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Earth Day: Go plant-based for the planet

Today marks the 48th annual Earth Day celebration and around the world events and efforts will be taking place to draw attention to the need for stronger environmental protections.

As the global community reflects today on the increasingly sensitive state of the planet and what role we as individuals can play in tackling what can sometimes feel like an overwhelming issue, it’s important to remember that every time we sit down to eat, we have an opportunity to stand up for a better world.

Animal agriculture has been identified as a leading contributor not only to climate change, but to air and water pollution, water use, land degradation, deforestation and biodiversity decline.

In fact, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transportation sector. This is because animal-based foods are incredibly inefficient to produce and are very resource-intensive. The processes involved when it comes to raising, transporting and slaughtering animals for food are responsible for potent greenhouse gas emissions including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. To put this in perspective, beef production requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of edible protein than common plant-based protein sources such as beans, peas and lentils.[1]

The production of animal-based foods also requires and pollutes large amounts of water. Agriculture accounts for 92% of our global freshwater footprint; approximately one third relates to animal products.[2] The water footprint per gram of protein for milk, eggs and chicken is approximately 1.5 times larger than for pulses (beans, lentils, peas). For beef, it is six times larger than for pulses.[3] The sheer volume of animal waste, along with fertilizers and pesticides used for feed crops, as well as hormones and antibiotics used on livestock create major water pollution issues. These pollutants seep into waterways, threatening water quality, ecosystems and animal and human health.[4]

Meanwhile, animal agriculture is a key contributor to land degradation and deforestation, with one-quarter of the earth’s land surface (excluding Antarctica) being used as pastureland. [5] The conversion of natural habitat to accommodate livestock and feed crops puts immense pressure on wildlife that struggle to survive in increasingly fragmented and degraded environments. Ineffective and ill-informed cull programs put additional pressure on predator populations, due to the perceived threat they pose to livestock profits.

While our diet can be a major part of the problem when it comes to protecting the planet, that also means it is a crucial part of the solution. A 2016 Oxford Martin School study found that the adoption of global dietary guidelines would cut food-related emissions by 29%, vegetarian diets by 63%, and vegan diets by 70%.[6] By reducing and eliminating resource-intensive animal products from our diet and supporting efforts to make more sustainable plant-based foods widely accessible, we can drastically decrease our individual and societal environmental footprints.

This Earth Day, join the growing number of people around the world who are recognizing the power behind what we put on our plate. Take our Meatless Monday pledge for recipe ideas and download our Live Well booklet to learn more about a plant-based diet. You can also support VHS’s efforts to introduce more healthy, humane and sustainable plant-based menu options in schools and other institutions.

[1] http://www.wri.org/blog/2016/04/sustainable-diets-what-you-need-know-12-charts

[2] http://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Gerbens-et-al-2013-waterfootprint-poultry-pork-beef_1.pdf

[3] http://waterfootprint.org/en/water-footprint/product-water-footprint/water-footprint-crop-and-animal-products/

[4] http://www.fao.org/3/a-i7754e.pdf

[5] http://www.wri.org/blog/2016/04/sustainable-diets-what-you-need-know-12-charts

[6] https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/news/201603_Plant_based_diets

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Factory farming: A problem with solutions

A farmer veterinary walks inside a poultry farm

Two recent news stories underscore why factory farming must end and how some powerful interests are working to make that happen.

Last week, A new study found compelling  and disturbing evidence that a novel form of the dangerous superbug Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) can spread to humans through consumption or handling of contaminated poultry.

“We’ve known for several years that people working directly with livestock are at increased risk for MRSA infections, but this is one of the first studies providing compelling evidence that everyday consumers are also potentially at risk,” said one of the authors of the study.

Intensive farming practices, which often involve giving food animals low doses of antibiotics to encourage fast growth and compensate for overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions, has led to the spread of superbugs like MRSA.  Those same conditions, which billions of animals around the world must endure, are the reason animal advocates have called for an end to factory farming on animal welfare grounds.

Animal suffering and dangerous superbugs are, of course, not the only unwanted consequences of industrialized animal agriculture.  Intensive farming also degrades our environment, including contributing 14.5 per cent of all greenhouse gases to global climate change. It uses up huge amounts of land, water and energy.  And, not least, its end product is meat – the overconsumption of which can be damaging to human health.

