Please note that in this essay, the words ‘farming’ and ‘farm’ refer specifically to a practice conducted upon sentient individuals in order that they may be used as resources and commodities for humans.
Recently I listened to a prime-time radio interview of a respected sanctuary and campaign manager/ vegan activist on the subject of animal rights. On several occasions, the interviewers mentioned terms that they obviously considered significant, one of these being ‘factory farming’. The line of questioning that ensued was a rather transparent attempt to suggest that promoting animal rights was, by its very nature, a criticism of regulated farming practice and a personal attack on individual farmers. This was not the first time I have seen and heard this tactic used and if I were being uncharitable, I might have thought it a deliberate attempt to derail the activist, however I actually don’t believe that was the case. The interviewers were simply demonstrating the prejudice and preconceptions that most of us are raised to embrace as fact. Lacking even basic knowledge of the subject they were seeking to ‘discuss’, they sought to reframe the conversation in terms with which they were familiar, whilst trying to garner support both from the listeners whose prejudice they assumed they were representing, and from those whom they sought to suggest were the victims of an insult.
So as these things do, this started me thinking. This essay is the result as I consider the words ‘farm’ and ‘farming’ and how, like unseen potholes in the road, these words can so easily derail vegan advocacy.
Back to basics – what and when
So to begin. A farm is where the practice of farming takes place. I appreciate that this is stating the obvious, however please bear with me. ‘Farm’ and ‘farming’ are words that rarely stand alone; there is almost always some qualifying descriptor either stated or assumed. For instance, in the area of animal rights, and in the completely separate area of animal welfare, we see reference to factory farms, organic farms, family farms, dairy farms, free-range farms, pig farms, hobby farms, fish farms and so on. It seems that ‘farm’ and ‘farming’ are words that, despite representing a significant concept, have become eclipsed by the descriptor that categorises them.
As vegans, we frequently hear assertions that things are as they have always been and this, somehow, is used to justify the status quo and/or intransigence so it is important to be clear on this point. Archaeological evidence points to humans having been around in their current form for about 200,000 years, with our ancestors existing for several million years prior to that. Wikipedia tells us that farming originated independently in different parts of the world as hunter gatherer societies transitioned to food production rather than food capture. Evidence points to its having started about 12,000 years ago with the domestication of livestock in western Asia, soon to be followed by the cultivation of crops, so looking at the timeframe in perspective, 12,000 years is barely significant in evolutionary terms.
Nonvegan ‘activism’ – back to my roots
Several years ago, before I knew anything at all about veganism, in the days when I was still kidding myself that I was a ‘conscientious consumer’, I heard the term ‘factory farming’. Judging by the number of petitions against it (which is how I was judging it at that time), it seemed to be a very bad thing. Google introduced me to the term CAFO which my helpful friend Wiki defined as an acronym of ‘Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation’, a number of large and high profile organisations urged me to part with some cash in return for reassurance that they were doing something to counter it, and suddenly my directionless concern for animals had a focus.
It must be borne in mind that at this time I was still consuming animals, still wearing animals, still taking their lactation and their eggs, still using toiletries that had been used to burn out their eyes and abraded skin, and in short was still creating my own significant consumer demand that directly required the wheels of animal harm to keep on turning. Nevertheless there I was, a fully fledged animal abuser, signing every petition that landed in front of me, because of my outrage about … the actions of other animal abusers. I know it sounds completely ludicrous now. But that’s the way it was.
Encouraging the form of distraction represented by a focus on the type of farming is a common strategy employed by and in fact encouraged by the animal use industries. Ideologically inconsistent, it is set within parameters that allow us to protect both our entrenched belief that we need to use nonhuman animals and our right as ‘superior’ animals to do so, while at the same time reinforcing the idea that this ‘use’ can be done in a ‘humane’ manner. Against this background, we are encouraged and motivated by ‘campaigns’ that suggest some spurious scale by which ‘abuse’ can be ranked, very frequently proposing that this ‘abuse’ results from insufficient or unenforced regulation, and often that it takes place in some ‘foreign’ land (regardless of where ‘here’ happens to be). While simultaneously promoting xenophobic reactions, this serves to turn our outrage outwards against others whose abuse is not any different from our own abuse; yet we are encouraged to think we’re ‘being active’ and ‘taking a stand’ against ‘cruelty’. And as the folk myth and legend spreads about how protests against ‘inhumane’ practices are having an effect, consumer demand is maintained and in some instances increased.
Obscuring the main event
The highly effective ploy of focusing on the type or descriptor of the ‘farming’ turns the users, the harmers, the killers of helpless and vulnerable animals into ‘activists’ and champions for their ‘welfare’. The diversion is employed widely and yet many of us are not even aware that it’s happening. Once we realise that it is, we see it everywhere, from those who profess to be animal lovers, from the major fundraising businesses that claim to represent animal ‘rights’ with their career ‘advocates’ and industry affiliations, and not unexpectedly from the most blatant marketers of animal corpses, body parts and secretions.
The two institutions that are most frequently used for this purpose are ‘factory farms’ and ‘battery’ chicken farms. ‘These factory farms are terrible places’, I used to say, and so many would agree with me while they tucked into steak and cheese, eggs and bacon. Like me, they were outraged and, oblivious to the irony of their continued complicity, they signed the petitions. Some claim this is harmless and that a protest is valuable regardless of the source but – and here’s the very real danger that I have written about before – participation in ‘protest’ had made them feel much more comfortable about their own continuing use of animals. How do I know this? It had this effect for me and for countless others with whom I have discussed the phenomenon.
