It's been the better part of a week since Farm Sanctuary's first National Conference to End Factory Farming ended. For that time I've been trying to come up with some sort of summarizing thought about it all that I could share with TreeHugger readers. After all, we were one of the media sponsors of the event and it's one that I personally think should be pretty high up on our readers' concerns.
I could regale you with countless examples of the amazing cruelty inherent in keeping animals in the normal conditions of concentrated animal feeding operations (aka factory farms), but we've done that before. I could also talk about the high contribution to greenhouse gas emissions for the meat and dairy industry worldwide (conservatively 18%, right up there with the transportation sector and global deforestation). I could talk about the health effects of the average rising consumption of animal products around the world, or the links between factory farms and so-called superbugs.
But frankly, most TreeHugger readers and certainly nearly everyone at the conference itself likely knows a good deal already about these issues. Perhaps not in the horrific detail that conference attendees were given in the presentations, but in short, the self-selected niche group on this site is probably already on board with the 'factory farming is really bad and needs to be stopped' message. That was certainly the case with the 350 or so people who traveled to Arlington, Virginia last week.
The thing that keeps sticking with me, though is that if we are really going to end factory farming then we have to unite -- vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike.
Despite some pretty deep differences philosophically between the groups (the deepest actually being between vegans and vegetarians, I sometimes think), on this issue there is so much common ground that we should all put aside differences on our idealized role of animals in agriculture and relationship between human and non-human animals. We need to come together and put an end to the disgusting, cruel, environmentally destructive, and unhealthy scourge of factory farming.
I'm not the first person to suggest this; nor am I probably the most articulate writer on the subject. Tom Philpott, writing at the time for Grist (he's now moved on the higher-profile pastures of Mother Jones), said:
[Vegan food commentator James McWilliams] recently argued that "free-range meat isn't much better than factory-farmed." But that very same article contains this line: "factory farming ... produces 99 percent of the meat we eat."
If McWilliams is correct, then vegans and omnivores agree on 99 percent of the meat issue. So let's put aside the other 1 percent -- for now -- roll our sleeves up, and clasp hands. There's no fee to join the Vegan/Omnivore Alliance against Animal Factories, no number to call, no petition to sign, no special handshake. Declare you're a member, and you are one. (I am a writer, not an organizer; the VOAAF will never formally incorporate -- under my watch anyway).
So, no more potshots between camps, no lashing out about pastured poultry or dancing dairy cows; and no more mocking the culinary virtues of tofurky and the like. To the ramparts ... together! You in?
Joining together on this seems an obvious collaboration to me. I'm in. And you should be in too.
But when the idea was suggested in Arlington, first during one of the plenary presentations by Jim Motavalli (who made it quite clear he was a vegetarian and advocates this diet to others), it received very nearly a slow-clap get off the stage response by the audience. The idea received some genuine applause when presented, to a much smaller audience in a break-out session, by agricultural economist John Ikerd, from the University of Missouri.
Certainly some self-selection bias comes into this. The main plenary talk by Motavalli was to the general conference, which to no one's likely surprise, seemed to consist of a large percentage of vegans. I don't have any hard stat on that (we weren't asked to list our dietary choices anywhere in registering) but that's what it felt like, judging from audience responses. Ikerd's talk had maybe one-third the numbers of the plenary, competing as it was against other breakout sessions -- so maybe that audience was already more on board.
Whatever the reason for the differing responses, it seems to me that overcoming this difference in response has to be the next organizational step in accomplishing the stated goal of ending factory farming.
It should be said that the conference organizers seemed to get this. It wasn't like every presenter was hitting you over the head with either facts, guilt, or both, telling you that if you aren't vegan you're a stupid, inhuman, insensitive killer of cute baby animals that needs to repent now. There was a decent mix of opinions presented, and plenty of just straight factual documentation of the condition of farm animals in factory farms, and the effects of factory farming on the environment and human health.
But the reaction of the audience, and from fellow tweeters during it, makes me wonder if all of us who already think we can and must do better for both humans and animals than factory farming ought to do some soul searching on how we communicate this issue to those people not yet convinced.
It's true, that while I don't understand how anyone who just sees the normal conditions of factory farming can still think this is an ethically acceptable thing to do, it's equally true that if we, vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores, can't communicate the common ground position forcefully, ending factory farming will simply not happen. Instead we will fall victim to squabbles of dietary fundamentalism, with humans, animals and the environment as a whole continuing to suffer.