On July 22, 2020, Vancouver Humane Society’s executive director, Amy Morris, interviewed campaign director Emily Pickett. Emily highlights actions that we can take as individuals to protect animal welfare.
Emily shared her personal journey from first learning about animal suffering to identifying actionable solutions to the ‘wicked’ problems. She shared about her personal decisions to improve the well-being of animals, as well as some of Vancouver Humane Society’s long-term goals when it comes to protecting animals.
The Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) is joining other animal protection, environmental and food advocacy groups in calling on the federal government to direct any financial aid for Canada’s agriculture system toward transitioning to a safe, equitable and sustainable plant-based food system that improves food security, protects animal welfare, public health, worker safety and the environment on which we all depend.
The joint letterhighlights that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed serious problems with Canada’s food system and supply chains, particularly in the meat industry. Industrial livestock operations are a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation and are characterized by the confinement of large numbers of genetically-similar animals in unnatural and unhealthy environments. These conditions significantly compromise their welfare and could lead to the rise of new zoonotic diseases that threaten public health.
Meanwhile, the consolidation of the meat industry into the hands of a few multi-billion dollar corporations makes supply chains vulnerable to unexpected disruptions. For example, the pandemic has prompted some pig farmers in Canada to cull animals in response to reduced processing capacity at slaughterhouses, after they were forced to suspend or slow operations following COVID-19 outbreaks among workers. A large number of COVID-19 cases have been linked to slaughterhouses and employees have spoken out about the lack of protection for workers and the dangerous, fast-paced, and unhealthy environments.
The joint letter encourages the federal Minister of Finance and Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food to dedicate any emergency funding for the agricultural sector, as well as any future funding, on phasing out industrial livestock operations and assisting farmers in transitioning toward a sustainable, ethical and equitable plant-based food system. COVID-19 is an unprecedented wake-up call and policy-makers must take action to ensure that we emerge from this crisis with a more resilient food system that is respectful of the inter-connectedness of human, environmental, and animal health.
“We simply do not know if animals are capable of reasoning and cognitive thought”.
This statement was made by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) in its submission to the Ontario government in support of Bill 156 – a recently passed ‘ag-gag’ bill that effectively conceals animal cruelty, unsafe working conditions and environmental issues on farms, during transport and at slaughterhouses. Animal protection organizations, legal experts and the Canadian Association of Journalists have all raised serious concerns about this dangerous legislation.
Also concerning is the fact that the OFA, which represents more than 38,000 farm operations across Ontario, questions the sentience of animals. The organization offers no source for their claim. Meanwhile, a strong and growing body of research provides evidence of animal intelligence and sentience.
Chickens, for example, utilize reasoning to inform how they organize socially by watching other chickens interact. Research also suggests they are cognitively complex, with the ability to demonstrate self-control and self-assessment – capacities that suggest self-awareness.
Cows are also socially complex creatures who form strong bonds and experience a range of emotions. They express excitement and signs of pleasure when they figure out intellectual challenges, which suggests self-awareness and understanding of their own actions.
Pigs share some of the same cognitive abilities as other highly intelligent species, including dogs, chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins. They are capable of “emotional contagion”, which is a form of empathy for the emotional state of another.
Experts suggest we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface in our understanding of farmed animal intelligence. Animal behaviour expert Dr. Marc Bekoff also explores this topic in a recent Psychology Today article, written in response to the OFA’s statements. Importantly though, as Dr. Bekoff notes, “intelligence is a slippery concept and should not be used to assess suffering..in addition, the way in which people treat or mistreat other animals and how they feel about it isn’t a matter of how smart they are. Rather, nonhumans are sentient beings, and it’s a matter of how they suffer, not if they suffer.”
But the reality of animal sentience creates ethical dilemmas for an industry that relies on raising and slaughtering more than 830 million land animals every year in Canada. It’s easier to pretend animals aren’t complex, feeling and thinking beings and it’s better for business if the public stays uninformed about the realities on farms, during transport and in slaughterhouses.
How you can help
Bill 156 is an incredibly dangerous step in the wrong direction and follows on the heels of similar ‘ag-gag’ legislation passed earlier this year in Alberta (Bill 27). The move by government and industry to hide the issues within the animal agriculture system, rather than address them directly, and to question the sentience of farmed animals should concern Canadians.
The effort to repeal and prevent further ‘ag-gag’ legislation is underway – join in by contacting Ontario’s Premier & Alberta’s Premier. In addition, we as individuals can also stand up for animals every time we sit down to eat. Learn more and take our Plant-Based Pledge today for free recipes.
COVID-19 has created a crisis for the meat industry, with workers falling ill, slaughterhouses shutting down, and fears of meat shortages emerging. The virus has also exposed the industry’s deep flaws, including an ethical vacuum at its core.
