Categories
Opinion Editorial

Go vegan to end animal suffering and help the planet

Article originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

Once again, the veil has been lifted on a B.C. farm to expose sickening cruelty being inflicted on animals. And once again, animal agriculture representatives say it’s not the norm — it’s just a few bad apples.

But last week’s release of an undercover video taken by animal activists at an Abbotsford hog farm, that allegedly shows sick and dying pigs living in filthy conditions alongside dead and decomposing animals, graphically illustrates why the livestock industry cannot be trusted to care for animals humanely.

The farm is owned by a director of the B.C. Pork Producers Association, whose spokesman told media: “I think it’s important to know when people see this footage this isn’t all completely normal on most farms.” Yet, the ease with which undercover investigators find and reveal abuse suggests that animal cruelty in intensive farming is not the rare occurrence that operators claim.

In 2014, activists released video that exposed horrific cruelty inflicted on cows at Chilliwack Cattle Sales, Canada’s largest dairy farm. At the time, Jeff Kooyman, one of the owners of the farm, said he was “shocked” and claimed he had no idea his staff were abusing the cows. In 2016, Kooyman and five members of his family were charged with causing or permitting animals to be in distress.

In June 2017, video footage released by animal activists showed chickens at a Chilliwack poultry operation being mangled, stomped on and thrown against a wall. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency laid charges under federal regulations against Elite Farm Services and its president, Dwayne Dueck, for allegedly beating chickens and loading them in a way “likely to cause injury or undue suffering.” When the video first appeared in the media, Dueck said he was “sickened” by the footage.

In 2018, the B.C. SPCA announced it was again investigating Elite Farm Services in what it said was “another situation where chickens have allegedly suffered as a result of what appears to be a blatant disregard to adherence of the industry’s own agreed-upon standards of care…”

These undercover animal cruelty cases, and many others that have exposed similar abuse across Canada, show that industrial agriculture cannot provide humane conditions for animals. The system is designed to mass produce cheap meat, eggs and dairy, not to provide good lives for animals.

Working with large numbers of animals on an intensive farm must be desensitizing. Each animal, as science has shown, is sentient and has its own individual personality yet on the factory farm they are by definition a commodity. This contradiction cannot be squared. Cruelty occurs when there is no empathy and factory farm workers cannot empathize with animals as individuals. If they did, how could they keep on working?

Many Canadians do not realize that animal farmers in Canada largely police themselves. There are codes of practice for the care and handling of farm animals, the creation of which are largely industry-led, but there are no on-farm government inspections to ensure they are enforced.

For a growing number of people, the real answer is to turn away from animal-based food products. As more plant-based alternatives to animal products emerge, the easier it is to transition to a plant-based diet. In the short-term, even just reducing meat consumption sends a market signal to livestock producers that factory farming is becoming unacceptable, thus forcing reforms.

In the longer term, bolstered by the need to end the environmental damage and poor health outcomes of a food system based on animal consumption, the plant-based diet may finally bring an end to factory farming and all the animal suffering it causes.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

A grim future for the global livestock industry and its investors

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

The global livestock industry—already under attack for damaging the environment, causing mass animal suffering, and exacerbating climate change—now faces a calamity that should have us asking: isn’t there a better way to feed the world?

Fortunately, there is.

The spread of African swine fever has forced China to cull 200 million pigs, a loss of 30 percent of the country’s pork production—the equivalent of the entire annual pork supply of the European Union. The mass slaughter is expected to cause a protein shortage, rising meat prices, and investment losses.

The devastating impact of the worldwide spread of the virus perfectly illustrates one of the many economic risks inherent in the meat and livestock industry. Livestock-disease outbreaks are a constant threat—think of mad-cow disease, avian flu, or hoof-and-mouth disease—and they are economically damaging.

They are also costly to taxpayers. Federal and provincial governments paid $4.3 billion in compensation to Canada’s cattle industry for losses stemming from the 2003 BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) outbreak. Governments around the world pick up the bill for the consequences of animal-disease outbreaks and for trying to prevent them. This year’s federal budget included $31 million for more sniffer dogs to detect African swine fever entering the country. (Although vegetables are also subject to contamination and disease, the causes are often traced to livestock.)

The risks of catastrophic disease outbreaks in the livestock sector are in addition to the environmental costs, public health risks, and animal-welfare concerns that come with industrialized animal agriculture. While animal advocates and environmentalists have raised these issues for decades, some in the investment community have woken up to the industry’s risks.

The FAIRR Initiative, a consortium of investors representing more than $12 trillion in assets, is drawing attention to the negative impacts of factory farming and, according to its website, “believes that intensive livestock production poses material risks to the global financial system and hinders sustainable development”.

FAIRR has highlighted the livestock sector’s role in issues such as climate change and the overuse of antibiotics, and it has urged food companies to diversify their protein-sourcing away from a reliance on animal proteins. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that some companies are doing exactly that.

Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest pork processer, recently announced plans to build the largest plant in North America for plant-based protein (sadly, in Indiana, not Canada). The company, which previously acquired two plant-based food businesses, is not alone in its interest in nonanimal proteins: major meat companies such as Cargill and Tyson Foods have also invested in meat alternatives.

At the retail level, chains such as A&W and White Spot have jumped on the plant-based bandwagon, and consumers have welcomed their new meat-free offerings.

Ultimately, the success of new plant-based foods will depend on consumer demand and their capacity to compete on price, taste, and convenience. But as the meat industry and its investors confront the disastrous consequences of yet another global animal-disease outbreak, perhaps more sustainable and less risky food products will have greater appeal.

As for China’s shortage of pork (a traditional staple of the national diet), there may already be a plant-based product ready to help fill the gap. A Hong Kong-based company called Right Treat produces a meatless pork alternative called Omnipork that is proving popular. Developed by food scientists based in Vancouver, Omnipork is made from peas, soy, shiitake mushrooms, and rice.

When contrasted with the need to slaughter millions of pigs, dispose of their carcasses, and guard against the next animal-disease outbreak, such products seem to offer a more benign alternative to what is, quite literally, a bloody mess.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

Politicians lagging behind soaring public interest in plant-based diets

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

Are politicians getting behind the plant-based food revolution?  Despite some promising actions, governments and political parties are lagging behind public and business interest in the shift away from an animal-based diet.

It was a welcome surprise when Health Canada, for the first time, ensured the meat and dairy industry’s lobbyists did not interfere in the creation of the new Canada Food Guide. The result was an evidence-based guide that focuses more on a plant-based diet at the expense of one centred on meat and dairy products.

Also welcome, but less well-known, is the federal government’s support for the emerging plant-based protein industry in Western Canada. Ottawa is contributing $150 million to create a plant protein “supercluster” in the Prairie provinces, aiming to take advantage of Canada’s pulse crops (lentils, beans, peas) and their potential use in products such as meat alternatives. The initiative, focusing on value-added processing, is expected to create an estimated 4,700 jobs over the next 10 years and $700 million in new commercial activity.

Such developments make sense, as study after study provides sound evidence that a food system based on the overconsumption of cheap meat is environmentally unsustainable, unhealthy and, in terms of animal welfare, unethical. Most recently, a report by respected U.K. think-tank Chatham House, called on the European Union to invest in meat alternatives because “a radical shift away from excessive meat-eating patterns is urgently needed to tackle the un-sustainability of the livestock sector.” The United Nations Environment Agency has said “meat production is known to be a major contributor to climate change and environmental destruction…” and last year honoured two plant-based meat companies with its Champions of the Earth award.

Yet Canadian taxpayers’ support for the meat and dairy sectors is massive and dwarves public funding for the budding plant-based food industry. The recently tabled federal budget promised $3.9 billion to the egg, poultry, and dairy industries as compensation for trade concessions. Last year, the federal government announced $250 million for the dairy industry to “increase productivity and competitiveness.” How many established Canadian businesses enjoy such support?

Here in B.C., the provincial government recently committed $450,000 toward the development of a slaughterhouse in Prince George. Similar grants are routinely doled out to the meat industry across Canada. In 2017, the federal and Manitoba governments gave $500,000 to Maple Leaf Foods to increase bacon production – the same year the company had net earnings of $164.1 million. In 2015, the World Health Organization declared processed meats carcinogenic to humans.

The provincial government’s Clean B.C. initiative makes no mention of reducing meat consumption. Yet a major Oxford University study last year found that avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.

Even the Green Party of B.C. has not addressed the negative environmental impacts of the meat and livestock industries in its policy platform. In the U.K., the Green Party has pledged “to support a progressive change from diets dominated by meat, dairy and other animal products to healthier diets based mainly on plant foods…”

Local government in the province has also done little to address the issue. Several Metro Vancouver municipalities have made “Meatless Monday” proclamations but none actively promote healthy, low-carbon, plant-based diets. A number of Lower Mainland schools have individually partnered with the Vancouver Humane Society to establish Meatless Monday initiatives but no school boards have yet to make it district policy. Compare this to New York, which recently announced ALL public schools in the city will introduce Meatless Monday programs.

It’s understandable that politicians may be timid about recommending plant-based diets or calling for lower meat consumption. American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, while promoting her Green New Deal, recently suggested, “Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch and dinner” and was accused by her political opponents of coming to take Americans’ hamburgers away.

