The Dynamic Between the Animal Industry and the Animal Movement

By Harold Brown, Outreach Coordinator, Farm Sanctuary

Harold Brown

This discussion is based on Harold’s presentation at the “Thinking About Animals: Domination, Captivity, Liberation” conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, March 15-16, 2007.

A recent article from the animal use industry talks about how animal activists and their message can be managed and controlled. The strategy is being formulated by a PR company named Golin Harris whose specific product is the Engage program designed not to fight activists but to identify and partner with them. Another PR firm named MBD was hired by industry to develop strategies for dealing with animal activists. MBD laid out their plan in three steps:

  1. Isolate the radicals
  2. Cultivate the idealists and “educate” them into becoming realists
  3. Co-opt the idealists and realists into agreeing with industry

This is a divide and conquer strategy that depends on cooption. First, they identify the “radicals” who are unwilling to compromise and who are demanding fundamental changes to redress the problem at hand. Next, they identify the “realists” – typically organizations with significant budgets and staffs working in the same relative area of public concern as the radicals. Then they approach these “realists,” start a dialogue and cut a deal, a “win-win” solution that marginalizes and excludes the radicals and their demands. Finally, they go with the realists to the “idealists” who have learned about the problem through the work of the radicals. The goal is to convince the idealists that the solution endorsed by the realists is best for everyone. Once this has been accomplished, the radicals can be shut out as extremists. As part of the strategy, industry may have to make some small or temporary concessions, but the fundamental concerns of the radicals have been swept aside.

“Victories” for Animals

A case in point is the move by Smithfield Foods (the largest pork producer in the U.S.) and Maple Leaf Foods (Canada’s largest pork producer) to go “crate free.” The move away from gestation crates for sows is being praised by many, but as animal rights advocates we must realize this is not a good thing. Ask yourself, “Why would any multinational corporation make a change if it wasn’t going to be profitable?”

In my opinion, this move is designed to assuage the concerns of consumers who their own market research has shown care about the wellbeing of farmed animals. The reaction is to move to housing that will allow pregnant sows more freedom, but the cycle of artificial insemination, birthing in farrowing crates, and taking the piglets away from their mothers will remain the same.

Granted, this is a slight improvement, but no one should call it a victory for the pigs or for the animal rights movement. Some call it a victory because of the economic costs it will force upon industry, but this is not so. We’re talking about vertically integrated operations like Smithfield, Tyson, ConAgra, and Archer Daniels Midland who are shareholders in the companies that build the barns and own everything connected to the production of pork (and poultry and all livestock production), allowing revenue streams to be created in unlikely places to the advantage of the corporate entity.

There are new technologies to turn the guts of animals into biodiesel. Another idea is to burn dead chickens in power plants and turn their feathers into disposable diapers and tampons. Still another is breeding chickens without feathers to fit them to industrial farming in desert countries.

Pork producers take a page from the vegetarian playbook and it looks like this: They will grow pigs in a more “natural” environment that allows for more natural behaviors, meaning hogs that are less stressed, and it will be more environmentally responsible. I’d like to point out a disturbing development. Cargill, the world’s largest privately held corporation, is partnering with CAFOS (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) to build methane digesters. On the surface this looks like a good thing, but what is happening is Cargill is offering to build digesters at CAFOs and in turn create a new revenue stream for both the farm and Cargill. Chicago has already sold energy credits to Cargill for supplying methane to power lights in the city. This is a new commodification of farmed animals, and it doesn’t stop there. There are new technologies to turn the guts of animals into biodiesel and other lubricants. Another idea is to burn dead chickens in power plants for energy, and turn their slaughterhouse feathers into diapers and tampons. Still another is breeding chickens without feathers to fit them to industrial farming in the desert heat of the Middle East.

Dark Agendas

Many of you have heard about the successful cloning of Holstein cattle in the UK. For years I’ve said that this path of genetic manipulation has a darker agenda than most people suspect. In the United States there’s been a debate over the Department of Agriculture’s approval of the sale of products from cloned animals. Currently the cost of cloning is prohibitive, but this may be overcome.

My view is that the goal of cloning is to manipulate farmed animals to make them conform more fully to the interests of industry and even the consumer. For years the National Pork Development Project has been mapping the porcine genome in an attempt to locate the pig’s stressor gene so that it could be removed, thereby providing sows who don’t psychologically break down in confinement and piglets who are passive in the growout facilities.

