlikely to pass, but even the slight chance that it might is of deep concern.
A similar initiative was also filed in Colorado earlier this year. If the measure had gone on to be approved by voters in the 2022 election, it would have prevented animals from being killed unless they had lived at least a quarter of their “natural lifespan,” defined as twenty years for cows and ten years for turkeys, for example.2 But the ballot measure was struck down by the Colorado Supreme Court before reaching the voters, for violating the “single-subject” rule in the Colorado Constitution.
And then there are the seemingly endless calls to reduce or eliminate meat consumption on environmental grounds: the claims about how much water cows use—which ignore the difference between “green water” (soil moisture from precipitation) and “blue water” (groundwater and surface water resources)—complaints about cow farts, the claimed inefficiencies of meat production (which ignore the difference between grain-fed and pastured livestock production), and more.
War On Animal Agriculture Opportunities
These initiatives certainly provide ample grounds to claim a “war on animal agriculture.” But those two million webpages, news articles and podcasts do not simply stem from true grassroots concerns
Rather, for Big Ag, things such as the Oregon and Colorado initiatives are priceless opportunities. They allow the nonprofit entities and individuals who serve as the faces for the interests of companies like Tyson, JBS and Cargill to portray themselves as the victims of attack from crazy vegans and radical environmentalists who will stop at nothing to destroy traditional diets and agriculture.
Are there such people? Yes. Is that all there is to these initiatives or other efforts to reduce meat eating? No. Most of the meat in this country is produced in ways that provide ample grounds for concern from anyone who cares about clean water, clean air, our long-term food supply or treating animals with even a modicum of decency.
Our movement should not allow itself to be used by the monstrosities that are euphemistically called “confined animal feeding operations” or CAFOs. Even the more popular term of “factory farms” fails to capture the problems with these entities. They force animals to live under extreme conditions that cause many to die from stress, polluted air and other causes before they are old enough for harvesting. Many of the farmers—especially in the poultry and hog side of the industry—are nothing more than paid labor, having sacrificed all autonomy and independence in contracts with massive companies that lock them into debt and complete obedience.
In this system, the workers are exploited, both those that labor in the CAFOs, and even more those that work in the massive meatpacking plants. Indeed, the meatpacking plants often recruit undocumented immigrants because they won’t dare file suit about working condition violations or even injuries. Our irreplaceable freshwater resources are frequently polluted, and the people who live near these facilities suffer from the odors, terrible air quality and higher risk of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.
Undoubtedly, some people will read that paragraph and jump to the conclusion that I am a radical activist myself, or at the least blind to the evil designs of activists who wish to abolish animal agriculture. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, I contend that recognizing, naming and fighting to change the problems in the conventional animal agriculture industry is the best, if not only chance for animal agriculture in the long term.
Right now, Big Ag is dominating the discussion about animal welfare and agriculture. It is manipulating the independent ranching and small farm community, sowing fears about animal rights activists so that many ranchers and small farmers are focused on these attacks rather than the big issues of who controls our food system and long-term sustainability.
Consider the debates around the Oregon ballot initiative. A YouTube commentator, the Ice Age Farmer,3 raised the alarm about the proposal. He ridiculed the idea that hogs should have twenty-four square feet of space— which is just six feet by four feet—calling such enclosures “condos.” Yet by both truly traditional farming and regenerative agriculture standards, twenty-four square feet of space is a minimal area, just enough for the hogs to stand up and turn around easily. The commentator also repeatedly quoted the claims of Farm Bureau and other industry mouthpieces about the “efficiency” of conventional agricultural practices, including equating the CAFO practice of dumping their mountains of manure on fields that don’t need more nitrogen with the traditional ways manure has been used to maintain fertility.
And proposals like the Oregon and Colorado initiatives allow Big Ag to make allies with urban liberals. Consider the Animal Agriculture Alliance (a Big Ag PR group, with board members from not only the massive livestock industry, but also the pharmaceutical companies and huge row crop industry that enable the CAFOs to function), which convinced the anti-poverty activists in Massachusetts to join them in fighting even more moderate proposals that would make it more expensive for the CAFOs to produce meat. The massive companies that have reaped profits from squeezing producers, mining our natural resources and producing low-quality food are doing a great job making both ranchers and anti-hunger advocates their champions!
The attacks on self-sufficiency and traditional farming need to be opposed, strongly and vehemently. But we don’t help that fight by acting as a defender for Big Ag.
Falling into this battle of “animal agriculture versus animal rights activists and environmentalists” simply increases the likelihood of one of these outcomes: (1) a continuation of the corporate-controlled CAFO system, with various tweaks to make it sound more acceptable, or (2) a shift to highly processed plant-derived foods that are equally dominated by a few large companies (or some combination of the two).
