Along with that special wish list for You-Know-Who, December is also the time of year for innumerable “best of” lists: Best new TV shows, most popular best-sellers and, of course, the biggest box office hits — because worldwide gross is how Hollywood ultimately defines “quality.”
It’s all about gold, not golden statuettes.
On the other side of the ledger, though, there is one particularly “naughty” list created by animal activists that, while there might be an annual shuffling of the ranks, features items that never seem to change: Call it the Seven Perennial Problems with Meat Production. As we’ll see in a moment, nothing on that list is unfamiliar to anyone conscious enough to have skimmed a few headlines or scanned their inbox over the last decade or so.
However, for every of those alleged problems, there are strong arguments to support the very activities and principles that animal rights and vegetarian activists so roundly condemn.
So in the holiday spirit then, let me weigh in with a counterpoint to the anti-industry black list.
1). Production cruelty. This first (and usually foremost) of the accusations anti-industry activists embrace revolves around the use of such emotion-laden imagery as battery cages, gestation stalls, and handling issues. The occasional incidents of actual abuse are often magnified with clever video editing and major media distribution, but this category is based on a fundamental notion that all animals should live like people.
To which I agree: Livestock should live like people: Regular meals, temperature-controlled environment, secure, livable housing — all the creature comforts we demand are also important to animals. Only we call them barns and corrals and feed bunks and watering tanks. But the idea is the same: Humans long ago abandoned sleeping in caves and roaming the land scrounging for food, and domesticated animals have every right to follow suit. Confinement isn’t malicious, it’s mandatory.
2). Industrial agriculture. This hit list in this category is a lengthy one and includes such tried-and-true hot buttons as GMOs, herbicides and pesticides, agricultural runoff and farm subsidies. All of those vividly detailed issues are laid at the feet of large-scale, mechanized farming and concentrated livestock production.
But with the same breath they use to condemn modern food production, activists are equally vehement about the looming threat of global food shortages, famine and widespread starvation. It never seems to register that to feed another two-plus billion people just one generation from now, so-called industrial agriculture will cease being a scapegoat and become a savior.
3). Environmental impact. This contentious issue has moved up several spots on the list since the “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report stirred concerns about global warming caused by farm animals. The understanding of the carbon footprint of livestock production has now been conflated with everything from climate change to air and water pollution to water shortages to deforestation and desertification — all traced to animal husbandry.
However, what activists fail to mention is that those last three items are primarily problems of developing countries, and the solution to the widespread poverty, lack of economic opportunity that drives landless people to slash-and-burn rainforests, encroach on wildlife habitat or overgraze the grasslands won’t be overcome by people continents away eating a vegetarian meal once a week. Those problems can only be solved by development, specifically, modern farming technology and infrastructure, along with the implementation of the very livestock production and food distribution system activists denounce in North America and Western Europe.
4). Animal cruelty. In this category there are plenty of so-called “minor causes,” that are championed not by the big-money lobbying groups but by small-scale, bootstrap organizations that are as proportionally angry as they are underfunded. Such campaigns as restricting hunting, banning puppy mills and forcing horse racing and dog tracks out of business count on the same emotional response as the more prominent themes like meat-is-murder.
When it comes to horses, dogs, and many other species, however, they have important functions that not only require human interaction, but contribute mightily to it. How about service dogs that assist disabled persons? How about rescue dogs, police dogs and canine trackers that hunt down bad guys and help save people who are lost? How about companion cats who provide comfort and stimulation for many elderly people? Or the equestrian programs that are used as therapy for developmentally disabled children and adults? None of those worthy efforts proceed without people breeding and training the animals activists want to set free.
5). Nutritional danger. For many years, the “eating meat will kill you” meme was near the top of a large percentage of activists’ hit list. Although the eat-meat-and-die campaigns have lost reaction in the wake of all the high-protein/low-card diets so many people have embraced in recent years, a surge of meat-causes-cancer studies has brought new life to the groups whose mission is convincing Americans that as a dietary choice, meat is a four-letter word.
However, the real culprit dieticians demonized wasn’t red meat per se, but the saturated fat contained therein. With newer research disproving the notion that eating fat makes you fat — we now recognize that refined carbs are the problem — the stature of animal proteins as a healthful, nutritious component of one’s diet has become more widely accepted. Equally, if not more important, protein foods are now becoming understood not as the cause of the obesity epidemic, but a key to its solution.
6). Biomedical research. This issue seems to attract the most violent and nihilistic among the activist community, as protests against the labs and academic facilities that conduct such research on rats, mice and other animals have often degenerated into violent personal attacks and harassment of the scientists involved.
Yet without wading into the muddy waters of how computer models could (theoretically) replace animal testing, do you really want the surgeon doing your open-heart procedure to be someone who’s only practiced on a simulator? Are you truly comfortable taking medication whose side effects have only been computer modeled? Even if you claim to be, the FDA’s not. And the final frontier of research on the regeneration of human tissue and neurological structures to find cures for such illnesses as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis certainly won’t be conquered solely in a computer lab.
7). Corporate control. This issue makes the list for good reason: Unless you own a big block of stock in some company, who’s thrilled by the idea of a corporate titan exercising newer-monopolistic control over our choices as consumers? And unless you’re on their payroll, the too-big-to-fail bank bailout was loathed by pretty much everyone across the political spectrum.
Problem is, big corporations are also responsible for many of the technological and scientific innovations we take for granted. Who wants to give up their smartphone? Or wifi access? Or 24-7 drive-thrus? Or any of a myriad benefits to which we’ve grown accustomed? All of them, and many others, have extensive technological, logistical and marketing platforms underlying their existence, none of which would have been possible without the engine of commercial enterprise embodied in the modern corporation.
Unlimited corporate power is anathema, of course, but without the capabilities corporations possess, we’d all be living a much different lifestyle.
And that goes double for the impact that livestock production has had and continues to have on commerce, agriculture and even social well-being.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator