Category Archives: farming

Video of “Free Range” Hens

We have all seen video from inside the terrifying, “industry standard” chicken housing facilities, where hens are caged with 6-8 adult birds on floor space equivalent to a standard piece of typing paper.  This, however, is some of the first video I’ve seen from a “free range” facility, and I thought I would share.  This is still an astonishing number of chickens, but they all appear to have all their feathers, nobody is fighting and they can move, jump, extend their wings, and hunt bugs (if there’s a single bug left in those pastures after 50,000 chickens run through them).

(Recall that the USDA definition of “free range” only actually requires that chickens “have access to the outside”, so not all “free range” chickens live like this — for comparison, here is a video from a “free range” egg farm in Canada, which neither mentions nor shows the birds going outside.)

Didn’t Alfred Hitchcock make a movie about this?

Advertisements

Ancient Egyptians Factory-Farmed Animals for “Votive Mummies”

Cat mummies.  Source: British Museum.

Cat mummies. Source: British Museum.

A recent article about how only about 1/3 of animal mummies in ancient Egypt actually contained the mummified animal in question (with the remaining mummies divided evenly between “bundle of cloth wrapped around mud and sticks” and “bundle with animal parts such as feathers or fur, but no complete skeleton”) made an apparently offhand comment that caught my eye.

While explaining the program — in which researchers from the Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester have CT scanned more than 800 animal mummies — Dr Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, said:

“Animal mummies were votive gifts. Today you’d have a candle in a cathedral; in Egyptian times you would have an animal mummy.  You would go to a special site, [and] buy an animal mummy, using a system of barter. You’d then give it to a priest, who would collect a group of animal mummies and bury them.

…The scale of animal mummification between about 800 BC and into the Roman period was huge.  In terms of how many animals were reared and killed, it would have been on an industrial scale. The animals were young and killed when they were quite small. To achieve those numbers you had to have a very specific breeding programme.”

X-ray of kitten mummy inside votive cat figure.

X-ray of kitten mummy inside votive cat figure.  Image source: Richard Barnes, National Geographic.

This had honestly never occurred to me, and I was alarmed to discover it was not just a throwaway comment; it was quite true.  Though Egyptians had long applied the practice of mummifying pet animals, including dogs (warning: photo of mummified dog face) and cats, as well as sacred animals, such the Apis bulls, sometime during the Late Period in Egyptian history (around 715 BC to 322 BC), the practice of offering mummified, “votive” animals to the god one most wished to intervene in one’s affairs became increasingly popular.  In order to satisfy the demand for animal mummies, of which researchers estimate there were more than 70 million, ancient Egyptians actually eventually turned to factory-farmingvotive animalsdeliberately bred for mummification.  The ancient Egyptians may have raised puppies and kittens specifically for slaughter, in special areas next to the temples.

I completely missed that when my middle school social studies class covered ancient Egypt.  Interesting that in more than three thousand years we still have not resolved the dichotomy between “pet” animals, whom we love, and “farmed” animals, whom we use….

(Incidentally, we’ve known about the existence of fake, or empty, animal mummies for decades; this recent mass CT scanning has just brought the scale of it to light.  It is still not known whether the fake mummies were deliberate scams, a practical effort to deal with the increasing scarcity of some of the rarer species, or simply evidence of differing approaches wherein the entire animal was not always required to make an offering.)

This Probably Could Have Been Said Better

In the unlikely event that anyone clicks on any of the links in my articles, you may have noticed that I don’t do a lot of linking to the traditional “animal rights” sites.  While I agree with (much of) their message, I do not always agree with their arguments (or their tactics), and, because their arguments are often badly expressed, I do not usually find them to be valid references.

An example wandered across my Facebook feed today, and I felt compelled to comment.  Understanding that I agree completely with the sentiment expressed by this video…I disagree with how it has chosen to convey its message.

The message is standard: “Dairy farming makes cows sad.  Don’t eat dairy.”  What puzzles me here is — where was this filmed?  The cow and calf pictured are absolutely clean.  The field they’re in is pristine, and, more suspicious, completely empty of other cows.  One polite worker gently herds the calf away, lifts it carefully, and puts it in a clean truck?  This is absolutely nothing like what you’d actually see in a factory farm.  (I’m skipping the terror footage here — let’s look at a (more or less) ideal example.  Here is Fair Oaks Farms, a multi-farm collective which gives public tours of some of its facilities — and which I have actually visited.  Its publicly viewable facilities (video includes shots of normal birthing area, which is separate from Fair Oaks’ heavily advertised “birthing barn“) are a pretty good example of a very clean factory farm.  The cows are in barns or small pens, not outdoor fields.)  Here is a document from Ohio State University about calving, picturing the standard environment for a calving cow: a stall.  Progressive Dairyman, an industry magazine, shows almost exclusively photos of stalled cattle.  Only lucky, pastured cows get to give birth in a quiet field — this is certainly not a factory farm environment.  (Is the point here that all farms are bad?  Are all farms bad?  What about those sanctuary farms where cows are kept in warm barns and not discarded when they get old?  Small family farms?  We’re edging perilously close to the “We must give up everything in order that animals can live free and unfettered” argument.)

Speaking of small family farms, where did Mercy for Animals get access to that cow and calf?  Did they film collaboratively with a dairy farmer (this is obviously not undercover footage) while he separated a calf from its mother (why did they support him doing this?), or did they separate someone’s pet cow and calf temporarily, just for a commercial?  Did they lie to a farmer and say they were filming for something else?  Why did they need to film this anyway?  It’s not like they don’t have already have much more relevant footage.  They have plenty of terrifying shots, from real farms, on their YouTube channel, including this much better example of the same argument, which uses actual dairy farm footage.

This is NOT meant to be an attack on Mercy for Animals, which is just trying to do the best they can, and is actually doing a very good job getting a lot of multilingual (good for them!) videos out there spreading an important message.  This is more a puzzled look at one of my least favorite trends in all pro-animal advertising (and many, many groups have made ads like this, not just MFA) — weird advertisements which trip over their own feet trying to make a point.  All Mercy for Animals had to do was air, say, this footage, with a voiceover: “Is a piece of cheese worth this?”  What’s with the unreal setup and scenery?

It occurs to me that probably this commercial has been “cleaned up” for wider public consumption, to try to reach the people who haven’t already been convinced that factory farming is bad, who don’t want to be convinced they should give up cheese, and who would normally stop watching the minute they see factory farm footage.  What a sad thought on its own — we are being steered away from showing the truth, because people instantly stop listening.  (Why?)

Making Foie Gras Illegal Sadly Not the Answer

Photo source: Morguefile.com, Sgarton.

Photo source: Morguefile.com, Sgarton.

In July 2012, foie gras, a paste made of the livers of force-fattened geese and ducks, was banned in California, on the reasonable grounds that pretty much nothing about making it is particularly nice to the birds.  On January 7, 2015, a judge threw out the ban, saying it “attempted to override existing federal law regulating poultry products”.

I am more interested in the reaction of people to the ban: before it went into effect (it was actually passed in 2004 and had a seven-and-a-half-year “grace period”), people had culinary foie gras orgies, putting it on everything.  While it was in effect, some restaurants gave it out for free as a way to get around the law.  And now that the ban is over, foie gras, the “forbidden treat”, is now trendy, with restaurants scrambling to get it back on the menu.  Basically, banning foie gras made it even more popular, rather like banning alcohol during Prohibition.

Clearly, simply making inhumanely produced animal products illegal is not the answer.  What is the answer?  Telling people how it is made doesn’t seem to help, although you’d think it would be primary (that’s certainly what convinced me not to eat it).  I am completely perplexed by people who hear: “This stuff is made by repeatedly holding down a live duck and filling it with fatty food until its liver reaches eight times normal size” and respond with “I want to eat that!” — even when there are alternatives presented.

No answers today.  Just a little “WTF?” as this goes by.

