If COVID-19 Doesn’t Force Us To Re-think Meat…

Pig Farm
(Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals)

Then every future pandemic is on us. Sorry, but it is true. Because the way we farm, hunt, sell and eat animals is a massive underlying vector.

Zoonotic viruses almost always leap to humans directly from our livestock or from wildlife, the slaughter and hunting of which bring susceptible human hosts in particularly close contact with live animals and their infected tissues and fluids.

Both farmed and caged wild animals create the perfect breeding ground for zoonotic diseases. Extraordinarily high population densities, prolonged heightened stress levels, poor sanitation, and unnatural diets create a veritable speed-dating event for viruses to rendezvous with a weakened human host and transcend the species barrier. In fact, we know that this happens routinely—it’s a simple throw of the dice for one of these leaps to coincide with subtle adaptations that allow the virus to transmit more efficiently from human to human. Swapping host species often allows pathogens to take a more sinister turn, causing severe illness or death in their new host despite only triggering mild symptoms in their animal reservoir.

Time and again, zoonotic viruses emerge from these contexts: wave after wave of avian flu, swine fluNipah virus … the list goes on.

Of course, this is reason #363 why humanity needs to shift to a plant-based diet. But it is a major, and at the moment, highly relevant one. After this is all over, will anyone pay attention?

A Novel Christmas Gift: Going Vegan

Tis the season. So this is a good time to revisit this story:

It started with Christmas.

And what happened was what always happens: I did no shopping.

I have on one or two occasions experienced the slightly awkward moment on Christmas morning when the gifts are finally all opened and it becomes apparent that none of them are from me. This general awareness is something I try to avoid, and sometimes, if I have the sense that the need for some kind of public admission is approaching, I have to think quickly. That’s what happened with the vegan thing. It just came to me — in the nick of time. The oranges were barely out of the stockings when I blurted out my entirely spontaneous idea. I told my 30-year-old daughter, who is a committed vegan, that her gift was six months of my being vegan. I said I’d give it a try.

Read on

Vegan Recipe Of The Week: Beer-Roasted Mushrooms

I have generally found that portobello mushrooms are a an excellent substitute for meat. Great smoky flavor, and nice chewy feel. I usually marinate them and grill them. Eat them with grains. Eat them in a sandwich. You can’t go wrong.

But how can anyone resist roasting them in a flavorful IPA? So, in my ongoing quest to find delicious vegan food so everyone can stop whining and pretending that vegans only eat lentils, I’m going to give this recipe a try this weekend.

 

The Cost Of Snow Crabs

“I know you think I am tasty. But how about letting me, and all the vulnerable right whales out there live in peace.”

North Atlantic right whales have been dying in unusual numbers this year (14 or more so far). For a population that is endangered and numbers around 500 individuals, this is a rate that is highly threatening to the future of the population.

I’ve already touched on this ongoing tragedy. But I am coming back to it because detail is important in understanding the impact of choices we make on the planet. And a dead North Atlantic right whale was just towed ashore. A necropsy will be performed, but there is not really any mystery. The poor animal was thoroughly trussed up by lines from a snow crab trap:

The animal was tightly wrapped in heavy ropes, and deep cuts were apparent in its body, mouth, fins and blubber.

Local people who saw the whale towed by the Canadian Coast Guard said a large snow crab net had to be cut off the carcass after it was brought ashore.

Not a nice way to go, and even worse the dead whale appears to be a female, so that is yet another breeder removed from a tenuous population. But the point I really want to make here is: snow crabs? Is it so important that we be able to eat snow crabs that this result can be tolerated? I don’t think so. I’ve never eaten one? Have you? If you have, I am sure it tasted good. But I am also sure that your life would not be altered in any meaningful way if you never had the option of putting a snow crab on your plate. Yet, an important, gentle and sublime species of whale is being threatened by this industry.

In any moral calculus, I can imagine some human needs that are so great that impacts on other species are justified and understandable. But it is simply not possible to suggest that our taste for snow crab (or any of the other fisheries that keep entangling whales) can justify the ongoing winnowing of a majestic whale population. Yes, fishermen need to earn a living and take care of their families. But we need to get a lot smarter about helping fishermen and others transition from industries that can’t be justified in light of their impacts on the natural world.

For this, and many other reasons, I don’t think most of the human population needs to eat any fish or crabs. Even in a world that does eat from the sea snow crabs can easily be taken off the menu. And if we aren’t more thoughtful and rigorous about what we eat and how it impacts the rest of the planet we will casually, and without thought, eat our way through much of the beauty and wonder that this planet offers us.

