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!