Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Three A's of Animal Rights

I'm not getting into a Peter Singer-type moral discussion of animal rights, but here are what I call the Three A's of the animal rights movement -- the reasons why vegetarianism and veganism appeal to human emotions (beyond the basic moral plea that "killing animals is fundamentally wrong") and the reasons why they're mostly not useful in addressing the real problems faced by the meat industry.

Anthropomorphizing. It is flawed to make a judgement about the living conditions of an animal based on how humans would feel in the same conditions. I'll use chickens as an example. A chicken house may appear like a wartime concentration camp if humans were put there, but for a chicken it may be perfectly comfortable in most ways. Rather than making a subjective judgement, a better way would be to measure stress hormones between house-raised chickens vs. chickens raised outdoors -- and in fact, those studies show no differences.

People have no idea what pleases an animal for its whole life. Sure, certain things are obvious, like the fact that no animal wants to be beaten or tortured, but that's not the reality of a production animal's life. The overwhelming majority of time -- chickens, for example -- is spent living a boring existence inside a 500' x 40' house close to other animals of their own species. I admit, it is a legitimate critique to talk of the disease problems caused by animals standing and eating in their own feces, but these are problems that the meat industry confronts on a daily basis and can control with large success mostly with minimal harm to animals or consumers.

Aesthetics. Many people are dismayed by the “industrial” part of modern farming. They have an idyllic image of what a farm should be: orange sun rising on the horizon, happy cows grazing in rolling green fields, a cute little red barn, a noble farmer with kind eyes and worn overalls. This rural aesthetic mainly exists in the minds of people in urban areas. People object to the visually unappealing nature of “factory farming” but you think an animal gives a fuck about living on a pretty farm that’s visually appealing to humans? Come on.

Unless city dwellers are willing to pay $50 per chicken, industrial farming will continue, and even in its current state it's barely profitable (in fact, the largest chicken producer in the USA, Pilgrim's Pride, is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy). The meat industry would give daily blow jobs to the animals if consumers were willing to pay the price, but meat is a business, people -- not spa treatment.

Absence of knowledge of the problems actually faced by the meat industry. A perfect example of this is the movement to make chickens "free range" -- which in reality means a small opening in the chicken house where the animal has the option of walking into a small, 4' X 12' strip of grass. In reality, the chicken -- an animal naturally afraid of wolves and other predators -- never chooses to go outside. The animal would rather stay near the food inside the house, gathered tightly and warmly with hundreds of other chickens.

My father started in the poultry industry in 1955 doing catch-and-haul in northeast Texas. He’s seen the problems and struggles in this industry for over 50 years and it relates not one iota to what a Morrissey-listening vegan considers “problems”. Rather than pressing for non-issues like "free range", it would be a tremendous help if people cared, for example, about litterless affordable flooring systems. That's a technology that would reduce disease, profitability, and improve animal welfare by leaps and bounds but it's not as sexy as "free range" which appeals more to human emotions than the actual needs of meat animals as they're currently raised.

My point is that an abolitionist stance toward the meat industry may advance animal welfare in small ways (for example, KFC and McDonald's are at the forefront of animal welfare issues due to public pressure generated by groups like PETA) but there are a huge number of problems to be solved that will only get done by people rolling up their sleeves and working on the real issues meat animals face, absent emotion and moral condemnation.
Just returned from Spain with pictures of the jamon iberico we consumed while staying with friends in Sevilla. My French friend back here in Portland saw the pics and pined for pata negra in a typical existential French way, elevating food to philosophy. She said, "Jesus doesn't love us. Pigs love us."
Pete Seeger. Still going strong...
If I can talk a tad off point here....relating to G&K's comment. I try to watch Bizarre Foods when I can (has to be when my wife is not around, it grosses her out) and caught an episode when he went into a Spanish ham bar. Ever since then, I have put "Go to Spain" on my list of things to do.

Yes, you have to go to Spain. I've never seen a country that likes pork products more. Katie and I went there for our honeymoon and I actually saw a place called "El Museo de Jamon" (The Ham Museum). It was a big room with so many hams hanging from the ceiling that you could not actually see the physical ceiling through all that hanging meat!
Interesting post, as your "token vegan" commenter, my twenty cents is that I think most would agree that “the reasons why vegetarianism and veganism appeal to human emotions” are pretty meaningless, “beyond the basic moral plea that "killing animals is fundamentally wrong.”” I mean why even bother? Once you take the ethical “plea” out of it (I think ethic describes it better than moral) nothing else really matters. If you’re not going to touch on the “why” for dropping the bomb, who gives a shit about the details of how the bomb looks, whistles as it falls, or how loud it booms when it hits the ground. All irrelevant if you don’t even know why you are dropping it in the first place.