Covering All The Bases
In support of the first scenario, Big Ag has funded numerous studies showing how CAFOs are more “efficient” than pasture-based livestock. This narrative fits well with American love of high-tech solutions. Consider a new study taking place at Cornell University, funded by Cargill: “Researchers will use the new facilities to understand how animals respond to changes in their diet—with the goal of optimizing livestock nutrition for efficient milk and meat production, minimum greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient waste, and enhanced animal health.”5 This is their response to environmentalist concerns—not returning animals to pasture, where they produce healthy meat and sequester carbon in the soil at the same time, but identifying which feeds will produce maximum weight gain per unit of carbon dioxide or methane emitted. Given a choice between going meatless and supporting “efficient, environmentally friendly” CAFOs, most Americans will continue to buy CAFO meat and reassure themselves that the latest technology has solved the problems.
At the same time, Big Ag is laying the groundwork to win even under the second scenario. Many animal products companies like Tyson have invested significant portions of their business into fake foods derived from plants—continuing to push highly processed, nutritionally deficient foods, through a heavily consolidated system that exploits natural resources, workers, farmers and consumers. These established corporate behemoths are trying to make sure that they don’t lose ground to the extremely well-financed businesses that are backed by big names in our society. Beyond Meat is already a six-billion-dollar company, and its largest investor is Al Gore’s Kleiner-Perkins. Impossible Foods is aiming for a seven-billion-dollar valuation, backed by Serena Williams. And Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Richard Branson are all backing a new vegan meat startup.
A Better Approach Than Animal Agriculture
So, what is the better approach?
I propose that we should reject the false dichotomy that underlies the “war on animal agriculture” discussions and loudly promote pasture-based livestock as an ethical, environmentally positive solution that nourishes people and the land while respecting the welfare of all living creatures.
The grasslands of North America supported hundreds of millions of ruminant animals for millennia. The action of the grazing animals created the deep, rich soils on this continent, and continue to do so today when properly managed. Grazing animals provide nutrient-dense food for humans from lands that should not be plowed or cultivated for crops, making them far more efficient and sustainable. And while there are pastured operations that are less than ideal from an animal welfare standpoint, even poorly managed ones are superior to the huge CAFOs—and, at their best, pasture-based farms and ranches provide a rich, happy life for the animals, one that ends quickly and without pain.
But it’s not only what you say, but how you say it. Informing people of the facts about pastured livestock—carbon sequestration, room for animals to express natural behaviors, etc.—in the role of a schoolteacher correcting a student is unlikely to change anyone’s mind! We must start by connecting with people through shared values, beliefs and emotions, and then showing how our local, pasture-based systems meet those values in a positive way.
Which values motivate people’s desire to end animal agriculture as it’s primarily practiced in this country? For most people, it’s things such as valuing clean air and water for themselves and others, compassion for living things and a desire to avoid inflicting pain, and a need for security for themselves and their children (such as knowing that there will be enough food and accessibility of that food).
I suspect all the readers of this article have those same values and needs. So, lead with that commonality and create a connection. And then explain both how regenerative pastured farms fulfill those values and how the so-called plant-based foods do not.
I say “so-called” because so many of the foods proposed as substitutes for meat are heavily genetically engineered and then heavily processed, so that they are more accurately called lab-based foods than plant-based foods. Consider the Impossible Burger. One of the key ingredients is genetically engineered soy leghemoglobin, grown in industrial vats of yeast fed on broth made of chemically synthesized ingredients that are themselves industrially manufactured. The Impossible Burger uses far more materials and energy than pasture-based beef production (and possibly even more than CAFO-based beef production).
It’s important not to confuse the idea of common values with having the same beliefs. For example, there’s a common conflict between people who believe that humans were given dominion over all the animals and thus animals are there to serve people, and those who do not share that hierarchical belief. But you don’t have to agree on the specific belief about such a hierarchy if you both can agree on the value that no living being should suffer unnecessarily. Look for the commonalities, not the divisions.
There is a war. But it’s not a war against animal agriculture—that’s a diversion. It’s a war about control. Will our food system be controlled by individual human beings, raising real food to feed their communities? Or will it be controlled by a handful of large corporations, producing fake food at the lowest cost possible, seeking to maximize profits in the global markets? We are already far down the latter path, and it will take the collective work of everyone who cares about real food—omnivore, vegan and carnivore alike—to turn that tide.
1. Tim Gruver, Oregon ballot initiative would criminalize hunting, livestock slaughter, even pest control, Washington Examiner (Aug. 6, 2021), available at https://news.yahoo.com/oregon-ballot-initiative-criminalize-hunting-180000451.html
2. Ryan McCarthy, Colorado Supreme Court rules against initiative 16, Meat + Poultry (June 24, 2021), available at https://www.meatpoultry.com/articles/25143-colorado-supreme-court-rules-against-initiative-16.
4. Whitney Flach, Animal agriculture under attack, Iowa Ag Matters (Jan. 17, 2017), available at https://www.iowaagribusinessradionetwork.com/animal-agriculture-under-attack/.
5. Susan Kelly, Cargill helps fund Cornell project to measure cow methane, Meatingplace (Nov. 26 2021), available at https://www.meatingplace.com/Industry/News/Details.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2021🖨️ Print post