Foodies, feds and factory farms — Why we need vegans now more than ever

Artwork by Jason Laning, 2014.

Artwork by Jason Laning, 2014.

It was their screams that woke Donald Watson. Born in 1910, in South Yorkshire, England, Watson’s earliest memories were of holidays spent at his Uncle George’s farm. His first impression of that time was “one of heaven,” surrounded by so many interesting animals who each “gave” something, whether it be the cows who gave their milk, the hens who gave their eggs, or sheep who gave their wool. As a young boy, Donald couldn’t quite figure out what the friendly pigs gave, until one day when he bore witness to his uncle in the act of slaughter.

“And I still have vivid recollections of the whole process from start to finish, including all the screams of course, which were only feet away from where this pig’s companion still lived,” Watson recounted many decades later at the age of 92 in an interview with his colleague George D. Rodger. “I suppose at that point I decided that farms — and uncles — had to be re-assessed… this idyllic scene was nothing more than death row.”

In 1924, Watson made a New Year’s resolution to give up meat and fish. Twenty years later, in 1944, he went on to found a new kind of vegetarian society in the United Kingdom that advocated for eschewing all animal products entirely, including dairy and eggs. At a dance they attended together, Dorothy Morgan, Donald’s wife, suggested a name for that society. She coined the word vegan — derived from “the beginning and end of vegetarian.”

Vegan before celebrity endorsements

I remember when I first heard the v-word on television. It was around 2001, and the fictional President Josiah Bartlett on “The West Wing” was about to attend a dinner with environmental groups.

“Two thousand environmentalists are going to try to kill me tomorrow night,” he said. “They’re going to come after me with vegan food and pitchforks.”

His assistant Charlie, reassured him by saying, “I’m not sure that’s a thing people do.”

“Still, I’d like you to get between me and any boiled seaweed that comes in my way,” Bartlett joked.

Despite the fear and derision surrounding its use, I recalled being excited to hear the word vegan on prime-time television back then, when it hadn’t yet become part of the vernacular, and certainly not part of the discourse of the head of state. At the time, our president from Arkansas with a love of Big Macs had just left office. Never would I have imagined then that Bill Clinton, who looks slimmer, younger and healthier than he did two decades ago, would be touting vegan foods as the reason for his newfound youth. Similarly, former vice president Al Gore, who recently embraced plant-based eating, has finally acknowledged the inconvenient truth about meat and the environment, which was notably absent in his 2006 documentary about global warming.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has made it quite clear as well that every stage of livestock production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. The global livestock sector as a whole contributes more emissions than the transportation sector, and also plays a significant role in every major environmental problem from water and air pollution to deforestation to desertification.

Meanwhile, over the past decade, both large and grassroots animal advocacy organizations have been employing undercover investigators to document and expose the realities behind animal agriculture. Aided by the Internet and social media, these videos have enabled consumers to bear witness to cruelties like Donald Watson did on his uncle’s farm so many decades ago.

Worldwide meat production (Wikipedia / Meat Atlas)

Worldwide meat production (Wikipedia / Meat Atlas)

Still, only 4 percent of American men and 7 percent of American women consider themselves to be vegetarians, according to the Gallup poll illustrated in the latest “Meat Atlas” published by Friends of the Earth International, which places the vegan population in the United States at about 2 percent. More omnivores, though, are opting for vegetarian fare, and we have the rise of the so-called flexitarian, as evidenced by Mark Bittman’s popular book “Vegan Before Six.” Nationally, per capita meat consumption still stands at roughly 200 pounds of flesh per person per year, more than any other country in the world, though that number is tapering. But with urbanization and increases in incomes in the global south, the demand for meat and animal products is on the rise worldwide.

As compelling as the case made against factory farming has been, and even with the surge of short- and long-term celebrity veganism, the forces for maintaining business as usual remain quite powerful, keeping citizens in the dark and marginalizing those shining a light. Vegans are fighting not only to dismantle animal-abusing industries, but also an Orwellian world that labels activists as terrorists and slaughter as humane.