Second Livestock: The Virtual “Good Life” For Farmed Chickens

Yes, it’s a joke — at this point.  The nonexistent virtual reality “Second Livestock“, designed by ISU assistant professor Austin Stewart, brings up the idea of providing a virtual natural environment for conventionally farmed animals.  Rather than devote money, time, and space to actually giving the animals what they deserve, we can give them a virtual image of what they deserve.  They’ll believe they are running around and interacting with conspecifics, while in reality we can make their enclosures even smaller, since they won’t know they’re using them….

Knowing that it’s not real(yet), it’s actually funny, especially the little chicken headsets.  But take a moment, and imagine what might happen if this became economically feasible, especially compared to actually providing a natural environment for farm animals.  (While that’s honestly unlikely, Stewart has said further development for actual implementation was an option he would consider.)  Picture dairy cows grazing on a virtual pasture, giving birth to virtual “calves” that could hang around for a bit before being “naturally weaned”, while in reality the calves are taken away at birth (and fitted with a headset and given a virtual “mother”).

Would it be ethical?  If the animal truly believed it had a wonderful — or at least a quasi-natural) life, is there a functional difference from it actually having a wonderful life?  Is this a viable replacement for real space, conspecifics, and interaction?  What if every animal had an amazing virtual life, filled with its species’ own version of wine, women, and song?  (Either way, I’m not sure that either option is adequate “payment” for being consumed as food in the end.)  The authors make a point (arguably, the whole point of the site) that some humans are already partially living in an environment like this one…is that a good thing?  A bad thing?  Just a thing?

No answers here, although my gut instinct tends to the “Are you kidding?” side of things.  I just thought this was funny-becoming-interesting and kind of chewy food for thought.

Use of Alternative Sources Does Not Solve My Problems with Meat

As an omnivore who has chosen to live without meat because no animal should have to go through our factory farming process just so I can have a sausage, I am constantly on the lookout for alternative options.  Unfortunately, I find tofu about as appealing as Kleenex under most circumstances, and the vegan “replacements” for my formerly favorite foods (hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken strips) don’t so much mimic those foods as taste so completely unlike them as to reinforce how much I miss them.

For example, I can try adding “tofu crumbles” to my spaghetti sauce to remind me of the ground hamburger I used to put in there, but there are three problems: 1) the tofu crumbles cost twice as much as the rest of the ingredients put together; 2) they take time and effort to cook properly; and 3) they do not actually taste like ground beef (or like anything).  I do not need the texture of ground beef in my spaghetti sauce so badly that I must go out and buy tofu crumbles for it.  (Bring on the mushrooms and fresh peppers instead!)

There is a new movement wandering around which is trying to encourage people to eat less beef, poultry and pork by using replacement meat sources instead of removing meat entirely from the diet.  This is supposed to appeal to carnivores because you don’t have to declare yourself a granola-eating vegan (I do not like granola, myself) in order to reduce the amount of beef in your diet: you can remain a dedicated carnivore, and even say you’re doing it for the environment, rather than for the animals, further reducing any appearance of sympathy you might have had.

Perfectly edible even without the "scraps" of mouse meat.  (Source: Vice.com)

Perfectly edible even without the “scraps” of mouse meat. (Source: Vice.com)

Along these lines, a journalist from Vice decided to eat live food from a pet store for a week, one meal a day, to see what replacing traditional meat sources with something less environmentally intensive to raise might do to her diet.  Her actions, including grinding crickets into a replacement pancake flour and the creation of what is essentially a mashed potato casserole with mice in it, remind me strongly of my trying to find alternative meat sources for my spaghetti sauce.  The recipes take additional work and time; the unusual additives don’t add much pleasure to the meal; and in every case there’s a cheaper, faster, vegetarian option available — simply don’t add the alternative meat source.  Hey, look, it’s a perfectly serviceable potato casserole with no mice in it!

….those little guys were raised in a sterile lab, which is more than you can say for your average chicken nugget.”