The simple reality is that meat is not a necessity. As a straw-man argument, try this: Killing a beast because you will freeze to death without its fur is one thing. Killing a beast just to watch it suffer is another thing completely- agreed? If we disagree on that, then well, no point in going any further. How then, is killing that beast just because you like the taste of it a more enlightened form of entertainment than enjoying the sight of it suffering? Especially when you have other good options to eat? Or is that just a currently more socially acceptable form of entertainment? You can’t throw other animal-carnivores into this rhetorical tar-pit, as they have no other options.

I think the only relevant aspect of the debate is “Why?” The impact of the how, both environmental and upon animals is pretty textbook stuff.

Personally I understand the environmental impact of “meat” being a much more universal “plea” than the ethical one. Case in point our estuaries, like the Chesapeake, being destroyed by run-off. Or the simple fact that a hog farm produces more waste than a large city. Energy, water, soil, pollution, it’s all facts available out there if you look. Cars are nothing compared to it, yet the media focuses on cars because meat is seen as a necessity, and therefore immobile. Meanwhile people just eat it because they like it. It is a cultural artifact after eons of human development, which doesn’t work to well in a crowded world with lots of agricultural advances which allow us to eat all sorts of things other than other animals.

Spain is probably my favorite patch of the earth, and I must say I have had better vegetarian meals in El Raval down in BCN, or in Madrid than anywhere else on earth. I never missed the ham.

I know it’s long, but I had to trim this down from a psycho-troll style 900 word comment.

You said: “Once you take the ethical “plea” out of it nothing else really matters.” See, this is a very vegan way of looking at it. However, far more people want to continue to eat meat (or eggs or dairy) but DO care about animal welfare issues. A lot of my post about stuff like “free range” is directed at those people. I think this was not clear in my post. However, I haven’t met too many vegans who are lobbying for bigger cages, free range chickens, or other things that work WITH the meat industry. Vegetarians, probably, but most vegans (I think) want the entire thing abolished, not reformed.

As to your straw man example, I don’t have a response. I assume that you fall into the camp of “killing animals is fundamentally wrong”, whereas I do not. And there we agree to disagree …

As to your environmental points, they are well put, important, and need to paid more attention to – we just disagree on tactics. My response is that it is extremely unlikely that enough people will cease eating meat to make any difference on this front in the near term. Stopping eating meat is not making a big enough difference (or any) at this point to make a dent. Here’s what makes a dent: working with the industry to make the meat industry less polluting. Here are just five examples of how to do this, all of which are occurring as we speak: 1) giving tax credits to poultry houses who convert to solar energy; 2) working to create affordable, clean flooring systems for animal rearing facilities (less microbial action, less disease); 3) fining companies that leave massive piles of uncovered chicken waste that leaches into nearby waterways; 4) Creating more energy efficient lighting systems for animal rearing facilities; 5) passing regulations that require farmers to till fertilizer rather than just broadcast it (less runoff). There are many more examples I could list – all things that work within the system, not against it.

God, I loved Barcelona – especially the food. Never went to El Ravel, but I wouldn’t turn up my nose just because they didn’t serve my beloved animal flesh ;-)

And shit, you’re no troll. Trolls don’t usually leave intelligent comments, trust me.
PL - you're comments are some of the most direct and honest I've read/heard from the vegan side. I agree with everything you wrote.

having said that, I love meat and will cut off my left pinkie finger instead of giving up bacon.

Honestly, what do you think of people like me and LB who decide killing animals is worth the desire to eat meat. If I had your views I would be disgusted with my fellow man.

Don't worry about insulting me. Lay it on.
Lonnie, I have to say your response is probably the most tempered and best I have read from a Carnivore in a long time- thanks for letting your blog serve as a salon.

Ok, so I know we agree to disagree, but just to polish the fine points- I don’t think “killing animals is fundamentally wrong”, I would rather caveat that with “I think killing animals for pleasure (which is what eating meat is) is ethically bankrupt.” But I think we still agree to disagree on that point. I am not one for fundamentalism in general ;)

I agree, focusing on the ethical side, rather than practical side, is very vegan of me. The way I see it any other argument is like someone in 1830 Alabama arguing about how to make slaves more comfortable (again, not comparing people to animals- just debate to debate). Although that would be a perfectly valid discussion (and better than no discussion), I think both sides would be sort of missing the point.