Looking back now at that “West Wing” episode, in President Bartlett’s speech to the environmental lobby, he acknowledged that global warming was “a clear and present danger to the health and well being of this planet and all its inhabitants.” But in an attempt to court votes from the opposition, Bartlett distanced his administration from the environmentalists by condemning them for not publicly admonishing an act of “environmental terrorism” at a ski resort.

In these 42 minutes, which aired in January 2001, the words vegan, environmentalist and terrorism were carelessly (or carefully) lumped together. Perhaps it was foretelling what would happen in the years to come, when George W. Bush would commence a war on terror that would also extend to environmental and animal rights activists.

It is the successes of these activists that terrify animal enterprises and threaten their economic interests. Veganism is not simply a personal lifestyle choice, but rather a movement that confronts the most pressing issues of our time — consolidation of corporate power, willful destruction of our planet and the ethics of violence.

Open rescues, closed government files

On a Wednesday evening in April, animal rights activist and historian Ryan Shapiro was getting ready to give a talk at an anarchist space called the Base in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Shapiro, a doctoral candidate at MIT, had been visiting New York that week, speaking to law schools and academic environments about his efforts to get the Federal Bureau of Investigation to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, and release its records on animal rights and other activists. With 700 submitted FOIA requests, Shapiro is considered to be the “most prolific” FOIA requester. Shapiro began the lecture, stating “the last time I gave a talk in NYC, which was in 1999, I was telling people how to break the law,” referring to his past actions of civil disobedience. “And now, I am telling people how to try to make the government comply with it.”

Shapiro admitted to me after the talk that he was nervous to speak in front of this audience — these were his friends and colleagues, some of whom he’d shared a long history of organizing and activism. During the lecture, though, you couldn’t tell he was worried. Shapiro spoke fast, easily rattling off facts and figures from his research. He had energy in his demeanor — part passionate professor, part rabble-rouser.

Shapiro also shared his personal trajectory into animal activism and veganism. A slide show projected on the front wall of the room displayed Shapiro as a young boy.

“I always cared about animals,” he said. “As a kid, it wasn’t really a political thing at all. Who doesn’t love animals?”

But, at the age of 11 or 12, Shapiro said he became “very radical.” Part of that had to do with receiving a copy of Brian Glick’s 1989 booklet “War at Home,” which discussed the FBI’s covert counter-intelligence program COINTELPRO and the national security state’s history of spying on, infiltrating, and disrupting activist groups and dissidents. He recalled this was an age when he really started to think about justice and injustice. It was also around that time that he became a vegetarian.

“The idea of taking someone else’s entire life to satisfy 15 minutes of my day, seems like a gross injustice to me,” Shapiro said.

When he learned more about what happens to animals raised for meat, milk and eggs, he became vegan.

“I wasn’t an activist,” Shapiro said about his early veganism. “I was just like, ‘This is terrible. I don’t want anything to do with this.’”

But soon after he had this profound revelation: “I grew up in a Jewish household. I’ve been an atheist since [I was] four. The one thing unifying the American Jewish community… is this notion that, but for accident of time and space, you would have been smoke coming out of a stack in Poland.”

What troubled Shapiro most about the Holocaust was that concentration camps weren’t in the middle of nowhere.

“Some human beings were doing to other human beings among the worst things that humans have done to other human beings… and on the other side of the wall, you had people literally shopping,” he said. “It was less the people inside these camps perpetrating these atrocities that terrified me so much, as much as the people on the other side.”

Shortly after he became vegan, Shapiro was driving to a mall to buy a birthday present for a friend and realized that the large industrial sheds he was passing on the side of the highway were factory farms.

“Inside these farms, these animals were experiencing among the worst horrors that have been inflicted upon others,” he recounted. “I was literally just driving by to shop. I was horrified with myself.”

