Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Size Does Matter

I spent part of yesterday at the annual meeting of the PEI Adapt Council, a progressive body trying to find and encourage new approaches to producing food. One of the participants was a very dynamic and convincing farmer from Nova Scotia called Patricia  Bishop. She and her husband run Taproot Farms:
a relatively large vegetable operation (more than 400 acres, a third now organic, the rest in transition). At the heart of their business is something called C.S.A. or Community Shared (some say supported, but shared is the better word for Bishop) Agriculture. 400 families in Halifax get their vegetables weekly from Taproot Farms (this is where size and scale comes in).

Bishop and others at the conference are trying to get the people who buy food (their customers) to see themselves as more than consumers, but as citizens, fully engaged in promoting and supporting local food production  (that's why the idea of shared is so important.) Bishop told a terrific story of their delivery van breaking down (engine seized) and how she found the perfect replacement, a brand new van but with a hefty price tag, $45,000, something the farm couldn't afford. She let her customers know the dilemma, and said anyone who offered money would get it back in produce in the future. She quickly had the needed $10,000 down payment, and a vehicle she hopes will be around for decades.

CSA is a good news story, the middleman is cut out, there is that direct relationship between farmer and eater. There are CSA farms on PEI. A dozen or so have been started and most didn't succeed. Scale is an issue, the number of potential customers (with universities, and a large civil service)  in Halifax  creates a much better chance for success. Customers helping "their farmer" buy a new truck takes CSA to a whole new level.

Two pieces today on raising livestock and eating meat, one with a different take on how we normally see plants.  No one said this was going to be easy.

March 15, 2011

Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

It’s time to take a look at the line between “pet” and “animal.” When the ASPCA sends an agent to the home of a Brooklyn family to arrest one of its members for allegedly killing a hamster, something is wrong.
That “something” is this: we protect “companion animals” like hamsters while largely ignoring what amounts to the torture of chickens and cows and pigs. In short, if I keep a pig as a pet, I can’t kick it. If I keep a pig I intend to sell for food, I can pretty much torture it. State laws known as “Common Farming Exemptions” allow industry — rather than lawmakers — to make any practice legal as long as it’s common. “In other words,” as Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of “Eating Animals,” wrote me via e-mail, “the industry has the power to define cruelty. It’s every bit as crazy as giving burglars the power to define trespassing.”
Meanwhile, there are pet police. So when 19-year-old Monique Smith slammed her sibling’s hamster on the floor and killed it, as she may have done in a fit of rage last week, an ASPCA agent — there are 18 of them, busily responding to animal cruelty calls in the five boroughs and occasionally beyond — arrested her. (The charges were later dropped, though Ms. Smith spent a night in jail at Rikers Island.)
In light of the way most animals are treated in this country, I’m pretty sure that ASPCA agents don’t need to spend their time in Brooklyn defending rodents.

In fact, there’s no rationality to be found here. Just a few blocks from Ms. Smith’s home, along the M subway line, the city routinely is poisoning rodents as quickly and futilely as it possibly can, though rats can be pets also. But that’s hardly the point. This is: we “process” (that means kill) nearly 10 billion animals annually in this country, approximately one-sixth of the world’s total.
Many if not most of these animals are raised (or not, since probably a couple of hundred million are killed at birth) industrially, in conditions that the philosopher Peter Singer and others have compared to concentration camps. Might we more usefully police those who keep egg-laying hens in cages so small the birds can’t open their wings, for example, than anger-management-challenged young people accused of hamstercide?
Yet Ms. Smith was charged as a felon, because in New York (and there are similar laws in other states) if you kick a dog or cat or hamster or, I suppose, a guppy, enough to “cause extreme physical pain” or do so “in an especially depraved or sadistic manner” you may be guilty of aggravated cruelty to animals, as long as you do this “with no justifiable purpose.”
But thanks to Common Farming Exemptions, as long as I “raise” animals for food and it’s done by my fellow “farmers” (in this case, manufacturers might be a better word), I can put around 200 million male chicks a year through grinders (graphic video here), castrate — mostly without anesthetic — 65 million calves and piglets a year, breed sick animals (don’t forget: more than half a billion eggs were recalled last summer, from just two Iowa farms) who in turn breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, allow those sick animals to die without individual veterinary care, imprison animals in cages so small they cannot turn around, skin live animals, or kill animals en masse to stem disease outbreaks.
All of this is legal, because we will eat them.
We have “justifiable purposes”: pleasure (or, at this point, habit, because eating is hardly a pleasure if you do it in your car, or in 10 minutes), convenience — there are few things more filling per dollar than a cheeseburger — and of course corporate profits. We should be treating animals better and raising fewer of them; this would naturally reduce our consumption. All in all, a better situation for us, the animals, the world.
Arguing for the freedom to eat as much meat as you want is equivalent to arguing for treating farm animals as if they could not feel pain. Yet no one would defend Ms. Smith’s cruel action because it was a pet and therefore not born to be put through living hell.
Is it really that bad? After all, a new video from Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, makes industrial pig-raising seem like a little bit of heaven. But undercover videos from the Humane Society of the United States tell quite a different story, and a repulsive one. It also explains why we saw laws proposed by friends of agribusiness in both Iowa and Florida in recent weeks that would ban making such videos: the truth hurts, especially if you support the status quo.
Our fantasy is that until the industrial era domesticated animals were treated decently. Maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t; but certainly they weren’t turned out by the tens of thousands as if they were widgets.
We’re finally seeing some laws that take the first steps toward generally ameliorating cruelty to farm animals, and it’s safe to say that most of today’s small farmers and even some larger ones raise animals humanely. These few, at least, are treated with as much respect as the law believes we should treat a hamster.
For the majority of non-pets, though, it’s tough luck. 

