Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Dying Before their Deaths

When commenting on the change in practices from farmers of a half-century ago to the contract growers of today, Sonia Faruqi in her book Project Animal Farm (Pegasus Books: 2015), concludes this way:
            “Animal use has become synonymous with animal abuse.”
That is really the thesis of her book in a nutshell, and something that all of us need to be reminded of again and again. Our industrial agriculture, specifically the ‘production’ of animals we use for meat and to produce our eggs and milk, has become a mass torture chamber in which animals are abused in the name of efficiency, biosecurity, feeding a hungry world, and the essential consideration of profit. To be sure, we have heard this often before. There have been countless books and documentaries and exposès of the horrors that go on at factory farms. So why this book? Because Faruqi, a one-time Wall Streeter who lost her job in the recession of 2008, has done what few have done before: she has actually visited animal farms, has stayed with and befriended the owners and contract growers, and has endured outfitting herself in the bio-hazard suits that are now necessary for anyone to slow walk through chicken facilities, egg-laying facilities, pig facilities, dairy facilities and slaughter houses. They are that toxic. Further, Faruqi has visited animal farms not only in the United States and Canada, but also in Malaysia, Indonesia, Mexico, and Dubai to inform us that even as Europeans and some Americans are revolting against the most disgusting practices recently revealed, large European- and American-based agribusinesses are rapidly expanding their brutal operations abroad, especially to Asia and Latin America. And everything is being exported: not just the machinery and methods and breeds to manufacture meat for McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Walmart, but also the industrial world’s appetite for meat. Here is how she puts it:
Fast food succeeds only on the basis of factory farms….Fast food chains alter not just meat production but also meat consumption. People start eating more meat, and this greater amount of meat is produced more deplorably. The low prices at fast food cash registers are a direct result of callous indifference toward farm animals. (247).

Thus, in a small country like Malaysia, Faruqi reports, there are now more than 500 KFCs, 300 Pizza Huts, and 300 McDonald’s. Furthermore, a global survey in 2004 found that Malaysians eat even more fast food than Americans do: where only 1 of every 3 Americans eats fast food once a week, 3 of every 5 Malaysians do.
            To produce all that Kentucky Fried Chicken at low prices, KFC has become the biggest “integrator” in Malaysia, setting up the machinery for chicken warehouses with always more rows of cages to keep chickens imprisoned, delivering their own fast-growing DOCs (day-old chicks) to the factory farmers, and ‘harvesting’ them within 6 weeks to be slaughtered in their own processing plants for delivery to their outlets. These are modern, genetically developed ‘super chickens.’ As Faruqi explains, computer-aided genetic selection has created breeds, like Tyson’s Cobb chicken or Aviagen’s Ross 308, that accelerate growth and the amount of breast meat to astounding levels:

In 1925, chickens reached a weight of 2-1/2 pounds in 16 weeks; today, they reach a weight of almost 6 pounds in 6 weeks (while consuming less than half the feed per pound of weight gained). It’s miraculous but torturous (100).

The torture arises because this creates chickens (and turkeys, which have the same problem: too much breast meat growing too fast: the weight of modern turkeys multiplies 300 times between birth and slaughter—now a period of only 16 weeks!) that are literally frankenfoods. Their breasts grow so big their legs can’t support them, so most spend their lives sprawled on floors covered with excrement. Worse, their internal organs can’t keep up with their explosive growth, and so they collapse of heart and lung ailments. In order to control these problems, desperate measures are required. Here’s how one of Faruqi’s informants, Terry at a factory farm in Canada, puts it:

“The lights have to be very controlled, so the chickens gain weight but don’t get heart attacks. When the lights are on, the chickens are awake and eating and gaining weight. When it’s dark, they stop eating. We don’t want them to eat too much, because their genes are weird. They grow too fast, and their heart and legs get fucked up. They get heart attacks. So, we need to control how much they eat, and we control it with the lighting levels.” ((95).

