Darcy Rhyno suggests we need a new way of thinking about cruelty to animals that provide us with food.
When I read Andrea K. Paterson’s article “How To Save a Cow” published on April 14, 2011 on Life As A Human, about avoiding factory farmed meat, it hit close to home… literally. As the parent of a daughter who aspires to vegetarianism, I’m well acquainted with the arguments for going meatless. In her article, Andrea makes a very good point that going eggless and milkless makes as much ethical sense when it comes to the animal cruelty that’s part of so much factory farming. But I’d like to take her argument one step further and consider what it means to be cruel to the animals we eat.
One day when she was 14, my daughter came home from school and declared she was a vegetarian. Just like that. No warning. No discussion. When we asked her why she’d made this sudden decision, she cited cruelty to animals as the reason and some internet videos about factory farming as the proof. In an echo of Andrea’s argument, I asked her if she was going to stop eating eggs since those animals were often treated just as badly on factory farms. I asked her to consider giving up most fish, especially tuna, if she was worried about the effects of her diet on animals.
As Andrea says, taking meat out of their diets seems to be the first action people take when they become concerned about animal welfare. The trouble is, that decision is a simplistic reaction to a very complex set of issues. Take tuna, for example. The tuna fishing industry barely ridded itself of the serious charge that many other species such as turtles and dolphins were dying in huge numbers as a result of poorly designed fishing gear when a new charge was levelled – over fishing.
Now, many groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace are predicting that at current catch rates, tuna will go extinct within a few years. And that’s just one species. Certain salmon, swordfish and cod populations, to name a few, are in trouble as well. Scientists having been raising the spectre of empty oceans for decades.
Industry points to aquaculture as the answer. In my own community, a battle is now raging between Atlantic Canada’s largest fish farming company and citizens opposed to a huge expansion planned for the local salmon farms. Even in the midst of that battle, I’ve heard no one suggest that fish farming by its very nature is cruel to the animals that are forced to live in the disease and parasite ridden pens so crowded with fish, the waste can be considered pollution. I see little difference between a pen full of salmon and a barn full of chickens.
There’s a further complication to the decision to go meatless as an answer to animal cruelty. Crops are grown on land that was once the home of countless wild species. Think of the prairies. Where buffalo, prairie chickens and foxes once roamed in great numbers, we now grow wheat and other major crops to feed a human population that continues to grow. Some argue that just the annual planting and harvesting of crops kills millions of wild birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.
So, what do I tell my daughter? She wants to do the right thing, but what’s the right thing? It’s not to replace her hamburger with a tuna sandwich. That would be putting the welfare of a domestic animal – one created by and dependent for its very existence upon humans – with the likely extinction of a wild species. It might not even be to go vegan as that would increase the already enormous pressure on farmland.
The answer might be that we have to rethink what we mean by animal cruelty. Yes, we can be cruel to animals one at a time, even one herd or flock at a time, particularly in a factory setting, but we can also be cruel to animals one species at a time and even one ecosystem at a time. A healthy ecosystem might be one in which a variety of plants and animals thrive, some of which are used or taken out entirely for food. There are healthy wild ecosystems and there are healthy domestic ecosystems. Many small farms fit this description. Animals feed on plants grown on the farm that are fertilized with manure from those animals. The animals are kept in small numbers and treated well. The plants are varied and some areas of the farm might be left fallow or completely unused to keep the soil healthy and to provide habitat for wild species.
The problem is most people live in cities and can’t find affordable what my daughter calls happy meat from small, local farms. They have to rely on factory farms where huge numbers of animals can be raised either for by-products like eggs and milk or for meat. While there are community gardens and bulk buying co-ops and farmers markets, there is no easy answer for most of the world’s city dwellers.
My daughter is lucky. We live in a place where we can easily buy fresh, affordable, sustainable haddock, smelt, lobster, clams, mussels and other fish while supporting the people who make it possible to do so. I grow a big vegetable garden to provide us with as much organic, local produce as possible for as many months of the year as possible.
For several years, I raised chickens for meat, that is until I couldn’t take the killing anymore. I kept hens for eggs until the wild animals killed all of them in a couple of horrific midnight episodes. We buy locally grown happy meat when we can afford it, we’ve cut out things like canned tuna entirely and we’ve cut down on factory farmed meat. In other words, we do what we can. But we won’t be cutting milk or eggs any time soon, not because we’re unaware of their links to animal cruelty – although where we live, not many farms can be considered factory farms – but because we have no way to replace them. And because animal cruelty is about much more than factory farms anyway.