Recently, I was viewing some information I had received about intensive animal farming in Australia. While I agree totally with everything they had to say about animal welfare, I have to say I was disappointed that the only option that was offered to the consumer was to become a vegan!
Now, I'm not against veganism or vegetarianism. For some folks this is a healthy, happy dietary choice. What I am disappointed with is that the viewer of the information about animal welfare was not being offered any other choice to deal with the animal welfare situation, nor was there any information about what impact not using animal products has on environmental, economical and resource issues.
The issue here is not wether it is correct to eat animals or use animal products. That issue has long be debated and is as controversial as the old question - 'is there really a god?'. What I'd like to look at are some more realistic matters in terms of producing the desired result of better animal welfare.
What are the animal welfare issues?
First, let's recap on some of the animal welfare issues. There's no doubt that intensive farming techniques are cruel and quite shocking. Most of us are 'vaguely' aware in the dim recesses of our minds, but we lead busy lives and deliberately taking the time to look the issue in the face is traumatic and has implications that mean making big , inconvenient changes in our lifestyles. It takes us completely out of our comfort zone.
The simple truth is, avoiding the facts is like avoiding a diagnosis of cancer. It will spread, and it will have dreadful consequences. I'd love to use the term 'inconvenient truth' but someone else has already made good use of it!
Battery Hens are probably the best known example. These birds are kept in cages the size of a piece of A4 paper. They are often 'de-beaked' a cruel process in which the end of the beak is clipped off so they don't peck each other. Why would they peck each other? Pain, frustration, boredom... Their feet rest on wire cage bottoms and they never get to indulge in natural chicken behaviours like scratching, foraging for food, eating a variety of foods, nesting, roosting and more. They often lose most of their feathers.
For images of battery hens check out these sources:
Or just search on Battery Hens on the web for more revealing and distressing images.
Meat chickens or broilers, are mostly raised in large open barns. In this case the animals are free to move around, however they have been bred to reach more than natural maximum adult weight in a very short time (around six weeks). Their organs and skeletal structure just cannot cope with the weight. Imagine a three year old having the same weight as an overweight adult - would they be able to stand and walk? Again, these birds are never able to participate in natural chickeny behaviours. Collection and harvesting of the animals is also unnecessarily rough and cruel. They are collected en masse, stuffed into waiting containers and carted off for processing where they are hung by their feet until electrocuted and killed.
For images on intensive broiler farming check out these links.
Pigs are kept in some of the most appalling conditions. This one pains me especially. We kept a pig for a while and I had the opportunity to learn first hand of their beautiful, intelligent and highly sensitive emotional nature. I have actually seen pigs waiting at the saleyards, weep and cry in fear. Intensive farming for these lovely creatures means life in a stall only big enough to stand and lie in. Mostly kept on concrete floors, in cramped conditions they are often bloodied and sore from rubbing the cage walls. Young piglets have their eye teeth and tails cut off without any pain relief whatsoever. Sows being kept for breeding have only slightly larger stalls in which to birth and suckle their young. They are not able to engage in natural piggy behaviour like walking, running, rolling, scratching, digging, nesting and caring for their young. I can only imagine that death is a happy alternative for these animals.
Cattle and Sheep are slightly luckier in that they are mostly able to lead comfortable lives in the field. Lot feeding is a process where animals are intensively grain fed to ensure weight gain and quality consistency of meat. This often happens in the last few weeks/months before slaughter. There is quite a bit of debate as to the appropriateness of feeding cattle and sheep grain. If I were to go outside and feed my (grass fed) sheep grain without easing them slowly onto it, they would bloat and die overnight. Eating grain like this is not natural to these animals. There is evidence starting to surface that grass fed animals produce a better quality and nutritious meat than intensive grain fed animals.
We also have no choice or control over what the animals are being fed. At little later in this article, we'll touch on Genetically Modified grains and some of the concerns surrounding them. (see Monsanto Patents a Pig ) Again, if you haven't seen the production Food Inc, go and get it. The practice of lot feeding cattle in the USA has become so extreme that the animals, like pigs in stalls, are unable to participate in natural behaviours and lead appallingly pointless lives. Let's hope that production in Australia never reaches those levels of carelessness.