Understanding the intent of your post, which is challenges for carnivores interested in animal welfare, I agree my last comment was above the fray. I will say, which I hope gives you comfort, that I have worked with a lot of vegan organizations, and non-profs (some big ones in this area), and absolutely vegans are lobbying for bigger cages, better range requirements, more light, more air, stricter waste management, limited antibiotics, and the whole gamut of “Humane-Certification” issues.

And as for the mainstream, health-consciousness (over ethics) is driving the debate, so a lot of those issues get attention. I think things are just very slow, and unfortunately the most annoying vegans are usually the loudest (sort of like Ted Nugent’s dopplegangers). Most vegans, albeit maybe not all the ones lingering around Sticky Fingers giving people dirty looks, are sophisticated enough to take the battle on multiple fronts, both incremental, and total. PETA for example (not to throw them into the beating ring, I feel they have really bad PR issues- but just as an example), is one of the largest lobbyist (if not the largest with the HSUS, and non-vegetarian/vegan groups like ASPCA, NAIA, etc.) for managed euthanasia, space requirements, all the things I listed above, and most if not all of their successes have been in that area- not getting everyone to stop eating meat. Although the leadership of groups like PETA still pushes a vegan lifestyle, they fight for all sustainability and humane issues- just one of many (actual activists) vegan groups splitting the difference. Probably not the best example, but better ones fail me right now.

We agree on the environmental side of things. Everything you listed would be a major advancement, and needs to get a lot more public attention. I feel though, and part of my point (if not well made before), that the knee-jerk defensiveness from carnivores who treat meat as a holy, life-or-death-right puts a muzzle on a lot of progress. The most interesting thing to come out of this discussion, to me, is the fact that you and I both feel that the important issues are not being addressed as aggressively as they should, and from our different viewpoints, we both see different sides as a problem. I think you see radical veganism as stifling, whereas I see “radical-meataholicism” as the problem. I think if people chilled more, and maybe saw animal products as a luxury to be enjoyed less frequently, it would be a lot easier to ask for all the environmental changes we want- because the demands on the industry for insane production would go down. Right now all they can think about is volume keeping up with demand.

Barcelona is fucking heaven isn’t it? Why I am here in DC and not there, is a mystery I can’t figure out ;) No place I have been has a better combination of: beach, culture, intelligence, history, food, art, people who love to have intelligent conversations, and great sailing waters right into the med. Where else can you walk from an ultra-modern café full of good people, beautiful gardens, down through a giant bookstore, through some of the best modern and ancient architecture in the world, pick up a good vegan meal (or in your case some Jamon), go lie on a topless beach for a while, go take the boat out, and then head back in for some good urban bars (not corny beach joints). Heaven.

In full disclosure, when I dated that vegan girlfriend I also became a vegetarian and remained one for a few years (about 10 years ago). Right now, I deal with people in the meat industry – mostly shrimp, fish and poultry. I sell a certified organic mineral supplement for animal feed with relative success to the US and international markets.

I have thought very hard about all these issues, especially the fundamental questions. As a moral and ethical argument, your side basically wins. There just isn’t a flawless ethical response from a meat eating perspective, especially if one understands how life originated and evolved. My only explanation on why I eat animals is that my limit for what I will eat is larger than yours; yes, there are limits, but not as many as yours -- ie, I won’t drink snake blood, eat rats or dogs. Basically, I cannot eat something that makes me nauseated to think of how it’s prepared. However, with chickens and pigs and cows, I’ve seen how they are killed. When I watch those animals being killed for meat it doesn’t tug on my ethical heartstrings (I could probably do it myself). It doesn’t hit me on a gut level as morally or ethically wrong. For example, the first time I saw pigs being killed in a slaughter house, I thought, “Whoa, this is nothing.” But I’m not completely heartless. As anyone, I am upset by an animal being tortured in any cruel way, but the fact is, in 99% of cases, the meat industry does not torture animals in a cruel way.

But we’re back to square one, and I already said we’d agree to disagree. Moving on

I’m only a carnivore at a BBQ joint. “Omnivore” is more correct to say.

You may be right. Vegan organizations may have advanced the cause of animal welfare more than I gave them credit for. But here’s the point the people in the meat industry have told me: All the polling data asking whether consumers would be willing to pay more for meat that was raised humanely answer “yes” overwhelmingly, however, all the market data (where they actually put their money) says “no” overwhelmingly. Hands down. Also, this goes back to my other point that often these animal welfare groups push for silly, money-wasting nonsense like “free range” -- a small outdoor strip of grass that the chickens are afraid to walk on cuz it's outside! Most of those groups aim to just load the meat industry up with lots of costly regulations, rather than working with them for mutually beneficial change (see my examples in previous comment).