The other related news story acknowledges these problems and offers solutions.  This week, a group of 40 investors managing $1.25 trillion in assets launched a campaign to encourage 16 global food companies to shift from selling meat to selling plant protein. “The world’s over reliance on factory farmed livestock to feed the growing global demand for protein is a recipe for a financial, social and environmental crisis,” said the investor leading the initiative.

The meat and livestock sector is no longer just the target of grassroots activists and animal advocates.  The world, including the world of finance, is waking up to just how unsustainable this industry is.

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Is fake meat the key to stopping the growth of factory farming?

Feedlot istock

Will food science provide an escape from our unsustainable and inhumane dependency on meat consumption and animal agriculture?

Trying to stay positive about the future of farmed animals is not easy for the animal activists, ethical vegetarians and environmentalists who care about the animal cruelty and ecological damage caused by factory farms.

While some might be cheered by the decline in meat consumption in North America and Europe (which only applies to red meat, not poultry), the projections for consumption elsewhere, especially in China, are dispiriting.

One recent study found that per capita meat consumption in China has increased by 400 per cent since 1971 and is still growing. (But the Chinese still only eat 55 kg of meat per person each year, compared to 107 kg for Americans.)  According to the United Nations, total demand for animal products in developing countries is expected to more than double by 2030. This demand will almost inevitably be met by increasing numbers of large factory farms, with all their inherent cruelty and damage to the environment.

 

One proposed way of avoiding this dark future is to replace meat with sustainable plant-based products.   New processes, market trends and technical innovations in some developed countries suggest we might yet escape a massive increase in animal suffering and environmental degradation caused by the growth in intensive animal agriculture.   The “fake meat” industry is not without its critics and some vegetarians and vegans warn against heavily processed food, arguing that traditional, natural sources of protein (e.g. beans, lentils,) are the best alternatives to meat.  Others contend that creating highly palatable, convenient meat substitutes is the only way to draw modern meat eaters away from their ingrained attraction to sausages, bacon, burgers, hot dogs, chicken wings and steaks.

Europe appears to be leading the way in the development of meat alternatives, with the Netherlands most recently announcing the creation of a “steak” made from vegetable protein.  Scientists at Wageningen University produced the steak using Shear cell technology, an energy-efficient process that researchers claim reproduces the fibrous texture of steak. A Dutch firm, The Vegetarian Butcher (which helped fund the research) is already a highly successful purveyor of meat substitutes, with more than 1000 dealers and distributors across the Netherlands.

In famously meat-loving Germany, sales of new meat substitutes are increasingly popular, showing double-digit growth.   Even meat companies see the potential.  “Surprisingly, German companies that are traditionally associated with manufacturing meat products are now entering this market for meat substitutes, going so far as to launch meat imitations using the same brands as their meat-filled counterparts,” says one recent report.  The director of a German meat company recently referred to sausages as “the cigarette of the future” and said that he wanted at least 30 per cent of the company’s sales to come from its vegetarian range by 2019.

In North America, companies like Beyond Meat, Hampton Creek and Gardein have already tapped into the growing consumer interest in alternatives to animal-based products. Market analysts predict that alternative protein sources could claim up to a third of the protein market by 2054.

All these companies have had to overcome technical hurdles as well as consumer and media scepticism. Yet, science appears to be succeeding when product development hits a wall.  For example, pea protein has presented a problem to companies seeking to use it in plant-based products because of its bitter taste.  But recently, food researchers found a way to reduce the bitterness, making the taste neutral – a small development but one that opens the door to using this non-animal protein in a range of new food products.  If the meat alternative industry continues to resolve such issues, they could yet end up with products that will appeal to the most diehard carnivores.

It is difficult to know whether the new plant-based food industry is the answer to curtailing the horrors of factory farming, but with global meat consumption and production still rampant, it may be the best chance we have.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Take action for chickens!

Mother hen with its baby chicken

Our friends at the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals (CCFA) are running a great campaign to help chickens in Canada – and they need your help.

CCFA has launched a new website about chicken farming, transport and slaughter.  It includes an important take action page that enables compassionate Canadians to contact chicken farmers and grocers to raise concerns about the deplorable conditions and treatment that chickens in Canada endure. It’s a quick and easy way to make a difference in the lives of chickens, often described as the most abused animals on the planet.

Both egg-laying hens and chickens raised for meat suffer on factory farms.  VHS recently called attention to the suffering of meat chickens in op-eds in the Vancouver Sun and the Toronto Star.

