The Global Livestock Footprint

It’s pretty massive. According to National Geographic, only 55% of the world’s crop calories are consumed directly by people. Fully 36% of the world’s crop calories are used for animal feed. And since it takes 100 calories of grain to produce 12 calories of chicken, or 3 calories of beef, that’s not very efficient.

Here’s what it looks like:

With the global population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, we have a very simple choice: we can destroy more forests and natural landscapes and put it to the plow or use it for grazing, or we can eat less meat. A lot less meat. And that doesn’t even account for the climate change impact of meat.

The Story Of An Octopus (And What It Tells Us About Our Culture)

“Don’t murder me, man.”

This is a fascinating story about Seattle’s love of high-end, locally sourced food, versus Seattle’s progressive belief that intelligent, charismatic species shouldn’t be brought thrashing to the dinner plate. It starts by describing the legal capture, in harrowing detail, of a Giant Pacific Octopus, by diver Dylan Mayer. And then it explains what happened next:

In a city finely attuned to both the ethics of food sourcing and poster-worthy animal causes (the spotted owl, the killer whale and marbled murrelet among them), Mayer’s exploits became an instant cause célèbre. On Nov. 1 and 2, Seattle’s competing news stations reported the octopus hunt. The next day, The Seattle Times ran the story on the front page. On Web forums, Seattleites tracked down the teenager’s name and address through the clues in the photos: the truck’s license plate, the high school named on Mayer’s sweatshirt and the inspection sticker affixed to his tank. “I hope this sick [expletive] gets tangled in a gill net next time he dives and thus removes a potential budding sociopath before it graduates from invertebrates to mammals,” read one typical comment, which received 52 “thumbs-ups.” Around the same time, Scott Lundy, one of the men who had confronted Mayer in Cove 2, issued a “Save the G.P.O.” petition to ban octopus harvesting from the beach and examine the practice statewide. By the next day, he had collected 1,105 signatures.

Across Elliott Bay, at the same time, a much subtler food sourcer was at work. Chef Matthew Dillon was building his highly anticipated new restaurant, Bar Sajor (pronounced “sigh-your”) in Pioneer Square. After the success of his first, Sitka & Spruce, Dillon, 39, earned an unsought reputation as the consummate locavore in a city filled with them. He cultivated rare herbs and foraged for mushrooms in the foothills of the Cascades; whereas many Brooklyn restaurants are only now coming around to wood sorrel and perilla, Dillon has been cooking with them since 1995. At Bar Sajor, there would be a rotisserie and a wood-fire oven, but no gas range; Dillon would make his own yogurt and vinegars, ferment his own vegetables and change his menu every day depending on what looked fresh and interesting — including, as it happened, giant Pacific octopus.

So as the “Save the G.P.O.” campaign raged this spring, the city raved about Dillon’s octopus salad. In The Stranger, the influential alt-weekly magazine, Bethany Jean Clement described it as having “a restrained oceangoing flavor, a bouncy but tender texture — sometimes a little chewy but never rubbery,” plated that day with “a thick walnut sauce, dill for freshness, and an oozing egg yolk for vivid creaminess and color.” The Seattle Times also heaped praise. “Bar Sajor Is Matt Dillon’s Finest Yet,” ran one Friday headline, just a week after another: “New Hunting Rules Likely for Puget Sound Octopus.” Whenever the salad appeared on the menu, it sold out. Inevitably this posed a most uncomfortable question for Seattle’s food community: should it save the giant Pacific octopus or just eat it?

You should read the whole thing, which has some surprising twists, to learn how it all ended. But it is a good example of how knowing where an animal on your plate came from, and what it went through in the process of getting there, can change how you think about it (previously, Seattle-ites didn’t have a problem with Asian-sourced octopus that simply arrived on plates like any anonymous commodity, with no backstory). It is also an encouraging sign of growing empathy for the animal lives that get destroyed as we indulge our predilection for food porn.

But there is no reason that empathy shouldn’t extend to any animal and any food, from bacon to a burger. When people really think about the ethics of eating animals, and are aware of the experience of the animal, they start to question. Obliviousness to the process (whether willful or not), and what it involves no matter the species, is probably the single most important factor that enables people to happily eat animals.