Disturbing reports that meat companies failed to protect employees and allowed them to work while sick with the virus offer the most likely explanation for COVID-19 outbreaks in meat plants across North America.
In BC, Vancouver Coastal Health was critical of one Vancouver plant’s safety measures after 28 workers tested positive for the virus, finding that “the plans that were in place were inadequate or were not appropriately executed.” Outbreaks have since occurred in three more local poultry operations.
In Alberta, a slaughterhouse operated by meat giant Cargill is now the largest single-site outbreak of coronavirus in Canada, with more than 900 cases. The company is facing criticism that it failed to put in place appropriate physical distancing measures and provide personal protective equipment to its employees. Meat industry workers in several US states have protested against slaughterhouses staying open over safety fears. There have also been outbreaks in meat plants in Ontario and Quebec.
The meat and livestock industry’s apparent lack of concern for the welfare of its employees is no surprise to animal advocates who have long decried the appalling treatment of animals in intensive agriculture. Despite an endless parade of undercover investigations and media exposés revealing cruel practices and animal suffering, the industry has resisted change. Instead, it has lobbied for “Ag-gag” laws to keep its operations hidden from public view.
The industry’s exploitation of animals and workers has been ruthlessly efficient, providing cheap meat while squeezing every last penny of profit from its industrialized feeding, confining, transporting and slaughtering of billions of cows, pigs and chickens. That same concentration on profit and efficiency has also squeezed the humanity out of the industry. It is no wonder that renowned historian and author Yuval Noah Harari has described industrial animal agriculture as one of the worst crimes in history.
But it doesn’t end there. Beyond the cruelty of factory farming are the equally well-documented harms it inflicts on the environment and our health.
The United Nations Environment Agency has said “meat production is known to be a major contributor to climate change and environmental destruction…” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continues to call for a reduction in global meat consumption to protect the planet. A 2019 study by the World Resources Institute found that: “For every food calorie generated, animal-based foods — and ruminant meats in particular — require many times more feed and land inputs, and emit far more greenhouse gases, than plant-based foods.” And, in the irony of ironies, factory farming risks causing future pandemics — just like the one currently shutting down its slaughterhouses — by confining thousands of stressed, genetically-uniform animals into crowded barns.
Despite endless debates in the media about meat consumption and health, major studies continue to show links between meat consumption and higher risks of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
With modern animal agriculture clearly unsustainable, it is no accident that the plant-based protein industry has grown in recent years. Now, the coronavirus crisis may have provided it with an opportunity to demonstrate its advantages, with US sales of plant-based meat substitutes recently jumping 200%.
Those advantages are significant. There is strong evidence that a plant-based diet is healthy, beneficial to the environment, and, of course, good for animals. And, because it is more automated and less reliant on labour, the plant-based protein industry is less vulnerable to staff shortages caused by the pandemic.
The development of plant-based protein offers the world a chance to turn away from an industry that has demonstrated little concern for the welfare of animals, the planet or the people it employs. With the coronavirus exposing the vulnerability of this unsustainable sector, it calls into question our individual food choices. If we can eat well without cruelty, slaughter, environmental degradation and needless risks to our health, why wouldn’t we?
Vancouver – A unique partnership between two charities and 26 plant-based businesses in Metro Vancouver is raising funds to help farm animals on Giving Tuesday, December 3rd. Giving Tuesday, which follows Black Friday and Cyber Monday, is the biggest charitable giving day of the year.
The Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) and The Happy Herd Farm Sanctuary have partnered with a variety of local businesses offering vegan, vegetarian or cruelty-free products and services to raise $15,000. The money will be used to help rescued farm animals at the sanctuary and to support VHS’s Veg Outreach program, which promotes a plant-based diet and cruelty-free living.
The 26 businesses participating are offering a percentage of sales on Giving Tuesday or direct donations to support the campaign. VHS and The Happy Herd are encouraging the public to support the businesses or to make direct donations. Funds will be split between the two charities.
“It’s a great way to help farm animals right now and in the future,” said VHS development coordinator Claire Yarnold. “We’re grateful to these generous businesses who want to make a better world for farm animals.”
Diane Marsh, co-founder of The Happy Herd, said: “It is truly amazing that so many companies and individuals can come together to help us help these wonderful animals who give so much love in return.”
Donations to the campaign can be made by calling 604 266 9744 or by visiting the campaign web page.
At the Vancouver Vegan Festival held at Creekside Park, we launched a new form of animal advocacy and outreach through virtual reality. We’re excited to partner with Animal Equality to offer their iAnimal 360 virtual experience to Metro Vancouver.
For the first time, you can see what they see, as you take the place of either a chicken, cow, or pig as you experience their entire farmed lifecycle in a matter of minutes in a narrated 360° video. Filmed with the consent and approval of modern farms and slaughter facilities who are proud of what they do, you can see what the average day looks like through the eyes of an animal, rather than focusing on the most graphic footage we could find, or relying on hidden cameras. We believe that simply showing you what happens as the animal would see it is powerful enough to stir compassion in even the hardest heart.
