Close to home…

I grew up in rural Herefordshire, entrenched deep in its farming community.  So this article strikes a very poignant chord for me as it goes to the heart of one of the hardest conflicts I have being a vegan with my background.  How can I be comfortable with and respect my friends and family who make a living doing something I intrinsically believe is cruel and wrong?  A lot of my farming friends are sadly turning to this form of factory farming of chickens in order to try and stay financially afloat.  I have huge sympathy for how hard farmers are finding it to make a living – especially the potato and dairy farmers, many of whom are going under all over the UK or having to diversify away from what they have done for generations.  But does that excuse them turning to such a depraved method of farming?  Who am I to think badly of someone trying to keep their family above water?  At what point do their immediate needs have to take priority over my ethical ideals?

As a passionate vegan everything about this form of factory farming appalls me – both ethically and environmentally.  But whilst famers feel they have no other option, they are going to continue down this route of desperate mass farming which only spells out bad news for us, the animals and the environment.  The responsibility ultimately lies with the consumers.  When will we wake up to the effects our everyday choices have on the world at large?    When will we stop demanding cheaper and cheaper meat and dairy products in greater and greater quantity at the expense of our own personal health, the animals’ rights and the health of the environment.

The below article is from George Monbiot’s website and was published yesterday in the Guardian:

Fowl Deeds

The astonishing, multiple crises caused by chicken farming.

(By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 20th May 2015)

Man holding a chicken

It’s the insouciance that baffles me. To participate in the killing of an animal: this is a significant decision. It spreads like a fungal mycelium into the heartwood of our lives. Yet many people eat meat sometimes two or three times a day, casually and hurriedly, often without even marking the fact.

I don’t mean to blame. Billions are spent, through advertising and marketing, to distract and mollify, to trivialise the weighty decisions we make, to ensure we don’t connect. Even as we search for meaning and purpose, we want to be told that our actions are inconsequential. We seek reassurance that we are significant, but that what we do is not.

It’s not blind spots we suffer from. We have vision spots, tiny illuminated patches of perception, around which everything else is blanked out. How often have I seen environmentalists gather to bemoan the state of the world, then repair to a restaurant in which they gorge on beef or salmon? The Guardian and Observer urge us to go green, then publish recipes for fish whose capture rips apart the life of the sea.

The television chefs who bravely sought to break this spell might have been talking to the furniture. Giant chicken factories are springing up throughout the west of England, the Welsh Marches and the lowlands of the east. I say factories for this is what they are: you would picture something quite different if I said farm; they are hellish places. You might retch if you entered one, yet you eat what they produce without thinking.

Chicken factory

Two huge broiler units are now being planned to sit close to where the River Dore rises, at the head of the Golden Valley in Herefordshire, one of the most gorgeous landscapes in Britain. Each shed at Bage Court Farm – warehouses 90 metres long – is likely to house about 40,000 birds, that will be cleared out, killed and replaced every 40 days or so. It remains to be seen how high the standards of welfare, employment and environment will be.

The UK now has some 2,000 of these factories, to meet a demand for chicken that has doubled in 40 years*. Because everything is automated, they employ few people, and those in hideous jobs: picking up and binning the birds that drop dead every day, catching chickens for slaughter in a flurry of shit and feathers, then scraping out the warehouses before the next batch arrives.

The dust such operations raise is an exquisite compound of aerialised faeces, chicken dander, mites, bacteria, fungal spores, mycotoxins, endotoxins, veterinary medicines, pesticides, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide. It is listed as a substance hazardous to health, and helps explain why 15% of poultry workers suffer from chronic bronchitis. Yet, uniquely in Europe, the British government classifies unfiltered roof vents on poultry sheds as the “best available technology”. If this were any other industry, it would be obliged to build a factory chimney to disperse the dust and the stink. But farming, as ever, is protected by deference and vested interest, excused from the regulations, planning conditions and taxes other business must observe. Already, Herefordshire County Council has approved chicken factories close to schools, without surveying the likely extent of the dust plumes either before or after the business opens. Bage Court Farm is just upwind of the village of Dorstone.

Inside chicken factories are scenes of cruelty practised on such a scale that they almost lose their ability to shock. Bred to grow at phenomenal speeds, many birds collapse under their own weight, and lie in the ammoniacal litter, acquiring burns on their feet and legs and lesions on their breasts. After slaughter they are graded. Those classified as grade A can be sold whole. The others must have parts of the body removed, as they are disfigured by bruising, burning and necrosis. The remaining sections are cut up and sold as portions. Hungry yet?

