Commentary By Wayne Creed, Cape Charles Wave Columnist
On March 20, Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) set up their annual campaign, the 2015 MeatOut, meant to encourage the public to try a vegan diet for one day. People from 96 countries pledged to "Eat Vegan for a Day." This simple effort saved 1,343 farmed animals. MeatOut was soon followed by an opinion in the New York Times by Dean Ornish, clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and the founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. Ornish's article focused on the questionable notion that "Americans have grown fat because they eat too much starch and sugar, and not enough meat, fat and eggs."
The implication is that consuming lean meat and animal byproducts (even those labeled organic or grass fed) is somehow "healthy." More recent research indicates that animal protein may significantly increase the risk of premature mortality from all causes, among them cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes, and a study published by NIH last March found a 75 percent increase in premature deaths from all causes, and a 400 percent increase in deaths from cancer and Type 2 diabetes, among heavy consumers of animal protein under the age of 65 - those who got 20 percent or more of their calories from animal protein.
According to Ornish, "Low-carb, high-animal-protein diets promote heart disease via mechanisms other than just their effects on cholesterol levels. Arterial blockages may be caused by animal-protein-induced elevations in free fatty acids and insulin levels and decreased production of endothelial progenitor cells (which help keep arteries clean). Egg yolks and red meat appear to significantly increase the risk of coronary heart disease and cancer due to increased production of trimethylamine N-oxide, or TMAO, a metabolite of meat and egg yolks linked to the clogging of arteries."
When questioning the ethics of eating and the effect that our food choices can make, it is important to realize that those choices have much broader implications than just weight loss or personal health and well-being - they also play a big role in the health of our environment. By the numbers, one person going vegan for one year would preserve 53,900 square feet of rain forest, and save 1,350,500 gallons of water.
For many folks living on the Eastern Shore or greater Delmarva, the environmental effects of agribusiness have been a concern for some time. A report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) provides key data points on the adverse environmental aspects of animal farming, such as land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Even as agribusiness (livestock) only accounts for a relatively small proportion of the total GDP, it should still be noted that the sector still plays an important role both socially and politically in not just the poorest developing countries, but also the poorest communities of the United States.
In many places, raising animals seems to be one of the only livelihood options for much of the world's poor. According to the FAO report, "since livestock production is an expression of the poverty of people who have no other options the huge number of people involved in livestock for lack of alternatives, is a major consideration for policy makers."
Another, tangential effect of animal agribusiness is localized hunger. In developing countries people are not getting enough to eat on a daily basis, yet these same localities are exporting edible grains to feed animals which will eventually be slaughtered, and wind up on the shelves of America's grocers. Hunger afflicts more than a billion people worldwide and starvation and hunger-related diseases kill 24,000 per day, mostly children. A major factor is the waste of foodstuffs fed to animals raised for food, rather than feeding those that need it most. (2002 World Food Summit in Rome; Well-Fed World)
Critics of the proposed new zoning in Northampton County have for some time voiced concerns that increased development, including increased industrial agriculture along the aquifer spine could cause potable water issues for the Eastern Shore. Agriculture consumes about 70 percent of fresh water worldwide (from 34 to 76 trillion gallons of water annually). Data provided by a California Water Education Foundation study shows that one gallon of tofu requires 219 gallons of water per pound, where it takes 477 gallons for eggs, 896 gallons for cheese, 2,463 gallons for beef, and 469 gallons for a pound of chicken (not including processing). (Water Resources: Agricultural And Environmental Issues, BioScience 2004)
Environmental science aside, morally, ethically, and from a purely sustainable engineering standpoint, the fact that each year, 10 billion chickens, cows, pigs, sheep, are living in windowless sheds, wire cages, gestation crates, veal crates, and other confinement systems in US factory farms and are then slaughtered for food, eventually has to be reckoned with. When folks select a package of meat at the store, there needs to finally be a conscious connection to the concrete reality of how it got there - the road to the shelf runs straight through the slaughterhouse.
Cows raised for beef spend their existence in packed feedlots, never shielded from cold, rain, and snow, freezing wind, or blistering heat. Dairy cows spend their days in "dry-lot" dairies, confined to cramped stalls; if they are kept outside, they are crowded in pens, sometimes forced to stand and lie on feces and urine-caked soil. The industry artificially inseminates the females to keep them pregnant in order to continually produce milk. As soon as they are born, male calves are sold for beef production. Others are sold to veal producers, where they are chained and held in tiny, wood crates and fed a liquid diet (all to keep their flesh soft and pale). The real sound of our cruelty is voiced by the mothers, who will search and bellow for their calves long after they have been taken away (calves are taken immediately after birth).