A similar problem afflicts egg-laying chickens, nearly all now kept in cages (4 to 6 chickens are crammed into a metal cage no larger than a microwave). Even at an “organic” farm in Canada, these caged egg-laying hens must be de-beaked, a cruel practice that has been banned in Europe. And why must hens be de-beaked? First, because of the torturous cage-crowding they are raised in. But also because the genetic selection used to get hens that lay more eggs works inversely with “broodiness,” i.e. the instinct to mother their chicks. It also works directly with aggressiveness. So, the more eggs they can lay, the more aggressive the hens become, and they literally become cannibals: pecking each other to death and eating the remains. Thus, de-beaking is justified by the industry as a ‘cure’ for cannibalism; as is low lighting and walling the cages so hens can’t see and imitate each other. The place where egg-laying hens (and soon all meat-producing hens as well) live has thus become a dark, filthy, toxic and dangerous dungeon that most chicken growers themselves hardly enter, preferring to control lighting, feeding and all else via computers. And all this to do that which is the only metric used in corporate farming: increasing the unit of production.
            To her credit, Sonia Faruqi doesn’t leave things there. She also visits more or less ideal animal farms and demonstrates that the animals we use for food need not be raised in medieval torture chambers. Harley Farms in Canada, for example, is reminiscent of the farms of old, though it is quite a bit larger. Run by an Englishman who had to leave his English farm during the mad cow scare, Harley Farms is a kind of animal heaven: its 400-500 beef cattle live outside almost the entire year, while its 100 sows and pigs are housed in specially-built wooden sheds. The baby piglets are kept in a barn bedded with hay and straw rather than excrement, and rather than looking zombified, the animals are lively and playful. Faruqi describes it:

I breathed deeply; the barn smelled…good. Pastoral farms smell good, I realized then, because soil and straw absorb manure and odor. The piglets are happy….Unhappy pigs, such as Charlie’s, bite each other’s tails until they bleed. Happy pigs, such as Roger’s, are calm and contented, mischievous and adventurous (127).

Of course, such farms are seen as a threat by the big industrial producers, who, in fact, tried to buy Roger Harley out, offering him a quarter of a million dollars yearly to stop him from “expressing my views” about humane farming. Fortunately, he turned them down, but most other small farmers eventually succumb. In Vermont, the emblematic small dairy farms where cows actually live to see and eat grass, are almost gone—bought out by huge operations with which they cannot compete. And around the world, the dominant trend is more epitomized by one of the KFC chicken farms in Malaysia run by a Mr. Hubib, whose operation produces some 160,000 broiler chickens every month in four giant warehouses. Not content with this, Mr. Hubib proudly explained to Faruqi that he was eagerly awaiting a new system involving cages for his broiler chickens (heretofore, cages have been used mainly for egg-laying chickens because of the fear that broilers would bruise their flesh on the wire floors of cages and reduce their value; but now, plastic flooring has solved that problem). Hubib’s numbers revealed all: where in the closed chicken houses he had currently, he could allot 0.75 square feet per chicken (in an open house, the allotment would be 1.2 sq ft.), in the new broiler cages he’ll soon have, “I give chicken only .44 square foot, and I have a lot of chicken. I have 54,000 in one barn! I make a lot of money”  (233).  
            There is much more to this eye-opening book, but you get the idea. What we have is an animal-producing system of corporate agriculture that gives the world the increased quantity of meat it has been taught to want, at the cheap prices it can afford, all going on “behind a giant subterfuge… so removed from the day-to-day lives of most people that they might as well be occurring in a separate universe” (196). And it is a huge universe. Tyson, the largest meat producer in the world, “slaughters more than 2 billion chickens a year, along with 20 million pigs and 7 million cattle” (230), while, worldwide, upwards of 70 billion farm animals are raised for food each year. Increasingly, the dreadful conditions in which they are raised is a world of animal abuse, cannibalism (“Chickens excrete the cow parts that they eat, and these parts are fed back to cows in the form of chicken feces; this strange cannibalism chain creates an alarming danger of disease, including mad cow disease” 264), and diseases like cow ringworm, whose cure is simple sunlight. But in the brave new world of industrial animal production, sunlight, like grass, is the rarest of commodities. Here is how Faruqi puts it near her conclusion:

Most farm animals today live and die without ever feeling a ray of sunshine on their backs or a blade of grass under their feet. Every hour builds upon the next in a perpetual hell, and the misery continues onward without reprieve. Existing in conditions of disease and decay, animals die before their deaths (328).

Among the many problems we face in our world, this one ranks high. For if we persist in treating animals as if they were unfeeling “things” completely unrelated to us, then it cannot be long before we also treat humans in similar ways. Indeed, we already do. For it cannot be a coincidence that the system that is now polluting the world of modern agriculture (and ourselves) was conceived in the same nation, the United States of America, that leads the world in locking up human beings, caging them in solitary confinement, depriving them of human contact, and sunlight, and all the natural sights and sounds and interactions that alone keep sentient beings human.
            Can it be long before our corporate overlords decide that these same constrained environments are economically and socially adequate for all of us—or at least the vast majority of us who cannot afford to buy our own private islands?

Lawrence DiStasi


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