The demand to produce cheap meat has also lead (in some countries including the US) to the use of cheap (and very nasty) feed being used. Animals that are naturally herbivores are being given feed that is made up of other dead animals, genetically modified foods and items as bizarre as M&Ms! See the link below for more.
Once, on an outback trip, we stayed in the caravan park of a western QLD town. It was situated near a cattle yard where animals were loaded and sometimes held overnight on trucks for transportation. All night long the animals wailed and bellowed with fear and discomfort. I've also seen trucks jam packed with sheep, heads and legs sticking out at all angles. Not something that makes me feel terribly comfortable. Again, most of us would be familiar with the terrible outcome for some animals that find themselves part of live exports to countries that have even less care for the well being of their animals.
What's the answer then?
There would be very few of us, when faced with the 'inconvenient truth' about our food, who would not ask 'what can be done about this?' We all need to eat!
The solution that was presented to me recently, was to become a vegan. Well, I guess this is one choice. But let's look at this choice a bit closer and lets look at some other options available to those who find the concept of becoming a vegan a bit too much for them.
A vegan is someone who adjusts their living so as to exclude all animal products from their diet. A Vegetarian also omits most animal products but some may eat fish, eggs, cheese, milk, yoghurt etc. Is this the solution to animal cruelty issues? Well certainly, if none of us at meat or any other animal product we would not need to keep animals so intensively and certainly we would see changes in the industry. But what would happen to our food production industry? Well, it's actually already happening...intensively farmed and managed food crops also have some serious issues that need dealing with.
Genetically modified crops
In order to produce more in less space we are seeing the introduction of genetically modified crops. Essentially these crops are being developed to be glyphosate resistant. Glyphosate is a key herbicide used to kill weeds in crops (and get this...the companies who make this also make the GM crops!). The objective here is to be able to 'nuke' your crop to keep the weeds down, without killing or damaging the crop itself. Problem is, these GM crops are patented. If they get out of hand and cross pollinate or contaminate other crops (as they have started to do) those farmers are liable to prosecution and persecution from the monolithic companies who own the patents. Innocent or not, no individual has the resources to face off and win against such large organisations. In South America, important native varieties of corn have already been lost due to cross pollination. Small farmers are being forced off their land, or are unable to compete in the changing market place.
Further to this, there is not enough credible independent information available to ensure that consumption of GM crops does not pose a health risk. In my mind there have been enough 'technological health blunders' that have been revealed after it was too late, for me to feel confident that health issues are not yet to appear. If you do your research you will find there are agencies who are still calling for more access to materials and freedom of reporting in this area. It appears there is a real lack of transparency when it comes to information surrounding this topic. In one report I recently viewed(Monsanto Patents a Pig) cattle & pigs fed GM crops showed a marked decrease in fertility. Knowing this, would you eat GM crops?
This brings me to another issue related to GM foods. In Australia (as with other places) we have no option as a consumer to choose products that do not contain GM food products. There is currently no labelling law in place to ensure our choice as a consumer is protected. In fact, as I write this I have received a newsletter from the True Food Network (Greenpeace) that states:
"US biotech companies are currently lobbying the Australian Government not to label GE products, asserting this would be an undue restriction on trade with the US.
Australia is currently in negotiations over a free trade agreement with America that could block efforts to have GE products in food labelled in Australia"
Eeek! Goliath strikes again! Will the Australian Government protect it's people or will they bow to the threats and tantrums of the US in order to keep trade relations happening? It's a difficult conundrum indeed! You can have your say in this matter, just visit www.truefood.org and follow the links.
Even without GM crops, the sheer weight of intensively farmed crops is beginning to show detrimental results. See Can Cities Save our Bees as an example.
The choice to become a vegan or vegetarian also comes with ethical responsibilities. Should we blindly support new technologies such as GM foods? What environmental damage comes from allocating vast tracts of land to intensive farming to support massive crops? What about third world and other countries who cannot compete in their own market when they are flooded with cheap (sometimes subsidised) corn, wheat and soy?
For those who choose to extend their respect to animals to the refusal to use even leather, what are you going to use instead? Nearly all of our synthetic products contain products and by-products of petrochemicals. The current environmental disaster happening off the coast of Louisiana is a direct result of attempting to recover oil that has a high financial recovery cost due to difficulty of extraction. Corners were cut, costs were kept to an unsafe minimum and the result is a man made environmental disaster of epic proportions.
