The Low-Down on Californians for Humane Farms
Led by the Humane Society of the United States, the campaigners for Humane Farms want to place the California Prevention of Cruelty Act on the state’s ballot in November 2008. Like a similar campaign in Arizona last year, the California initiative involves measuring the area in which animals are confined; and similarly, it appeals to conservative values and an idealized concept of animal agribusiness. Its website is decorated with an image of a child feeding a pig and a farmer standing in a paddock, looking proudly into the camera, arms folded, in front of a cow.
The animals listed as needing husbandry modifications are calves sold as veal, egg-laying hens, and pregnant pigs. The proposal makes exceptions for fairs and exhibitions, children in 4-H groups, and scientists who test on animals.
California has no crated veal operations; but this measure is intended to be the first U.S. prohibition of battery cages for egg-laying birds. Campaigners love to claim a “first” but what does this one really mean? Egg producers kill male chicks soon after they hatch. That would continue. Hens would still be used up and slaughtered. Moreover, as long as people keep eggs in their diets, they’ll likely be eating processed foods made with cheap egg ingredients from outside the state, often traded in liquid or powdered form. And they won’t be discovering the healthful joys of egg-free cooking.
The campaign’s designers actually point to the prevailing lack of knowledge of egg-free cooking as a positive point. The advocates’ website links a Humane Society report on the sales potential of cage-free eggs: “There are no close substitutes for eggs, and, as a result, consumers continue to purchase virtually the same number of eggs, even as prices increase.” The report further suggests that groups of producers could “pass increased costs on to consumers without a loss in profits” and that shoppers, in turn, would increase their yearly spending on eggs anywhere from 65 cents to $8.78.
It’s not surprising that conventional humane groups would avoid public education about animal rights. But this campaign is openly dismissive of the very point it claims to promote: animal welfare. The HSUS report states: “Consumer perception of animal welfare is likely to be an important factor in producers’ choice of housing systems. For instance, although furnished cages have some welfare advantages over non-cage systems, consumers do not recognize a larger, modified cage as a significant improvement over conventional battery cages.”
In other words, the campaign doesn’t necessarily assume the cage-free egg concept will be better for the birds’ welfare than modified cages; yet it focuses on promoting these so-called cage-free eggs. It’s an easier sell: “Eggs from hens confined in furnished cages,” states the HSUS report, “do not enjoy the market premium of cage-free eggs.” An examination of Californians for Humane Farms' website reveals other documents covering the economics of dead calves -- the HSUS calls them carcasses -- and the value of higher production potential of pregnant pigs with somewhat more space. As Claudette Vaughan writes, “Retrograde and dowdy though it is, institutionalized animal welfare is much more violent towards animals behind the scenes -- much more sustaining a death culture -- that what people are led to believe.”
It would be offensive to call the California campaign an animal-welfare initiative. A "husbandry campaign" would be the accurate phrase. The campaign’s reliance on an optimistic forecast for egg sales precludes a genuine effort to improve animal welfare. We have clearly reached the stage at which the conventional humane movement has become so fully taken over by strategy (the concept of "win-win" for industry and the organizations) that it can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who support a campaign based on words whose actual meaning may be unknown to them.
Ironically, one of the HSUS reports cites a 2004 Golin/Harris poll for the United Egg Producers, in which most people surveyed said they’d pay extra for eggs with an “Animal Care Certified” label -- even “without any information about what the label actually meant.” Perhaps the very same phenomenon is going on with donations to humane farm organizations themselves, for how many in the general public will know that HSUS is doing market research for animal agribusiness, and going along with what shoppers perceive as humane and assuring corporations of market premiums for newly packaged commodities? One thing’s well known: The label “new and improved” can persuade consumers to keep buying a product. Does such market research cultivate genuine respect for the other animals of the world? Does this campaign help change the psychology that sees animals as commodities -- or does it reinforce it? As James LaVeck has asked, “Do we want to perpetuate the destructive fantasy that a social justice movement can be run like a multi-national corporation?”
Finding a Coherent Message
The California Prevention of Cruelty Act would -- if not overridden by state or federal law by its effective date of 2015 -- also place pregnant pigs in something larger than seven-by-two-foot gestation crates. Campaigners for the adjustment frame it as a win-win situation for advocacy groups (who hope to claim it as a victory) and businesses that breed and sell pig and their flesh. It could reduce farmers’ building investment costs, according to a report on the economic forecast for “the retail price of pork” on the campaigners’ website. It could improve pigs’ bone and muscle development, reduce stillbirths, and augment the “productivity” of pigs still more by inducing earlier pregnancies.
Activists also note that the switch could lead to a market premium, citing a poll showing most Iowa consumers would “buy pork products from food companies whose suppliers raise and process their hogs only under humane and environmentally sound conditions.” In short: Freedom will be allowed by the industry to the extent that freedom will be paid for by the meat-eater. Not more.
And what of those “environmentally sound conditions”? From both an animal-advocacy and an environmental perspective, expanded space for animal agribusiness makes little sense. Alas, as free-living animals are pushed aside by dairies and ranches, vegetarian activists are enlisted in “sustainable meat” campaigns. Reuters news service, for example, recently quoted a personal chef in the Bay Area of California who avoided meat for 20 years but believes the “grass-fed movement is the new vegetarianism.”
Across the planet, animal agribusiness is on the rise. If not from vegetarian activists, where can global society find a coherent message? Steadfast support for the movement to opt out of animal agribusiness would cultivate and strengthen genuine respect for animals and the ecology. Excellent models are available, from community gardens and vegan-organic farming projects to educational gatherings exemplified by the North American Vegetarian Society’s annual Summerfest.
Yet another example is Gidon Eshel, the University of Chicago researcher who was once a cattle farmer, but now cultivates an organic vegetable farm. Eshel’s research, which has had an important influence in the United Nations reports on agriculture, shows that a vegan, who eschews the products of resource-costly animal agribusiness, generates about a ton and a half less greenhouse gases annually that an omnivore consuming the same amount of calories. In short, the best way to respect pigs, chickens in the egg industry, and the animals exploited in the dairy industry -- both calves and their parents -- is declining to create the demand for them. It’s up to us to vote with our dinner plate by gracing it with a reverence for life.
Learning From History
Of course, the idea of cultivating a reverence for life enjoys a long tradition in animal advocacy and vegetarianism. By 1944, Elsie Shriglie, Donald Watson, and a number of other people of straightforward thinking and firm resolve made it clear, by forming the Vegan Society, that avoiding not only flesh but animal products generally would be the logical conclusion of vegetarianism. A significant step in quite the opposite direction came in 1994, when Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) developed guidelines for “Freedom Food” labels for meat and dairy products derived from animals reared according to society guidelines. Pigs, for example, would have straw bedding before being slaughtered as Freedom Food. A decade after the label’s debut, more than 60 million approved eggs were being snapped up each month by shoppers in thousands of stores.
By 1999, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies gave its support in principle to humane labels; soon a Canadian meat production website would urge “livestock producers who want to be around for the long term” to take note of the marketing importance of this trend.
One of the preachers of caring consumption in the United States is Michael Pollan, editor-at-large for Harper’s, and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. Pollan became interested in the topic because of health and animal-welfare concerns, and wrote, “If I was going to continue to eat red meat, then I owed it to myself, as well as to the animals, to take more responsibility for the invisible but crucial transaction between ourselves and the animals we eat. I’d try to own it, in other words.” Pollan bought a calf. And Pollan chronicled the growth of the calf from nursing, through the wrenching separation from his distraught mother, to a regimen of unnatural foods, hormones, and pharmaceutical products designed to induce slaughter weight by 14 to 16 months of age.
“Staring at No. 534,” wrote Pollan, “I could picture the white lines of the butcher’s chart dissecting his black hide: rump roast, flank steak, standing rib, brisket.”
