Category Archives: Intensive Animal Production

PowerShift Our Vision to See Unseen Others: Moving Beyond Factory Farms

Before you read this, can you do me a favour? Please take a big, deep breath. Hold that precious air for a few seconds. OK, exhale. Ahhhh.

What you just did was one of the most intimate interactions you have with your environment, every moment, for all your days. Most of us don’t even notice, but breathing – air – is essential for your life. And every breath you take is only possible thanks to thousands of other species, the millions of other living beings on this Earth, who make oxygen and take toxins out of the air. You are inextricably entangled and interconnected with every other form of life on this one precious blue and green Mother Earth.

But this post is not about breathing. It is about another very intimate interaction that you (hopefully!) have every day with your environment.

Eating! And specifically, about eating non-human animals.

We all know: you are what you eat. And its true, every bit of you, the skin and nerves that allows you to feel when you touch a leaf or stroke a loved one’s cheek, your eyes that see this beautiful world, your ears that hear the birds and rain and traffic – all this is built from what you eat. So think about what else you absorb when you eat something. If there were pesticides sprayed on your apple, you ingest that. If the animal you eat died in pain and fear, her entire body was flooded with stress hormones. And you take that in and it becomes part of your body. If like most dairy cows in the Intensive Animal Production System, your milk came from a cow with mastitis, you get the pus, blood, and traces of the antibiotics she was treated with. And the growth hormones she was injected with. Sure, there are laws and regulations to minimize your exposure, but we cannot wave a magic wand and undo what has been done to the animals and plants we eat.

Yet many people from Developed countries are disconnected from where their food comes from.  Food purchasing decisions tend to be based on taste, cost, and a reductionist view of “nutrition” somehow gleaned from misleading and deceitfully labeled food. There is little sense of gratitude and wonder for the magic alchemy that is food when it is treated like just another commodity. On many aisles of the typical grocery store, it is an old, sterile, de-vitalized commodity. The plants and animals that this processed food was made from are erased, cartoon versions on the packaging replace the reality of flesh and bone and roots and leaves. When you buy food from the grocery store, you don’t need to look into the eyes of the animal you will kill to eat, or get dirt under your nails as you pull carrots out of the Earth.

But food is magical alchemy. The plants and animals and fungus are co-created by the four elements of earth, water, wind, and fire. Breathing connects you to the wind element, drinking water connects you to the water element, but it is food that grounds you in all four.  Food also connects us powerfully, compellingly, viscerally, to other species.

I had the privilege to be part of a Panel at PowerShift 2012 called “Starving Injustice, Hungry for Change: How Climate Change Impacts Food Systems + Pathways Toward Solutions” with Devlin Kuyek from GRAIN and Chris Bisson. My part of the Panel was about factory farms and climate change. We were thrilled with the audience’s questions and comments. There were fabulous Keynote speakers that evening, and I especially appreciated the wisdom of Indigenous Elders and speakers, like Annie St. George, Winona LaDuke, and Crystal Lameman, who highlighted our interconnectedness with other species. It was refreshing to have the importance and well-being of other species taken seriously. So often at these conferences, that take place inside, with no other species in sight except a few fake plants, those other voices are invisible, ignored, silenced.

On our panel, I zoomed in on one aspect of the industrial food system that makes a large contribution to climate change (18% of greenhouse gas emissions): intensive animal production, AKA factory farming.  The US Pew Commission report defines Industrial Animal Production as encompassing all aspects of breeding, feeding, raising, and processing animals or their products for human consumption. It notes, “producers rely on high-throughput production to grow thousands of animals of one species and for one purpose.” For example, layer hens (for eggs) vs. broiler chickens (for meat) and beef vs. dairy cattle.

My take home message from the panel: We must stop letting Big Corporations make their obscene profits based on the suffering of unseen others.

Who are theses Unseen Others? The miserable chickens, pigs, and cows who are imprisoned within those horrendous “farms” of course spring to mind. Seven hundred million animals are raised for food each year just in Canada. But think about what else you don’t see. Who was destroyed and displaced to clear the land to grow the monocultures of soy, corn, and wheat to feed those animals inside the farms? Land used by industrial agriculture doesn’t just “poof!” appear, like Atlantis, rising from the ocean. That land was a rainforest, or a savannah, or a prairie or a forest. It was a beautiful wild ecosystem full of a cornucopia of other species, full of life, full of productive, possibly very yummy, biodiversity.