We support any action that will alleviate the suffering of farmed animals. Through our ChickenOUT! project, we urge consumers who buy eggs to ensure they are certified organic, which are cage-free and have the highest welfare standards.  Better still, consumers can reduce or eliminate egg consumption by taking advantage of egg replacement products.  VHS also encourages switching to a plant-based diet. Reducing or eliminating meat consumption reduces the need for cruel factory farming. Our Meatless Monday initiative is a great way to start.

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New meat alternatives offer great promise

 

Homemade Healthy Vegetarian Quinoa Burger with Lettuce and Tomato

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But don’t look to ‘lab meat’ for a solution

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Guest post by David Steele

There is a promising trend in food these days. Meat substitutes are on the rise. More and more plant-based meats that look and taste like their cognate animal products are coming to market. They have been in the news big time lately. The New York Times, The Guardian, Time Magazine and Slate are just a few of the publications that have run feature stories in recent months.

 

Most recently, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof wrote effusively about the latest products. High in protein and other nutrients, these plant-based meats, Kristof tells us, are nearly indistinguishable from cooked animal flesh. What a wonderful development! As The Guardian bluntly states, modern animal agriculture is one of the worst crimes in history. Soon, just maybe, we’ll be able to consign that crime to the past.

 

The vast majority of animals raised for meat, eggs and dairy today are raised on factory farms. Debeaking, tail docking, castration, even tooth cutting – all without anesthetics – are standard practice. Dairy cows have their calves taken from them within hours of giving birth. Egg laying hens live six or eight to a cage; each has less than a standard 8½ x 11” sheet of paper’s ‘floor’ space to her. Pregnant and mother pigs live individually in cages so tiny that they can’t even turn around.  As the Guardian article points out, “The fate of animals in such industrial installations has become one of the most pressing ethical issues of our time.”

 

And the severe problems don’t end with the animals’ hellish lives. Raising livestock and the grain and soybeans to feed them is easily the biggest contributor to rainforest destruction; credible analyses indicate that animal agriculture is responsible for roughly 15 to 25% of global warming.  And animal agriculture is grossly inefficient.

 

As Cornell University’s David Pimentel calculates it, the way we raise meat, it takes some 28 calories of fossil fuel to generate one calorie of food value. This is enormously wasteful. And worse, because so much grain and soy is fed to animals instead of humans, the price of basic staples is raised, pricing out hundreds of millions of the world’s poor (see, e.g., this book review). In effect, we’re throwing away the majority of the protein and calories that humans could have taken in. Clearly, we can’t allow this to go on. Not for long, anyway.

 

In step the meat substitutes

That is why the appearance of ever more meat substitutes is such a very good thing. As Kristof says, “If the alternatives to meat are tasty, healthier, cheaper, better for the environment and pose fewer ethical challenges, the result may be a revolution in the human diet.” And he may very well be right. Tech giant Google wanted to bet big time on it this summer. They made a $200,000,000+ offer for one of the new startups – Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown’s Impossible Foods. Brown’s product won’t even be out until next year! Google, by the way, was turned down; Impossible Foods has raised $108,000,000 on its own instead.

Dr. Brown’s big innovation? He’s adding plant-derived heme to his new veggie burgers. Heme, he argues, is responsible for much of the flavour of meat. If Google’s interest in it is any indicator, he’s probably right. His products will join those of Beyond Meat and the older Tofurky, Yves, Gardein, Field Roast, etc., etc., etc., on store shelves soon.

All of these substitutes for animal products save animals from horrific lives and reduce the environmental footprint of our meals. There are other products on the horizon, though, that are nowhere near as beneficial. They are not even benign.

 

“Lab Meat”

 

Mark Post and colleagues at the Maastricht University in the Netherlands and New York City’s Modern Meadow are attempting to make meat outside of animals’ bodies. Beef seems to be their main goal for now. This is not artificial meat, per se, but rather meat made by growing cells taken from animals. On the surface, it sounds like a great thing. But, when you dig deeper, you see that it is nothing of the sort.

 

The first lab meat burger was made, cooked and eaten a couple of years ago. Constructed from 20,000 tiny strips of muscle cells, the thing was reportedly on the flavourless side and cooked up well only with the liberal use of butter. It was lauded by Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, as the world’s first cruelty-free burger.

 

Unfortunately, in this case Dr. Singer was wrong. Immense cruelty went into it – and goes into the continued work on it and its competitors.