Temple Grandin, an assistant professor of animal science at Colorado State, impressed Pollan as “one of the most influential people in the United States cattle industry.” Grandin “has devoted herself to making cattle slaughter less stressful and therefore more humane by designing an ingenious series of cattle restraints, chutes, ramps and stunning systems.” Professor Grandin, notes Pollan, is autistic, “a condition she says has allowed her to see the world from the cow’s point of view.” The idea that autism makes one able to see the world from a cow’s point of view is desperately absurd, but it worked for Pollan, who admitted that eating meat is “something I always enjoyed doing.”
Notably, Grandin is cited as an expert in the reference materials prepared by the Humane Society and linked to the Californians for Humane Farms’ website.
Much like an airline selling first class-tickets at premium prices, the Freedom Food and Humane Farms concepts don’t guarantee that anyone is buying less of the conventional, cheaper products. These concepts clearly do provide a greater array for the consumer, and they clearly do make some people more comfortable with the product than they otherwise would be.
As the human population continues to rise, and as access to precious land, fossil fuel, and water becomes concentrated in fewer hands, mass production will be the norm, in California and everywhere else. Only a select few will have the opportunity to trace what Pollan euphemistically calls “the invisible but crucial transaction between ourselves and the animals we eat.”
Again to quote Claudette Vaughan, “Nothing can ever replace the good, solid efforts over a long period of time of animal rights education, veganism and cruelty-free activism.” Through consistent and truly life-affirming activism, advocates could replace the fantasy of sustainable and humane animal farming with a plain-speaking movement that gets to the point: We just don’t need to buy what animal agribusiness is selling.
Lee Hall co-authored (with Priscilla Feral) the cookbook Dining With Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine, available from Friends of Animals, and covering everything from soups and dips and raw delights to unforgettable desserts. Have no fear: Egg-free baking is a perfectly traditional, and this book will help you get started with recipes that stand up to chefs’ standards. Dining With Friends has been kitchen-tested and highly praised by Vegetarian Times. Why not order this outstanding cookbook for yourself or a friend today? See ordering information in this issue.
- Last winter, a high-profile campaign to effect adjustments in animal husbandry involved Arizona’s Proposition 204, a ballot measure for new minimum stall sizes for calves and pregnant pigs. It passed, albeit with a seven-year phase-out period; and already federal legislation has been proposed to stop states from imposing husbandry standards on businesses. Regarding the Arizona initiative, see “Movement Watch” in the Spring 2007 issue of this publication, also available on the Friends of Animals website: www.friendsofanimals.org (click ActionLine on the top tool bar).
- “An HSUS Report: The Economics of Adopting Alternative Production Systems to Battery Cages” (as visited through www.humanecalifornia.org on 8 Oct. 2007; internal citations omitted).
- According to the HSUS report, consumers will pay “an average of between 17- to 60-percent more for eggs from non-cage systems.” Ibid.
- Claudette Vaughan, “Review: Capers In The Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy In The Age of Terror by Lee Hall,” – Abolitionist Online (Autumn 2007).
- “The Economics of Adopting Alternative Production Systems to Battery Cages” (see note 2).
- James LaVeck, “Truthiness Is Stranger Than Fiction: The Hidden Cost of Selling the Public on ‘Cage-Free’ Eggs” – Satya (Feb. 2007). LaVeck is co-founder, with Jenny Stein, of the nonprofit arts and educational organization Tribe of Heart.
- “ An HSUS Report: The Economics of Adopting Alternative Production Systems to Gestation Crates” (as visited through www.humanecalifornia.org on 8 Oct. 2007; internal citations omitted). See also Ian Bell, “Sows Well-Being in Stalls, Gestation Crates Compared” - The Western Producer (21 Jun. 2001).
- Ibid., citing Hill Research Consultants poll for the Humane Society of the United States (2003).
- Reuters New Service, “Compassionate Carnivores Focus on Activism” (16 Aug. 2007).
- For more on this history, see “Movement Watch” in the Spring 2003 issue of this magazine, also available on the Friends of Animals website: www.friendsofanimals.org (click ActionLine on the top tool bar).
- Michael Pollan, “Power Steer” - New York Times Magazine (31 Mar. 2001).