No Face, but Plants Like Life Too

by CAROL KAESUK YOON  •  March 14, 2011

Several years ago, after having to drive for too long behind a truck full of stinking, squealing pigs being delivered for slaughter, I gave up eating meat. I’d been harboring a growing distaste for the ugliness that can be industrial agriculture, but the real issue was a long-suppressed sympathy for its — or really, my — victims. Even screaming, reeking pigs, or maybe especially screaming, reeking pigs, can evoke stark pity as they tumble along in a truck to their deaths.
If you think about it, and it’s much simpler not to, it can be hard to justify other beings suffering pain, fear and death so that we can enjoy their flesh. In particular, given our many connections to animals, not least of all the fact that we are ourselves animals, it can give a person pause to realize that our most frequent contact with these kin might just be the devouring of them.
My entry into what seemed the moral high ground, though, was surprisingly unpleasant. I felt embattled not only by a bizarrely intense lust for chicken but nightmares in which I would be eating a gorgeous, rare steak — I could distinctly taste the savory drippings — from which I awoke in a panic, until I realized that I had been carnivorous only in my imagination.
Temptations and trials were everywhere. The most surprising turned out to be the realization that I couldn’t actually explain to myself or anyone else why killing an animal was any worse than killing the many plants I was now eating.
Surely, I’d thought, science can defend the obvious, that slaughterhouse carnage is wrong in a way that harvesting a field of lettuces or, say, mowing the lawn is not. But instead, it began to seem that formulating a truly rational rationale for not eating animals, at least while consuming all sorts of other organisms, was difficult, maybe even impossible.
Before you hit “send” on your hate mail, let me say this. Different people have different reasons for the choices they make about what to kill or have killed for them to eat. Perhaps there isn’t any choice more personal or less subject to rationality or the judgment of others. It’s just that as far as I was concerned, if eating a tofu dog was as much a crime against life as eating bratwurst, then pass the bratwurst, please.
So what really are the differences between animals and plants? There are plenty. The cells of plants, and not animals, for example, harbor chloroplasts, tiny green organelles that can turn the energy of light into sugar. Almost none of these differences, however, seem to matter to any of us trying to figure out what to eat.
The differences that do seem to matter are things like the fact that plants don’t have nerves or brains. They cannot, we therefore conclude, feel pain. In other words, the differences that matter are those that prove that plants do not suffer as we do. Here the lack of a face on plants becomes important, too, faces being requisite to humans as proof not only that one is dealing with an actual individual being, but that it is an individual capable of suffering.
Animals, on the other hand — and not just close evolutionary relations like chimps and gorillas, but species further afield, mammals like cows and pigs — can experience what pretty much anyone would agree is pain and suffering. If attacked, these animals will look agonized, scream, struggle and run as fast as they can. Obviously, if we don’t kill any of these animals to eat them, all that suffering is avoided.
Meanwhile, whether you pluck a leaf or slice a trunk, a plant neither grimaces nor cries out. Plants don’t seem to mind being killed, at least as far as we can see. But that may be exactly the difficulty.
Unlike a lowing, running cow, a plant’s reactions to attack are much harder for us to detect. But just like a chicken running around without its head, the body of a corn plant torn from the soil or sliced into pieces struggles to save itself, just as vigorously and just as uselessly, if much less obviously to the human ear and eye.

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