5/26/10

From Humane to More Humane?

Tzachi Zamir argues (see my interview with him and this discussion of his article "Veganism") that the best future for chickens and cows is one in which we keep using them for eggs and milk, but we don't kill them prematurely or subject them to unnecessary painful procedures. That vegetarian utopia is better than a vegan utopia with no (or hardly any) chickens and cows. He thinks we ought to do what we can to bring about that future by supporting the more humane eggs and milk that are available in stores today. By selectively supporting more humane products, we will stimulate development of even more humane products, and we will gradually come closer and closer to the vegetarian utopia.

I'd sure like all this to be true, but is it? Is there a trajectory from more humane, to even more, to really humane? Technologically, it's possible (see "Milk without Killing," here) to have a mostly female herd of cows or flock of birds, but there's also economics and human preferences to consider. Can I really tell myself that buying free range eggs and relatively humane milk constitute a push in the direction of a vegetarian utopia?

18 comments:

Matthew Pianalto said...

I don't know. I have great difficulties knowing where to get started, and where to end, both with the arguments and with my individual food choices. If you read Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, you're bound to be struck by the thought that, "you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't," whatever foodstuffs you buy, at least from the supermarket.

I'm no economist, but I can see the "market rationale" behind thinking that if one simply "opts out" of animal products by going full vegan, then one simply no longer exerts any influence on animal product markets--but if there's a significant group within the market demanding "more humane" products, some farmers will rise to the challenge. See, e.g., the testimony by the unnamed factory farmer in Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals; his main line is that farmers are giving the consumers what they want. That seems a bit dicey, but the point is that if one says, "I want more humane eggs," that's something an egg farmer can respond to in a clear(er) way than, "I don't want eggs." The latter person is just no longer a customer, and so the egg farmer has no incentive to modify egg farming practices to satisfy vegans.

Of course, a different problem is the relative emptiness of terms like "free range" in many cases. So, there's a need for some kind of lobbying to produce policy which gives such concepts some real teeth, as it were. And, in part, that's because we can't all, all of the time, trace all of our food back to its source--we need to be able to trust the food regulatory agencies, but my impression is that the meat industries are so powerful that that will be a very tough battle. The point, however, is that we need some combination of "consumer-driven market force" to encourage change and more meaningful regulation (both of farming practices and product information provided to consumer).

Back to my not knowing where to start, or to end, the hard personal question is, what can I, as an individual, best do in the midst of all this? One might take the Throreau-esque approach of "opting out"--in this sense, the full-blown vegan is simply washing her hands of the animal business, not, as it were, "standing on their shoulders"--but when I step back and take the broader view, I just don't know how to assess whether that is better or worse than the "more humane" approach. (Except that probably one is self-deceived if one thinks that a "more humane factory farm" isn't, at the end of the day, an oxymoron, or at least not still humane enough.)

Jean Kazez said...

I like what Michael Pollan says about how every product has an "ethical price tag." It's obviously wrong to think the ethical price of bananas is $.00, just because bananas are plants.

I think there's a trajectory from more humane to even more humane, but I'm very skeptical that it continues up and up, anywhere near to the vegetarian utopia where animal farming involves no premature killing. It's that long trajectory to a vegetarian utopia that Zamir is presupposing to make his case that people shouldn't be vegan.

Possibly a different and more realistic case could be made for supporting humane products--that the demand for them alerts the whole industry to concerns about the treatment of animals. If humane products start to have cache, the mainstream animal industry might want to cash in. Unlike Zamir's argument, which is just a defense of purchasing more humane eggs and milk, that kind of reasoning would support purchasing all more humane products (like the meat at whole foods). I've heard "humane meat" eaters make that argument, and I think it has some merit.

Matthew Pianalto said...

I haven't read this whole piece yet, so can't offer any assessment, but in case you haven't seen it, Jeff McMahan's Eating Animals the Nice Way takes aim at this sort of "benign carnivorism."

At bottom, there's a pretty fundamental issue, which I think is connected to the quote from Foer's book I (obliquely) discuss and introduce for discussion here.

Jean Kazez said...

My memory being what it is, I did read that McMahan article, but don't remember what it said. Groan.

I think Foer sees the good intentions in all those small-scale farmers he talks to and wants to be able to concur...but doesn't (not quite). I relate to that attitude.

Matthew Pianalto said...

Right. Just out of curiosity (though I think it is somehow relevant)--and sorry to ask since you've probably discussed this elsewhere--but what's the extent of your contact with farm animals over the course of your life? Foer, as someone who says he didn't touch a farmed animal (except on a dinner plate) until he was thirty, is going to have a different set of eyes for these farms than someone else seeing the thing from a different perspective (say, having grown up on a farm, around the animals, etc.). Obviously, that difference in perspective and background has explanatory value (re: differing judgments), though I don't know what kind of justificatory relevance it might have (since, one might say, a slave abolitionist and a slave owner also have different "eyes" for the circumstances).

Jean Kazez said...

I remember that from Foer's book--what a city boy. I grew up in the middle of farm country--lots of cows, pigs, etc. There was no zoo, so we used to go to the barns at Penn State University for entertainment. I've also done lots of hiking and biking through farm country. I like the look, feel, smell, etc., of a farm, so it's with reluctance that I see a problem with the whole thing.

How about you?

rtk said...

And then there's the news today from Ohio. A vegan group from Chicago exposed hideous, nauseatingly cruel treatment of milk cows at the Conklin Dairy Farms Inc in Plain City, Ohio.
http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=389x8420201

Matthew Pianalto said...

