by Vance Lehmkuhl
I was shopping in Whole Foods Market the other day and came across a display for a new gourmet flavored popcorn, with the brand name "Lesser Evil" - the concept, as far as I could judge, being that although nobody should be eating such junk food, for this kind of thing it's relatively healthy.
It's a clever gimmick, playing off of Americans' concurrent tendencies toward both discipline and indulgence. But a very similar argument is raging around a much more serious issue - the lives of animals in the food industry - and here the concept of "lesser evil" is in no way humorous, but a matter of extreme importance for those on opposite sides of the question of how to alleviate the suffering of said animals. Given that for the foreseeable future animals are going to be needlessly exploited for food, what's the best way to mitigate the horrible abuse they must suffer?
The argument tends to break into two major camps - along the lines Gary Francione so adamantly limned 10 years ago in Rain Without Thunder - Welfare vs. Rights, or the notion that we should form whatever alliances necessary, including with industry, to obtain whatever improvements we can in food animals' lives, vs. digging in for the long haul, staying absolutely true to the tenets of our movement in order to achieve more significant, long-term change.
Into this breach Satya magazine has brazenly stepped with its September and October 2006 issues, taking off from a recent Whole Foods "compassionate" farming initiative. The magazine invited and aggregated opinions on the topic from a variety of well-known vegetarian thinkers. The intent was not to attempt a final analysis or synthesis into the ultimate answer, but a snapshot of the varieties of thought on this issue, with a bit of interplay between the ideas.
Though the animal rights-vs.-welfare argument dates back decades, the immediate catalyst for this discussion was Whole Foods' adoption of "Farm Animal Compassionate Standards," occasioned by CEO John Mackey's going vegan. Mackey set up the Animal Compassion Foundation and instituted changes at Whole Foods including discontinuing the sale of live lobsters and drawing up more restrictive "compassionate standards" for meat from ducks and chickens. This is an interesting development in and of itself, but additionally, more than a dozen well-known animal organizations, including PETA, HSUS, Farm Sanctuary and Compassion Over Killing sent a group letter to Mackey endorsing and applauding the move.
Satya editors cleared space in two issues for a balance of perspectives from both sides, but from the get-go they telegraphed the direction they would be coming from:
When we at Satya discovered this letter it gave us pause. And made us ask questions and investigate. Eventually we will see animal products sold in Whole Foods with the Animal Compassion logo on them. What does it mean when body parts of dead animals are emblazoned with some of the words most precious to the animal rights movement? Humane. Compassion. Free.
This opening editorial goes on to quote James LaVeck - who in that issue warns readers about the folly of so called "Happy Meat" - with his observation that "To make good for the long haul, each of us must consider the possibility that our choices, however well motivated, may have unintended consequences none of us desire." This is in fact the crux of the debate that follows - what are those consequences likely to be?
In other words, if animal advocates work together with industry in an implicit trade-off of qualified endorsement for lessening of animal suffering, what is the consequence down the road? We don't know, but those of us who have an opinion about that relationship tend to expect its coming effects to be in perfect sync with our attitude.
To those such as Peter Singer, Bruce Friedrich, Gene Bauston and Paul Shapiro who sanction this relationship, one big consideration is the immediate consequence: Less animal suffering. Though most acknowledge that the effect is not going to be as large in practice as its PR would indicate, still change is change. Down the road, the results are more vague and myriad, but the general thought is that consumers, having begun to buy according to their conscience, will slowly continue to become more aware of the horrors of animal exploitation and pull their purchasing dollars away from the worst offenders and toward the "lesser evil" of cage-free, grass-fed, small-farm products. And then...
This is where the pro-"humane meat" vision seems to grow hazy, and where the anti-"humane meat" position, in the words of LaVeck, Karen Davis, Eddie Lama, Howard Lyman and Lee Hall, steps in to propose a very definite consequence: Having made one meager change, consumers have assuaged their conscience and feel no need to look more bluntly at the basic injustices of animal farming, so true change - the ultimate, necessary change of ending animal exploitation - becomes harder to achieve on a practical level. Additionally, by lending our credibility to part of the animal-abuse industry we risk a somewhat less tangible loss of our movement's moral high ground, if not its soul.