Pigs known as breeding sows follow a similar path. Also kept perpetually impregnated in "gestation crates," they are eventually moved to "farrowing crates," to birth 10 to 12 piglets, where the normal nursing period of 12 weeks is reduced to two to four (so that the sow can immediately be impregnated again). When unable to keep up this pace, the worn out sow is sold for slaughter.
In the United States, 300 million turkeys and 9 billion chickens are slaughtered for their flesh each year. When Cape Charles was thinking about allowing backyard chickens, I was a proponent, stupidly thinking it would be humane, the eggs would be safe and organic, and the chickens would be "happy." I even had a spot in the yard picked out for the chicken house.
What I didn't consider was that since these hens were still bred by someone for laying eggs, what happens to the male chickens? As a commodity, male chicks are useless to the egg industry, so they are dumped into bins, trash cans, or plastic bags, where they are left chirping until they eventually suffocate. They are then ground up for feed. In some cases, they are sent to the grinder while still alive.
Surviving female chicks are "de-beaked" (beaks seared off with a hot iron to prevent stress-induced cannibalism). Their new home will be a 20 inch by 24 inch "battery cage," where five to seven hens are forced to live together, unable to stand up or stretch out their wings. Once egg production declines (even after a period of forced molting), they are sent to slaughter.
What about organic, cage-free, free range, or certified humane eggs? The term free range can be used if there is a government approved and certified access to the outdoors. Essentially, the door to the chicken house only has to be opened a few minutes a day to qualify for the "free range" certification. Aside from an open door, there is no other criterion. Free range hens are still de-beaked, and may still be confined to cramped quarters of less than a foot per hen, with up to 20,000 birds packed in together (with little or no access to the outside).
One well known "organic," "certified humane" operation in New Hampshire actually houses over 100,000 hens crowded into five 400 foot sheds. If there is any free range involved, it is just a small patch of ground between each of the sheds. Cage-free just means that they are not kept in battery cages, yet these birds never go outside, and are in most cases confined inside dark housing. Label them how you like - in the end, when used up, many of these birds will end up being slaughtered.
We use the term slaughter, but what does that really mean? For cows, due to travel conditions on the way to the slaughterhouse, some may die on the way, but "those who survive are shot in the head with a captive-bolt gun, hung up by one leg, and taken onto the killing floor where their throats are cut and they are skinned and gutted. Some cows remain fully conscious throughout the entire process." In an interview with the Washington Post, one slaughterhouse worker, Ramon Moreno said, "They die piece by piece."
In the case of chickens, at the slaughterhouse, they spend up to nine hours without food or water, and are then sent to the "live-hang" area where they are clamped upside down by their feet, attached to a moveable metal rack. The rack then moves through a spray or trough of electrified water (called a stunner), which immobilizes them, keeping them from thrashing too much on the slaughter line. Next, the fully conscious birds have their throats cut (either by an automated blade, or a manual throat cutter). Still alive and fully conscious, the birds are hung upside down, for the "bleedout" to occur. Some will die here, yet millions survive - dead or alive, the chickens are then dropped into tanks of scalding water ("Poultry Slaughter: the Need for Legislation," United Poultry Concerns, 2015).
Yes, we do these things. Given the levels of abuse and cruelty we have become party to, it is not surprising that so many food poisoning cases (e. coli, salmonella, and other bacterial and viral pathogens) are linked to the production and consumption of animal products. Again, the most recent report from the Journal of Internal Medicine found animal protein consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, CVD, and cancer mortality (not to mention obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases). Dean Ornish, who wrote the journal's commentary on the study, says "What is personally sustainable is globally sustainable. What is good for you is good for our planet."
Hurting and killing animals for food is ethically and morally wrong, and more and more science is showing that eating animals and animal products is not necessary for human health and happiness. Still people continue to maintain a deep-seated, fundamental connection to an industry that on an hourly basis engages and profits from a system of abuse and cruelty that hurts and kills animals only so that their flesh can be conveniently packaged and stocked on your grocer's shelves. There is a profound disconnection between consumer choices and the impact of those choices.
The term "vegan" carries a charged connotation which many times is met with skepticism and even ridicule, to the point that the term has begun to morph into "plant based" diet or lifestyle. It is not a passive thing; active veganism is a refusal to accept or cooperate with a cultural construct built on cruelty, oppression, and violence. Call it what you want, because it transcends what we buy or eat; in the end, it is simply a journey that began as the result of an inner reformation, a way of living that values and practices kindness and compassion, and which strives not to cause suffering to fellow living beings.