Preach It, Guardian…

I think this is the first mainstream newspaper editorial I have seen advocating for veganism. With puns!

Vegans are often unreasonably mocked as do-gooders and sniped at for making dinner parties awkward for those who don’t like lentils quite so much. This is unfair: the diet does do the world good and if vegans provoke their friends into going vegan too, so much the better.

There is now a great deal of convincing data that breeding animals for food dirties the air and chews up the earth. One recent peer-reviewed study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine calculates that should the world go vegan, annual greenhouse gas emissions would halve and the new land used every year for each person would near-halve. The diet is also healthier: some meat products have been linked to cancer and saturated fat from meat and dairy products can cause heart disease. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA predicts that global veganism would lead to 8.1 million fewer deaths per year.

Vegans should be encouraged: their choice is high in moral as well as digestive fibre. Their detractors should stop crying over spelt milk.

Okay, it is the Guardian newspaper, so very far to the progressive end of the mainstream. But still, on the edge of the mainstream. I am noting this as a milestone.

Fish Consumption and Collateral Damage (Round 2)

Crabcakes? No chickpea cakes. It’s just not that hard. (via: https://www.pinterest.com/cookitkind/)

Of course, another semi-obscure impact of fish consumption is the varied environmental impacts of fish farming, especially in net pens–recently highlighted by the escape of a few hundred thousand Atlantic salmon into Pacific Northwest waters.

Hakai magazine does a nice job of looking at better alternatives to net-pen aquaculture, and discovers that there are no easy answers:

Moving from marine- to land-based or closed-containment aquaculture is a decidedly uphill battle. Terrestrial systems can cost several times as much as sea pens. Even though net-pen farms are restricted to suitable coastal sites, the ocean provides space and water, and free access to water circulation. On land, a similar arrangement may work on a small scale, but be prohibitively expensive on a commercial scale.

Land operations have hidden costs, too, says Tony Farrell, an animal physiologist at the University of British Columbia. Existing terrestrial operations take a lot of energy and produce a lot of greenhouse gases, he says. “They will get better,” he says, but the development of new technologies should proceed in a “positive, but cautious, way.”

I once looked into the many impacts of fish consumption, and how to reduce the impact of eating fish if you give a damn. And while there are definitely better and worse ways to consume fish (the best I concluded is to stick to farmed mussels), I came away thinking it just seems easier to me to simply not eat fish. The impact of that choice is both positive and beneficial to the oceans in countless ways.

Is it really that hard to not eat salmon and tuna? I feel completely out of touch with consumers who feel that their desire to please their palates (yes, salmon is healthy, but there are other ways to eat healthy) outweighs all the profound impacts of fishing and aquaculture on the planet. Yes, that is a judgement. But the cold balance of logic just seems so clear to me.

Fishing’s Collateral Damage

When people think of environmental impacts of fishing, they usually think about overfishing (which endangers fish stocks) and unintended bycatch (which is ridiculously wasteful). What should also be considered is all the fishing gear out there, either operative or drifting through the seas, that entangles marine mammals.

Entanglement is one of the major threats to large whale species (and turtles) and the numbers just keep going up (despite all the inspiring whale disentanglement videos you love on Facebook). It’s just one more problem with the human love of fish protein.

There are many places on the planet where human populations really do rely on the bounty of the sea to eat (though most of those fishing operations are more subsistence than industrial). But most of the entanglement damage is being done by fisheries that are feeding people who could easily choose not to eat fish. Sure, people like crab, lobsters, and swordfish. But they are a matter of taste and preference, not of nutritional requirement. At some point it is important to consider whether simple taste and culinary preferences are worth the collateral damage. Because they really aren’t.

 

Moby Mobilizes

I’ve never been a big Moby fan, but I have unbounded respect for the way that he puts his music behind big moral causes.

This is one powerful way to confront the world on animal welfare:

And this cry for more connectedness and empathy in our global culture of distraction is heartbreaking.

A Beautiful Essay On Veganism

Writer David Macfarlane makes a gentle, thoughtful, and deeply persuasive case that veganism is a powerful and undeniable moral imperative.