As the Satya editors specify in their opening editorial, "No one is disputing whether animal activists care. Anyone working to reduce the suffering cares. It's the question of strategy and direction that is in debate." However, because the strategy deals with a crucial ethical issue, it's easy for the terms of debate to leach over into ethics also, with activists pointing rhetorical fingers across the divide, conflating strategic differences with ethical ones.
"We would be irresponsible and unjust if we did not support meaningful and positive reforms that move industry away from the worst practices within animal agriculture," says Miyun Park on one page, while Patty Mark on another asserts that "Spending any time working with the animal industries trying to make things 'better' is having coffee with the abusers."
Although Satya has compiled and presented these essays and interviews so as to give both sides of this debate ample room and amplitude for their views, there is often a feeling of activists talking past one another. Both sides have long-term visions that justify either participating in or condemning the association of animal "rights" with so-called "compassionate" standards. These visions, lacking hard data about the long-term meat-buying behavior of consumers and exactly how it's influenced, seem to be drawn from one or the other ideological perspective, rather than the other way around.
This can be seen perhaps most strikingly in Peter Singer's interview - a man commonly thought of as the godfather of "animal rights" and commonly considered a vegan. First off, Singer curiously admits to routinely eating eggs "if they're free-range" - despite many voices on other pages documenting the suffering of animals in "free-range" situations, details with which one would expect Singer must be familiar. Next he admonishes vegans to go ahead and eat cheese, rather than making "a big fuss" if a restaurant mistakenly serves it to us with non-vegans watching. "It'd be better off just to eat it because people are going to think, "Oh my god, these vegans..."
Notably, Singer doesn't complete the thought he's ascribing to "people," which is handy, because it could just as easily be something like: "Oh my god, these vegans... tell the rest of us to give up cheese and here they eat it themselves rather than stick to their principles" in the scenario in which we're eating rather than "fussing." Again an attitude is ascribed to the general public without any evidence, an attitude that fits snugly with how the speaker ascribing it wants to behave. And just to spell it out, the advice is to make the case against eating animal products by... eating animal products.
Another striking argument is James LaVeck's second essay, which blisters the incrementalist position by drawing in quotes and analogies from other historical industry/PR skirmishes involving a "divide and conquer" approach. It's a passionately argued piece that makes the reader ready to renounce any and all compromise, any measures short of empty cages, on the basis that doing so will always benefit them (the PR folks and industry) and hurt us (activists and animals).
And such may indeed be the case. But it's also hard to avoid being moved by the words of Adam Durand, who certainly doesn't seem to be about compromise - he got arrested after releasing a film about cruelty at Wegman's (grocery chain) chicken farms.
Durand has already done time in jail for trespassing on Wegman's property, and just beat a burglary charge for the hens he rescued. So it's hard to dismiss his fervor when Durand says: "I believe these welfare steps, like cage-free, are not just a middle ground; they are a solution to a number of the most serious problems animals face right now."
One angle brought up by guest "carnivore" Michael Pollan was a long-term economic one, pointing out the effect a higher average price of meat would have on the total number of animals killed down the road. Moving more consumers toward small-farm "humane" production would mean more expensive meat, regularly purchased less often and by fewer people. At the turn of the year, in fact, higher U.S. meat prices were cited in a number of news stories; some blamed immigration raids on slaughterhouses, but others cited "shifting consumer diets" - less meat consumption.
If consumers are shifting their diets at all, we may not be receiving much of a consciousness-raising benefit by getting them to buy a different kind of animal product. Instead we might want to promote programs such as the successful Meatless Mondays - going entirely meatless for one day a week - sponsored by Johns Hopkins. Get the shift to be a gradual, incremental, growing abolition, rather than another sideways step to a different brand of exploitation.
Beyond that, the two branches of animal activists can find common ground in at least rejecting the phrase "humane meat" as an oxymoron. We can agree, hopefully, on the need for vegan advocacy no matter what else we do or don't endorse. We can rejoice, whether loudly or silently, in any lessening of suffering a class of animals obtains. We can make it clear that we are one movement that contains diverse opinions, but which is dedicated to stopping animal exploitation wherever it occurs. And we can get more serious about studying what does and doesn't work in situations with different people and circumstances, to make the case for the animals and against animal products.
Rather than conjecture we can look at actual behaviors. And, one hopes, keep watching shifting consumer diets do the incremental work while we focus on making a case for abolition.
Editor's Note: Regrettably Satya ceased publication in 2007. However,
many of their excellent articles are still available at
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