Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Swine Flu, Smithfield Farms, and NAFTA

Dear Colleagues:

According to this article, the source of the current outbreak of swine flu is Carroll Ranches, a hog farm in Mexico that kills 800,000 hogs yearly. Carroll Ranches was opened by Smithfield Farms in 1994, the year that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. The article claims that Carroll Ranches does not have a sewage treatment plant and that the imminent pandemic is the result of “free trade” agreements that allow U.S. corporations to escape domestic environmental laws by relocating operations to countries that do not have environmental regulations or where any regulations that do exist are not enforced.

The article concludes:

The real name of this infirmity is “The NAFTA Flu,” the first of what may well emerge as many new illnesses to emerge internationally as the direct result of “free trade” agreements that allow companies like Smithfield Farms to escape health, safety and environmental laws.

Reactionary commentators are claiming that the cause of the swine flu is illegal immigration. But if the report about Carroll Ranches is correct, the problem is not that Mexicans (legal or otherwise) are infecting innocent Americans, but that an American corporation went into Mexico and created the conditions that facilitated the outbreak.

The pork lobby does not want the current virus to be called “swine flu” because it suggests that eating pork is unsafe.

But the very clear truth is that, in addition to being morally unjustified, animal agriculture is very unsafe.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione

ADDED MAY 4, 2009:

More on the Smithfield/swine flu connection: 1, 2, 3.

Peter Singer, Happy Meat, and Fanatical Vegans

Dear Colleagues:

In a recent interview, Peter Singer makes a number of statements that, in my view, indicate just how sharp the difference is between the new welfarist or protectionist approach and the abolitionist approach.

First, he states:

I’m very pleased to say that there have been a lot of changes, especially in Europe, but also some in the US and other countries. In Europe, all the worst and most abusive forms of factory farming are being modified.

I disagree with Singer’s claim in several respects. It is not accurate to say that there have been a “a lot of changes” and that “all the worst and most abusive forms of factory farming are being modified.” As I pointed out in at least two other essays (1,2) on this site, and in my 2008 book, Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation, the supposed welfare improvements in Europe about which Peter is so excited are worse than useless in that they provide little if any increased protection for animal interests and they make humans feel more comfortable about consuming animals, which facilitates continued consumption.

Second, on veganism, he states:

The vegan diet, especially buying organically produced plant foods, does solve more of the ethical problems about eating than any other. But I admit that it is not for everyone, and it will take a long time before it becomes widespread. So I don’t want to give the impression that it is the only thing one can do to eat ethically. Just avoiding factory farmed products is a big step in the right direction, even if you continue to eat a moderate quantity of organically produced, pasture raised, animal products.

Once again (see, e.g., 1,2), Singer repeats the notion that being a “conscientious omnivore” is a “defensible ethical position.” If the so-called “father of the animal rights movement” (supported by almost all of the large new welfarist groups) claims that it is a morally good thing to consume “happy” meat and animal products, that is likely to become the moral baseline. And that is precisely what has happened. Veganism is viewed as “extreme” precisely because of comments like this; “happy” meat is considered the “ethical” choice.

To see the speciesism here, substitute some form of human exploitation. If someone said that a “moderate” amount of “humane” rape was a “big step in the right direction,” we would be outraged. But Singer tells us that eating a “moderate quantity” of “happy” meat and animal products is a morally good thing. It may be good in the same way that beating your slaves 5 times a week is better than beating them 10 times a week, but it ignores the fundamental moral question at stake.

Asked about whether it is possible to be ethical without becoming “fanatics,” he states:

It is absolutely possible! The thing to remember is that the world is imperfect, and we want to make it better, so any changes in the right direction help, and the more we do, the better it is. But this is not a religion, it is not a question of personal purity, so we do not have to worry about our own moral perfection. We just have to do our best to minimize the adverse impact we are having on animals, the environment, and workers. And then, enjoy our food!

Once again, Singer equates the abolitionist approach, which has veganism and nonviolent vegan education as its moral baseline, as “purist” or “fanatical” because abolitionists maintain that we cannot justify any animal use. Does Singer regard as purist an absolutist position on issues such as rape or pedophilia? That is, is the position that we cannot justify any rape or pedophilia, irrespective of the circumstances, purist or fanatical? If not, and if he regards it permissible or even obligatory to take an absolutist position on those issues, is he not merely begging the question about the abolitionist approach as applied to nonhumans and assuming that animal exploitation is less morally problematic than human exploitation?