Plagues spread fast through such factories, so broiler businesses often dose their birds with antibiotics. These require prescriptions but – amazingly – the government keeps no record of how many are issued. The profligate use of antibiotics on farms endangers human health, as it makes bacterial resistance more likely.

But Herefordshire, like other county councils in the region, scarcely seems to care. How many broiler units has it approved? Who knows? Searches by local people suggest 42 in the past 12 months. But in December the council claimed it has authorised 21 developments since 2000§. This week it told me it has granted permission to 31 since 2010. It admits that it “has not produced any specific strategy for managing broiler unit development”¤. Nor has it assessed the cumulative impact of these factories. At Bage Court Farm, as elsewhere, it has decided that no environmental impact assessment is neededɷ.

So how should chicken be produced? The obvious answer is free range, but this exchanges one set of problems for another. Chicken dung is rich in soluble reactive phosphate. Large outdoor flocks lay down a scorching carpet of droppings, from which phosphate can leach or flash into the nearest stream. Rivers like the Ithon, in Powys, are said to run white with chicken faeces after rainstorms. The River Wye, a special area of conservation, is blighted by algal blooms: manure stimulates the growth of green murks and green slimes that kill fish and insects when they rot. Nor does free range solve the feed problem: the birds are usually fed on soya, for which rainforests and cerrado on the other side of the world are wrecked.

There is no sensible way of producing the amount of chicken we eat. Reducing the impact means eating less meat – much less. I know that most people are not prepared to stop altogether, but is it too much to ask that we should eat meat as our grandparents did, as something rare and special, rather than as something we happen to be stuffing into our faces while reading our emails? To recognise that an animal has been sacrificed to serve our appetites, to observe the fact of its death, is this not the least we owe it?

Knowing what we do and what we induce others to do is a prerequisite for a life that is honest and meaningful. We owe something to ourselves as well: to overcome our disavowal, and connect.

www.monbiot.com

* Total purchases for household consumption (uncooked, pre-cooked and take-aways combined) rose from 126 grammes per person per week in 1974 to 259 grammes in 2013 (see the database marked UK – household purchases).

§ BBC Hereford and Worcester, 15th December 2014

¤ Response to FoI request IAT 7856, 13th August 2014

ɷ Herefordshire County Council, 22nd December 2014. Screening Determination of Bage Court Farm development, P143343/F

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If you must eat meat, save it for Christmas

Here’s a great article by the wonderfully eloquent and engaging George Monbiot which was published in The Guardian on the 16th Dec 2014.

image via Minnesota Turkey Growers Association

If you must eat meat, save it for Christmas

From chickens pumped with antibiotics to the environmental devastation caused by production, we need to realise we are not fed with happy farm animals.

What can you say about a society whose food production must be hidden from public view? In which the factory farms and slaughterhouses supplying much of our diet must be guarded like arsenals to prevent us from seeing what happens there? We conspire in this concealment: we don’t want to know. We deceive ourselves so effectively that much of the time we barely notice that we are eating animals, even during once-rare feasts, such as Christmas, which are now scarcely distinguished from the rest of the year.

Christmas turkey

It begins with the stories we tell. Many of the books written for very young children are about farms, but these jolly places in which animals wander freely, as if they belong to the farmer’s family, bear no relationship to the realities of production. The petting farms to which we take our children are reifications of these fantasies. This is just one instance of the sanitisation of childhood, in which none of the three little pigs gets eaten and Jack makes peace with the giant, but in this case it has consequences.

Labelling reinforces the deception. As Philip Lymbery points out in his book Farmageddon, while the production method must be marked on egg boxes in the EU, there are no such conditions on meat and milk. Meaningless labels such as “natural” and “farm fresh”, and worthless symbols such as the little red tractor, distract us from the realities of broiler units and intensive piggeries. Perhaps the most blatant diversion is “corn-fed”. Most chickens and turkeys eat corn, and it’s a bad thing, not a good one.

The growth rate of broiler chickens has quadrupled in 50 years: they are now killed at seven weeks. By then they are often crippled by their own weight. Animals selected for obesity cause obesity. Bred to bulge, scarcely able to move, overfed, factory-farmed chickens now contain almost three times as much fat as chickens did in 1970, and just two thirds of the protein. Stalled pigs and feedlot cattle have undergone a similar transformation. Meat production? No, this is fat production.

