when you’re down in the pig mine

UCLA Law is offering a course in the fall called “Animals in Agriculture” — which sounds like exactly the kind of thing I’d be interested in. I’m interested in eventually doing some hobby farming, and I’m also interested in how to make animal farming both more humane and more sustainable. But then I looked up the person teaching it, and, well, this bio written by a student animal law society makes me think this is going to be a very lame class:

Cheryl Leahy is the general counsel for Compassion Over Killing… which is a nonprofit animal advocacy organization based out of Washington, D.C. Working to end animal abuse since 1995, Compassion Over Killing focuses on cruelty to animals in agriculture and promotes vegetarian eating as a way to build a kinder world for all of us, both human and nonhuman.

(My fears were confirmed by the official description of the class, which includes the scientifically dodgy and distinctly law-unrelated sentence: “Eating animal products has also been strongly linked to some of the biggest killers of Americans, including heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.” Yeah — this is not a class for someone who wants to learn the law in order to help small cattle ranchers with their business.)

Look, I get that people might want to eat vegetarian diets because they believe (incorrectly in my opinion, but not implausibly) that it’s healthier or that it’s more environmentally sustainable than eating meat. But anyone who thinks that you can get away from the moral consequences of animal death by eating “a vegetarian diet” is simply being unreasonable.

First of all, if you eat dairy, you are eating food that comes from a system that kills animals. Dairy cows have to be impregnated periodically in order to keep producing milk. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they give birth to roughly equal numbers of male and female calves. The female calves, of course, can become milk producers themselves. But the male calves become beef or veal. (For that matter, the milk cows themselves only produce for a few years — and I’m sure they don’t just get to retire at the end.) The same dynamic is, of course, also at work in egg production — even when the producer is as ethically and environmentally conscious as possible, there’s simply very little use for spare roosters.

What about being vegan? It seems morally safe, but if you think about it for two minutes, it’s not. The logic of agriculture dictates that every acre of land given over to growing food for humans is an acre that can’t be colonized by other life. In the U.S., that’s about 922 million acres, or 40% of our total land area. The vast majority of that land could be home to a whole host of critters — but it’s not, because it’s feeding us. Vegans, too.

Of course, even if you’re a bleeding-heart vegan, maybe you don’t care about the theoretical lives of muskrats and hawks who never got a chance to live in the cornfields of Iowa. Okay. But because the world’s population is still expanding, this issue isn’t just an abstraction — humans are constantly invading previously undisturbed habitats in order to grow food crops. How do I know this? Because the same student animal law society brought it to my attention:

April 18, 2012: Seeing Red: A Presentation by Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas
UCLA Law School

World-renowned primatologist and activist Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas will be speaking about how the policy of allowing palm oil plantations in Borneo is leading to severe deforestation and destroying the habitat of orangutans. We’re very excited to be part of this event, and to have a speaker of such stature appearing at our school.

For more information, see information from orangutan.org here.

Palm oil is used in dozens, if not hundreds, of common processed foods and other consumer goods. It turns out there’s a concerted movement to boycott palm oil for the sake of the orangutans. Which, fair enough. I like orangutans. But two things jump out at me, here.

First, if it’s not palm oil in Borneo, it’ll be some other plant oil in some other part of the world, which will destroy the habitat of some other set of animals — albeit maybe not ones as cute and human-like as orangutans. There’s still something decidedly human-centric about the attempt to save the orangs. Even vegans can’t quite escape it — we’re hard-wired to a certain kind of species chauvinism.

Second, you know who’s got two thumbs and is not eating a whole lot of palm oil? This carnivore right here. My wife and I cook with butter and, recently, home-rendered lard. And because we’re weirdos, we never eat granola bars or much in the way of packaged snacks generally. So, you know, that could be a new slogan for the environmental activists: “Eat a pig; save an orang!”

Of course, that brings us to a final issue, which is that that pigs, cows, and chickens wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for humans. Certainly the breeds we have today were created entirely by human breeding, and humans keep them alive. It’s never clear to me what anti-meat activists think would happen to all those millions of animals if we were to halt meat production overnight. Would we set the animals free? Would we create parks for them? Even if we imagine a tapering-off, in which we merely castrate or don’t breed the current generation, there arises a weird philosophical question — are we really concerned with animal welfare if we simply eliminate these species altogether, or reduce them to a handful of curiosities in zoos? One way of looking at this is that eliminating meat production (industrialized meat production, at any rate) would vastly reduce cruelty to individual animals, but at the cost of thwarting the overall goal of any species to expand its numbers. This alleviates our discomfort at the horrible lives most meat animals lead, of course… but that’s another human-centric motive creeping back in. (We can’t help it!)

All of which is only to say that things are complicated. In general I think the way you actually improve the lot of animals in this world is by taking a twofold approach: meaningfully engage, in a non-hostile way, with meat- and dairy-eaters about how the animals who serve their needs are treated; and work to stabilize or decrease human populations, so that our food production encroaches on fewer habitats. That is, you can minimize the suffering of the individual animals that we created and therefore should take some responsibility for. And you can try to minimize the human footprint overall. That is what you can do in this world. A world in which significant numbers of humans can exist without killing or displacing other animals, however, is pure imagination. By failing to engage, and by insisting on a kind of fantastical moral purity that doesn’t really exist for anyone, vegans and supposed “animal rights activists” are hurting their own cause.