 

Lab meat is made by taking cells from the bodies of living animals and growing them in a liquid medium. The end result is short strands of muscle-like tissue that are then stuck together. Post, at least so far, manually assembles them; Modern Meadow is trying 3D printing.

 

Growing those cells requires serum. Serum is the liquid left over when all of the cells are removed from blood. The serum used to make these burgers comes from fetal calves and, in later stages of the cells’ growth, from horses. Fetal calf serum is ‘harvested’ by killing a pregnant cow, cutting her still living calf from her belly and then puncturing the calf’s still beating heart. About 1 litre of serum is obtained from each calf. Producing those 20,000 strips in the first ‘lab meat’ burger probably required hundreds of liters of the stuff. That’s hundreds of fetal calves taken from slaughtered cows … all for one 4 oz. burger.

Modern Meadow says that it gets more meat from a liter of serum but their claim (as stated in The Guardian) of getting 22 lbs of meat per litre is outrageously high. I doubt very much that anyone with any experience in tissue culture believes that they’re really getting even a tenth of that. My guess would be more like a fiftieth. In any case, if one wants to grow ‘meat’ in the lab, one needs the serum.

 

And, sadly, the prospects for doing away with that serum in the process are bleak. Serum contains enormous numbers of growth factors, hormones and proteins necessary for cell growth. Expert scientists have been trying for decades to come up with an alternative but so far none matches serum in promoting cell growth and all are wildly more expensive (in dollar terms, at least) as well.

 

Still, you might say, it’s not nice to animals but it must be better for the environment. You might cite the paper that says so. It loudly claims that ‘lab meat’ would require 99% less land, 82-96% less water, even 7-45% less energy than meat produced from animals raised in Europe.

 

True, that paper is out there. It got a lot of publicity. Unfortunately, it also is just about the worst example of a failure of peer review that I have ever seen. The study is deeply flawed. Its assumptions are highly questionable, to put it mildly: i.e., that the meat would be raised as free cells in unheated vats, that 80% of the water used to grow the cells would be recycled without treatment, and that the cells would be fed entirely with cyanobacteria. None of these assumptions are even close to realistic.

 

There is not the slightest chance that meat can be grown like that. Instead, the complex mix of nutrients, growth factors and hormones found in fetal calf serum will be required. The media will have to be heated to a constant 98 or 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37-38 degrees Celsius) for the cells to grow; oxygen will have to be delivered and waste products constantly removed. Reusing even 1% of the water without treatment is extremely unlikely.

 

And, because there is no immune system in cell culture, large amounts of antibiotics and antifungal drugs will be needed to keep the growing meat from being over run with germs. The possibility of viral infections will be high.

 

Beyond those problems, growing something that approximates the beef or pork or chicken that people expect will be a daunting task. The meat that Mark Post is producing is only 100-200 micrometres (1/250th to 1/125th of an inch) thick and roughly an inch long. It is nothing like what most people would call meat.

To grow a steak or a piece of chicken will require some sort of degradable scaffold with a complex vascular system capable of bringing food and oxygen to the growing cells and taking waste and carbon dioxide away. 3D printing may help, but it’s hard to imagine a meat anything like what people think of as meat emerging from this process. (I suppose that it might be pulled off by putting the animal cells into one of the excellent plant-based meats, but what would be the point of that?!).

 

All in all, this seems insane. It is true that animal agriculture needs to go. But it does not make sense to attempt to replace it with an enormously expensive high tech system that, if it does work, is highly likely to require major inputs of blood serum. There is little chance, even, that a venture like this will ever be economically viable.

 

And there’s no need. If one feels the need for something that tastes like meat, there are already plenty of plant-based alternatives available. Field Roast, Gardein, Tofurky, Yves, etc. As noted above, ever more flavourful alternatives are on the horizon.

 

By the way, there is a new cheese alternative on the horizon, too. This one will even have plant (actually, yeast)-based casein in it. The cows’ milk protein has been engineered into the yeast. It’s not as scary as it sounds.

 

And, if you must eat meat, do the responsible thing. Eat the plant-based stuff.

 

David Steele is a molecular biologist retired in 2013 from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia. He has also held faculty positions at Cornell and Queen’s Universities. Dr. Steele has been Earthsave Canada‘s President since 2009. He is also a regular contributing writer to the Earthsave Canada newsletter and an occasional contributor to various other publications.

 

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Go cruelty-free this Thanksgiving

iStock_000048112116_Large

Pity the poor turkey. An inconceivable 20 million will be slaughtered in Canada in 2015, many of those destined to grace family Thanksgiving dinner tables.

Pity the turkey, the dairy cow, the chicken, the pig; in fact, pity all animals that are raised on factory farms to provide us with cheap meat and dairy products. They face horrific conditions on-farm.  Turkeys and chickens genetically bred to grow quickly suffer from constant hunger, painful lameness and searing pain from hot-blade de-beaking and de-toeing.  Dairy cows also endure painful lameness from lack of exercise, improper and dirty flooring, bad stall design and genetics – in fact, it’s estimated that 35 per cent of dairy cows in Canada are lame at any given time.  Transport and slaughter provide no relief from the cruelty, as already compromised animals are subjected to rough handling, crowded transport and questionable slaughter methods.

The legal system provides little protection for farmed animals.  The term ‘accepted management practices’  exempts  conditions such as extreme confinement, often for the entire life-span of the animal, and painful procedures such as those mentioned above. Conditions on most farms are not monitored by government, or any other independent, third party.

Even when animals are subjected to cruelty that goes beyond that accepted as “necessary”, the law provides very little in the way of redress, even when convictions are achieved.  In 2014, CBC’s Marketplace released graphic undercover footage obtained by Mercy for Animals Canada of a turkey breeder company in Ontario that supplies farms with up to 90 per cent of the turkey stock eaten in Canada.  Workers were seen attempting to kill turkeys with  broom handles and shovels, resulting in one bird being alive for more than five minutes after the bludgeoning began. Birds with open wounds and crippling injuries were left without adequate medical care.

The company and five of its employees were charged with eleven counts of animal cruelty. The company pled guilty to one count in exchange for the remaining ten being dropped. They were fined a mere $5,600.

Another case languishes in B.C. Undercover footage of Canada’s largest dairy farm in the Fraser Valley was released, again by Mercy for Animals Canada, in June, 2014. It exposed sickening abuse such as the repeated kicking and bludgeoning of dairy cows. In one case, a cow’s tail was viciously twisted until it broke.  In a complaint to police, Dr. James Reynolds, a professor of large animal medicine at Western University, called it “the most severe case(s) of animal abuse I have ever seen in 32 years as a bovine veterinarian.” Even though the BC SPCA recommended to Crown Counsel that charges be laid against the company, Chilliwack Cattle Sales, and the employees involved, more than 15 months later, no charges have been laid and the public is left to wonder why nothing has happened.

Codes of Practice exist for all farmed animals in Canada. These codes have serious deficiencies, as they don’t address most issues of public concern, such as gestation crates for sows and battery cages for hens, as well as many painful procedures. The codes are not enforced and not enshrined in law in most provinces (although the Government of B.C. recently announced that the Code of Practice for the Handling of Dairy Cattle is being incorporated into the provincial Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act) – rather, they provide minimum expectations for producers to follow. Unfortunately, there’s no way for the public to be assured that even these minimum guidelines are being followed because there is no third-party, arm’s length audit process.  This means that on-farm cruelty must be addressed by complaints from the public – a near-impossible task since most farms are out of the way and are operated behind closed and locked barn doors.

Fortunately, the public’s concerns about the treatment of farmed animals are increasingly being heard by large companies such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Starbucks and others who are demanding accountability from their suppliers.  Perhaps at some time in the future we will see all farmed animals treated with respect, dignity and empathy.

But in the meantime, pity the poor turkey and take time to contemplate that the product of such a cruel system has become a symbol for a family holiday of thankfulness. Perhaps consider extending your compassion to all animals by replacing them on your table with one of the delicious meat-free and cruelty-free alternatives so readily available, such as Tofurkey, Gardein Holiday Roast, “stuffed turk’y” and “turk’s cutlet”.

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Still no charges in dairy cruelty case

It has now been one year since the BC SPCA recommended criminal animal cruelty charges against eight employees at Chilliwack Cattle Sales, Canada’s largest dairy producer, and many months since provincial animal cruelty charges were recommended against the company itself. Yet, Crown prosecutors have still yet to come to a decision about laying charges.

For its part, the BC SPCA responded quickly, conducting a raid on the facility and recommending animal cruelty charges within days of receiving video and written evidence covertly obtained by an employee over the course of four weeks last spring.

The delay is unusual and concerning. Prosecutors have been presented with incontrovertible evidence of animals being routinely whipped, kicked, and punched in their faces, bodies, and testicles. Still more animals were documented on video suffering from untreated gruesome injuries and infections.

Internationally respected bovine expert and veterinarian Dr. James Reynolds commented that the video depicted “the most severe cases of animal abuse I have ever seen in 32 years.”

Worse, the company itself appears to have been complicit in the abuse and neglect, despite attempting to distance itself from the employees during the public outcry that followed the footage’s release. The whistleblower stated that he repeatedly brought his concerns to management, which failed to act; several more fired employees came forward to say that they were unfairly taking the fall for a company that created and condoned the apparent widespread culture of cruelty.

Yet, Chilliwack Cattle Sales continues to operate with impunity, milking a staggering 3500 cows three times each day.

It did not take long for the BC Milk Marketing Board to act. By last September, the regulator had made the standards in the national dairy code of practice mandatory, effective virtually immediately. Such actions by provincial regulators are all the more important in Canada’s supply-managed dairy industry, where milk is pooled and dairy processors cannot set animal welfare standards for their suppliers—a tactic commonly used in other countries.

This case presented a unique opportunity for prosecutors to take farmed animal cruelty as seriously as it ought to be. We killed 740 million animals for food in 2014, making farmed animals by far the largest population of animals under human care (by contrast, there are about 15 million pets in Canada). However, these pigs, chickens, turkeys, and cows are kept largely in windowless sheds on private property, entirely shielded from the scrutiny of law enforcement, which is unable to inspect farms without first receiving a complaint from the public.

Unsurprisingly, on the rare occasion that complaints about farmed animal cruelty are received, they come from neighbours concerned about neglect on small operations, where animals may be visible. Employees at factory farms are unlikely to report abuse when their livelihood is at stake, or when they may be reporting on their friends—or themselves.

In the case of Chilliwack Cattle Sales, however, not only was an employee able to obtain evidence of illegal animal cruelty, he was able to actually document malicious abuses while they were being committed, rather than simply after-the-fact conditions of neglect.

Although animal cruelty laws in this country are regularly criticized for being weak, the reality is that provincial and federal law are clear that animal abuse and neglect are illegal. National codes of practice, created with government funding, set standards of care that arguably form a part of the law.

However, these laws are meaningless without adequate enforcement. Barriers to enforcement admittedly do exist—farmed animals are out of sight, law enforcement only acts in response to public complaints, and cruelty laws are mostly enforced by private bodies that are underfunded (the BC SPCA, for example, receives no government funding and must fundraise for all of its operating expenses, from sheltering animals to investigating cruelty).

But when a robust file of evidence virtually falls into prosecutors’ laps along with charge recommendations from law enforcement, farmed animals at last have an opportunity for swift justice.

Let’s hope the concerning one-year delay ultimately results in meaningful prosecutorial action against Chilliwack Cattle Sales. Anything less sends the message that illegal animal cruelty is a permitted ingredient in Canada’s food supply.

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Bearing witness to factory farm cruelty

Sow Puratone 2012

This month, Mother Jones Magazine ran a harrowing account of animal cruelty on an American pig farm. The article, an excerpt from a new book on factory farming by journalist Ted Genoways, focuses on an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which exposed farm workers meting out savage beatings to helpless pigs.

The story and an accompanying PETA video are, of course, deeply disturbing. They are much like other factory farm exposés by many animal rights groups over the years.  The recent investigation of an Alberta hog facility by Mercy for Animals Canada found similar cruel beatings by employees.  The humane community believes these and other cruel practices are widespread in animal agriculture here and around the world.

The media coverage of these investigations is vital in bringing these horrific abuses to light, but there is a nagging question in the minds of animal advocates: Are the people who need to see this paying attention?  After all, articles like the one in Mother Jones make for unpleasant reading and the video is stomach turning.  We’ve all heard the refrain from meat-lovers: “Don’t tell me.  I don’t want to know.”

Here at VHS, we wonder how much factory farm horror people can take.  Will the endless repetition of these accounts ultimately encourage people to just stop listening?  The answer, most likely, is to balance the horror stories with positive information about progress and practical advice, such as how and where to find alternatives to meat.

