Mostly, here, I’m talking about meats, but produce can apply in some sense. A discussion started over at Cheap Healthy Good over Leigh’s post involving the issues surrounding vegetarianism – why people have made the choice to leave meat behind, and would they ever go back to eating meat? Most responses there have been of the vegetarian or vegan opinion (though flexitarians and a few carnivores are present), and several have referenced their desire to get away because of the ethical concerns – scare-tactic food documentaries, PETA objections to corporate cruelty, and the environmental impact of meat operations. I don’t believe in any of those things, only what I’ve experienced – and what I’ve experienced in my life doesn’t lead me to understand the basis of belief for some, even if I accept them.
The thing I don’t understand, and please don’t take me for being ugly about it, is that so many comments (not just on this page, but others throughout my life) have referenced “organic” and “grass-fed” as if the labels are some kind of magic wand. Or that traditionally raised beef (for example) meant that it was somehow defective because of the methods used to raise them. Maybe it’s just growing up as I did, but ALL our cattle were happy. We usually got between 100-250 weaned 500-lb calves every week. We rotated pastures (six pastures split over 2500 acres) weekly or biweekly to give the calves access to new grass and water. They got grain once every other morning in the summer and hay in the winter. We vaccinated for blackleg, four-way and micoplasma – all common diseases that will wipe out herds in a matter of days – but never injected with growth hormone or feed-supplemented with BGH. They roamed, ran, kicked, played and swam; the herds were never confined, chained to a cage, kept on dirt pens, beaten, hit with a truck or heavy equipement, etc. We worked cattle from horseback and on foot, and more often than not, got hurt way more often than any steer did on that farm. Yet, many people have called me “cruel,” “heartless,” “evil” and worse because my cattle were not certified organic. Which automatically meant that I routinely beat the cattle I raised with 2×4 piece of lumber and let them limp around with broken legs and get tangled in rusty fence and die of tetanus and gangrene.
The farms I’ve visited and the families that I grew up around that raised their own have been grouped into this stigma of cruel heartless people that shock defenseless animals with prods and run them over with trucks. Why? We don’t do these things. But because our meat doesn’t have an organic label slapped on it, we’re automatically designated as the enemy of all that is good. Why?
Economically speaking, these things are not profitable. An animal that can’t walk off the truck doesn’t get sold, and a no-sale steer is just dead-weight on the trailer. So there’s no reason to damage these animals for any reason, or to leave them un-vaccinated against the diseases that have made their way over from Europe that would taint the market and harm consumers and producers alike, or to confine them unreasonably for ease of access (which, by the way, no one I know of does this or would think of doing this). Ethically speaking, it’s stupid to accuse this of most farmers.
Sidebar: I’ll admit there are some stupid, unreasonable folks in the world who get cattle because of some desire to control something “beneath” them. There are also people in this world who have good intentions and want to raise animals because they love seeing them out in pastures looking all Country Living, but these types of people, despite good intentions, can be just as harmful if not more so, than the previous example of cruel and unusual.
Ethically speaking, farmers don’t raise animals to be cruel, or to have something to beat on. They raise animals because 1) they enjoy the life and 2) for the most part, it’s all they know to do, and they’re quite proficient at it. The people that are raising your meat and growing your produce still adhere to a standard of living that (if you’ll excuse me) urbanization and technology have wiped from recent generations. If you’ll notice, those fat, pasty, video-game-playing teenagers whose health Congress is so allegedly concerned about are the same teenagers with no sense of decency, common sense or courtesy, who expect everything will be handed to them on a silver platter, that will grow up into the self-same adults that will instill the self-same “values” into their children. These are the type who don’t know where their meat comes from beyond plastic-wrapped on the grocery store shelves or in plastic tubs with labels glued on, or that their produce doesn’t appear magically from behind the racks in the fresh section, or frozen or canned and placed in the grocery.
The people that raise the meat and grow the produce that sells at the grocery or at the local farmer’s market are not corporate ag – they’re consumers, producers, people just like you and me. They’re just trying to survive the best they know how, without sacrificing their own sense of ideals and ethics. Many of them don’t believe in organic labels because they’re barely surviving on traditional markets, and believe it or not, the organic market thrives far better on paper than it does in real life. It is growing, yes, but a certified organic label takes a few years to achieve, along with a complete change of farm setting and knowledge. For men and women who are living off their farm as it is, how can they be expected to change over to a completely different market solely, sight unseen with very little subsidization for the change and no ability to save or pay for their own groceries, simply because Food Inc. or The Omnivore’s Dilemma has convinced people that their time-proven techniques are the devil’s profit?
What I’m trying to understand is the attitude. I’m really not trying to be ugly about this, but it’s something I feel very passionately about and am trying to comprehend. Maybe I’m just behind the times. Maybe I’m deliberately blind. Whatever the case, I’d love some discussion – either to hear your opinions or to refine my own, please feel free to comment.