Sunday, March 28, 2010

Where the Money Comes From

Why have environmentalists not made opposition to factory farming a priority? For years now there has been broad agreement among independent researchers as to the horrors of factory farming. It presents huge health risks for humans, and is almost as ruinous to the broader environment as it is cruel to the animals it condemns to lives of suffering. The risk to humans as well as to non-human animals from the systematic overuse of antibiotics, the impossibility of disposing of the vast quantities of excrement produced without damage to land and water—that’s the start of a very long list of negatives. Yet many environmental groups do not even mention factory farming on their websites, and those that do—such as the David Suzuki Foundation—tend to be extraordinarily timid in their recommendations. Not for a moment do they suggest that anyone who cares about environmental quality should consider becoming a vegan. They don’t even suggest that if we choose to eat meat and dairy products we should eat only free-range, organically produced meat and dairy products. Far from it. “Here are some fun suggestions for things you can do,” the Meatrix site recommended by Suzuki brightly suggests, and then proceeds to recommend reading books, seeing movies, and “going meatless even one day a week.” It’s much the same with other environmental groups; cautious endorsements of “Meatless Mondays” represent about the furthest they are willing to go. Why so toothless?

One reason may be philosophical. As Angus Taylor sets out in his fine book Animals and Ethics, some environmentalists have long regarded those who advocate on behalf of non-human animals with suspicion—as “sentimentalists who are unwilling to face up to the realities of life and death.” If we ascribe rights to non-human animals, does logic require that we interfere in nature so as to protect wild animals from their natural predators? To what degree should non-human animals be granted moral standing? These may indeed be vexed issues. But as is increasingly recognized, agreement on those sorts of philosophical issues is not required in order to form a coalition against factory farming; relgious people who believe humans should have dominion over other animals can on this issue be in broad agreement with secular environmentalists, with those who support animal rights, and with those whose primary concern is for human health. From all angles, factory farming causes horrendous damage—and, thankfully, these days most environmental groups acknowledge that fact. Yet confronting factory farming remains at or near the bottom of their list of priorities. Again, why?

Could it be a funding issue? That suggestion is raised in an October 21 2008 article, “Eating Less Meat is Critical to Our Planet’s Future”; Dennis Cunningham of the International Institute for Sustainable Development notes that “when environmental groups apply to governments or large corporations for money to produce an education program, the funding organization can dictate the priorities such a program should take. And no government wants to risk offending a powerful agriculture lobby by telling people to eat less meat — even if it’s good for them.”

Certainly it’s always interesting to know where the money is coming from. Take for instance this past week’s story about Frank Mitloehner, an academic who presented a paper entitled “Clearing the Air” at a conference of the American Chemical Society in which he questioned the Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2008 estimate that our meat-eating ways are responsible for a higher percentage of the world’s carbon emissions (they estimated 18%) than is the entire transportation category (an estimated 15%). Apparently the statistics deserve to be questioned; the UN has admitted flaws in the FAO's calculations, and arguments over what the true percentages are will doubtless continue for some time.* The interesting thing about Mitloehner’s paper, though, is that he doesn't stop at querying meat-eating’s percentage contribution to global warming. He takes a big leap beyond that to broad prescriptions for world agricultural policy: “Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries....The developed world’s efforts should focus not on reducing meat and milk consumption,” says Mitloehner, “but rather on increasing efficient meat production in developing countries, where growing populations need more nutritious food.” Far from shutting down the factory farms, in other words, he wants to expand them. Through what mechanism might hunger be more easily reduced by raising cows and pigs rather than by growing grains and legumes for direct human consumption (when common sense as well as the weight of much expert opinion points in the other direction)? Mitloehner does not dwell on that question. And he says nothing about dangers to human health from such things as the overuse of antibiotics, nothing about the damage to the world's water supply from the run-off of excrement from factory farms, and (of course) nothing about the issue of cruelty to animals. Even if we accepted the suggestion that our meat-eating habits in no way contribute to global warming, in other words, there are many, many reasons to oppose factory farming. Instead, Mitloehner endorses a call for “replacing current suboptimal production with advanced production methods — at every step from feed production, through livestock production and processing, to distribution and marketing.”