But Ocasio-Cortez has not backed down. Instead, she has patiently explained why reducing meat consumption will benefit our environment and our health. Canadian leaders at all levels of government need to show the same vision and boldness. The evidence for change is there. All that’s missing is the political courage.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

What the internet weeping over death of NASA robot tells us about empathy

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

On February 13th, 2019 NASA confirmed the death of the Opportunity rover. Its last image a dark static greyscape, the last view of the sandstorm that destroyed the rover, and its last message “my battery is low and it is getting dark.”

And the Internet wept.

There has been an outpouring of sympathy at “the loss of Opportunity” (the most 2019 phrase thus far), but it’s not hard to see why. Designed for a 90-day mission, the rover explored for 15 years, outliving its sibling rover, Spirit, by years.

It was programmed to know its own birthday and it sang to itself every year to commemorate the occasion. It was basically a real life Wall-E. And it lived its life like many of us, terribly online. On Twitter, Opportunity and Spirit shared the @MarsRovers handle, and have amassed over 475k followers. Opportunity had an identity.

“This is a hard day,” said project manager John Callas. “Even though it’s a machine and we’re saying goodbye, it’s still very hard and very poignant, but we had to do that… It comes time to say goodbye.”

NASA lost communication with the rover after a sandstorm, declaring the mission, which has indicated that Mars once had water capable of sustaining microbial life, complete.

The online response to the “death” of Opportunity shows clearly if nothing else how essential compassion is to the human condition. We know that a robot in outer space isn’t actually celebrating its birthday, or even really dying. But it’s sad. We feel for the robot.

That isn’t to say sympathy for a dying robot is a bad thing. I used to research and teach political and ethical theory (among other things), and as an ethicist, I take compassion to be a moral virtue and one of the best qualities a human being can have. The philosopher in me is excited for the ethical considerations that will have to come about as a result of more and more complex artificial intelligences as machines and AI continue to become more and more a part of our lives. Our capacity to care, for other humans, for non-human animals, even for fictional characters and objects with identities, tells us something incredible about human beings.

The entertainment industry has played on this for years — robots, mutants, animal-human hybrids, and aliens can all be protagonists or love interests and no one bats an eye. You only have to name a pencil in front of a group of students and suddenly if you snap it you’re destroying an individual, not a mere object.

Animals are individuals. Not exactly like us, but they are individuated in similar ways. Depending on the species, some individuals will be more curious, social, food-motivated, dominant, playful, or any number of other “personality” (animality?) traits that mark individuals within that species.

It makes sense that people sympathize more with an individual like Opportunity, just as they did with Tilikum, the orca profiled in the film Blackfish which highlighted the keeping of cetaceans at Sea World and other marine parks. The film brought to light the ethical issue of keeping highly intelligent, social creatures in environments that the best science tells us is inadequate.

I had the fortune of seeing a similarly eye-opening film in Ottawa a few years ago. Sled Dogs examines some of the issues surrounding the Iditarod dog sled race and the use of sled dogs in tourism and entertainment, including a large scale cull of dogs that took place in British Columbia. It is heartbreaking to see the lives of these creatures. In this year’s Yukon Quest, considered by many to be more difficult and dangerous than the more famous Iditarod, a dog named Joker has died. Last year a dog named Boppy died when he asphyxiated on his own vomit which froze in his throat. A dog has died or had to be euthanized every year for the last ten years of the Yukon Quest. Boppy’s owner had a dog die in a previous race, and was once disqualified based on the condition of his dog team.

The environmental conditions these dogs were in at the time of their death, white, grey, getting darker, if we could capture that image, it may not be unlike the last photo from Opportunity.

Dogs are not meant to run 1600km in some of the most dangerous conditions on the planet, and they certainly don’t *want* to. They are not capable of the kinds of complex decision making required for that. Dogs, regardless of breed, want to be happy and like us, that comes in a variety of ways. Exercise is definitely one of them, and all dogs need some level of physical activity to be healthy and happy.

Certainly some dogs enjoy the snow and the cold, I can remember vividly trying to bring a Malamute mix in at the shelter I managed in St. John’s. It was a literal blizzard and he had curled up and gone to sleep outside. I had to pick him up to get him in for the night.

But no dog wants to die, and since they aren’t capable of making complex choices in their own best interests, we owe it to them to advocate on their behalf. If we can empathize with a robot dying alone on Mars, we have to be able to empathize with Joker dying in the cold, in pain and confused.

Non-human animals do not experience time the same way we do since they don’t plan for the future or construct a narrative identity through memories of the past. What they “know” in any meaningful sense of the term is what they are immediately and directly experiencing through their senses. They react based on previous experience as well as individual disposition, something like what we experience as memory and identity. The complexity of this basic experience varies depending on the animal, but remains essentially the same.

This means that in moments of trauma and stress, dogs, cats, cows, pigs, and a lot of other animals, “know” only that trauma. A dog can’t rationalize its final moments by telling itself it’s a hero. It doesn’t grasp the concept of death in the way we do, it may not “know” it’s dying in the same way we do, but in that moment that’s all it thinks it will ever experience. Every moment is forever.

We care a lot about our pets. Some care passionately about wildlife, and others care tremendously for the animals who suffer as part of our agriculture system. We even care about cartoons and brands and robots on Mars. In a world where we have rules around infrastructure to preserve the dignity and integrity of views and scenery, let’s try to empathize more with those who depend on our care the most, and always strive to do them justice. Like most things, we can always do better.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

Meteoric rise in plant-based foods marks larger industry trend

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

Is the rising popularity of vegan and vegetarian food just another diet fad? Evidence is emerging that it is not only taking root in a growing number of home and restaurant kitchens but also deep in the food industry.

Diners in Metro Vancouver have seen more vegan eateries opening and more plant-based options at many other restaurants. Shoppers are finding new meatless products appearing on supermarket shelves. Even fast-food joints are pushing veggie burgers. Who didn’t hear about A&W selling out of its new plant-based Beyond Meat burger within hours last summer?

The same is happening across much of the developed world. In Britain, the recent launch of a vegan sausage roll caused a national media sensation, as the product quickly sold out and pundits debated the merits of changing an iconic British snack (The U.K. overtook Germany this year as the world leader for vegan product launches).

Even France, the home of Brie cheese, has seen a rise in meatless eating. French supermarket sales of vegetable protein surged by 82 per cent in 2016, and are set to grow by another 25 percent a year through 2020, according to one study.

Nevertheless, some are skeptical about the attention being paid to plant-based food. The U.K.’s Times newspaper reported last year that the meat industry was scornful of the increased interest in vegan food, stating: “Livestock farmers are being told not to panic about the rise of veganism because it is a passing fad for many young people who are merely following the latest fashion.”

But there are clear signs that the “plant-based revolution” is real.  And it’s not because of a few more vegan cafes and some popular veggie burgers.  The real evidence of change can be found in food business journals, which are reporting a quiet but fundamental shift within the global food industry.

Last year, Ingredion, a giant U.S. food ingredients company, invested US$140 million in manufacturing facilities in Saskatchewan and Nebraska to create flours and concentrates from peas, dried beans, chickpeas and lentils. The company’s CEO explained why: “We’ve identified plant-based proteins as a high-growth, high-value market opportunity that is on-trend with consumers’ desire to find sustainable and good tasting alternatives to animal-based proteins.”

Other companies are doing the same, creating animal-free protein for use in bakery products, cereals, pasta, batters and meat substitutes.  In 2017, the global plant-based proteins market was valued at US$ 10.5 billion and is estimated to reach a value of around US$ 16.3 billion by the end of 2025, according to analysts Persistence Market Research.

The egg industry is also being disrupted, as food companies seek to avoid the market volatility of egg supplies and prices, which are affected by disease outbreaks (avian flu) and recalls (salmonella). Many have turned to plant-based alternatives that fulfil the same function of eggs in baked goods or sauces without compromising flavour.

Other food companies have focused on improving the taste and texture of the new plant-based ingredients, such as removing the bitterness of pea protein or giving non-dairy ice cream the same creamy mouthfeel as the real thing – thus creating the potential to “veganize” just about anything.

These advances come on top of the already successful introduction of non-dairy milks, the launch of popular meat substitutes and high-profile investments in the sector by billionaires like Bill Gates and Li Ka-Shing and Richard Branson.

While many ethical vegans and vegetarians welcome these developments, which open up the possibility of a future without animal slaughter, there are concerns about Big Food’s involvement, especially its over-processing of food.

That’s why many influential vegans and vegetarians advocate for a “whole foods” plant-based diet and recommend keeping processed foods to a minimum.  Desiree Nielsen, a Vancouver-based registered dietitian and host of TV’s The Urban Vegetarian, has said “You can be a junk-food, cheesy-carb vegetarian, or you can be an Oreo- and candy-obsessed vegan.” She says eating processed meat substitutes once or twice a week is fine but diet mainstays should be simpler options like beans and high protein vegetables, preferably home-cooked.

Such advice is certainly having an impact. The rise in meatless products has been matched by an explosion in plant-based cookbooks and recipe blogs, suggesting many people are at least trying to avoid an over-reliance on processed foods.

Whether it’s led by convenient meat substitutes or homemade whole foods, the plant-based revolution looks like it’s here to stay.  And keeping animals off your plate has never been easier.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

New CRISPR gene-editing technique more beneficial to meat producers than to animals

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

A controversial gene-editing technology may soon be widely applied to animals, with the livestock and biotech industries claiming that animals will be better off as a result. The truth is more complicated—and perhaps more disturbing—than they would have us believe.

A Chinese scientist stunned the world last month when he revealed he had created the first gene-edited babies using CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a powerful new technology that can remove specific genetic traits. The scientist, He Jiankui, has been widely condemned by the scientific community as reckless and unethical, and the case has stoked public fears about the creation of “designer babies”, but CRISPR raises wider ethical implications—in particular, its use with animals.

Researchers have already used CRISPR to edit the genes of a variety of animals, and the creation of gene-edited farm animals is poised to become a commercial reality. The livestock industry and the biotech companies behind it are promoting CRISPR as a boon to animal welfare.

For example, CRISPR can create cows without horns, which are currently removed through painful procedures (e.g., cutting or burning) to reduce risk of injury to other animals and human handlers. CRISPR advocates say the need for those procedures would disappear. Genes can also be altered to make cattle more heat-tolerant or to produce pigs that are resistant to disease, suggesting a future with healthier, more resilient farm animals. Animal-welfare benefits are prominent in media coverage of CRISPR’s potential—and it’s no accident.

Recombinetics, a U.S. biotech company, has been careful to promote these benefits as opposed to the advantages to production. As the company’s chief executive officer, Tammy Lee, told Associated Press“It’s a better story to tell.”

There is another, more ethically complex, story. While some of the applications of CRISPR to farm animals may improve certain aspects of animal welfare, there are fears that, taken together, they will be used to further intensify industrialized animal farming. Hornless, disease-resistant, weatherproof animals are easier to manage, transport, and keep in crowded conditions. There is little incentive for producers to invest in more humane husbandry. In short, cruel factory farming remains. It will just be more efficient.

Researchers are also promoting gene-editing as a means to create “double-muscled” animals (for more meat), but this could also cause unintended health problems. One attempt to produce meatier, gene-edited pigs resulted in deformed piglets that were unable to walk, dying shortly after birth. Double-muscled cattle produced by conventional selective breeding are more susceptible to respiratory disease, lameness, stress, and difficulty giving birth. Gene-editing will make it easier to create such animals, but the welfare consequences will be the same.

Any attempt by Big Agriculture to paint gene-editing as an amazing breakthrough in improving animal welfare should be treated with skepticism. Remember, these are the people who—through selective breeding for more meat—brought us chickens that grow so fast they are crippled by their own weight, leading to heart disease, skeletal disorders, and lameness. They are the architects of a system that has crowded billions of animals into cages, crates, feedlots, and transport trucks, causing incalculable suffering. Can they and their biotech partners really be trusted when they claim that they’re advancing a world-changing technology just to make animals happier?

Even if these industries are sincere in their promotion of gene-editing to improve farm-animal welfare, their proposals amount to applying technological, piecemeal quick fixes to the cruelty of factory farming, a problem requiring abolition, not tinkering.

Industrialized animal agriculture has been shown by science to be not only cruel to animals but also devastating to our environment and detrimental to human health. It’s a system that can’t be fixed. But it can replaced—by one that focuses on the production and consumption of plant-based foods.

The rise in popularity of plant-based alternatives to meat has been well-documented. Vegan and vegetarian foods are now competing with animal-based products on taste, price, and convenience. Investment and innovation in plant-based foods have exploded in the past few years and look set to continue. (The Economist magazine is calling 2019 “the year of the vegan”.) These developments offer a different path forward, one without mass animal suffering, environmental degradation, and the negative health consequences of a meat-heavy diet.

The other path, which maintains our dependence on animal incarceration and slaughter, promises only to further commodify animals by engineering them to suit our needs and desires. It’s a path to a world in which animals have no value beyond their use to humans.

By perpetuating the treatment of animals as products we not only diminish them but also ourselves and our humanity.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

Why BC chicken abuse charges should serve as warning to all farms

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

Charges against two B.C. businesses for animal abuse may serve as a warning shot to other companies in the agriculture industry that they, and not just individual employees, are accountable for any mistreatment of the animals they raise, transport and slaughter.

Last week, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) laid charges against Sofina Foods, Elite Farm Services and Elite’s president, Dwayne Dueck, for allegedly beating chickens and loading them in a way “likely to cause injury or undue suffering.”  They are scheduled to appear in court today, December 18.

The charges stem from video footage released by animal activists in June 2017 that showed chickens at a Chilliwack poultry operation being mangled, stomped on, thrown against a wall, and smashed into transport crates. The BC SPCA, which described the abuse as “absolutely sickening,” recommended charges, but a year and a half later Crown Counsel has still not prosecuted anyone.

The CFIA, however, has pursued charges under federal Health of Animals Regulation, which may financially penalize the companies.

When the alleged offences became public, the companies involved were quick to distance themselves from the revelations.  Sofina Foods called the footage “horrifying” and said it had requested that all of the employees involved be dismissed immediately.

Elite’s Mr. Dueck stated: “We are sickened with the footage and want to ensure all our suppliers and producers that this is not reflective of who we are, our fundamental beliefs or behaviours we accept from our employees.”

Six of Elite’s employees were fired but now it is the companies that are being held to account for alleged animal abuse, a development that should send a signal to others in the livestock industry that they can’t escape responsibility for what happens to the animals they profit from.

For too long, industrialized animal farms have been in a state of denial about animal suffering that occurs in their business.  When the 2017 undercover video emerged, the B.C. Chicken Marketing Board said: “It does not represent in any way, shape or form, how we do our business, not only here but anywhere in Canada.”

Yet, for years, undercover animal activists have exposed numerous cases of animal cruelty on farms across Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere.

The ease with which the undercover investigators have been able to find and reveal abuse suggests that animal cruelty in intensive farming is not the rare occurrence that operators claim.

Media coverage of animal cruelty on industrialized farms in the United States has become so commonplace and damaging to the industry that it has lobbied for “ag-gag” laws criminalizing undercover videos of the cruelty.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that some of these videos expose not only illegal acts of cruelty but also standard practices on industrialized farms that result in misery for animals.  For decades, millions of hens have suffered in cruel battery cages, that are only now being slowly phased out (and may be replaced with only marginally better “enriched” cages). Pigs and chickens are routinely transported in cramped trucks over long distances in extreme heat and cold.

Much of the suffering on factory farms is invisible to the public.  Science has shown that poultry raised for meat experience painful skeletal disorders and lameness as a result of selective breeding for fast growth. And despite the images of happy cows in pastures on milk cartons, most dairy cows in Canada are kept indoors, never feeling the sun on their backs.

Even animal agriculture’s own internal monitoring systems reveal poor animal welfare.  In 2016, inspection reports from the B.C. Milk Marketing Board, made public by media, showed that one in four farms in the province failed to comply with the provincial animal-welfare Code of Practice. During an 18-month period starting in January, 2015, the inspections revealed cases of overcrowding, lame or soiled cattle, tails torn off by machinery, branding and dehorning of calves without pain medication, and other examples of poor welfare.

The CFIA’s charges against Sofina Foods and Elite Farm Services should be welcomed, as they may encourage others in the industry to do more to prevent the kinds of extreme cruelty seen in undercover video footage.  However, no one should forget that this is an industry that incarcerates, transports and slaughters animals in conditions that compromise animal welfare but are not illegal.

Ultimately, the best way to help these animals is to reject factory farming entirely and stop buying the products this cruel industrial system produces.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

Is consumer change the only way to reduce cruelty in industrialized agriculture?

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

The blurb on a local tourism website says B.C.’s Fraser Valley “is known for its historical roots, agriculturally rich soils, and awe-inspiring vistas.”  Sadly, it’s also becoming known for some of the most horrific cases of farm-animal cruelty in Canada.

In June, undercover video released by animal activists showed horrific conditions at three Abbotsford egg farms, including footage of chickens, some still alive, buried up to their necks in feces. The video was turned over to the B.C. SPCA, which said it was “investigating another situation where chickens have allegedly suffered as a result of what appears to be a blatant disregard to adherence of the industry’s own agreed-upon standards of care and a failure to either comply with or put in place processes to ensure this type of suffering does not occur”.

It has since emerged that one of the operations being investigated by the B.C. SPCA is chicken-catching company Elite Farm Services, which was named in a major animal-cruelty case in Chilliwack last year.

In that case, footage obtained by animal activists showed chickens being mangled, stomped on, thrown against a wall, and smashed into transport crates. The B.C. SPCA recommended charges, but more than a year later Crown counsel has still not prosecuted anyone.

Crown counsel did charge dairy company Chilliwack Cattle Sales and several of its employees in a shocking animal-cruelty case in 2014.  Again, undercover animal activists obtained video, this time revealing dairy cows being beaten with chains and kicked and punched in the face by workers. Other cows were shown with open wounds and infections. Chilliwack Cattle Sales was fined $300,000 and some of the employees received jail time.

The response from the dairy and egg industries to these cases was predictable.  “I want the world to know that the overwhelming majority of dairy farmers were very disappointed by what happened,” said one leading Chilliwack dairy farmer, adding that what happened at the Chilliwack Cattle Sales farm was not the norm. 

A spokesman for Egg Farmers of Canada, commenting on the chicken cruelty in Abbotsford, told media: “By no means do we tolerate any animal mistreatment. Care of our hens is a top priority. And we take this allegation very seriously.”

Yet across much of the world, exposés of farm-animal cruelty have become almost routine. The ease with which the undercover investigators have been able to find and reveal abuse suggests that animal cruelty in intensive farming is not the rare occurrence that operators claim.

Media coverage of animal cruelty on industrialized farms in the United States has become so commonplace and damaging to the industry that it has lobbied for “ag-gag” laws criminalizing undercover videos of the cruelty.