No, I think that being a vegan or vegetarian must be a decision made at a very personal level, but with as much ethical concern as is involved with choosing to eat meat and use animal products. I also think, that this is not the only solution to animal cruelty that should be discussed.
** Oh, and also note that the facts about intensively farmed crops do apply to us omnivores as well. It's another issue that is linked in with the Big Picture.
Eating meat - with a clean conscience
How can we change cruel animal farming processes and techniques if we wish to continue eating meat? The answer is, to create strong demand for better, sustainable animal farming processes and techniques by shopping conscientiously. Learn and understand what the issues are and act accordingly.
We have been more than blessed when we made the decision to move to a rural area. We're able to generate some of our own food supply, but doing this is not what I'm suggesting everyone does. What I do want to share with you is what we have learned about animals and their environment as we spend more time with them. These creatures are certainly not, dumb, unthinking, unfeeling or without personality. Nor are they set out in isolation from their environment. What we have (re)discovered or awakened to is the intimate connectedness that exists in the field. Away from the office, away from the kids sporting commitments, away from the tarred roads you can genuinely plant your bare feet in the soil, and feel and experience life flowing through everything.
Properly developed relationships with animals form an incredibly beautiful and natural balance. For example - a micro enviro-system: our chooks are free ranged. They eat all our vegetable scraps and forage naturally daily eating plants and bugs (they even eat mice!). They provide us with fertilizer for our vegie garden which in turn produces food for them in the form of plant matter, leftover vegies and including all the grubs we pick off. They also provide us with eggs and on occasion meat.
Chooks by the way, are wonderful, engaging creatures who are not beyond a bit of petting and attention. Our chooks have learned to roost high in a gum tree that has low branches - now that's a strange sight! When we select a chook for the dinner table there is little fear and no panic as we have formed a relationship with them that allows us to approach them without panic. They are dispatched humanely and with great respect and thankfulness. Nothing goes to waste, everything is consumed or returned to our micro-environment. Even their feet are used in healthy nutritious stocks.
The chooks and garden cycle, is part of a bigger cycle on our property that includes sheep (for meat) and ducks (meat and eggs). Our farming practices include techniques that allow the ground to rest and develop natural pastures. We don't till the soil (thus destroying root systems necessary for carbon sequestering) and we allow our animals to graze naturally and peacefully. We like to say they have a good life, and one bad day.
The result of this sort of farming and care is an environment - including landscape, water, animals and people that has a natural flow and healthy balance. The minute you start to play with this in an unnatural manner you will start to see an escalation of problems.
Now, let me ask you this. If you must eat meat and you had a choice, would you choose an animal produced in an environment like ours or an intensively farmed animal that has had no care for it's holistic wellbeing? Bit of a no-brainer isn't it? And the wonderful thing is that you DO have the choice.
The very simple answer is - Just shop a bit more carefully!
Support those producers who are farming and marketing meat in a humane and considerate manner. Do a little research, talk to your butcher and let them know your preferences. Be prepared to pay just a little extra, but feel great knowing you are supporting the growth of an industry involved in the humane treatment of animals. The more consumer demand there is, the more change you will see.
We don't raise pigs on our farm, but we do enjoy some porky products. Near to us is a truly wonderful organic, free range piggery. (see www.ormistonfreerange.com.au. There are also lamb, beef, chicken & duck producers who also produce and market meat in humane and considerate conditions. Once you start looking you will find there are more choices available than you think. Have some fun with this, I can think of nothing nicer than visiting my local farmers market and experiencing the taste of a really good hand made organic sourdough bread, or the wonderful flavour of locally made raw honey. How about hand made organic sausages, or juicy local olives?
It's even worth planning weekend holidays to rural areas to stock up on your favourites from that area. Food should be a celebration, shared with friends and loved ones. Not a rushed event torn from a package and hurriedly microwaved on the way to life's next appointment.
Make a start - just do something!
We all have options, we all have choices. You can take the big leap or you can start small and work your way upward. At least be doing SOMETHING that contributes to better welfare for animals and a better long term future for the environment, economy and our resources.