Being protested by vegans at the philly farm and food fest has really made think deeper about growing animals for food.
My initial, defensive reaction was one of wonder - “don’t you people get it? We’re on the same team??” and then gradually disgust - “nobody is here to see you people scream and point phones whilst livestreaming to PETAtube…” Finally, I arrived at confusion and wonder. Do these people really not understand what we’re doing? What are they protesting anyway, we treat animals humanely, let them run around and get fat on lush green grass while we bust our asses keeping them happy and healthy.
After reviewing a couple vegan conversations, I realized it isn’t about the treatment of the animals at all - it’s the idea of killing what is perceived as a sentient being. I make no argument that animals are not sentient beings. In fact, I myself am an animal, and I consider myself pretty damn sentient. Hold on, before you google sentient, let me save you the time. It means ‘able to perceive or feel things.’ I definitely do that. Pigs do it, cows, chickens, I’ve seen them all feel things. They react to pain, disease, comfort, discomfort, all the things we react to. And again, hold on - to perceive means to become aware, or conscious of something. This I will debate. As there are humans who are aware or conscious of things, so there are pigs who are conscious of things. But, the converse is true as well...some pigs couldn’t find the gate they’ve gone through every day for a year, while others will lead a herd through a new opening having never seen it before. The range of pig experience (and cow and chicken and sheep, etc.) is as broad as the range of human experience in their respective realms. Some lights shine brighter than others. Sorry vegans. This, of course is not to justify the slaughter, however. As one who works with pigs, chickens, sheep, cows, dogs, ducks, cats and humans daily, I can say they are all on the spectrum of ‘able to perceive.’ My anecdotes, of course, are supported by research. Go google it.
This leads me back to the plant community. Forget the fungi - those bastards are from outer space anyway. Plants have feedback loops that are chemical, mechanical, biological, biochemical, biomechanical, and as the words get more complex, the idea that they are not perceiving becomes more and more ridiculous. They’re life! They’re glorious! Trees, corn, soybeans, poison fucking ivy! None of this even breaks the surface of the fungal world, which may be responsible for monitoring and shifting nutrients between dozens of trees, rocks, insects, and more, all in the interest of preserving the forest superorganism. Sound smart?
This begs the question - where is the line drawn? Are ants not just responding to chemical signals about where food is and what work needs to be done? Certainly there is a social component to this, is that what we shouldn’t eat? Mycorrhizal fungi (sorry I was going to leave them out) are so integral to social relationships in forests that they wouldn’t exist without them! On top of that, are humans, great apes, bees, and countless others not simply responding to pheromones that are biochemical signals to find mates, defend territories, and decide which sources of food yield the best nutrients? Yes, among other things.
All of this to say that, in order to feed large populations of humans, we farm. Albeit, poorly, in most cases, but we manage the land to produce the largest sum of food we can make it yield per acre. Generally, this is without regard to the nutrients taken up by said foods, nor the availability and necessity of those nutrients in the optimum human diet. In fact, therein lies the root problem. We have no consensus on what is the ideal human diet! Veterinarians have defined the exact, precise nutrients required to keep every species/breed of domesticated animal healthy, but the closest humans come to a diet for optimal human performance is sports nutrition. Google sports nutrition and see the agreeing consensus on that topic! Vegans have taken to the minimalist argument - what is the least amount of nutrition one needs to continue to live on this planet. And arrogant carnivores have gone the opposite route - what have we yet to cover in bacon?
Personally, I want to enjoy raising food, eating, preparing, sharing, and socializing over food and the places where it is grown. I want animals to be treated respectfully, and I want plants and soil to be treated respectfully as well. I don’t want to entertain conversations about my food by someone who is concerned that it has eyes or a fluffy face and that constitutes its ability to perceive. I don’t want to hear about how pigs are so able to perceive that they are equal to humans - if that is the case, then when i have a pig carcass on a table at a butchering demo, the response better be as if it were a corpse. And if cardboard signs with sharpie lettering is how you protest the breaking of a human corpse on public display, I wonder how you sleep at night! The answer, of course, is that vegans don’t actually believe their own arguments in most cases.
In a world of 7 billion humans, I know that all food could be produced in a regenerative, healthy, socially vibrant, and respectful way. We can have healthy ecosystems, fostered by informed agriculturalists who aren’t constantly racing to the bottom for the capitalist credo. We can and do produce food with integrity, animal, plant, fungi or otherwise. There are billions of people on this planet who are a testament to the fact that humans can live on rice or millet, some broth and some good veggies. Many of them are healthy happy people. Should we tell them to stop killing chickens or fish or pork to add to their rice because they’re slaveholders because they have chickens around?
Or should we learn from them and others about how to foster healthy ecosystems to produce the food we need to fuel us every day? I believe it is our responsibility to dissolve the system of confinement agriculture. I also believe it is our duty to dissolve monoculturalist agriculture. We know that diverse agricultural systems produce food diverse in the nutrients humans need for proper cellular function. We don’t need to grow more corn. There are no essential carbohydrates - only essential amino acids and fatty acids. This means fat and protein. We need to understand the best way to grow corn, the best way to grow pigs, chickens, apples, chestnuts, hazelnuts, all the things that will make for healthy, happy people. Sever food production from the commodity market and prevent Wall Street from defining how we farm.
Most importantly, though, enjoy your food. Enjoy and praise the effort that went into making it what it is, and if you’re uncomfortable with the outcome it produces, then stop eating it. If you buy into the ecosystem your food is helping to create, then by all means, buy in.
Brooks Miller is a full time farmer. He and his wife, Anna Santini are the owners of North Mountain Pastures a sustainable grass based farm and CSA in Perry County, PA.
The bottom line is not that the rule “eat things which are dumber than us” (less sentient). The rule is that we are omnivores. We kill plants to eat. We kill animals to eat. All living relies on dying. Plants become compost becomes soil becomes plants, becomes compost. Animals kill and eat plants/animals and even become the meal of something else. To be a vegan based on humanitarian impulses is to define killing rather narrowly. Being the farmer letting a cow, pig, chicken or sheep express its innate cow, pig, chicken sheep-ness then to be humanly slaughtered and end up on a plate is arguably as praise-worthy a calling as living as an organic vegetable farmer. Wait, doesn’t even that farmer use methods to get rid of pests albeit thru IPM, crop rotation, row cover? Are’t worms killed when a bed is cultivated? Please, let’s face it there is no life without death. It is the Nature of things. I guess the truly humanitarian vegan would have to starve to death to maintain a cruelty-free lifestyle. Hopefully they have signed the “Compost Heap Donor Card” and have it in their wallets at the time of their passing! Face it, we all kill to eat. Get over it. We’re OMNIVOROUS not cruel.