The Eat with Care blog

Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)

Response to New York Times op-ed

April 13, 2012

Today there was an op-ed in the New York Times by a professor, James McWilliams, who is well known for punching holes (or trying to) in the arguments for pasture-based, humane farming. He is not on the board of an industrial agriculture corporation but a vegan who clearly wants to end all forms of animal agriculture. I’ve always appreciated pro-animal voices that critique humane animal farming — they force us to sharpen our arguments and reflect on what we advocate. But McWilliams’ op-ed makes me question his thinking and assumptions.

First, he states that if all the cows now being raised in U.S. feedlots were raised on grass, we’d need to devote half the country’s land mass to pasture. Well, you’d be hard pressed to find any proponent of grass-based farming say that people would be eating the same amount of meat as they do today if all American beef were pastured. We’d simply eat less meat if we switched to pasture-based agriculture, and honestly, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Eating meat at every single meal — as most Americans do now — is not all that healthy.

Second, McWilliams writes that “many” farmers (how many?) who pasture their chickens use industrially-developed breeds that have physical troubles because they were bred to grow very quickly. I haven’t interviewed such farms to find out why they use these breeds, but I suspect that one reason is that Americans have come to prefer white meat from fat chicken breasts, and heritage birds tend to have darker meat with a different flavor. Our tastes have not caught up with our morals, in other words — though there are certainly white meat breeds that don’t have the physical problems McWilliams mentions. Also, heritage breeds have been dying out because industrial agriculture has forced farmers to raise the rapidly-growing kinds. Farmers who want to raise heritage animals are now turning to groups like the American Heritage Breeds Conservancy to ensure that healthier, happier breeds are available into the future.

Third, the professor mentions the use of nose rings on naturally raised pigs, saying that “what we see as natural doesn’t necessarily conform to what is natural from the animals’ perspectives.” I personally don’t believe nose rings should be used on pigs, and I’m sure most consumers of humanely raised pork don’t believe so, either. But change tends to happen slowly in agricultural reform. As more consumers become aware of both the aggregious ways that animals are raised for meat and the alternative ways (and they are becoming more aware), they will demand that offensive practices be ended. Consumer-driven change is already happening, as with the slow but steady elimination of gestation crates for pregnant pigs.

Fourth, the argument is presented that “common economic sense” means farmers will eventually move away from humane practices so that they can make higher profits. “It wouldn’t take long for production systems to scale back up to where they started,” McWilliams writes. Not if there are concerned consumers still demanding humane products. If GM were to suddenly make cars using 10-year-old slaves in order to make more profit, consumers wouldn’t buy them.

Lastly, McWilliams appears to agree that animal manure provides a sound alternative to industrial chemical fertilizers (and fertilizer is necessary to produce the plants that vegans eat).

But the writer then demonstrates a lack of creativity. He notes that well-known pasture-based farmer Joel Salatin has to buy corn and soy from other places to partially feed the pasture-raised chickens that fertilize his fields. But the fact that Salatin buys grain from far away (and I haven’t verified that he does) is a reflection of the fact that the East coast, where Salatin’s farm is located, no longer grows large amounts of grain. If there were a source of reasonably-priced, responsibly-grown grain nearby, I’m sure Salatin would buy it. Numerous people in sustainable agriculture are attempting to figure out this piece of the local food puzzle, trying to grow grain in the North again. They are being creative, rather than ceding everything to industrial grain growers.

I don’t understand why McWilliams ends his piece by lamenting that human waste from meat ends up in sewer systems. Everyone who eats, shits! And that includes people who remove plants from the land and consume them. He also mentions that meat eating causes animal carcasses to be taken out of the nutrient cycle, but I’d like him to meet farmers in my neck of the woods who are being creative (there’s that word again) by composting animal carcasses and returning them to the land.

It will be interesting to read other responses to this piece. Thanks to James McWilliams for sparking what is sure to be a vigorous debate.