Insight Of The Day

To continue the exploration of humanity’s relationship with animals, on a gloomy, rainy day here in Washington, DC, Matthew Scully, author of the powerful Dominion (a must-read), looks at humanity’s moral obligations to “our companions in creation.” It is excerpted from this interesting and provocative essay urging conservatives to extend the same moral calculus they apply to late-term abortion to the question of industrial farming and meat consumption:

Far from presenting any threat to human dignity, animals and their moral claims upon us — the basic obligation never to be cruel, not just the option to be kind when it suits our purposes — are a constant hindrance to human presumption. What is the mark of that special status of ours, anyway, if not precisely the ability to be just instead of merely dominant, to be the creature of conscience and bring mercy into the world? A loving concern for humanity that stops there, instead of spreading outward in a sense of fellowship and active respect toward “our companions in creation,” to borrow a lovely phrase from Pope Benedict, is too close to self-worship, and bad things come of it.

Animals are always getting in the way of prideful and willful people, who act as if all things exist for their pleasure and expect everything to yield to their designs and appetites, no matter how base or disordered. In that way, a dutiful regard for animal welfare helps keep us humble, as a natural check against all of mankind’s own endless fiats, much as the duty to put the interests of children first can steer adults and entire societies away from all kinds of destructive self-indulgence. No group bears a heavier duty of self-restraint toward other creatures than the people who farm them, and John Paul II, in a 2000 address, had a message specifically for modern agriculture: “Resist the temptations of productivity and profit that work to the detriment of nature. When you forget this principle, becoming tyrants and not custodians of the Earth, sooner or later the Earth rebels.”

 

A Food Writer’s Manifesto

We all need one, and Grist’s new food writer lays his out:

Many food controversies tend to boil down to the same debate: One side insists on the necessity of progress through the application and advancement of ever more intrusive forms of technological control. The other extreme wants to chuck it all and go back to Eden.

This looks like a stark choice in the abstract, but in application, things always end up being a mix. I think we need to make every acre produce as much as possible, but that shouldn’t be our only goal. Our food should make the world cleaner and more beautiful rather than uglier and more polluted. Our food should support a broad middle class rather than tycoons and destitute laborers. Our food shouldn’t require the torture of animals. Our food should make us healthier.

Mainstream agriculture fails to deliver on any of these counts. The question is, can we come up with something that does any better?

Sounds good to me. In many ways this is the most important environmental and ethical question of our time.

 

The AgGag Story, Beautifully Done

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When you are a journalist, you sometimes see a story and think: “I wish I had written that.” It is the highest praise for another writer’s work, and that was exactly my reaction when I read Ted Genoways powerful and devastating investigation of the AgGag phenomenon:

Using a legal cudgel to go after critics wasn’t entirely a new tactic for agribusiness. PETA first began undercover investigations around 1981—getting video of rhesus monkeys being vivisected in a Maryland medical research lab by posing as employees—and a few legislatures responded by enacting laws to protect animal research from exposés. (Only Kansas had the foresight to expand its law to cover “livestock and domestic animals.”) Then, in 1992, when two ABC PrimeTime Live reporters shot undercover video of Food Lion workers in the Carolinas repackaging spoiled meat, Food Lion sued—not for libel, since the tapes spoke for themselves, but for fraud and trespass, because the reporters had submitted false information on their job applications. (A jury awarded $5.5 million, but an appeals court reduced it to just $2.) In 1996, at the height of the mad cow scare, the Texas Beef Group launched a two-year lawsuit against Oprah Winfreyover an episode that questioned the safety of hamburger. Recently, not only has the rhetoric heated up, but so has the coordinated legislative effort. Deeply invested in industrywide methods that a growing number of consumers find distasteful or even cruel, agribusiness has united in making sure that prying eyes literally don’t see how the sausage is made.

“If you think this is an animal welfare issue, you have missed the mark,” said Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, who served as a representative for the whistleblowers who tipped off ABC in the Food Lion case. “This is a bigger, broader issue.” She likened activist videos to airplane black-box recorders—evidence for investigators to deconstruct and find wrongdoing. Ag gag laws, she said, don’t just interfere with workers blowing the whistle on animal abuse. “You are also stopping environmental whistleblowing; you are also stopping workers’ rights whistleblowing.” In short, “you have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate.” That should “scare the pants off” consumers concerned about where their food comes from. “It’s the consumer’s right to know, but also the employee’s right to tell. You gotta have both.”

Exactly. This is a story about animal welfare AND the first Amendment, AND democracy itself. And along the way it makes clear that abuse is both rampant and the inevitable consequence of the public lust for abundant and cheap meat.

It is hard to read this story and not come to a simple conclusion: the only ethical choice is to stop eating meat.

Burgers vs. The Climate

Salon magazine taps into the most important truth about climate change, which is that the single greatest change any human can make to help reduce greenhouse warming is to eat a lot less meat:

In their report, Goodland and Anhang note that when you account for feed production, deforestation and animal waste, the livestock industry produces between 18 percent and 51 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Add to this the fact that producing animal protein involves up to eight times more fossil fuel than what’s needed to produce an equivalent amount of non-animal protein, and you see that climate change isn’t intensified only by necessities like transportation and electricity. It is also driven in large part by subjective food preferences — more precisely, by American consumers’ unnecessary desire to eat, on average, 200 pounds of meat every year.

If you find it demoralizing that we are incinerating the planet and dooming future generations simply because too many of us like to eat cheeseburgers, here’s that good news I promised: In their report, Goodland and Anhang found that most of what we need to do to mitigate the climate crisis can be achieved “by replacing just one quarter of today’s least eco-friendly food products” — read: animal products — “with better alternatives.” That’s right; essentially, if every fourth time someone craved, say, beef, chicken or cow milk they instead opted for a veggie burger, a bean burrito or water, we have a chance to halt the emergency.

Here’s more from Goodland, who says that even the below video underestimates the massive contribution meat consumption makes to greenhouse warming. And the Daily Dish notes that others, like Mark Bittman and economist Tyler Cowen, are on board.

So it would be better to stop buying burgers than it would be to keep buying Priuses. Plus, you’ll be doing your heart a favor, too.

Why Humans Don’t Want Other Animals To Have Rights

As I’ve noted before, Steve Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project is just about the most powerful campaign out there that is trying to change the way humans relate to animals.

Wise really gets it, and has started a series of video interviews exploring the issues at the heart of humanity’s immoral treatment of nonhuman animals.

First topic: the degree to which humanity is deeply involved in the exploitation of animals (and therefore resists giving animals rights that would change that relationship).

As Wise points out, it is almost, or simply flat-out, impossible for a modern human not to be involved in the exploitation of animals.

That is probably true, and something I am acutely aware of in my own life. But there are degrees of complicity, and the biggest step anyone can take to greatly reduce their complicity is to go vegan. After that, you need to pay attention to details like: products which use animal testing, or medicines which are developed with animal testing (a very complicated issue).

Beyond direct exploitation, there is the vast question of all the many ways in which humans indirectly exploit animals by lifestyles and choices which destroy habitat.

How far can you go to balance your life with the lives of nonhuman animals? What is the most difficult form of exploitation, direct or indirect, to reduce or eradicate from your lifestyle?

(Thanks to JV for tipping me to this video series).

Ag-Gag Update: The 48-Hour Twist

NPR has an excellent summary of the ag-gag campaign to shut down undercover filming at factory farms, and it includes a great analysis of the latest wrinkle in the industry campaign to stymie efforts to publicize and spark criminal prosecutions, the 48-hour rule:

But recently, the livestock industry seems to have taken a sharp turn in its legislative tactics.

Consider Assembly Bill 343 in California. Introduced in February, this bill would not prohibit a person from seeking employment at a slaughterhouse under false pretenses, which Iowa and several other states have outlawed. Nor would it forbid anyone from using a hidden camera while on the job, which Utah recently made illegal. All that AB 343 would do, in fact, is require that anyone who videotapes or records animal abuse turn over a copy of the evidence to police within 48 hours.

It sounds like the type of bill that animal welfare groups would welcome — but it isn’t. Rather, these groups have branded AB 343 as simply a new, and subtler, attempt to stifle undercover investigations of animal cruelty.