So far, the attempt has failed miserably, but now comes a type of cloning where the genome can be more closely controlled and manipulated. I believe that the biotech industry will figure out the problems, provide a limited supply of breeding stock that will be introduced into the selective breeding process to create animals with the desired traits, and avoid the problems of pure clones. Industry has now produced such cattle, and a researcher at Nottingham University said, “It is technically possible to produce ‘animal vegetables’ which are highly prolific and oblivious to their physical and mental status.”

New Meaning of “Dominion”

With animals who do not suffer or experience pleasure, dominion takes on a whole new meaning. The biotech industry has created a new paradigm it calls “farmyard freaks,” but I’d say a better description is animals born lobotomized. I concede to the Utilitarians that this would be a (pardon the pun) Godsend: No suffering; therefore, no consequences.

However, this puts animal advocates in a unique place, and we must ask ourselves: do our actions speak for animal rights or for pain management? This is a perfect example of how the industry anticipates the animal movement as a whole and meets the demands made by welfare organizations to alleviate animal suffering. New animal, no suffering, end of game. At this point, how do we argue the intrinsic worth of an animal that can be shown empirically not to suffer? Or can we? As this new technology is applied to all farmed animals, we will no longer be able to make a case for not eating animals on the basis of suffering and pain. Is this the dominion – and the “welfare” – that was intended?

Mantle of Legitimacy

We see that the animal food industry is addressing concerns about environment, health, and ethics. Health is constantly being addressed by industry touting research that points to various, but not proven, health benefits such as flesh and eggs with Omega 3 fatty acids (but where do the Omega 3s come from? They mix flaxseed into the feedstuffs) and “health benefits” of supposed weight loss programs that rely on cows’ milk and “low/no cholesterol” meat. Industry has thus responded by being pro-active in developing new technologies that mitigate to some degree the environmental impacts of industrial animal agriculture. They are turning farmed animals into energy generators and slaughtered chickens’ feathers into disposable diapers, and the animals people consume will be healthier and taste better – like your grandparents used to enjoy – because of better feeds and a more “natural” environment for the animals before they are butchered. These “solutions” fit conveniently into the mainstream religious paradigm of “responsible” dominion (“stewardship”) and into the Utilitarian paradigm of eliminating animal suffering, thereby conveying a moral and religious certitude and even righteousness that harkens back to an earlier time of solid traditions and values.

We are already seeing these “solutions” being embraced by the sustainable agriculture movement where animals are concerned. There have been articles in the media about vegetarians and vegans going back to eating meat, eggs, and dairy because they believe the advertising hype and feel morally absolved because these animals may have been treated somehow better than others. This goes back to what I said earlier: the folks who are going back to animal products are the idealists and the realists, and they are doing so at the cost of the radicals. The radicals have been effectively marginalized because the overarching calculus of “the greater good” trumps both the radical liberationist and the inherent rights of animals.

What Do We Do?

What is a prudent course of action? I would say it is to go to the place that is most frightening to industry and consumers alike – the arena of the moral and ethical use of animals – and apply the rigor of critical thinking. We can learn something from Smithfield’s and Maple Leaf’s recent activities based on their market research showing that the average consumer has some sort of concern about farmed animals. This concern is due in part to animal organizations revealing the truth behind the barn doors and in part to the generational shift away from farming to urban living. Sixty years ago, over 50 percent of the U.S. population farmed; today it is less than one percent. This means there is now a generation of people whose only connection to animals is their cat or dog. And of course we love cats and dogs. But through a strange type of anthropomorphism, people believe that farmed animals should, like their cats and dogs, be given a degree of regard while yet eating them. We must address this contradiction.

I believe that if we focus our attention and resources on educating the public, what was once thought “radical” will no longer be so. If we present the Big Truth, the Moral and Ethical message, with integrity, compassion and love that will nurture and raise up the public, eventually the idea of animal rights and animal personhood will find an audience.

As animal rights activists and liberationists, we must be vigilant against the PR spin and not compromise our core values. Our movement should not be played like a cheap violin by the user industries; we must find our center and hold fast for the sake of the animals, ourselves, and the world. Peace begins within, and the choices we make have long range consequences. I have made the journey from a life of violence to a life of realized peacefulness. I have come to know that what I do with my fork is one of the most important actions I take each day. Ask the hard questions. Make the right decisions.

Harold Brown was raised on a cattle farm in Michigan and spent half of his life in agriculture. As Outreach Coordinator for Farm Sanctuary, he is coordinating a campaign to encourage farmers to adopt sustainable farming practices and reaching out to activists and community groups through the 2007 Farmer Brown Speaking Tour. Harold Brown appears in the film, Peaceable Kingdom, where he tells the powerful story of his transformation from “beef” farmer to vegan farm animal advocate.