Vol 7, Num 3 :: 2008.02.08 — 2008.02.22
The French agronomist André Voisin wrote his 1959 classic Soil, Grass, and Cancer to demonstrate the truth of the saying “you are what you eat.” While this is the kind of worn truism that we scarcely trouble to notice any more, it takes on new life as Voisin demonstrates in example after example the point he makes at the opening of the book:
We should frequently meditate on the words of Ash Wednesday: “Man, remember that you are dust and that you will return to dust.” This is not merely a religious and philosophical doctrine but a great scientific truth which should be engraved above the entrance to every Faculty of Medicine throughout the world.
Voisin argues that the soil makes the food and the food makes the person. If our soil is sick, we will become sick. He does not believe that we were formed from the dust once, but that we, and the animals we eat, are continually being shaped by the “dust” of the soil and that we ignore this fact at our peril. Our health is dependent on the health of our food, and we really will reap what we have sown.
The degree to which our culture ignores the wisdom of a thinker and farmer like Voisin was brought brutally home to me this past week. The Humane Society of the United States posted a number of videos documenting the abuse of cows at a Westland Meat Company slaughterhouse, in California. Westland is one of the largest suppliers of meat to the National School Lunch Program in the United States. The videos clearly show the terrible abuse inflicted on “downer” cows when they are brought to slaughter. A downer cow is a dairy animal that is too sick or injured to stand and is culled from production. Downer cows are to be euthanized and disposed of according to USDA regulations, and they are not to enter the food system. The videos show Westland workers beating cows and spraying them in the face with water, shocking them with cattle prods, dragging, ramming and rolling them with forklifts, and using any means at their disposal to get these animals to slaughter so the meat can be fed to school children, and every last ounce of profit squeezed from these pathetic creatures. I don’t recommend watching these videos if you are easily upset, but if you want to see where the food comes from that children in public schools are eating you can see it here.
The meat industry responded with an article titled “Shooting Ourselves in the Foot” by Troy Marshall, published on BEEFmagazine.com on February 1. While Marshall makes no attempt to deny the evidence presented in the video footage, the violence is portrayed as an exception rather than the norm:
Everyone realizes these incidents are devastating and exceedingly rare, but we simply cannot afford to have them… Two rogue employees in a small packing plant in California have cost the industry millions of dollars of good will, and this time we have ourselves to blame.
Industrial Agriculture will always take this position at times like this. I don’t want to suggest that every person who makes his or her living working for agricultural corporations engages in cruelty towards animals, but my intelligence and my experience tells me that what we witness in these videos is symptomatic of a systemic violence that runs very deeply in our food industry, and that the sight of a crippled cow being rolled across a concrete floor by a forklift is neither rare nor the fault of “rogue” employees who, after all, have little to gain from these actions, while the company that employs them gains much.
How did we get here? As with much of what is sick in our world, the answer has to do with money. Humanity’s understanding of how to manipulate the world for its own ends began to take quantum leaps forward in the eighteenth century. Our growing understanding of science allowed us to develop sophisticated production systems for the generation of material goods and the wealth to buy them. It also showed us how to shape nature itself to our purposes. Selective animal breeding had always been practiced, to some extent, since the birth of agriculture, but during the industrial revolution breeding began to focus on increased production and profit. Most of the familiar commercial breeds were developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There was nothing wrong with this development in and of itself, because for the most part the animals were still being raised and cared for on small-scale farms where the owner of the animals was directly involved in their care and had a direct interest in maintaining the overall health of the breeding stock.
This situation has changed dramatically over the course of the last fifty years with the rise of corporate “factory farming.” No longer is the overall health of animals a matter of general concern for the corporations that own them. Only profit matters. One might expect that health and profitability would be connected when it comes to management of any agriculture system, but that isn’t the case. For several decades now, breeding decisions have been made on the basis of pure profit. The Holstein-Frisian has become ubiquitous in dairy production because of its large size and the amount of milk it produces. Selective breeding has continued to increase levels of milk production, but increased production has come at a price. What the producers have gained in production they have lost in health and livability. The lifespan of a dairy cow in a traditional farming system that allows for pasturing and exercise, while minimizing the use of antibiotics and hormones, is anywhere from twelve to sixteen years. Ron Schmid writes in his book The Untold Story of Milk that the production life of a Holstein in an intensive dairy operation is less than four years. The burden of supporting their tremendous weight on the concrete floors of confinement barns becomes too much, and the cows lie down, unable to rise. The downer cows depicted in the video are Holsteins.
The violence inflicted by industrial agriculture is not limited to the animals under their care. I worked for a year for one of the largest commercial turkey producers in the world on a breeding selection crew. Day after day we selected animals for a breeding program exclusively on the basis of their profitability. It was clear the company’s only interest was in providing its customers with the heaviest bird that could still walk. The immune systems of commercial turkeys are so completely compromised that if they are exposed to a wild bird, a sparrow flying in the barn for example, the entire flock becomes sick and has to be destroyed. The company employed a variety of strategies to discourage the presence of wild birds on their farms, from distributing poisoned seed to cutting down all the trees at one of the farms where I worked.
The violent logic of industrial agriculture also applies to its workers. In no sector of the legal work force that I am aware of, with the exception of immigrant housekeepers/nannies, is labour less protected and more disposable than in agriculture. Workers are poorly paid and turnover is high. Often the workers directly responsible for the care of animals have little or no farming experience themselves, and little incentive to take an interest in the welfare of their charges. In my experience, the violence inflicted on animals in industrial agriculture often arises directly out of the anger, resentment, frustration and powerlessness felt by workers about their situation. When the USDA suspended Westland Meat last week, pending an investigation, the company’s first response was to fire the employees whose actions had been caught on video and suspend their supervisor. I do not excuse the actions of these workers, but I do understand them. They are responsible for what they have done, but they are not solely responsible. They will be held accountable, but it is possible they will be the only ones who are.
We are all responsible for the culture we create with our food choices. We are responsible for the health of our soil, the health of our food, and the health of our selves. Can we continue to feed our children violence, and then wonder why they behave violently?
Without compassion we become violent. We define ourselves in terms of our own profit potential, rather than seeking to understand ourselves in terms of our relationships with others, animal and human.
We forget that we are dust.