Factory farms convert beautiful biodiversity into miserable monoculture for human consumption. It is important to see these unseen others consumed by humanity. An excellent way to get acquainted with them is the WSPA report “What’s on Your Plate? The Hidden Costs of Industrial Animal Agriculture in Canada“. The report, which I will highlight in a future post, details the hidden costs of factory farms to animal welfare, human health, and the environment.

It is also important to see the beautiful biodiversity that we do not want to destroy. The unseen others are not just the animals suffering in darkness and squalor. The unseen others are also flashing in the sunshine in the rainforest, glinting in cool waters, soaring on the wind, literally dazzling us. If we dare to look. By shutting down factory farms, we release the Land and the energy to be the landscapes we crave, the wild animals that inspire us.

If we hold the image of the future we want, a beautiful, kind, and abundant future, it will help us to take the individual and collective action to close down industrial animal production, which is so far beneath what we humans are capable of.

Future posts will explore those individual and collective actions to reduce factory farming. What are your ideas? Please share your comments!

Keep Shining,
Julie

Some links…

text for “6 Minute Speech Project” Rio+20: end factory farming

I made a video for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. It will be part of “The 6-Minute Speech Project“, a unique speech built by people from all over the world through the power of social media which will be delivered at Rio+20 later in June.

Here’s the text of my video:

Hello my name is Julie Comber. I’m a singer-songwriter, activist, dancer, capoeirista, writer, Dreamer, and PhD candidate in environmental education. But more than anything else, I’m just someone who cares deeply about the world, and I truly hope that I can contribute to making this world a better place. Our World is so beautiful. But there is so much suffering and injustice, and the destruction of our natural world seems relentless.

So I felt compelled to share my thoughts for the 6 minute Speech project for the UN’s Rio+20 about “The Future We Want”. I will just quickly situate myself so you know where I’m coming from. First of all, I wish to acknowledge that I have created this video in Ottawa, Canada which is on unceeded, unconquered and unsurrendered Algonquin Land. I have lived in Canada, Guyana, Australia, and Tanzania, and traveled through Europe and the Caribbean. My background is in zoology, genetics, bioethics, and animal welfare, and my current research is on Wildlife Clubs in Guyana with the Makushi, one of the indigenous tribes there.

There are so many issues we need to work on, but I will focus on an important issue I feel is still neglected: factory farming. Also called intensive livestock farming or intensive animal production. This is an issue that I first found out about when I was 15 years old, right at the time of the first Rio Summit. I was a kid who loved animals, and not just cats and dogs, I had a lot of experience caring for horses, rats, and cockatiels, too. So someone gave me a book about animal welfare and that’s how I found out about factory farming. I was shocked. I couldn’t understand how humans could treat nonhuman animals so horribly. And I knew immediately that there was no morally relevant difference between a horse and a cow, a dog and pig, or a cockatiel and a chicken. So why was our society allowing so many millions of these animals to suffer? And what does that say about us as human beings?

Over the past 20 years, I’ve come to understand this really is a crosscutting and essential issue for us to deal with as a species. Factory farms are not only horrible for the animals that are raised within them, they have a huge impact on our environment and a terrible impact on human health and well-being. The numbers are truly appalling, and I think many of us numb out or tune out. We humans don’t seem to be very good at responding appropriately and compassionately to large numbers of “others” that do not seem close to us, to our daily life and family. As Stalin said, one death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic. When we hear of one animal, one cow escaping from the slaughterhouse, for example, most people cheer.  But the fact that 9 billion chickens are raised and killed for meat each year in the U.S. alone, is not discussed. 112 million pigs are killed in the US each year. And the list goes on and on.  So worldwide, billions of animals are raised in horrendous conditions and then don’t even get a good death. And we don’t do enough about it. So I’ll move on to ideas about how to eliminate factory farms.

Ten years after the Rio Summit I was doing my Master’s in bioethics and my interest was in the HIV AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. It just so happened that Dr. Solomon Benatar, a doctor and AIDS activist from South Africa, came to McGill University, and he gave an incredible talk and was a guest at one of our classes. I’ll never forget one of the things he said, which was directed at those of us in the West, in Developed Countries: “We have to stop living our privileged existence based on the suffering of unseen others.”  He was speaking about the social and economic inequality that fuels the HIV pandemic. But I could see how his comment applied to so many other problems in our world. Especially to factory farming.