Sustaining unhealthy animals in crowded sheds requires lashings of antibiotics. These drugs also promote growth, a use that remains legal in the United States and widespread in the European Union, under the guise of disease control. In 1953, Lymbery notes, some MPs warned in the House of Commons that this could cause the emergence of disease-resistant pathogens. They were drowned out by laughter. But they were right.

This system is also devastating the land and the sea. Farm animals consume one third of global cereal production, 90% of soya meal and 30% of the fish caught. Were the grain now used to fatten animals reserved instead for people, an extra 1.3 billion could be fed. Meat for the rich means hunger for the poor.

What comes out is as bad as what goes in. The manure from factory farms is spread ostensibly as fertiliser, but often in greater volumes than crops can absorb: arable land is used as a dump. It sluices into rivers and the sea, creating dead zones sometimes hundreds of miles wide. Lymbery reports that beaches in Brittany, where there are 14 million pigs, have been smothered by so much seaweed, whose growth is promoted by manure, that they have had to be closed as a lethal hazard: one worker scraping it off the shore apparently died of hydrogen sulphide poisoning, caused by the weed’s decay.

It is madness, and there is no anticipated end to it: the world’s livestock population is expected to rise by 70% by 2050.

Four years ago, I softened my position on meat-eating after reading Simon Fairlie’s book Meat: A Benign Extravagance. Fairlie pointed out that around half the current global meat supply causes no loss to human nutrition. In fact it delivers a net gain, as it comes from animals eating grass and crop residues that people can’t consume.

Since then, two things have persuaded me that I was wrong to have changed my mind. The first is that my article was used by factory farmers as a vindication of their monstrous practices. The subtle distinctions Fairlie and I were trying to make turn out to be vulnerable to misrepresentation.

The second is that while researching my book Feral, I came to see that our perception of free-range meat has also been sanitised. The hills of Britain have been sheepwrecked – stripped of their vegetation, emptied of wildlife, shorn of their capacity to hold water and carbon – all in the cause of minuscule productivity. It is hard to think of any other industry, except scallop dredging, with a higher ratio of destruction to production. As wasteful and destructive as feeding grain to livestock is, ranching could be even worse. Meat is bad news, in almost all circumstances.

So why don’t we stop? Because we don’t know the facts, and because we find it difficult even if we do. A survey by the US Humane Research Council discovered that only 2% of Americans are vegetarians or vegans, and more than half give up within a year. Eventually, 84% lapse. One of the main reasons, the survey found, is that people want to fit in. We might know it’s wrong, but we block our ears and carry on.

I believe that one day artificial meat will become commercially viable, and that it will change social norms. When it becomes possible to eat meat without keeping and slaughtering livestock, live production will soon be perceived as unacceptable. But this is a long way off. Until then, perhaps the best strategy is to encourage people to eat as our ancestors did. Rather than mindlessly consuming meat at every meal, we should think of it as an extraordinary gift: a privilege, not a right. We could reserve meat for a few special occasions, such as Christmas, and otherwise eat it no more than once a month.

All children should be taken by their schools to visit a factory pig or chicken farm, and to an abattoir, where they should be able to witness every stage of slaughter and butchery. Does this suggestion outrage you? If so, ask yourself what you are objecting to: informed choice, or what it reveals? If we cannot bear to see what we eat, it is not the seeing that’s wrong, it’s the eating.

Is veganism still considered fanatical?

In this article in today’s Guardian, Emma Brockes argues that veganism is now pretty much mainstream and that people are probably eating animal free far more than they realise.  It’s certainly becoming easier and easier to be vegan, and most people have at least heard of veganism even if they’ve never encountered one themselves.   But I’d say we’re still a long way off mainstream- I’d say we’re still at the freaky strange highly suspect end of the spectrum.  And that’s living in central London… Outside of London, if you ask for something vegan you’ll most likely get a baked potato thrown at your head or asked to speak in English. And pretty much any restaurant you’re lucky to have a choice of two options that are veggie, let alone vegan, and apart from the odd packet of crisps, an overpriced banana and a raw carrot there is diddly squat you can buy in any service station so I don’t see how people might be accidentally eating vegan. 

But I certainly hope she’s right as the more people go vegan the greater the demand and the greater the supply…  imagine going into a normal restaurant and not saying, ‘hello, have you got anything vegan and if so I’ll have that thank you very much’.