Once these kinds of ethical arguments began to swirl around in what I like to think of as a reasonably fair-minded brain, and once I took the perilous state of the Earth into account, it became evident to me that eating a hot dog is as much a political act as not eating one. It’s a choice, and what I’m beginning to learn is that it’s a pretty clear one. You can be over there with the interesting looking young people who are enjoying a dinner of lentils, avocado and roasted yams. Or you can be with the multi-billion-dollar industry that pretty consistently put its own interests ahead of health, the environment, social and economic justice — and way, way ahead of the interests of animals.

Macfarlane hopes, riffing on John Stuart Mill (“Every great movement must experience three stages: ridicule, discussion, adoption”), that (at least some segment of) human culture has moved from ridiculing veganism to grappling honestly with it and discussing the arguments. I’m with him on that, and hope that for the animals’ sake, and for the planet’s sake, that the discussion doesn’t last too long before we jump into the adoption phase.

Read the whole thing here.

Humanely-Raised Chickens Is An Oxymoron

Here’s what Jim Perdue says about the chickens he sells:

Here is what a chicken farm that follows Perdue’s guidelines to the letter looks like:

How can there be such a discrepancy? Well, industries spin the facts, of course. And more important, consumers misunderstand the labels used by the industry, and the standards that do exist are mostly set by the industry:

Perdue sells its chicken with a label that says both “humanely raised” and “raised cage free.” The former claim seems debatable, especially considering how nearly one million of its birds are being raised each year—whether within the company’s guidelines or not. And the latter is arguably misleading, because it applies to virtually all chicken meat sold in the United States. Egg-laying birds are often raised in cages, but broiler chickens—those raised for slaughter—are not. In that sense, marketing that chicken meat comes from chickens that were “raised cage free” isn’t all that different from touting the fact that coffee beans were not grown in Siberia (coffee beans, for the record, are not grown in Siberia).

The problem is that these claims, however misleading they might be, are actually pretty effective sales pitches. A recent survey showed that the vast majority of consumers prefer cage-free “humanely raised” labels, according to Kristof.

Compassion in World Farming isn’t shy about placing some of the onus on the USDA. The government does have a list of labels that must meet certain requirements in order to be used by meat producers on their packaging, such as “organic,” “free range,” and “no antibiotics.” But the terms that Perdue is using, like “humanely raised” and “raised cage free” aren’t regulated by the government in the same way. Instead, they are based on The National Chicken Council’s animal welfare guidelines, an industry-created standard.

The USDA doesn’t approve the label so much as verify that it meets the standards the industry decided it should meet. Samuel Jones, a spokesperson for the USDA, confirmed the process. “Some companies pay the USDA to verify that they’re meeting specific processing points,” he said. “If it’s cage-free, and they want us to verify that they are meeting their set guidelines, that’s what we do.”

It would of course be nice if the USDA actually set much better and stricter standards for the raising and slaughter of livestock (while there is one decent independent certification, I don’t think any standard can actually make the process “humane”), instead of being a rubber stamp for the meat producers and processors.

But I mainly put the onus on consumers. These days, with all the video and reporting that repeatedly exposes the tortured lives of the animals the public consumes with such gusto, you have to be willfully blind to not be aware that if you are eating meat, eggs, or dairy you are almost certainly the last link in a very profitable chain of misery.  Or you have to be a person who DOES know the truth but somehow can’t bring yourself to the ethical and logical conclusion that you should stop eating meat.

Nick Kristof, for example, did indeed write a great op-ed about Perdue and the Perdue farmer who blew the whistle on how Perdue’s guidelines added up to chicken-abuse. But just when you think Kristof is about to bring his column to a logical conclusion and tell his millions of readers that chicken is now off his menu, he comes up with this:

Perdue’s methods for raising chickens are typical of industrial agriculture. So the conundrum is this. Big Ag has been stunningly successful in producing cheap food — the price of chicken has fallen by three-quarters in real terms since 1930. Yet there are huge external costs, such as antibiotic resistance and water pollution, as well as a routine cruelty that we tolerate only because it is mostly hidden.

Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.

I don’t know where to draw the lines. But when chickens have huge open bedsores on their undersides, I wonder if that isn’t less animal husbandry than animal abuse.

You think? And I think the line is pretty easy to draw: stop eating chicken. James McWilliams wrote a brutal and scathing takedown of Kristof’s lack of moral courage, that is well worth reading. I’d only add that if the facts can’t get a smart, thoughtful columnist like Nick Kristof to stop eating abused animals it’s a pretty discouraging indicator of how meat-eating and the meat-eating culture somehow detaches us from ordinary moral calculation. And that’s a bad thing for billions of animals.