Despite the cruelty scandals, industrialized animal farming continues unabated in the Fraser Valley. Even the most horrific cases seem to fade from public memory. Is it compassion fatigue or perhaps cognitive dissonance, as many of us don’t want to associate the cruelty with what we eat? And “livestock” don’t attract the same empathy as puppies or kittens, as evidenced by the ongoing Chilliwack Fair rodeo, which sees calves, steers, and bulls routinely brutalized for entertainment.

One answer, for many animal advocates, is to keep pressing government and the animal-agriculture industry to improve animal-welfare standards on Canada’s farms. For many others, the most effective action is to eliminate, or at least reduce, the consumption of animal-based products—a notion that would have been farfetched a few years ago but now seems entirely plausible.

For example, global dairy consumption declined by 22 percent between 2006 and 2016, largely because of the rise of nondairy alternatives. The continued introduction and improvement of plant-based products—such as A&W Restaurants’ recently launched Beyond Burger and even egg alternatives—suggest the same could happen with animal proteins across the board.

As these products become competitive on price, taste, and nutrition, one crucial question could arise in consumers’ minds: if I can eat well without cruelty or slaughter, why not?

It’s a question that may ultimately have as much impact on the Fraser Valley’s factory farms as the cases of shocking animal abuse for which they have become notorious.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

Chickens are birds, just like eagles, but they get no respect

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

It seems the world loves chicken but not chickens.

When KFC in the United Kingdom recently ran out of chicken, there was near panic, with customers complaining to their members of parliament and even calling the police. During this year’s Super Bowl, football fans reportedly consumed a record 1.35 billion wings and McDonald’s is reportedly planning to become a “credible chicken player” in the fast-food market. In 2016, Canadians ate about 32.5 kilograms of chicken per capita, the highest consumption ever.

All this reflects a trend away from red-meat consumption, which has likely been fuelled by concerns over its negative impacts on health, the environment, and animal welfare. But the downsides of chicken consumption and production have not attracted the same level of public attention, especially when it comes to animal-welfare concerns.

Most people think of chicken in terms of nuggets, not birds. When those Super Bowl fans are gnawing on wings, they are not thinking of the feathered appendages used to shelter chicks or to escape from danger. (Yes, chickens can fly.)

Although we admire the majesty of eagles or show affection for our pet budgies, most of us accord chickens rock-bottom status in the animal world. Some birds are feathered friends. Chickens are, forever, food.

Yet the science is clear that chickens are birds—and they share many of the same behaviours and abilities as other birds. Although we put labels such as “wildlife”, “pet”, or “livestock” on animals, the animals themselves only think and feel as individuals, each with their own needs and desires, oblivious to human categorization. The rooster crowing at sunrise may feel like an eagle, regardless of our perceptions.

A recent review of the scientific data on the cognition, emotion, and behaviour of chickens concluded that they “are just as cognitively, emotionally, and socially complex as most other birds and mammals in many areas” and that they “have distinct personalities, just like all animals who are cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally complex individuals”.

The review, by neuroscientist Lori Marino, found that chickens:

  • have complex negative and positive emotions, as well as a shared psychology with humans and other ethologically complex animals. They exhibit emotional contagion and some evidence for empathy.
  • possess a number of visual and spatial capacities on a par with other birds and mammals.
  • share some very basic arithmetic capacities with other animals.
  • can demonstrate self-control and self-assessment, and these capacities may indicate self-awareness.
  • communicate in complex ways, including through referential communication, which may depend upon some level of self-awareness and the ability to take the perspective of another animal.
  • have the capacity to reason and make logical inferences.
  • perceive time intervals and may be able to anticipate future events.

Marino concluded: “These capacities are, compellingly, similar to what we see in other animals regarded as highly intelligent.”

It’s clear that chickens don’t deserve their low status in the animal kingdom, but should that even matter when it comes to how they are treated? The real ethical question should be about their capacity to suffer. In modern poultry production, there is no doubt that they do.

Chickens raised for meat are bred to grow so fast they are crippled by their own weight, leading to heart disease, skeletal disorders, and lameness. They are transported to slaughterhouses in cramped, unheated trucks with limited ventilation in all weathers, during which time they can legally be deprived of water, food, and rest for up to 36 hours. After short, miserable lives of deprivation, stress, and pain, more than 600 million chickens in Canada are shackled upside-down and slaughtered each year.

Aside from obvious animal-welfare issues, the overuse of antibiotics in poultry production has been cited as a cause of antimicrobial resistance, threatening the effectiveness of antibiotics for human use. Large poultry farms have also been identified as sources of air and water pollution. (A proposed poultry operation in Alberta, which would house 130,000 chickens, is meeting fierce opposition from local residents over environmental concerns.)