"City boy." (You said it, not me!) I grew up around dairy cows and also smack dab in the middle of Tyson country (just outside of Springdale, Arkansas, where Tyson Foods is based). I never had a good sense of what went on in the chicken houses, just that they were everywhere...as were the trucks, which always did seem somehow bad. But, you know, I've gone to county fairs, etc., and I never had a problem looking at the prize pig and acknowledging that that's where delicious bacon comes from. It's really the nature of the intensive practices that slowly worked its ways on me, and pressed me into trying something different at the table. That and the environmental impact. (Thanks for playing along with me on this discussion; I've found it hard to be very articulate or principled in my thinking about this stuff, but this is helping!)

Anonymous said...

so, to avoid accusations of speciesism: an alien race conquers planet earth and asks you to choose between two different options for the destiny of human race

a) they guarantee food and health to everybody but will kill people painlessly when they reach 50 to eat them. They will also give everybody some magical drug so that everybody will "ignore" that they (and their loved ones) will be killed at 50

b) kill everybody immediately and painlessly

(or maybe

b2) make everbody infertile and then leave, making this the last human generation

)


your decision?

Jean Kazez said...

Matthew, I've been to state fairs (as a kid) and didn't see a problem. It really is factory farming that has awakened disapproval, but then after a long period of disapproving of "how" I came to be more puzzled and doubtful about the very basic thing--killing for unnecessary reasons.

Anon, I hope I'm not supposed to find that choice easy, because I don't.

Jean Kazez said...

rtk, Those kinds of videos are amazing and eye-opening. Who would even think that was going on behind closed doors? But it is...as has been shown many times over.

Faust said...

I do find anons question easy. a) hands down. I would love to see anyone even try to argue for b) or c).

a) Living till 50 with "food and health for everyone." That means no starving people, and "health" for everyone. I assume that means good medical care.

b) Immediate painless death right now. End of the human race.

c) Sterilization and knowing the children are today are the last generation.

Yeah. Not hard.

In fact I would go so far as to say that people who vote for b) or c) are nihilists.

Anonymous said...

@faust: yes, I would also vote for (a) (but maybe some "antinatalists" would choose b or b2?)

My argument is not very well presented, but my point was: if equal things are to be treated equally, regardless of the species concerned, should we then say that it's better to raise lots of "happy" cows and then kill them (as painlessly as possible) to eat their flesh, as opposed to stop raising them and let the species disapper (or can we imagine "wild" cows? In any case their number would be greatly reduced, maybe not to zero)

rtk said...

So maybe the Designer would have done a more Intelligent job if he/she used democratic methods. I vote to eliminate death and disease altogether. And please let the birth process take place somehow above the waist. No animal should eat another animal, but I vote yes for the whole milk idea. The plethora of eggs seems to require no hopey/changey stuff and is not worth having a tea party about. But please, O Designer, a plague on all factory farming. While You’re at it, no puppy mills either.

Faust said...

@ anon,

Yeah I took your point and I agree.

Two caveats:

1) It's seems pretty clear that the vegetarian utopia imagined by "welfarists" (I'm not sure what to call them, I guess Francione's branding is as good as any), is going to be hard to get to. We are pretty damn far from such a world. So the "happy humans living till 50" is not a good analog for our current practices, but it is (maybe) an analog to fully realized welfarist goals.

2. One of the problems with making the analog total is that human beings have individual memories and collective memories (culture). Animals have no such analog (or if they do its non-verbal and mysterious). The differential in capacities makes the comparison harder to make.

Dominic said...

sorry to join in late.

the question that Jean started with is whether buying free range eggs/milk now will really push towards a vegetarian utopia (VgU).

The question is which is more likely to lead to VgU -
P1 a policy of purchasing the most humane currently available eggs/dairy, or
P2 a policy of abstaining from purchasing eggs/dairy until and unless they meet a minimum standard of care (above the current level)

Zamir argues in favour of P1. But I think that is because he compares it with what we might call P3
P3 Permanent abstention from all egg/dairy consumption

I agree that P1 is more likely than P3 to lead to VgU. From the market's point of view P3 can be discounted. There is no point attempting to cater for them. But either P1 or P2 could plausibly move the market in the direction of VgU.
The presence of large numbers of P1 purchasers would tend to encourage current non-free range producers to shift their production towards free range. It may then be that some or all P1 purchasers could shift to more human producers and lead to a gradual evolution of VgU
On the other hand the presence of large numbers of P2 purchasers would potentially shift current free range purchasers towards 'free-range plus' models. If their policy was well publicised it would have the potential to create a market now for truly humane eggs and dairy.

On this reading of the problem Zamir is wrong to dismiss what he calls 'tentative vegans', but which I would prefer to call 'tactical vegans'. Both P1 and P2 could shift the market towards VgU. I don't know enough market economics to know for sure which would be more likely or more effective in producing genuinely humane dairy or egg production. But it is at least plausible that tactical veganism would be more effective.

Jean Kazez said...

Dom, One might argue that the P1 followers prove that they're willing to pay more for humane products, but the P2 followers just say so. To a producer, is one avowal worth more than the other? Maybe so! There might be more of a push for further change when people actually spend more on "better" instead of just announcing they will spend more for "much better."

Dominic said...

Hi Jean,

I don't know what would make more difference.
But my guess is that farmers/producers are motivated by both those who currently purchase their product (current market), as well as those who would potentially purchase their product if certain conditions were met (eg the price were reduced, it were marketed in a certain way). Hypotheticals appear to be the basis for market research.

It may be that P1 purchasers who are currently buying your products or a competitors products are more accessible than members of society who currently buy nothing. But my impression is that companies are always on the look out for new markets or ways to grow their market share.

One problem may be that 'free range plus' would almost certainly be more expensive than free range - at least at the start. So there would me potential loss of existing customers as well as new customers to attract with a shift to more humane farming. And while tactical vegans remain in a minority those who prioritise price over animal welfare will exert much greater influence on the market...