And hey — UCLA is an academic and activist hub first, and a workshop teaching practical skills second. I know. Maybe they don’t have a lot of interest in teaching actual agricultural law in a nuts-and-bolts sort of way. But it does seem like even a course on the political aspects of animal law could do better, both in terms of serving a wider range of students and in terms of adopting an attitude that would actually effect improvements in animal welfare.

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6 Responses to when you’re down in the pig mine

  1. Nathan says:

    So you signed up for the course, right? 🙂 (If so, please record all ranting arguments that ensue.)

    Your post actually reminds me of a story I saw on “60 Minutes” recently. (Note: I take anything I see on “60 minutes” with a grain – or five – of salt, but…) Anyway, the story had to do with exotic animals from Africa that were imported to Texas. Some, are functionally extinct in their natural habitat now, but thriving on a number of ranches in Texas. The way most of these ranches survive financially is that they allow people to hunt the animals. That’s what pays for them taking the land out of cattle production. Anyway, for the most part, none of the “safari operators” will allow more than 10% of their herds to be hunted and when they sell breeding stock, that 10% limit is a condition of the sale.

    So, we have animals that are making a comeback from virtual extinction and the effort is supported by hunting. Needless to say, animal rights activists have a problem with this. One who was interviewed actually stated that she’d rather see them go over to extinction rather than be imported and allow hunting.

    This makes me want to hunt certain people (said the guy who has never fired a gun in his life).

  2. Elana says:

    The logic of agriculture dictates that every acre of land given over to growing food for humans is an acre that can’t be colonized by other life. In the U.S., that’s about 922 million acres, or 40% of our total land area. The vast majority of that land could be home to a whole host of critters — but it’s not, because it’s feeding us.

    This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I think we can all agree that feedlot beeves are not creating a diverse biome or anything, but a grass-based animal system (say, Polyface Farm-style) is so much more diverse (soil organisms, grasses and forbs, insects, birds that live off the insects, various other wild creates that pass through, plus whatever animals the farmer is raising) than a massive monocrop commodity field. There’s no comparison at all.

    I know none of us really count soil organisms as Actual Life, but it’s something I’ve been pondering. If everything that lives would like to keep living, is this so much less worthy of consideration when it comes to worms than when it comes to a cow? I don’t mean to be flip – I get that a cow has a pretty high order of consciousness and a worm not so much. But it’s still life of a kind, and tillage destroys soil life. Killing a cow to eat it is different, but perhaps the difference is more one of magnitude than of type?

    Also, as far as UCLA classes go, it strikes me that someone who is a vegan and concerned about animal welfare actually has much more in common with someone who is an omnivore and concerned about animal welfare within agricultural systems than with someone who doesn’t give a shit. So it’s too bad that there seems to be an unwillingness to have bridging conversations and form ALLIANCES, etc.

  3. Grambear says:

    Earthworms are not native where we live. The glaciers destroyed them all but some have got here from other places.
    And extra roosters are snake food.

  4. roman says:

    Hey there. I think the reasoning about agricultural use of land somehow making veganism less morally preferrable to eating animals/animal products is a bit off. It takes far fewer resources to feed humans directly than to feed animals for weeks/months, kill them, then make a much smaller protein/calorie output than the plants initially fed to the animals. Perhaps the root of your argument was that veganism is imperfect, as raising any food ever does damage–which I would agree with–but there is no denying that you need less earth capital to prepare food for an herbivore than an omnivore.

    • thehandsomecamel says:

      Roman — I think if you look up to the top of my post you’ll see that I acknowledged that there are plausible arguments in favor of vegetarianism for environmental reasons. I think those arguments don’t necessarily hold up when you start going outside the box of contemporary industrial agriculture, but I would certainly agree that as we do things now, animal food production is environmentally irresponsible.

      That’s a separate issue, to my mind, from whether you can avoid killing sentient things by eating a plant-based diet. The answer is, you probably can’t. There’s probably no method for producing food that doesn’t involve, at a minimum, destroying habitats. When you’re raising meat and dairy animals in the land you’ve cleared, you’ve at least swapped one set of sentient beings for another. But when you raise plants, especially in monoculture, but really even in other systems as well, you’ve prioritized your food plants over the sentient critters that might otherwise live there.

      Which is fine with me. My point is that we can’t possibly move through the world and feed ourselves without denying life to other creatures. It’s built into the core of what we are. And, to be honest, I don’t see why sentient animals get priority. Even if we could somehow avoid harm to sentient animals like mammals and (?) birds — which we can’t — and even if we could somehow avoid killing insects and other pests — which, again, we can’t — it’s still undeniable that when you eat a broccoli, you are denying that broccoli its right to live and to be free to compete in the world and attempt to reproduce. We ameliorate that latter point somewhat by saving seed and replanting — but that, of course, just means that we become broccoli eugenicists, allowing only the plants to survive that meet our needs and ruthlessly weeding out all others. Life is destructive, and human beings aren’t exempt from that. The best we can hope for, I think, is that when we are dealing with other sentient creatures, we don’t cause them unnecessary pain and suffering. But once you’ve achieved that — by creating good living conditions for the animals and prioritizing quick, humane slaughter — it doesn’t seem to me that killing animals for food is any more morally problematic than killing broccoli for food.

  5. Pingback: some thoughts on Hobby Lobby, sincerity, and science | The Handsome Camel

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