It was then that he felt it wasn’t enough to just not eat animals, but that he wanted to do something to stop it. In the mid-1990s, he became active in many animal rights demonstrations in New York.

“I did a lot of organizing with many of the people in this room,” he said. “We would get arrested all the time.”

A photo of Shapiro’s first arrest after a protest of the use of elephants in the circus, projected on the front wall of The Base. The slide show advanced to the next slide. “Here are a number of people taking over the president’s office at NYU.”

In part, due to this occupation, New York University agreed to transfer the remaining chimpanzees from its primate laboratory to a sanctuary rather than to another vivisection laboratory notorious for its animal welfare violations.

“Here’s outside Macy’s in Herald Square, the world’s largest store,” Shapiro said in reference to a photo of a fur demonstration. “Jack hammers, bolt cutters, saws — this is hugely disruptive work. We shut down the world’s largest store.”

Years later, in 2002, Shapiro, along with other activists, coordinated a year-long undercover investigation of factory farms in upstate New York and California.

“These were foie gras factory farms — same thing as every other factory farm but there’s also force feeding.”

For this delicacy, the liver of a goose or duck is fattened by inserting a feeding tube down the animal’s throat. Shapiro and Sarahjane Blum made a documentary in 2003 about this investigation called “Delicacy of Despair.”

“As part of the documentary, we also ‘openly liberated,’ or stole, or what have you, over 100 animals from these farms,” Shapiro said. “We weren’t the first people to do this. This wasn’t the first time that we’d done it. Lots of activists were doing this sort of great work. No one had ever been prosecuted in the United States for openly rescuing animals — at least not since the first reported animal liberation in U.S. history: the 1977 liberation of two dolphins from a Hawaii laboratory by a group calling itself the Undersea Railroad.”

At that time, this direct action tactic of “open rescues,” where unmasked activists openly liberated animals in distress from factory farms was starting to take hold in the United States, inspired by the work of Animal Liberation Victoria in Australia.

Shapiro noted that when footage of these undercover investigations and rescues came out in the news, the people who owned these factory farms often denied it was their farm.

“They would say ‘not my farm, not my farm,’ so they would never bring charges,” Shapiro told the audience.

The owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Liberty, N.Y., however was different. Shapiro recalled his statement was more like, “I know that’s my farm. I recognized those cages. I built those cages with my bare hands.”

Shapiro and Blum were then brought up on felony charges in New York state. “I guess we’re going to prison now,” Shapiro recalled thinking. “We thought maybe six months, worst case scenario two years.”

It was an act of civil disobedience, and despite the threat of imprisonment, he was heartened by the opportunity it gave them to talk to about veganism and the rescue of over a hundred animals in the process.

“Not only did it spark a national and international campaign, but it was a major component of the effort in California to ban the sale and production of foie gras in that state,” he explained.

Ryan Shapiro rescuing a duck from a foie gras factory farm in the 2003 documentary Delicacy of Despair. (Gourmet Cruelty)

Ryan Shapiro rescuing a duck from a foie gras factory farm in the 2003 documentary Delicacy of Despair. (Gourmet Cruelty)

Years later, it was footage like theirs that convinced food writer Michael Pollan — who had previously been dismissive of a Chicago foie gras ban, feeling it unfairly targeted small farmers — to change his mind. In an interview I had with him in 2006 for Satya Magazine, Pollan acknowledged the usefulness of the foie gras footage provided to him by an animal activist.

“This is how you learn,” he told me. “I’m not an expert.”

Although Shapiro and Blum did not want to go to prison, they rationalized that if they had to go for six months to a year for their actions, it seemed like a reasonable trade. However, they got lucky and only received misdemeanor trespassing charges, sentenced to 40 hours of community service to a group of their choice.