I really don’t have a problem with PETA. I think they’re kind of funny, even though Ingrid Newkirk seems to me like a deeply unhappy person.

You’re going to kill me, and I’m not trying to provoke, but my favorite tapa in Spain was morcilla.

"I’m only a carnivore at a BBQ joint. “Omnivore” is more correct to say." LB

Yes,I would agree that having seen you eat at the BBQ's here in are omnivore.

PL.....I respect the fact that you have chosen a path that you deemed to "making a difference in this world".......but I gotta say, I pity the guy who will not eat a chicken fried steak are missing out bro. Just more for me :)

Tex Anon
I am going to shoot another deer so I can feed my family.

Simple minded Redneck.
Simplest argument: If we weren't supposed to eat it, we wouldn't be able to digest it.
We digest meat a whole lot better than cattle digest corn. Corn-fed beef has its own cruelty issues.

Meanwhile deer need to be either shot or given birth control. Leaving them to starve to death year after year in the name of animal rights is twisted.
I don't eat much of the stuff because of the "Industrial" in Industrial Farms.

My choice has nothing to do with animal rights.

From my post:

""Many people are dismayed by the “industrial” part of modern farming. They have an idyllic image of what a farm should be: orange sun rising on the horizon, happy cows grazing in rolling green fields, a cute little red barn, a noble farmer with kind eyes and worn overalls. This rural aesthetic mainly exists in the minds of people in urban areas. People object to the visually unappealing nature of “factory farming” but you think an animal gives a fuck about living on a pretty farm that’s visually appealing to humans? Come on.""
Hey Damon! You know I love me some meat, but I have to say I fall pretty firmly into the small-farming, free-range, whatever camp - haven't you noticed how much better a grass-fed and finished steak tastes that a grain finished one? I figure, have the animals a healthy environment where the can tootle around, graze, what have you - I agree, chickens are silly creatures, but seriously, some of the things they do to modify the pig are terrifying - don't load them up with hormones and antibiotics, feed them what they are built to eat, and then enjoy them with a delicious bottle of whatever. Same goes for eggs, the organic jobbies are honestly yummier and healthier than the regular supermarket ones. And milk, don't get me started. I'm not saying animals need massages and murals, but my food seems much more delicious when it comes from a non-factory farmed source.
Emily: good point on the taste. The difference between free-range chicken (and eggs) and non is night and day.
Hey Emily,

Good points. Thanks for commenting.

Actually, corn-fed beef tends to be fattier, which I like. I bought some grass-raised recently and didn’t like it as much – thought it tasted like, well, grass.

Currently, it is illegal to put antibiotics into the feed as part of the standard formula. The meat industry can only give antibiotics when a veterinarian prescribes it when there’s an outbreak. And I assure you, you are much better off not having dangerous bacteria in your food than you are with antibiotics. E. coli? Campylobacter? Salmonella? No thanks!

Hormones are a protein. If you drank a glass of pure growth hormone, your system would just digest it, then excrete it out. There’s been a lot of hype around this because girls are maturing at an earlier age, but science is far from conclusive on this, and there’s no direct link to growth hormone that anyone has established.

I support organic (I sell an organic product for a living) but there’s no indication that organic foods are healthier than conventional. As for taste, I haven’t noticed any difference. I wonder if a lot of this is just placebo effect. I really wonder if any blind taste test has been done to figure out if there really is a difference. I’m not saying there isn’t, but I’m curious about this.

Also, when your eggs say "free range", that means the chickens can lay their eggs in the dirty litter instead of on metal trays. The contamination of free range eggs by bacteria is MUCH higher than those raised in battery cages. Many studies have been done on this.

As for broilers (meat chickens) being free range, it's a complete joke. There's a small door where they can go into a small outdoor area, but they don't go there because chickens are naturally afraid of predators.

Also, on the “non-factory farm” stuff, all farms are “factory” or “industrial” to an extent, and thank god for it. Even Amish farmers use tools that are the result of industrialization. Just take synthetic NPK (fertilizer). It’s the difference between spreading 20 pounds of granulated pellets per acre and trying to spread 600 pounds of manure. Most farmers would rather NPK, but of course, that has its own myriad of problems for the environment. That's just one example of many.
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