I suppose that he is making that assumption, which is not surprising given that he regards nonhumans as having less moral value than humans.

In any event, it is very disappointing that Singer is telling people to go and enjoy their happy meat. But then, despite the notion that “animal people” are one monolithic group, there are very distinct differences between the abolitionist approach and the new welfarist approach. Singer’s interview illustrates just a few.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione

The Pork Lobby and Swine Flu

Dear Colleagues:

According to the Wall Street Journal

Agricultural groups, worried that the swine flu outbreak is scaring consumers away from eating pork, are successfully prodding the federal government to refer to the virus by its scientific name: H1N1.

The Agriculture Department, which used the term “swine influenza” as recently as Monday, clung to the anonymous term “H1N1 flu” in a statement Tuesday touting the safeness of U.S. pork.

In a briefing Tuesday, Richard Besser, acting director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, acknowledged that the agency’s use of the swine flu label was fueling the misconception that people could catch the new respiratory disease from food. “That’s not helpful to pork producers. That’s not helpful to people who eat pork,” Dr. Besser said. “And so we’re discussing: is there a better way to describe this that would not lead to inappropriate action on peoples’ part?”

This, of course, misses the point. The article continues:

Still, many scientists say the CDC is well within its rights to describe the disease as swine flu even though it seems to have mutated into a unique human virus. Flu viruses tend to be named after the first species in which they are discovered, and H1N1 was discovered in pigs decades ago.

The institution of animal agriculture is responsible for many and perhaps most of the pandemics that we have had. The H1N1 virus had its origin in domesticated pigs. That is why it is called the “swine flu.”

So the bottom line is clear: however you look at it, eating animal products is dangerous for humans.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione

A Call for Humility

Dear Colleagues:

Well, once again we have a swine flu outbreak that may become a pandemic.

As this article makes clear, pandemics often originate with domesticated nonhumans that we raise to eat.

We kill approximately 53 billion animals every year worldwide (not counting aquatic animals). This amount of suffering and death is staggering; indeed, it is simply unimaginable. Eating animals is not only not necessary for optimal human health, it often directly results in the mass death of humans. Moreover, animal agriculture is on multiple levels (global warming, water pollution, deforestation, topsoil erosion, etc.) an ecological disaster.

Our continued consumption of animal products is not only morally unjustified—it is completely irrational. We claim that humans are morally superior to nonhumans based on our supposed rationality.

Perhaps a bit more humility is warranted.

Go vegan. It’s easy, it’s better for you and for the planet, and, most importantly, it’s the right, nonviolent thing to do.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione

And Hitler Was a Vegetarian

Dear Colleagues:

In what appears to be an attempt to address the criticism that President Obama got when the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement and a report on right-wing extremism, the FBI has just announced that terror can come from the “left” as well: the first domestic terrorist named to the FBI’s list of “Most Wanted” terror suspects is Daniel Andreas San Diego, described as an “animal rights activist,” “left-wing terrorist,” and “vegan.”

The first problem with this narrative is that it connects the animal rights movement with the political left. That is a problem because any such connection is an exaggeration at best. Indeed, many of the prominent animal organizations and personalities, particularly in the United States, have embraced reactionary politics to the extent that they embrace any political position at all. Is there anything more reactionary than PETA’s relentless sexism or its giving awards to people like Pat Buchanan or Arnold Schwarzenegger? One of the most celebrated people in the modern American movement is Matthew Scully, who was a speech writer for George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin and who, in his writing, presents a conservative Christian view that we should show “mercy” to animals but accepts that nonhuman animals are moral inferiors because only humans are created in God’s image. The Humane Society of the United States, claiming that “[t]he animal protection movement should never confine itself to the Left or the Right in American politics,” applauds Rush Limbaugh. In any event, it is simply not accurate to make a blanket generalization that the American animal movement is leftist.

The second problem is that this narrative unfairly suggests that the animal rights movement is one of violence. Yes, it is true that there are some people who advocate violence but they are very small in number. The overwhelming number of animal advocates I have met over the almost three decades that I have been involved with this issue are sharply critical of violence. They understand that violence is the problem and is not the solution; they understand that violence will—can—only beget more violence.