“The 48-hour time limit is a new twist to stop people from compiling information,” says Amanda Hitt of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that helps investigate reports of animal abuses.

According to Hitt, in order to prove that a serious animal abuse problem is occurring, undercover investigators must gather lengthy documentation. “You can’t prove that animal abuse is systemic and recurring through one snapshot or video of an abused cow,” she says.

For this reason, says Matt Rice of the group Mercy for Animals, “the last thing we want to do is go to law enforcement at the first sign of animal abuses.”

It is a very shrewd legislative strategy because it sounds so reasonable:

But Justin Oldfield, of the California Cattlemen’s Association — AB 343’s sponsor — says the bill only intends to protect animals. Rather than allowing witnesses to keep quiet while they continue to film or photograph, Oldfield says, the bill mandates prompt reporting. He says that requirement will allow enforcement agencies to take swift action at the first indication of abused animals.

Putting aside any cynicism or belly laughs Oldfield’s statement may inspire, NPR turns to UCLA to ask: so who’s right?

Taimie Bryant, a professor at UCLA School of Law who focuses on animal law, tells The Salt that public prosecutors tend to prioritize types of crimes other than those involving animal cruelty….

…She says legal action usually only occurs if there is media coverage, public outrage and pressure to prosecute.

“Public response [to livestock abuse videos] and clamor are what usually moves these types of cases up the ladder of priorities and motivates prosecutors to take action,” she says.

Even in court, judges are often easy on defendants “if the evidence of animal abuse is thin,” Bryant says.

So that’s the analysis. NPR comes up with a good concrete example of how resistant prosecutors are to tough sanctions:

In 2009, Mercy for Animals publicly revealed seven weeks’ worth of footage recorded at the Willet Dairy in Locke, N.Y. The videos show employees cutting off cows’ horns and tails without using anesthesia. Bellowing calves are seen dragged by the legs away from their mothers. At least one worker was recorded digging his fingers into a struggling calf’s eye socket. Eventually, an employee named Phil Niles was fined several hundred dollars on a misdemeanor animal cruelty conviction.

The Cayuga County district attorney who handled the case, Jon Budelmann, tells The Salt that Niles’ conviction was based largely on footage that showed Niles hitting a cow on the head with a wrench. Other events and images recorded at the Willet Dairy might also appear cruel to some outsiders, he says. But those events did not provide grounds for criminal prosecution, because “they were considered normal within the industry,” Budelmann explains.

You can imagine whether Budelmann would have done anything at all without the publicity. And someone should probably tell him that the question of prosecution should turn on what the law says, not what is “normal” within the industry. The fact that the practices uncovered by Mercy For Animals are “normal” within the industry actually shows the degree to which prosecutors have totally failed to protect animals and hold the industry to even the minimal animal care standards required by the laws which are on the books.

Oh, here’s one more concrete example of how awareness by regulators and prosecutors doesn’t really do much for the animals, while public outrage can change the equation:

Take the case of USDA veterinarian and slaughterhouse inspector Dean Wyatt. In 2010, Wyatt testified before a House subcommittee that, on several occasions, he was either overruled or threatened with demotion or transfer after he told superiors about instances of extreme animal abuse he’d witnessed.

Wyatt said he’d seen employees butchering live animals at both Bushway Packing, a veal plant in Vermont, and at Seaboard Foods, a pig slaughterhouse in Oklahoma.

“He went up the chain of command reporting violations [at the Bushway veal slaughterhouse in Vermont], and they did nothing until the Humane Society [of the United States’] video came out,” says Hitt with the Government Accountability Project.

Because the laws and the prosecutors have failed to rein in serial abuse at factory farms, the single greatest protection animals at factory farms have left is public outrage. Public outrage gets fast food buyers to go elsewhere, and it gets people to stop eating meat, and that hits factory farms in the one place they care about: their wallets.  Which, of course, is why they are pursuing the ag-gag strategy. Apparently, that is easier and less costly than actually stopping the abuse.

Great article. Now you know how to respond to anyone who says that the 48-hour rule is a reasonable solution.