Here’s one piece of information about his paper that you won’t find in the reports on Fox News or in Time Magazine or in the Toronto Sun: the paper “is a synthesis of research... Writing the synthesis was supported by a $26,000 research grant from the Beef Checkoff Program, which funds research and other activities, including promotion and consumer education, through fees on beef producers in the U.S.” Mitloehner goes on to report that in total he “has received $5 million in research funding, with 5 percent of the total from agricultural commodities groups, such as beef producers.” That 5% may sound small — until one remembers that 5% of $5 million is still a hefty $250,000. Interestingly, his research seems almost all to have been on such subjects as ammonia levels in the factory farming of pigs rather than on global warming. Here's a sample, from a study that received $40,000 in funding from the National Pork Board: “Acute and Chronic effects of Ammonia on...Nursery Pigs”:
Most of the existing guidlines and recommendations for animal houses are set at limits ranging from 20 to 50 parts per million of ammonia. Our studies indicated that pigs respond to ammonia with systemic inflamation and stress responses. However, even 50 ppm does not dramatically seem to affect animal performance.

Freely translated, that means that even though the nursery pigs may be suffering more from higher levels of anmmonia, the higher levels do not result in greater “aggressive behaviors” or — no doubt most important — in any change in feeding behavior. The authors make no recommendation that intensive pig farms cut back on ammonia levels; so much for “Clearing the Air.”

* As Vaughan Black of Dalhousie University has pointed out to me, there is no consensus that the true figure is lower than 18%; indeed, the report Livestock and Climate Change, published a few months ago by the World Watch Institute, puts the figure at about 50%.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Aging and Changing

Do humans naturally tend to become more conservative as we age? Some part of me—the part which never wants to learn how to work new gadgets—feels that is surely true. But another part very much hopes it isn’t. That’s the part of me that resists the thought that I might be destined to become more politically conservative as I age—and that wants to believe that humans won’t become less likely with age to be able to change their behavior toward non-human animals.

It has long been a truism that as we age we tend to move to the right politically—and more generally to become steadily less receptive to change. Whenever this topic comes up someone to the right of center always trots out the saying, “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart; if he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain”*—a saying so well balanced rhetorically that people tend to start nodding their heads in agreement before they realize that the list of those it would class as brainless includes the likes of Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, George Orwell, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf….

Research now suggests the saying to be wrong in another crucial respect; it’s simply not true that that there’s a natural tendency for humans on average to become steadily more conservative as they age. Studies published in 2007 and 2008 study by Nicholas Danigelis, Melissa Hardy, and Stephen J. Cutler (most notably “Population Aging, Intracohort Aging, and Sociological Attitudes,” American Sociological Review, vol. 72, no. 5, October 2007) conclude that there is no clear trend towards greater political conservatism in middle age—and that over the period 1972-2004 Americans aged 60 and over became considerably more liberal in their attitudes regarding such things as the political and economic roles of women and of African Americans, and the politics of sexual orientation.

Those results seem consistent with surveys from the past ten years of attitudes and habits regarding eating animal products. Since the late 1990s there has been a substantial movement towards vegetarianism among Americans. Interestingly, though, the change seems to have occurred at a faster rate among older people than it has among young. In 2000 4.5 % of Americans reported that they never ate meat; by 2009 the percentage had grown to 8%. The current number for young people is also just under 8%—but it has increased only 2% since 2000 (Harris polls, as reported by the Vegetarian Resource Group). In America at least, this sort of change has been happening faster among adults than it has among young people.

I’ll end with a piece of anecdotal evidence that the old are never too old to change. Among the very first people to be persuaded by reading Animals to change their eating habits was someone who had recently turned 90—the poet P.K. Page. It’s hard to imagine that many of us will be sufficiently open-minded at that age to make truly significant changes—but P.K. was surely extraordinary. With how many people in their nineties does it seem as natural to talk about sexual love, or politics, or religion as it does to talk about the health of relatives, or the weather, or the distant past? And how many people in their nineties talk not only with wisdom but with spark and sharp insight? In 2009 P.K. published four books—and they were good books too. When she died this past January 14 she was 93. I had come to know her only in her late 80s, my early 50s; I so wish I could have known her longer.

*No one seems to be sure where the saying originated; in slightly different versions it has been attributed to Churchill, Bismark, Clemenceau, and others.