What I and countless others did not stop to consider, is that ‘factory’ farms are a consequence of the population size, the scale of their demand and the need of any money-making enterprise to keep costs low. This is just plain common sense. Whilst ‘factory farms’ are demonised, they are nevertheless the inevitable means of providing a supply to meet demand.
So what’s the industry response to public criticisms of ‘factory’ farms? A different descriptor, with or sometimes without any significant change to the process. ‘Family’ farm, ‘organic’ farm, ‘free range’ farm; the ‘ethical’ utopian fantasy of bucolic bliss is promoted by the well paid wordsmiths and advert creators in the employ of the death industries. Endorsements by ‘animal organisations’ set the final seal of betrayal of those whose ‘rights’ they claim to represent. ‘XYPCA approved’, ‘Freedom Food’, ‘Happy Cows / Sheep/ Hens’ say the labels and the TV ads.
Those whose conscience has been stirring can relax again. ‘Whew. Glad someone has the interests of the animals at heart.’ Donation made. Conscience salved.
Putting it into context
So what’s my problem? Well as always, let’s substitute a human circumstance to sharpen the focus. What if someone was farming …. humans? In a CAFO? Ok not that. How about a nice, friendly, ‘organic’, ‘family’, ‘free range’ establishment then? Instant outrage. What’s more, the outrage starts at the word ‘farming’. No one needs to hear any more about where or how this ‘farming’ is taking place. We have absolutely NO problem at all seeing straight through the smokescreens when we reframe the situation in a human context. There is no more stark illustration of our deep rooted speciesism than this. And there in a nutshell lies my problem and it does not have anything to do with the descriptor.
The beating heart of the issue is the concept of a farm – any farm – where sentient individuals are caused to exist by human contrivance and intervention, where their reproductive processes are manipulated and their existence exploited, where their bodies are ‘reared’ and fattened, or milked or used for eggs, until such time as they are dispatched for slaughter . That’s the problem that needs to be addressed.
Despite this, the word ‘farm’ lurks in the background unchallenged, almost unnoticed, an atrocity hiding in plain sight while we focus on the descriptors. It’s like so many of the other euphemistic words we use to disguise our unrelenting and needless victimisation of the vulnerable; words we use to pretend we’re being nice about it, words that go so far as to pretend it’s even possible to be nice about it, words that massage our desperate desire to be thought of as good people who love animals and are ‘kind’ to them.
It’s not about ‘good’ farms or ‘bad’ farms
Once again, we need to return to the fundamental truth that it is not how we treat our victims that is the issue, the issue is that we have victims at all when it is completely unnecessary. When we advocate on their behalf, we need to tighten our focus on that truth and keep it that way.
I have literally lost count of the number of otherwise good posts and articles that I have not shared because they contain some reference to ‘factory’ farming or ‘battery’ hens. Such articles imply that it is the means of use and the type of environment in which it occurs that is the issue, and in this way they condone and approve the underlying concept of farms and farming. The moment we, as advocates, allow ourselves to lose the focus of our discussion so that the descriptor is the topic, we have failed in our attempt to represent the rights of those helpless nonhumans who are utterly dependent on us because they have no one else.
In human terms, allowing it to be implied that the issue is about the means of use and where it occurs, is the equivalent of arguing that innocent humans who are wrongfully imprisoned on death row should be imprisoned in a ‘nicer’ environment, without mentioning that they should not be imprisoned at all. Canvassing for improvements in treatment and in environment is not going to lead to the release of those who are wrongfully incarcerated and so it is with our use of members of other species.
I’ve seen it suggested – and even stated quite aggressively – that promoting ‘improved’ treatment will lead to the end of nonhuman use and to widespread veganism, however this is clearly wishful thinking. The rise of veganism – and it is on the rise – seems to be linked to an increasing awareness of the moral injustice on which all use of other species is based. No, I haven’t personally done a survey and no, I can’t quote statistics. There are many moral truths that are self-evident and I can’t justify these statistically either. Is murder wrong? Is domestic violence wrong? Is sexual predation wrong? Few would ever ask for proof or for statistics where the victims are human, but change the species …
Are there any who seriously consider that a multi billion dollar/pound/euro industry will eventually tire of addressing demands to ‘improve’ treatment for our unnecessary victims to the extent that eventually it will all just be too much bother and they’ll stop doing it? On the contrary, any real or imaginary ‘improvements’ are shamelessly capitalised upon to encourage favourable public perception of those who peddle suffering and death. What will however bring the use of members of other species to an end, is dwindling consumer demand, and such a reduction in demand is the inevitable consequence of veganism.
This is not the last battle
It should also be noted that once any one of the popular justifications for animal use has begun to look shaky, many will fall back strategically to any one of literally dozens of ‘justifications’ for the behaviour of our species, such as how nonhumans are ‘different’, how they are ‘bred for eating’, how we ‘need to eat animals’ and so on. When, as advocates, we suggest that the issue relates to how and where the using takes place, it opens up a whole spectrum of alternative avenues that nonvegans may take to assuage consciences without ever having to address the fundamental need for each of us to take responsibility for the consequences of our demand as consumers and change our destructive behaviour. How do I know? I was that nonvegan.
We cannot adopt a piecemeal approach to this battle for justice. We need to aim straight for the heart of the issue and we need to be clear and consistent. Some may call that ‘preachy’ but it’s a pep talk I’ve been known to give myself from time to time. So much is depending on us and we have to do our best to get it right. There are so many lives that are doomed before they are even conceived, so many babies yet to be born, so many bereft mothers-to-be, so many anguished, helpless innocent individuals who will sob in desperation, who will scream in agony, as the rivers of gore spurt and flow in the slaughterhouses.
We are all they have. Be vegan.