But a positive way to look at this is that when we truly see and appreciate “Others”, then we can heal ourselves and the World. When I say “Others” I don’t just mean other humans. I mean other species, too. We are not fully human except in relation to other species. Animals, plants, bacteria, all forms of life have a distinct and unique way of being in this world. Through appreciating them, spending time with them, we expand the realm of possibility for ourselves.

There certainly is scarcity of some natural resources, but one human resource that seems scarce is actually completely renewable, and inexhaustible: empathy.  Empathy and compassion for our fellow humans and for all other species. I had the privilege of meeting Jane Goodall in Tanzania 15 years after the Rio Summit. And what really struck me about her is that she has a warm heart and a sharp mind. She also has a very strong sense of purpose, of what she is trying to achieve with her life. She embodies the characteristics that we are trying to nurture within children through humane education. By humane education I mean the broad definition which emphasizes the interconnectedness of social justice, the environment, and animal welfare.

So I think if we really do want to have a future that is fair, and beautiful and joyful, and where everyone can flourish to his or her full potential, then we need to get very clear as individuals and collectively as communities and societies about what is our purpose. Why are you here? What is the Gift that you want to give the World? And when you know that, then every day it’s a matter of seeing if your actions are aligned with your purpose and your values.

But I also don’t want to get stuck thinking that it’s just an individual’s responsibility. Our societies, especially in the West, are currently structured so it’s very difficult for individuals to make the choices that are better for themselves, other species, and out Planet. For example here in Canada $1.4 billion of our tax payer’s money subsidizes the already rich oil and gas companies. Imagine what we could do with $1.4 billion! We could invest in children and youth, in green jobs, in honoring our Treaties with our indigenous peoples. There are so many possibilities that would better reflect our values as Canadians. That is just one small example, well, 1.4 Billion is pretty big! But one example of how our collective decision making is so off—base.

So in closing, one thing that those in Developed countries can do is to reduce our consumption of animal products in general, and to categorically refuse to buy factory farmed animal products. Of course we can use our reason to know this is the right thing to do by taking a hard look at the numbers. For example, we know climate change is a huge threat, and livestock account for nearly 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. But I’m also arguing we need to do this because that allows us to be aligned with our life’s purpose and values, to take our sharp, critical mind and link it to our warm heart. We might be able to fool our rational mind that it is Ok to buy factory farmed products, but do you really thing you fool your heart and soul when you consume those product? Do you really think your body doesn’t know, doesn’t feel the suffering and destruction contained within the meat, milk, or eggs that comes from animals that suffered? Would you raise an animal the way they do in a factory farm? If not, why are you willing to pay someone to do it for you?

Every dollar is a vote. When we buy a factory farmed meat, milk or eggs, we are saying with our actions “Yes. I like that. Do it again”. Tell me, do you really like the horrors within factory farms? The pollution and contamination of our drinking water? The terrible soul-crushing working conditions for workers? That our landscape is being turned into a soy and corn monoculture to feed miserable animals hidden away from our view?

Or would you rather more compassion? More kindness? Better health? Soul-enriching jobs? To spend time in intact ecosystems where you can appreciate other species in all their beauty and splendor?

I know the future I want: a future where each of us humans, and all other species, can thrive, shine, and flourish in our own unique, beautiful, and irreplaceable way. I think shifting away from factory farming helps us get to that future.

Thank you, Merci, Obrigada, Asante, Miigwetch for listening.

KFC Double Down: Down with Health, Down with Conscientious Eating

“did you see that???” says my conscientious omnivore housemate.

i caught a glimpse of the KFC ad on TV

“was that actually a sandwich with fried chicken breasts replacing the bread?”
“yes. but did you see the filling?”
“uh, no…”
“bacon. and cheese.”
“wow, its the Atkins diet gone horribly wrong.”
“yeah, just get rid of ALL of the carbs!”
“…and see how many animal species you can consume in one bite.”
“julie, this is what the world has come to.”

he shuffles off to counter this turn for the worse by creating some beauty: playing the blues on the piano.