Yet, we are convinced of the importance of bearing witness to the suffering of animals on factory farms.  Yes, the stories are hard to read, and the videos hard to watch, but if they are not produced, distributed and shared who will know the truth?

That’s why we urge our supporters to read and watch at least some of the disturbing evidence of cruelty emerging from factory farming.  More importantly, we urge people who care about animals to share this evidence with friends, colleagues and family members who don’t know (or say they don’t want to know) the truth about what happens on factory farms.

Ted Genoways’ article is a compelling example of that truth. We urge you to share it widely.

 

 

 

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Our new bus ad

VHS bus ad

Watch for our new ad, which is running on TransLink buses in Vancouver.

We hope it encourages people to think about their food choices. There are millions of animals suffering on factory farms.  We can all help them by making compassionate choices.  More information here.

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Not just a chicken

Earlier this year, a rather obscure gathering of scientists took place at the University of Prince Edward Island.  The “Poultry Welfare Conference September 2012” was never going to make big headlines but in its own small way it just might help alleviate the suffering of billions of animals.

As animal advocates will tell you, it’s hard to get the public to care about chickens.  To most people they are good for dinner and not much else.   Cats and dogs, zoo animals and wildlife all attract a degree of human empathy or sympathy, but farm animals, especially poultry just don’t rate. 

Perhaps it’s because people don’t think (or prefer not to think) of their drumsticks or nuggets as having once been a living, breathing animal.  And even if they do, well, it’s just a chicken.

But of course chickens are more than just food.  In fact, as scientists are discovering, they are not only smarter than anyone thought – they’re also capable of feelings such as frustration, distress and even empathy.

Dr. Ian Duncan, Canada’s foremost poultry welfare scientist, told the P.E.I. conference that there is now an acceptance that it is feelings that govern animal welfare and “therefore feelings that should be measured when assessing welfare.”  Duncan has designed experiments that “ask” animals how they feel by measuring how hard they are willing to work to obtain or avoid certain stimuli.

For example, he has shown that hens will work just as hard to find a secluded nesting place as they will to get food, suggesting that the frustration of being denied a nest is as powerful a feeling as hunger.  In Canada, 95 per cent of laying hens are kept in cages that deny them the opportunity to nest.  Science now supports the common sense contention that those caged hens, about 26 million of them, are suffering.

Duncan’s work is underpinned by a broader scientific rethink on animal intelligence and sentience.  In July of this year, a prominent group of neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess consciousness in human and non-human animals.  The result was the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which, among other things, declared that “Mammalian and avian emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries appear to be far more homologous than previously thought.”  In other words, birds think and feel more like us than we had supposed.

The declaration has moral and cultural implications, as Dr. Christof Koch, a renowned neuroscientist and signatory to the declaration made clear: “The belief in human exceptionalism, so strongly rooted in the Judeo-Christian view of the world, flies in the face of all evidence for the structural and behavioural continuity between animals and people.”

Some specific studies on chickens have suggested that they possess “primitive self-consciousness.”  Others have found evidence that chickens have “one of the essential underpinning attributes of ‘empathy’; the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.”

Even the social behaviours of chickens (in natural settings) indicate they are perhaps not so different from “higher animals” as previously thought. One Australian study found that roosters who lost out to dominant males when it came to attracting hens found alternative routes to romantic success by “being nice” and finding food for hens.  (Human males who never made the football team but still wanted to get dates will be familiar with such strategies.)

But should chickens’ welfare depend on how intelligent or more “like us” they are?  Philosophical debates rage over granting animals moral consideration based on their levels of sentience, intelligence and self-consciousness.  Some would argue that the capacity of an animal to feel pain should be enough to make inflicting such pain morally wrong.

It could also be argued that having intelligence hasn’t saved millions of pigs suffering in factory farms, or whales who continue to be slaughtered, or dogs and primates still used in laboratory research.

Nevertheless, making science-based arguments when advocating compassion for animals does carry weight with those suspicious of mere sentimentalism (although one wonders why the simple concept of mercy isn’t morally persuasive enough).  Proving animals are more intelligent and emotionally capable will, in the long run, make it harder for industries and authorities to justify making them suffer or killing them for human benefit.

Even changing chickens’ image will help.  Science is showing that they are not “bird-brained” “dumb clucks” but sentient, clever birds with unique personalities and interesting social behaviours.  That’s who is suffering on factory farms.  That’s who is being slaughtered by the millions.  That’s who is on your plate – not “just a chicken.”