According to the reports, San Diego, claiming to be part of the “Revolutionary Cells-Liberation Brigade,” bombed two corporations in California that were involved in animal testing. “Revolutionary Cells-Liberation Brigade?” Is this some sort of joke? In any event, whether or not San Diego is guilty as charged is a matter for a court to decide. But those who promote or engage in violence do nothing to change social thinking about the issue; all they do is ensure that no one will take important ethical ideas seriously. They give others an excuse to dismiss these ideas.

In my work and on this blog (1, 2), I have argued that the animal rights position, properly understood, is inconsistent with promoting or engaging in violence.

The third problem is that the narrative goes out of the way to emphasize that San Diego is a vegan. So what? Why is this even relevant? This reminds me of the number of times over the years that someone has argued to me that concern about the moral status of animals should be rejected because Hitler was a vegetarian. Putting aside that Hitler was not a vegetarian, what logical relevance would it have if he were? Stalin ate meat. Does that mean that all meat eaters are morally like Stalin? Of course not.

San Diego may or may not be guilty as charged. But even if he is guilty and even if he is a vegan, is that relevant to the morality of veganism or does it say anything at all about vegans? No, of course not. As far as I am aware, Osama Bin Laden eats meat.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione

Moral Behavior and Moral Significance

Dear Colleagues:

Humans usually seek to justify their oppression and exploitation of nonhumans by pointing to supposed empirical differences. One of the many claimed differences is that nonhumans, unlike humans, are unable to think or act morally. That is, we claim that only those who can recognize and act on moral obligations to others can be members of the moral community and since animals are supposedly incapable of such conduct, we are justified in treating them as things without moral significance.

This argument is problematic for at least two reasons.

First, there is a problem of simple logic. Let us assume that we have two humans–one who is normal and one who is mentally disabled and incapable of recognizing obligations to others. Are these two humans different? Most certainly. Is any difference between them relevant to how we treat them? Yes, of course. If someone is mentally disabled and incapable of recognizing obligations, we may not want to allow them to enter into binding legal contracts. But is the difference relevant to whether we treat such a human as a nonconsenting subject in a biomedical experiment, or as a forced organ donor, or exclusively as a means to our ends in other ways? Most of us would be horrified at the suggestion that we should use mentally disabled humans as experimental subjects or as forced organ donors or as slaves. We recognize the complete irrelevance of this disability to the morality of exploiting these humans as resources for ‘normal’ humans.

Second, there is the problem of empirical fact. Is it the case that only humans are capable of moral reflection and action? There are countless examples of reports of animals from many species who risk their own physical safety in order to help others–conduct that we consider to have high moral value. Dogs go into burning houses to rescue humans; raccoons risk their own safety to help other raccoons who are blind; nonhuman primates imprisoned in zoos act to protect humans who have fallen into the zoo enclosures.

One such example was brought to my attention by the students in the course on human rights/animal rights that Anna and I teach at Rutgers University. A dog in Chile risks her/his life to help another dog who has been hit by a car. I am not saying that the dog sat around and pondered her/his moral obligations before acting in the same way that we would. But so what? The dog acted in an altruistic way. This conduct cannot be explained away as some sort of ‘instinct’ or self-interested behavior. The dog quite clearly and deliberately engaged in conduct that presented a serious risk to her/his life.

And the humans, who are supposedly ‘special’ because, unlike the dog, they are moral beings, did not bother even to stop or slow the speed of their cars.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione

The False Message of the New Welfarists

Dear Colleagues:

One of the subscriptions that I have is to a newsletter entitled Farmed Animal Watch that is produced periodically by Farmed Animal Net, which is a joint effort of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Farm Sanctuary, The Humane Society of the United States, and others.

For the most part, Farmed Animal Watch reports on investigations into “abuses” in the meat/animal products industries and various efforts that are undertaken by industry and governmental agencies to “improve” the treatment of these animals. According to its website:

Farmed Animal Net strives to be an objective, trustworthy source of academic and industry information for animal advocates, educators, researchers, the media, legislators, and others.

As an educator, I am all in favor of a source of “objective, trustworthy” information. But I am also concerned with the normative message that is conveyed by many of the stories in Farmed Animal Watch.