“Through the same course of time, some of my closest friends and colleagues were not nearly as fortunate as Sarahjane Blum and I,” Shapiro told the crowd in Bushwick. “While this was happening, there had been this profound legal, legislative, prosecutorial shift in the country. In 2004, the FBI designated animal rights and environmental movements the leading domestic terror threat in the United States, despite the fact that neither of these movements has ever once physically injured a single person in this country ever.”

As Shapiro went on to explain, the government passed a law called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006, which targets animal rights and environmental activists as terrorists.

“It became very apparent to me that if we had done the undercover investigation and rescue even a year later, we wouldn’t have been beating state conventional charges, we’d be going down under federal terror felonies,” Shapiro said. “The entire model of activism that I had used for over a decade was basically untenable at this point.”

Shapiro then decided to go back to graduate school to figure out how we got to a point where animal rights and environmental activists could be prosecuted as terrorists — a phenomenon that journalist and author Will Potter has termed the “Green Scare.”

The core of Shapiro’s work as an activist and a scholar revolves around “the power of information, and who decides what we get to know and what we get to see.” At the age of 12, his entry into vegetarianism was coupled with his awareness of COINTELPRO. A couple decades later, his vegan activism remains linked to his scholarship on the national security state’s surveillance of activists.

Resisting the ‘Green Scare’

In his book, “Green is the New Red,” Will Potter documents the recent FBI crackdown on animal and environmental activists and the labeling of such activism as “eco-terrorism.”

The first usage of the term Potter discovered was from a man named Ron Arnold in 1985, who wrote critically of the environmental movement, which had been making considerable advances back then.

“The invention of the word eco-terrorist,” Potter explained, “really was an attempt to shift public opinion away from these activists who were regarded at the time as heroes in mainstream newspapers and magazines and to demonize them and the issues that they cared about.”

Potter referred to “this change in how we talk about people” as being an important tactic used in the criminalization of protest. In recent years, Potter has been reporting on the emergence of so-called ag-gag bills that have been introduced or passed in several states. He noted that these bills would criminalize photography and videotaping of animal enterprises, as well as criminalize the possession, distribution and republishing of this footage, placing undercover investigators, whistleblowers and journalists at risk.

“What goes hand-in-hand with that use of language is reframing the entire debate and restructuring who is the victim in the discussion,” Potter said. “Rather than the victims being the animals who are experiencing horrific cruelties systematically, or rather than the victims being activists who are being criminalized and the whistle blowers and the journalists who are being threatened, the narrative has changed so that the victim is the farmer, industry and corporation. But in reality, it is the factory farmers who are on the offensive to hide what they are doing.”

Potter grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, or “stockyard country,” as it’s known. In college, he was involved in other kinds of social justice movements that were more foreign-policy-orientated, like protesting the economic sanctions on Iraq for killing thousands of children every month. His friend, who was also a DJ with him at their college radio station, bluntly asked him one day: “You are involved in all these other progressive issues, why are you not vegetarian?”

As Potter recalled, “She didn’t say it to be adversarial or a jerk or anything, just kind of like, ‘Why haven’t you thought about these things?’” She then gave him a copy of John Robbin’s manifesto “Diet for a New America.”

“I immediately became vegetarian and six months later went vegan,” he said.

When Potter was working as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune after college, he decided to volunteer on his off hours with animal activists who were distributing leaflets about a notorious animal testing laboratory. During a leafleting session, he and his colleagues were arrested, even though they were not breaking any laws. The charges were eventually dropped, but what happened after this event, as Potter describes in detail in his book “mark[ed] the beginning of both a personal and political journey.” Two FBI agents approached Potter after the arrest and asked him to be an informant. “We just need your help finding out more about these people,” one agent said to Potter. They threatened him by saying they would put him on a domestic terrorist list and make life difficult for him as a journalist if they didn’t hear from him.

Though he had no intention of becoming an informant and had never even considered it, Potter wrote in his book that he felt ashamed about how this encounter was affecting him, how shaken up he was and scared. “Here I sit, a twenty-two year-old white heterosexual American male, the most privileged of the privileged, turned inside out because of a class C misdemeanor and a knock on the door. Here I sit. Afraid,” Potter wrote about that time. The fear soon led to purpose, as Potter set out to understand how someone handing out leaflets could be labeled a terrorist and the chilling effect this can have on nonviolent activism.

When asked about the challenges of being a journalist covering these issues and the stigma associated with activism, Potter said, “It has been a consistent uphill battle to even position this as an issue that’s worthy of discussion. I always try to emphasize that I focus on these issues, not because I don’t think so many other issues are important, but only because it was an area to specialize in that no one else was delving into in that way.”

Potter is now about to embark on a new approach to covering these issues.

“I really wanted to try to think of creative ways of telling a story that industry wants to keep hidden, while at the same time empowering people,” he said.

After seeing the work of a photographer in the United Kingdom named Mishka Henner, who used satellite imagery to show pollution from feedlots and factory farm operations visible from space, Potter began to wonder what could be done with high-definition cameras that are right above farms.

“This is something we never ever see,” Potter said. “Even people who have seen some of the YouTube videos of animal cruelty will not have the bigger perspective of how this is changing the landscape of the natural world, of how it’s impacting surrounding communities so radically, and our health, and pollution of our air water and land.”

And so, Potter’s idea for Drone on the Farm was born.

“Being the investigative journalist that I am, I started by Googling, ‘How do you buy a drone?’” Potter laughed.

His project to send drones equipped with video surveillance equipment to animal farms to produce an e-book and documentary was more than fully crowd-funded on Kickstarter within a month.

“I don’t want to violate any trespass laws,” Potter clarified.

Feedlot showing industrial waste in Randall County Feedyard, Amarillo, Texas. (Mishka Henner)

Feedlot showing industrial waste in Randall County Feedyard, Amarillo, Texas. (Mishka Henner)

The drones selected will have sufficient range to get on the farms, while Potter remains on public property. They will also have enough payload capacity to carry high-definition cameras that will take photos and video footage while live streaming. Potter will be recording and duplicating the footage on the ground in real time should the drones be harmed during filming, which is entirely possible given that some farmers have already threatened Potter that they will shoot them down.

“I’m most interested in states where ag-gag laws are still being debated with the possibility of shaping that discussion as it’s happening,” Potter said.

His focus in the short term is to expand the Drone on the Farm project to as many states as possible, with the potential of taking it international at a later time.

Preventing projections from becoming our destiny

When Donald Watson went vegan, the planet had only two billion people. In the 70 years since, the human population has more than tripled, and meat production has increased more than five-fold.

Mia MacDonald, executive director of the public policy action tank Brighter Green has been looking at these trends closely to illustrate the global threat they place on the health of the planet.

“There are a number of euphemisms used around rising meat consumptions,” she said at a lecture hosted by the animal studies department at New York University this past April. “Things like ‘diet shifts’ really fail to capture the dramatic increase in meat consumption or recognize the threat to food security this whole system imposes because of the intense resource needs.”

I’ve worked with Macdonald and Brighter Green on researching the globalization of factory farming and its social and environmental impacts in places like China, Brazil and India, which is no longer a majority vegetarian nation.

At NYU, MacDonald presented the projections for 2050, when the human population is anticipated to reach 9 billion. If consumption continues to grow at the current rates, 120 billion animals would be killed each year in food production. There’s been a sharp increase in the industrialization of animal agriculture globally, and this factory farming model has been promoted as the way to meet these potential future demands.

“Why or should this area of animal agriculture be seen differently than other areas where we know consumption is outstripping resources?” MacDonald asked the small crowd of mostly students. “It’s because it involves vast, vast numbers of sentient beings — 70 billion animals a year [currently]. To produce this meat and the feed required to raise these animals also has large and very significant effects on wild animals, biodiversity and resilience.”

The Center for Biological Diversity has recently honed in on this point with their Take Extinction Off Your Plate campaign, which highlights how animal agriculture is degrading habitat and contributing to loss of wildlife.

MacDonald comes to this work with a background in public policy that has been focused on gender and the environment. She approaches these issues around the globalization of factory farming very holistically and from many perspectives. Brighter Green’s work has explored how water pollution and cardiovascular diseases are spreading in China; how avian influenza repeatedly wipes out chicken farms in India; how cattle grazing and grain production devastate the Amazon rainforests as well as the Cerrado, a biologically diverse savanna in Brazil; and how the dairy industry is expanding in Asia targeting populations that may even be lactose intolerant.

There are multiple entry points to the conversation, whether it be public health, animals or the environment, and MacDonald also raises questions about power.

“There’s an increasing number of resources, forests, land and water being directed toward animal agriculture, and yet the benefits of that are very few,” she said. “To me this raises enormous issues of equity. Who is deciding how these resources are used?”

Both nationally and globally, factory farming and the current agricultural agenda have raised issues of social and environmental justice, whether it be labor conditions in the fields, air and water pollution impacting local communities, health disparities in low-income neighborhoods, or lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

In recent years, MacDonald has seen an increase in awareness of the ecological, climate, public health and food security impacts of animal agriculture. Yet, what is troubling is how policy dialogue really lags. Even in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which detailed the environmental harms of animal agriculture, there seemed to be a sharp disconnect between the findings and the recommendations. Rather than explore a reduction in consumption, they advocated for yet-to-be-developed technological fixes.

“Unfortunately, instead of trying to rethink this system that is so embedded in the United States and being globalized, the policy dialogue is more about how to produce more food in more efficient ways,” she said. These efficiencies have a Frankenstein quality to them — genetically modifying animals through breeding to make meat animals cope better with heat stress and drought caused by climate change or tinkering with feed so that cows belch less methane.

“It really isn’t about rethinking this whole system in ways that would be more humane, more sustainable, more holistic and more equitable,” MacDonald said.

She contends the global livestock businesses — Cargill, Tyson, JDS, Smithfield — are increasingly powerful and that their interests are not absent from this policy dialogue. Still, MacDonald notes that the global meat demand projections are simply that — they don’t have to become our destiny.

Foodies vs. food justice

James McWilliams, history professor and author of “Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly,” followed MacDonald’s talk at the panel discussion at NYU.

He began by saying that given all we know about the state of the planet, “it is safe to say that we are at a point in time where industrial animal agriculture is indefensible. But as we become more aware of this problem as consumers, our response — our kind of most popular and collective response among concerned consumers — has been to continue to eat animals and animal products, but it’s been to do so from a different kind of system, a different kind of farm.”

Inspired by food writers like Michael Pollan, consumers are looking for smaller farms, that are non-industrial and so-called humane.

“For many of us, we’re looking for farms where we know the farmers,” he said.

As part of the “foodie” culture that has emerged over the past few decades, there’s been a kind of celebration and glorification of this kind of “artisanal” meat eating. Food journals and magazines will feature profiles of the ex-vegetarian turned meat-eater or the raise-and-kill-your-own-food memoirs (like Pollan’s disciple Novella Carpenter), and words like free-range, humane, and organic assuage meat consumption, though rarely are the meaning of these words questioned.

McWilliams admitted there are often good intentions for getting closer to one’s food source and purchasing animal products from these kinds of seemingly alternative farms. But, he argued, that “if you take a careful look at the alternative systems, we are starting to find there are very severe ecological problems with these alternatives, economic problems and there are ethical problems.”

Ecologically, even though these smaller farms are decentralized, McWilliams explained that “per unit of production, they use far too much water, they use far too much land, and they are producing far too much methane — not to mention a product that requires a tremendous amount of energy to process.”

Economically, McWilliams realizes, that unfortunately when it comes to animal agriculture, consolidation pays. Rather than challenging the factory-farming model, you’ll end up with a two-tiered system of producing animal products. There would be a niche market for more affluent consumers willing to pay more for these kinds of products, but the vast majority of consumers would be eating the mass-produced industrialized products that are the norm today.

Ethically speaking, he mentioned that on smaller farms, you do encounter farmers who consider animals as subjects with interests. They purport to recognize that animals are beings who experience fear and pain; that they have preferences, they opt for comfort and companionship, and enjoy sunshine and the outdoors.

“We celebrate that as a good thing,” McWilliams said. “But the question I have for small farmers and supporters of the animal welfare they practice is by what moral logic do you justify treating animals as subjects with interest, and then one day slaughter them and treat them as objects? What is the ethical principle that accommodates that transition?”

If you actually ask this question, according to McWilliams, “What you end up getting are these platitudes: The animal is treated well while the animal is alive; This is just one day of an animal’s life; the rest of the life was good; we were meant to eat meat, so we might as well do it humanely. But those aren’t answers — those are just excuses.”



McWilliams examines this question more closely in his upcoming book “The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals.”

“The title is intended to play up the idea that while we perceive ourselves to be civilized and sophisticated, that our behaviors are really barbaric, we just hide in a number of ways,” McWilliams told me.

In the book, McWilliams raises what he calls the “omnivore’s contradiction,” the idea of raising an animal with respect and dignity and then killing that animal. “I find that a contradiction, and I outline how very famous writers embrace that contradiction without resolving it.”

McWilliams re-assesses these seemingly idyllic farms, ones perhaps not unlike the farm owned by Watson’s Uncle George.

“In a sense, I’m holding a mirror up to it for consumers to see that in fact the promises of humane agriculture are not being met and very likely can’t be met,” McWilliams said. “The nature of animal agriculture is such that it is defined by the kind of exploitation that most decent people would find unacceptable.”

Potter too, hopes to also look at these kinds of farms in his drone project as well.

“As more and more people become interested in these issues, there’s an attempt, as you know, to just reframe the debate and call everything humane and free range,” Potter told me. “That language has really no enforcement at all. There’s no teeth behind it.”

A camera on these farms might give a more accurate assessment of whether products labeled with happy chickens or cows or pigs, are much different from those we call factory farms.

At one point during the NYU lecture, McWilliams talked about wanting to get “the real shapers of the debate — the Michael Pollans and the Mark Bittmans — to think about reframing the way we are talking about food.”

In the “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan wrote, “[t]he industrial animal factory offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism is capable of in the absence of any moral or regulatory constraint whatsoever. Vegetarianism doesn’t seem an unreasonable response to the existence of such an evil.” It is, however, an unreasonable response for him.

When Bittman’s doctor told him he should go vegan for his health, Bittman was reluctant to change.

“[T]he idea of becoming a full-time vegan was neither realistic nor appealing to someone accustomed to eating as widely and as well as I do,” he writes in his book “Vegan Before 6.” His solution is to be a part-time vegan, eating animals only after 6 p.m. He recognized that these changes have co-benefits for the environment and for animals, though those issues seem to also be only part-time concerns.

Instead of choosing between small and large animal farms or eating meat in the a.m. or p.m., McWilliams would like to frame the dilemma as a choice between domesticating animals or not domesticating animals.

I asked McWilliams about his personal trajectory to this conclusion. His awareness about the environmental harms of animal agriculture first came about when researching his book “Just Food.”

“I personally reached this conclusion that, if we’re serious about wanting to create global agricultural systems that are responsible and just, then the first and the absolute most important thing would be to move radically away from production of animals.”

In addition to the environmental arguments, McWilliams spent a year-long fellowship at Yale, reading the cannon of animal rights: Tom Regan, Peter Singer and Gary Francione. “I found their arguments collectively so persuasive.”

But the single “a-ha” moment came when a friend sent him a video of a calf being removed from his mother to be turned into veal. “It was so emotionally powerful,” he said. “I watched that video, and it was almost as if there wasn’t a choice anymore. I changed my life right there.”

Once confronted with the truth about animal agriculture, individual change seemed to come almost instantly for McWilliams, as it did for Watson, Potter and Shapiro. On a societal level, change takes more time.

I asked McWilliams what the future of agriculture looks like without animals. McWilliams’s vision for animal-free agriculture is both low-tech and high-tech, rooted in both historical experiences as well as future innovation.

McWilliams refers to “agro-intellectuals” who argue that animals and animal manure are a necessity for agriculture. As a scholar, McWilliams is taking a historical approach to counter these claims.

“I’m looking into how farmers in the 18th century farmed without animals,” he explained. “In colonial America, it was very difficult to keep animals penned and they didn’t have the labor to rotationally graze their animals. So they farmed without animal manures using green manures.”

He’s also not opposed to fertilizer on principle.

“People say that’s terrible stuff,” he said. “It runs off. And that’s true, the way we do it now, but there are high end and far more ecologically responsible fertilizers that farmers can be using. Of course, there’s very little incentive [now] for anyone to develop fertilizer that won’t run off.”

He sees the benefits of shifting away from domesticating animals.

“Farms can be a lot more diverse if we are going to eat an exclusively plant-based diet,” he said. “We won’t be turning over so much agricultural land to grow corn or soy to feed the animals. So those lands can be used to grow a much wider range of foods that we currently don’t eat right now.”

Battery caged hens in India (WNV / Wan Park)

Battery caged hens in India (Brighter Green / Wan Park)

So how do we get there? One step toward that goal, McWilliams said, would be to encourage the organizations that have the most power politically with respect to animal and environmental issues like the Humane Society of the United States or the Sierra Club to adopt this as a specific goal. Currently, the former’s agriculture campaigns focus on state legislative bans against some of the more egregious practices of factory farming — the use of battery cages to confine egg-laying hens or gestation crates for pregnant sows, as well as corporate and university campaigns around sourcing their animal products.

Meanwhile, on the environmental front, there is a new documentary “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret,” which explores why many of the large environmental groups are soft on targeting the industry responsible for much of the world’s ecological ills. McWilliams feels the need for these kinds of organizations to go further.

“These powerful nonprofits that deal with agriculture and animals need to develop a backbone when it comes to addressing these issues,” McWilliams said. “The fact of the matter is they are afraid of offending donors. As a result, they back off of this issue.”

How to effect change in the classroom is something McWilliams has more experience with. As a history professor, he’s recently been teaching a course called Eating Animals in America.

“In that course, we explore many historical and philosophical issues surrounding the act of eating animals,” McWilliams explained. “I don’t go into the course preaching veganism. My students know my beliefs, but we have open discussions about this sort of basic behavior that we rarely question. And we question it.”

His students are mostly from rural Texas, many of whom have grown up on farms. “These kids are remarkably open to questioning these issues, and there have been some radical changes in personal behavior as a result,” McWilliams said.

“I gotta tell you, it gives me hope.”

A fruit that’s ripe for the picking

In November 2005, Donald Watson passed away at the age of 95. Vegan advocacy continues to live on in a myriad of forms. Watson talked about the social challenges in the early days of the Vegan Society, and how, “one must accept a certain amount of excommunication, as it were, from the rest of society.”

Watson was heartened by the growth of the movement worldwide toward the end of his life. Scaremongering and linguistic flexibility are used by agribusiness to keep these voices marginalized, but exposing the truth remains the most powerful tactic those advocating for ethics and compassion can employ.

“A common criticism is that the time is not yet ripe for our reform,” Watson wrote in the first issue of his quarterly magazine The Vegan News. “Can time ever be ripe for any reform unless it is ripened by human determination?”

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