Plus, well, the mice are often being raised in the same kind of factory farming conditions to which I object with beef, poultry and pigs.  It doesn’t have the same impact on the environment, because mice don’t need the same kind of space or materials that the larger animals do, but it certainly has a similar impact on the mice, which was kind of my problem with meat in the first place.

toilet-fish-tankThe author’s problems with killing the live minnows (You do not euthanize fish by adding salt to their water.  You do not euthanize fish by adding salt to their water.  You do not euthanize fish by adding salt to their water!)reminds me that even — and especially — these tiny animals are “slaughtered” for consumption in terrible ways, mostly because they’re too tiny to scream audibly and therefore any method is “painless”.  Mice are generally gassed with CO2, which can be a terrible way to go if performed badly (which it usually is).  This also fails to solve the issues with factory farming that led me to give up carnivory.

Whether they have a smaller impact on the environment or not (they probably do), and whether their handling of them is in some way “better” than our treatment of pigs, cows and chickens (it probably isn’t), I don’t need crickets (or minnows, or mice!) so badly as a source of protein (peanuts! almonds! peas! quinoa! spinach! sunflower seeds! beans!) that I need to kill 50 of them to add texture (and, apparently, an almond or shrimp flavor) to my plate of spaghetti.  I had enough problems using 1/50 of a cow to get the flavor I actually wanted!

How about an option that’s plentiful, cheap, lives naturally in crowded conditions and is easy to obtain?

“Iron Maiden” Hog Farm In The News

152628

Photo by Kamuelaboy on Morguefile.

An article about a hog farm in Owensboro, Kentucky crossed my radar today, and pinged it for all the wrong reasons.  The farm, which is attempting to curb the spread of a rather horrible-sounding disease called porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED, is in the news because its effort to protect its animals involves grinding up the intestines of dead piglets which have died from the disease and feeding the resulting “smoothie” to the adult sows.

The procedure, called “controlled exposure“, is actually standard practice.  It attempts to establish “herd immunity” in an infected farm by exposing all adult animals on the farm to the disease as quickly as possible.  (The virus has a mortality rate approaching 100% in suckling piglets, but most adult animals recover without incident.)  Since PED is an intestinal pathogen, adult animals are most easily infected by exposure to the “intestinal tract” of “infected neonatal piglets”, which should be “sacrificed” within the first six hours of clinical signs for “maximum viral content”.  Once they recover, the now-immune adult sows will pass on antibodies against the infection in their milk to future litters of piglets, keeping those piglets protected from the virus and giving the farm time to perform some serious hygienic measures and actually eradicate the virus.

Okay, so there might theoretically be a point to the farm’s actions.  (And note that the swine industry is not the only one that feeds dead animal parts to live ones, either as a medical treatment or as a standard feed additive.)  I do, however, note that this paper, from the site of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, recommends that adult pigs simply be exposed to the feces of that poor doomed first wave of sick piglets, as the feces of live piglets contains up to 10,000 times the viral load of the viscera of dead piglets and is therefore a much more effective infectious agent.  It is therefore not necessary to grind up the piglets or feed them to their own mothers.  And besides, in the words of the above paper, “Collecting viscera is time-consuming and provides unnecessary fodder for the scrutiny of public perceptions.”

photo via HSUS and Wikimedia Commons

Gestation crates.  Photo from HSUS, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Humane Society of the United States, which broke the original story, points out that keeping pigs in natural conditions is a more ideal way to prevent the spread of diseases such as PED than feeding dead animals to live ones.  (It also notes that feeding dead animals to live ones is against state law in any case, although I cannot find that reference online at the moment.)  The farm in question is a large factory farm and its sows are maintained in industry-standard gestation and/or farrowing crates, which are noted for providing just as much room as a pig needs to exist (not turn around, not move, just exist) and not an inch more, on the grounds of “protection” for the sows from each other, and for piglets from the vast and frightening bulk of their mother.  The sows spend their lives crammed shoulder to shoulder in steel frame boxes the exact length and width of their bodies, churning out litters of piglets.  This kind of atmosphere does not promote healthy, happy animals.