The feedback we received was amazing. There were questions (“and this is legal?” “and this is normal?”), there were tears, and there was no one who left looking at farmed animals, or their manicured meat products, the same way.
I’m not someone who’s easily impressed. I didn’t get excited about Avatar in 3D or the Tupac hologram. But the experience of immersion that VR can give us is almost incomparable to film or gaming as we know them today. It can open up new possibilities in the way it’s able to transport you seemingly out of your own body. I’ve tested out virtual rollercoasters that make your stomach drop, I’ve swum with pre-recorded sharks and dolphins, and they’re all pretty incredible.
In the history of ideas “the virtual” is more complicated than the usual pop culture sense of the term. We usually think of “the virtual” as “the fictional” or “the illusory,” something that appears real but isn’t. Philosophers have used the term more broadly though to mean “the possible” or “the potential” (I actually wrote about this in a philosophical dictionary released a few years ago) and it’s this broader, more experimental notion of “the virtual” that really interests me.
It’s no wonder that even rodeos and circuses are playing with the ideas of virtual animals and experiences. We’ve talked in our office about the possibilities that virtual reality and animal holograms could bring to antiquated institutions such as zoos and aquaria. You can even experience something like an existence in one of these facilities through a virtual prison experience. I can only imagine what an iAnimal take on modern zoos would feel like, putting you in a boring box for unending observation in an alien environment, surrounded by other animals you couldn’t possibly understand. You’d be able to take off the headset if you felt claustrophobic or anxious — a luxury the animals don’t get.
Of course, we don’t have to have sophisticated camera equipment or advanced technology to empathize with these animals. Ethicists have put themselves in the place of the animal for thousands of years through thought experiments and observation, and come to the realization that their pain is difficult or impossible to justify given our own capacity for physical, psychological, and emotional suffering and knowledge of other animals.
The moral question of whether we are justified in killing and eating other animals for our survival is hard enough before you factor in the thought and planning that goes in to modern farming, the cunning it takes to commodify animals in order to think of them in terms of pounds and energy cost rather than as individuals with bodily autonomy and emotional awareness. We would never invent such a brutal system today, it would never make it past market research. Paul McCartney once said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls then everyone would become vegetarian. I don’t think that’s entirely right, but I don’t think it’s possible to justify what happens to any animal on modern farms if you’re capable of seeing them, if even for only a moment, as animal selves with feelings and wants.
No, other animals aren’t people, but who decided that only people count for anything? Killing another person is wrong, whether it’s the law or not. Is it sometimes justifiable? Maybe, but that doesn’t make it “good” or “right.” Are we justified in killing animals for food? Maybe sometimes. Everyone seems obsessed with some Castaway scenario where they’re forced to eat their only friend (a pig usually) in order to survive. Would I eat a pig to survive? Maybe, but that doesn’t make it “good” or “right.” (Besides, the modern Western world gives us a reality that is the exact opposite of the aforementioned island: we live on an island with an abundance of choices that don’t require animals to suffer and yet we as a society demand more meat and cheese!)
I also don’t buy in to the idea of purity politics though; ethics are about character and doing the best thing in the given situation, not about calculating how to extract the most utility out of a situation or blindly following a moral code. The best thing to do in a given situation may be to defend myself from someone, or to eat an animal in order to survive so I can once again continue living up to my own ethic.
Just like the iAnimal videos, what we ask of our supporters and the greater community is to put yourself in the situation of the animal. What is good for them? What is for the “greater good” knowing that human beings starve every day while we feed soy and corn to cows in one of the most inefficient ways to generate food energy? What is moral, and what is justifiable, given that we throw away such huge quantities of food, while continuing to produce more animal products than we know what to do with?
Ethics and politics are lived, not calculated, and as we get better and know better, we should always aim to do better. This is obvious when it comes to other people, and should be obvious to anyone capable of imagining being in the situation of suffering, regardless of species. Is it “better” to kill a rat than a dog? It might be more justifiable, but when the question is of morality, it’s not so easy to answer. Do we want to live in a world where decisions about what’s easy or okay to kill go unquestioned? The answer should be a resounding “No,” but we don’t even get to ask the question. It’s unthinkable to some people, like trying to question the air that we breathe. Shouldn’t we be concerned at this mass failure of imagination? Of generations of people so divorced from the fact that they’re paying to breed and raise animals to be killed weeks later out of pure habit and convenience? Let’s at least give the animals we eat the five minutes it takes to see the world from their eyes. We owe them that much. There’s something truly powerful in a person’s capacity for empathy, something we share with many other animals, even if we often forget.
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.
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.
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.