The state of animal farming in this country is abysmal. The small farm and slaughterhouse have been almost entirely replaced by the vertically integrated meat and animal products conglomerate; environmental disaster and unintentional cruelty to animals in the name of efficiency have become de facto standards in much of the industry. Chelsea Purvis’ recent guest column (“Sustainable Farms Offer More Humane Option,” November 18, 2003) does an excellent job describing the horrible conditions of mainstream animal farming. What lies outside the scope of Purvis’ column, however, is that elements of the environmental far left have long campaigned for lifestyle-based non-solutions that fail to address the problem in a comprehensive manner.
Groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and others have taken advantage of the situation to vociferously promote veganism (and, as a less acceptable alternative, vegetarianism) amongst socially conscious consumers. PETA and its allies have an ulterior motive grounded in extreme ideology: the belief that any form of animal domestication is automatically immoral; the leaders of PETA believe that the only “ethical” contact between humans and animals is no contact at all. PETA’s philosophy would leave us without not only household pets, but also antibiotics, the smallpox vaccine and most of the rest of modern medicine.
The literature of the vegan movement loves to quote Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates is indeed correct, but vegan propaganda simply replaces one brand of ignorance with another. I am a pragmatist, and I believe that the general public will never give up meat, milk, eggs and other animal products. Indeed, trends of the past few years have shown that the American public’s appetite for beef has only grown along with its waistline; though veganism and vegetarianism continue to rise, so does meat production.
I consulted visiting professor Karl Storchmann in the Yale Economics Department. Because of the nature of markets for animal products — their supply is fairly fixed in the short term — changes in demand (i.e., vegans not eating beef) have little or no effect on the quantity of animal products produced. The decrease in quantity consumed will lead to a price drop, and the void will quickly be filled by an increase in demand by non-vegans, who can now afford to add more animal products to their diets — as opposed to, say, pasta or porridge over beef, Five Alive over milk, or tofu over eggs.
Storchmann also suggests an economic solution to the problem, but one which does not involve a boycott. We can effectively combat factory farming by adjusting our tax structure in two significant ways. First, we should eliminate subsidies to corn and other grain farmers. What is often left out of the globalization debate is that the biggest beneficiaries of these subsidies are not the grain farmers themselves, but the meat and animal farmers who directly benefit from artificially low feed prices. Second, we should tax directly (and thus raise the price of) animal products produced under inhumane conditions: a tax on hen batteries, for instance, or on grain-fed (rather than grass-fed) beef. Consumers vote with their dollars, not their consciences, and so by raising prices we can decrease demand for industrial animal products and increase the demand for humane and ecologically sound alternatives. Initially, we could even subsidize the alternatives, thereby encouraging more farmers to comply and enlarging the production base.
Purvis suggests organic farms, and they make a good starting point. But organic labels — which have grown increasingly varied over the years — don’t always imply humane and ecologically sound conditions; they only certify that the product is free of chemicals, and Purvis’ column is misleading in that regard. Horizon Foods, for instance, one of the nation’s largest organic dairy farmers, keeps its cows confined to small feedlots and stuffed with a grain diet (a far cry from the happy cow so prominent on its over-the-top packaging). What we need instead is a national and independent board to oversee the above tax structure, and to certify animal farms and ranches as humane and environmentally sustainable.
My first nomination for certification would be Alderspring Ranch in Tendoy, Idaho, run by Glenn and Caryl Elzinga — and indeed, I might even nominate them for the panel. The Elzingas keep their cattle at pasture, refuse to use hormones or antibiotics, and have their cattle packaged in a small, local and family-owned slaughterhouse. Their Web site lists healthy beef, ecological sustainability, enhancement of agricultural communities and humane treatment of animals as the backbone of their farming practices. When I called Glenn recently, his love of animals, of the land and of the natural environment was absolutely infectious. He knows his cattle, he knows the land, and he believes in his work. Glenn’s outlook and his farming methods represent the untold story, the undermarketed and undersupported third path. The Alderspring model, and the Elzingas’ philosophy, could easily be extended to chicken, pork, eggs and milk.
Rather than choosing to abstain from the animal products market entirely, socially conscious consumers should choose to vote with their dollars and support farmers like the Elzingas, but we should also offer incentives for the less socially-conscious among us. By increasing demand for ecologically sound and humane beef, otherwise-vegans could not only raise awareness, but also lower prices, bring in more producers, and maybe start to win converts among the general population. By removing themselves from the fringe, otherwise-vegans could prove to be a major force in bringing about the tax reform I suggest. Veganism is not activism because it is equivalent to abstention; given the general public’s immutable predilection for animal products, veganism is passivism, it is withdrawal, it is an ideologically grounded ignorance of a superior alternative.
L. David Peters is a junior in Davenport College.