Which brings me to what pinged my radar: the name of the farm in question is Iron Maiden Hog FarmIron Maiden Hog Farm!  I am at a loss to think of a more classless name for a pig breeding operation.  I somehow cannot bring myself to believe the facility is named after the band, can you?

One Possible Cause of Farm Worker Shortage

This is just an “interesting choice of photo” moment — but today I saw an article called “Want a Job?  Agriculture Industry Teeming With Them“.  What interests me is not so much the content of the article as the photo that USA Today chose to go along with it:

(Photo: Alvis Upitis, Getty Images file)

(Photo: Alvis Upitis, Getty Images file)

My original thought was “veal calves” — although the original photo source says “Holstein dairy calves” on a Wisconsin farm, and these do appear to be dairy calves.  There are theoretically good reasons to keep dairy calves this way; however, for a huge variety of reasons, this is not a location in which I’d personally be comfortable working.  Maybe that’s why there’s a shortage of workers?

(The shortage might also have something to do with the low paydangerous and unpleasant working conditions, and other problems, but those aren’t in the photo.)

From Pet to Plate: Guinea Pigs

Recent news articles have brought my attention to the farming of the guinea pig as an alternative meat animal.  Apparently it’s popular in South America, where it’s known as cuyes or cuy.  People eat them whole roasted, rather like tiny chickens, and the author of the NPR piece goes into entirely too much detail about eating the “fingery little hands”.  I am aware that humans will eat just about anything, so it’s not too much of a surprise that someone, somewhere, is eating guinea pig.

The guinea pig is supposed to be more “eco-friendly” than, say, beef — it’s more efficient at turning food into meat and it certainly takes up a lot less space.  Heifer International provides guinea pigs (amongst many other species) to people in developing countries to provide meat and income.  So there might be benefits to farming guinea pigs instead of cattle or pigs.

My immediate concern with the idea is this: it doesn’t really matter what animal you’re talking about — if you’re producing enough of them, they’re going to get factory farmed.  When you picture “guinea pig housing” right now, you’ve probably got a mental picture of something like this:

These are, of course, pet guinea pigs.  They’re in a pretty big space, with a couple of square feet per guinea pig.  Here, according to Google Images, anyway, is what “farmed” guinea pig housing looks like these days:

This is what it looks like when you move from “pet” to “farm” — much less space per animal, more animals in one room.  If guinea pig meat becomes popular, these little farms will want to — will need to, to keep up with demand — become even more “efficient”, cramming more animals in the same area.  What will an “efficient” guinea pig farming operation — capable of feeding several hundred thousand humans — look like?

One Cow Versus 100,000 Smaller Organisms

I once saw a cartoon which depicted vegetarianism in an unflattering light: it showed a closeup of the front of a combine harvester, before which fled an array of inoffensive woodland creatures, yelling things like “Where’s mama?!?” and “I don’t know, just run!”

Edit: found it.  It’s from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

20091207

Agriculture is not without its damage to the environment, and to animals.  A field of wheat or corn is home to mice, rats, birds, rabbits, various insects, and a host of other creatures, at least some of which are inevitably ground up along with the harvestThis recent article on an Australian web site suggests that the many small lives we grind up to harvest a crop in an area of land outweigh the lives of the cows which would graze that land were it devoted to pasture.  (If you’re interested, this article wanders into the notion a little further.)

The presentation of the issue is somewhat simplistic: it assumes that only a few cows are raised in the hypothetical pasture (i.e., it’s not a feedlot, the American standard); that “pasture” is equivalent to unspoiled natural land; that all the wildlife in the field are killed by the plow; etc.  I think it’s a valid notion, but the solution to this issue is not to have everyone eat nothing but red meat.  The problem lies more with how we produce our food, and what methods we’ve adopted to produce that food cheaply, and less with exactly what food we are producing.  For example, we can certainly develop methods to raise and harvest crops more sustainably and with less “collateral damage”.

I don’t think we’re really able to exist, at all, without causing some damage to the world.  It’s in our nature as consumers of energy — it’s got to come from somewhere.  However, we can choose to minimize the amount of damage we cause, and try to choose the least damaging places to cause it.