One answer to these problems is for consumers to avoid eating chicken altogether, but given its near universal popularity, how likely is that? Yet new developments in the plant-based-food sector suggest that finding a competitive alternative to chicken may not be as improbable as it seems.

number of plant-based chicken substitutes have successfully entered the market (not all available in Canada), but they have yet to make much of a dent in the poultry industry’s dominance. However, plant-based and “clean meat” start-ups continue to improve their products and attract investment. One small company making headlines is New Zealand’s Sunfed Meats, whose  Chicken Free Chicken consistently sells out in its home country and reportedly tastes very close to the real thing. After attracting significant international interest, the company says it plans to go global.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea that “fake chicken” might one day replace the animal flesh so popular today. But consider what’s happening in the dairy industry. Between 1996 and 2015, per-capita consumption of milk in Canada decreased by 21.5 percent. Meanwhile, the global market for plant-based dairy-alternative drinks is forecast to top $16.3 billion dollars this year—up significantly from $7.4 billion in 2010. The emerging plant-based sector is not going away and could be the “disruptor” that brings dramatic change to the food industry and our diets.

If such change is coming to confront poultry producers, it can’t come too soon for the billions of chickens that suffer to provide nuggets and wings to consumers whose appetites may be greater than their capacity for empathy.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

Plant-based diets go mainstream in Canada and the United States

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

There are few think tanks as serious and sober as Canada’s Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) and the same could be said for its digital magazine Policy Options. Yet in July, there among the magazine’s weighty articles on economic productivity, NAFTA, and pension reform, was a piece titled “Plant-based diet should be central to national food policy”.

Such headlines used to be the preserve of animal-rights pamphlets and vegan websites, but during the last decade the case for a plant-based diet has entered new realms, gaining increased credibility along the way.

The Policy Options article, written by economist and agronomist Jean-Pierre Kiekens, argues that: “Changing our food habits would bring huge benefits, including disease prevention, healthy longevity, environmental protection, biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation. The federal government is currently in the midst of a public consultation on a national food policy—it should consider a vigorous promotion of a plant-based diet.”

The arguments for eating less meat are not new, of course, but the sheer weight of evidence in favour of a shift away from animal protein has propelled the case for dietary change from the fringes of public discourse into the mainstream.

The scientific evidence establishing the environmental impact of global meat production has been clear ever since the United Nations published its landmark report Livestock’s Long Shadow in 2006, which concluded: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” 

Since then, further UN research has established that 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the livestock industry. Many more scientific studies have identified animal agriculture as a major cause of water pollutiondeforestationbiodiversity lossantibiotic-resistant bacteria, and zoonotic infection diseases.

As the environmental studies on the impact of livestock production have piled up, so has the evidence of health risks associated with red meat consumption.

Meanwhile, the dismal animal welfare record of industrialized agriculture is regularly exposed to public scrutiny by many undercover investigations carried out by animal rights groups.

While the downsides of meat consumption and production have accumulated, the benefits of a plant-based diet have attracted more attention—and not just from foodies, vegan bloggers, and fad-following celebrities. Now, it’s health professionals, chefs, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, scientists, and investors who are promoting the shift toward meatless meals. Even the federal government is proposing to encourage Canadians to adopt a more plant-based diet in the new Canada Food Guide.

The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada have long supported a vegetarian diet as healthy but now mainstream medical groups are starting to adopt similar positions. In 2014, Dr. Kim A. Williams, President of the American College of Cardiology, made news when he revealed that he was vegan and recommended plant-based foods to his patients.

The trend has also brought economic opportunities, with plant-based start-ups emerging everywhere. Last year, a group of 40 investors managing $1.25 trillion in assets launched a campaign to encourage 16 global food companies to diversify into plant-based protein. In the U.S., the new Plant Based Food Association, with more than 80 company members, is set to challenge the lobbying power of the American meat industry.

As plant-based eating goes mainstream, the old image of healthy but bland hippie food has faded. Meatless cuisine has become popular and fashionable, and has even entered the upscale dining scene. A Washington Post food critic, in a glowing review of plant-based fine dining in Los Angeles, concluded: “Much of the meatless food I’ve been eating of late has been alarmingly good.”

Here in Vancouver, there has been a proliferation of plant-based eateries. A directory published by Earthsave Canada lists more than 115 vegan, vegetarian, and “veg-friendly” restaurants, cafés, and other retailers in Metro Vancouver. Meanwhile, 11 Vancouver schools have adopted Meatless Monday programs and the University of British Columbia recently launched Canada’s first plant-based culinary training summit for chefs and food service professionals. In June, four Metro Vancouver cities attracted praise from Sir Paul McCartney for endorsing Meatless Monday.

Meat is not about to disappear from our tables anytime soon, but there’s little doubt that the plant-based diet is an idea whose time has come. A growing number of plant-based food enthusiasts, from cooks to consumers, have seen the future—and it tastes good.