For example, in the most recent edition (April 8, 2009), the following story appears:

1. ABUSE ALLEGED AT NEW ENGLAND’S LARGEST EGG FARM

State police and Maine Department of Agriculture officials raided an egg facility known as Maine Contract Farming and Quality Egg of New England on April 1st, after Mercy for Animals (MFA) filed a complaint for civil and criminal charges to be brought against the facility and workers there. An MFA investigator allegedly documented animal abuse at the facility from mid-December to February. “It really indicated to us that there appeared to be some very deplorable and egregious animal welfare violations over there,” state veterinarian Don Hoenig said of the documentation, which included: supervisors and other workers kicking live hens into manure pits, holes in cage floors large enough for hens to fall into the pits below, hens with body parts stuck in caging including some 150 who were unable to access food or water, cages with decomposed bodies and rotting eggs, inhumanely killed hens and live hens in the garbage (see: http://tinyurl.com/cf2gaa ).

The general problem with this sort of recitation is that although it purports to be a statement of facts, it carries an implicit normative message: that there is some difference between the Maine facility, which involves “abuse,” and other intensive egg operations. The reality is that there may be small differences but the treatment of all of the hens in the egg industry is properly characterized as nothing short of torture.

The Farmed Animal Watch story reports that Radlo Foods, a major east coast egg distributor, announced that “it will sever ties with Quality Egg and plans to “‘become an exclusively cage-free company within 10 years,’ which reportedly will make it the first national egg company to do so.” This suggests that there is some significant difference between conventional battery eggs and “cage-free” eggs. But as the excellent educational materials produced by the Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary show quite clearly, any such suggestion is nonsense. Torture is torture. The walls of the torture chamber may be painted a nice color and have a few paintings, but it is still a torture chamber and any “improvements” are primarily to make those inflicting the torture feel better about their surroundings and their conduct toward the victims.

As an abolitionist, it is my view (and I have presented the argument in numerous essays and other materials on this site as well as in my books and articles) that we cannot justify the use of sentient nonhuman animals irrespective of whether the treatment is “humane” or not. That is, even if we could raise animals without any suffering and distress and kill them painlessly, it would still be morally wrong to do so because the life of every sentient being has moral value that precludes our treating that being exclusively as a resource. But the practical reality is that we cannot raise animals without any suffering and distress and kill them painlessly; the practical reality is that every animal product that we consume–whether from a local supermarket or from some upscale vendor of “happy” meat/animal products or from a smaller local farm–is the result of treatment that would clearly and unequivocally be considered as torture were humans the victims. Some places may be less brutal than others but all are terrible; all involve suffering, distress, and deprivation; all involve death.

The new welfarist movement, which promotes the idea that we can make this system of violence and death better or more “humane,” is promoting a message that I believe to be false. I accept that the new welfarists are acting in good faith when they promote “cage-free” eggs, gassing chickens, or measures such as California’s Proposition 2. I just think that they are seriously wrong and I see no evidence that suggests that all of these campaigns are doing anything more than making humans feel more comfortable about consuming nonhumans.

We certainly ought to make clear to the public the nature of the treatment of the animals we consume. But we also should make it clear that this system cannot be fixed in any way that would address the fundamental moral concerns. We should not promote the idea that some of this is “abuse” and some is not. It’s all abuse. It’s all morally unjustifiable. We should never use the word “humane” to describe any component of this machine of violence, torture and death.

Recently, Home Box Office presented a documentary entitled Death on a Factory Farm, which involved the horrors of a pig farm in Ohio. The usual response from those who saw this documentary was: “yes, that was a horrible farm but they’re not all that bad are they?” The short answer is: yes, they are all that bad and to the extent that some are better, they are still horrible. There is a difference between being tortured for 3 hours and being tortured for 3 hours and five minutes. But is the former morally acceptable or “humane” because it involves 5 minutes less torture?

We have got to get away from this fantasy that it is possible ever to produce animal products without torture. It’s impossible. Period. I repeat that I would still regard killing nonhumans to be morally wrong even if this were not the case, but it is the case. Consuming animals necessarily means that we support torture.

There is one response to the recognition that sentient nonhumans are full members of the moral community: we should go vegan and use creative, nonviolent means to educate everyone we can to do the same. We will never shift the moral paradigm if our message is that the problem is “abuse” at some egg factory in Maine or that the “cage-free” egg is anything more than an artifice that makes us feel better about exploiting them.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione