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Ethical farming, part two

I decided to write a follow-up piece to my last blog about the meat industry. I wish to clarify a few points and add to the debate some more information that is often unclear or misused. I do make a clear distinction between different types of farms and different farming practices. There are too many comments for me to respond to individually and so I hope to respond to them here, if indeed they are worth responding to. I do acknowledge that there are serious problems with factory farming and I clearly support small-scale local producers who practise ethical farming techniques.

There are some serious flaws in the anti-meat lobby arguments as well a general lack of knowledge. Fighting from a position of ignorance can only make you look a fool. Others fight from an ideological position so no amount of information or argumentation will sway them so I will not try. On that note I wish to address the claims that I am “speciest” and that I am prejudiced towards different species.

I am tempted to be factious and say that I eat them all equally, but instead I will point out that I do clearly draw a distinction between animals and humans. That should be clear from my previous blog. I raise and kill animals for food. So do not bother to point out that I am “speciest” — it’s silly and redundant and wastes space and time in the comments section. What we try and do is ensure that their lives are as comfortable and pain-free when they are in our care. The only reason they are in our care is that they are to be eaten. I have been completely open and honest about this. How about some real debate and dialogue about factual claims and not over-inflated rhetoric?

The anti-meat lobby keeps pointing out how much land is under pasture compared to other forms of food production. This argument is flawed and nonsensical and you would know that if you actually farmed. All land is not equal and to pretend it is a) is either a lie or b) shows ignorance of facts. We buy barley off of a farm only 20km away from our farm. This farmer can produce barley at 95 bushels/acre compared to our farm that could only produce 35 bushels/acre. He does not produce wheat as his land is better suited to grow barley with the type of soil found there. Barley does not make suitable flour. Oats can also be grown at his farm, but again does not make good flour and is typically eaten rolled (Jungle Oats) or as animal feed. Wheat grows better on the prairies to the south and is not economically viable at his place. Little differences in regions make huge differences in types of crops grown.

To claim that the world can just transform all arable land into bean production or other crops is false.

In South Africa (and elsewhere), many crops are grown outside of their normally suitable crop-land through the use of massive amounts of fertilisers and through some use of genetically modified crops. I am certain the vegans would not wish for their soy beans to be GM so they can be grown in other locations. Maybe I am wrong and maybe someone from the Vegan Society of South Africa could respond to that?

Other false claims are related to the amount of grain used to produce one kilogram of meat. One person claimed that it takes 8kg of grain to produce 1kg of meat. This is also untrue and falls apart under scrutiny. It takes 1kg of grain to produce 1kg of chicken, 2kg of grain to produce 1kg of lamb. Cattle are the highest but I do not have a figure for that as we do not raise cattle. It is also difficult to accurately state a figure for any of the meats as a general rule because of different farming conditions. If cattle are free-range and only brought in and fed grain for the last two months of their life then the amount is lower. If the pasture is poor and they are supplemented with grain throughout their lifecycle it is higher. If they are just grass-fed it falls to 0kg. Most grass-fed cattle are raised in areas that are not suitable for grain crops anyways. Also the grain being fed is also typically barley or oats that do not make decent flour and cannot always be produced in the same areas as wheat/rice/name-that-staple.

The claim that meat are pumped full of growth hormones is inaccurate or overstated at best. I do not know of a single Canadian producer, and I would guess the same for South Africa, that uses growth hormones. If they are used I would not condone it and abhor factory-style conditions that would be necessary to be able to use most of them. There is only one growth hormone that can be administered by feed and that is MGA (melengestrol acetate) and it is a synthetic form of progesterone. The rest would need to be injected, a costly and time-consuming act. They are also injected by use of an ear implant. Grain is cheap, easy and available and the market has shifted to make the use of hormones undesirable. The European Union has banned Canadian beef that contains growth hormones that puts more pressure on the industry to not use them since the late 1990s.

And a little factoid for you is that oestrogen, among other hormones, is also found in some of the vegetables and plants we eat such as cabbage and soybeans. Soybean oil is quite high as one tablespoon of soy oil has 28.750ng (nanograms) while beef has 3.8ng for a six ounce steak that is raised with supplemental hormones. But do not panic as the human male produces 136 000ng daily so soy oil will not make you grow breasts. Most of this is destroyed by your digestive tract anyways. While the science used by the industry seems to deem it safe I would rather see it not being used at all and hope to see the world go the way of the EU with their bans. My contention on this point is the dishonesty in the representation of so-called mass use of hormones.

Claims made that wildlife is routinely killed to ensure the safety of herd animals need to be taken seriously. Our farm uses dogs as a means of predator control and we have never lost a sheep or lamb to coyotes that are very populous in the area (we also have lynx, wolf, cougar and bear in the region, but rarely seen). The use of poisons by some is despicable and should be banned.

As for organic, I am all for it with provisions attached. It is not a catch-all panacea as often stated. The process to be listed as certified organic is a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare. We are almost organic as are most of our neighbours who run small farms. Yet we use the antibiotic penicillin on sheep that are injured if we need to stave off an infection. If we were organic that ewe would need to be culled from the flock even though that penicillin would have no effect on the meat quality of her offspring. This year was a drought year in Alberta which affected grass quality and quantity. We did not produce enough hay for the winter so we were forced to purchase hay. The hay came from a farm that does not use artificial fertilisers, but is not certified organic. That would make us lose our designation as organic. As time goes on we may try to get certified as it does raise the price of our lamb, but until the hay and barley producers locally do the same it is not possible or cost-effective to do so. If we used organic crops we would also raise our carbon footprint by having to truck in the feed from far away. In time that may be reduced and possible, but is not right now.

Also organic does not mean it has been farmed with green technologies. Most farms that are or seek to be organic are environmentally conscious, but still use diesel and other products. Things are getting better and practices are improving, but I still am a bigger advocate of buy local and support ethically farmed meats as opposed to just organic and if you can find both, that is great and I fully support that.

The claims being made about the wasting of water are also false and a misrepresentation of the water-cycle. Water does not just get used up. It passes through from natural sources through animals, back into the environment, returns as rain etc. Problems with water use and water waste are when deep-well aquifers are emptied for golf courses in Arizona and cities in the desert-like Los Vegas. Water is scarce in Southern Africa, but that is not because of the farm animals.

The methane argument that ruminants expel masses of gas that contributes to global warming is true. They do emit methane and anyone who has been in a barn with a cow knows this to be true. They fart a lot and much is expelled through their mouths as well when they regurgitate to chew their cud (to ruminate is not just for philosophers). I know there is a joke in here about bean-eating hippies and their gas, but will avoid that as it is more of a problem at yoga studios than a mass contributor to global warming. North America used to have millions of bison on the prairies. They were hunted almost to extinction and their habitat has been turned to wheat and cattle production. They would have emitted methane at a similar rate to the cattle and would have out-numbered cattle in their hey-day. Should we cull all wild ruminants that would contribute to global warming? I think the focus here is misleading and there are other threats that should be dealt with such as coal-fired electricity plants and enormous 4x4s and especially the war machines that currently ravage Iraq. What is the true cost of such a war? Much more than cow farts. And cow manure is also a carbon sink as it is applied to fields as fertiliser. And as for the vegan movement would they advocate the use of chemical fertilisers? Without additions your soil will be depleted in a one to two-year cycle without fertiliser of some sort. Without animal sources there is not enough plant waste to be used.

One critic of my last blog wrote about perma-culture as an alternative to factory farms. I like the concept of perma-culture and think more people should grow a few vegetables in their gardens even in the city centres. If you live in an apartment at least plant some window boxes with herbs. I think too many people are disconnected from nature and from food production (not necessarily mutually exclusive). Having your children grow some back-yard carrots teaches them something and is easy to do. In Durban I had a series of plant pots that grew herbs (I never had to buy them) and a small garden plot. Admittedly the snails and caterpillars ate most but finding out what grows and what doesn’t was fun and gets one outside. I recommend carrots, any of the peppers and tomatoes. I do not recommend cauliflower, broccoli or lettuce.

If it was allowed I would suggest that each household have two egg-laying chickens. We have ten and cannot eat all the eggs produced. The dogs eat scrambled eggs quite often and we give away many as well. Two chickens will produce two eggs most days for almost seven years. They happily eat your lawn clippings, vegetable waste and weeds from the garden.

I have found that vegans are often extremists that hide behind their selective use of facts. By discussing everything in global terms they condemn small-hold environmentally conscious farms as being the same as mass ranches burnt into the landscape of the Amazon rainforest. If everyone bought local or at least refused to buy meat from the Amazon then there would be no clear-cutting and back-burning there. To link meat eating to human-on-human violence is absurd. To select one example as indicative of the entire meat industry is crude and unfair. The SA Vegan Society uses battery farms as an example of why not to eat eggs and here is a simple solution to raise your own. Vegans even condemn the use of honey making the claim that it is “environmentally unfriendly”. Bees (wild or domestic) pollinate flowers and plants. Their views are extreme and even a little silly. I do recommend you check out their website. What a quick read there does is show that their beliefs are just that, beliefs. All of the fear-mongering and over-inflated rhetoric is just ideology not founded on science or reason. And I am fine with them holding those beliefs, but ask for them to refrain from the lies and misrepresentation. I looked at other vegan websites and they clearly and upfront state an ideological position and clearly state it is a belief system and not science that structures their actions and eating practices.

I am also curious as to the vegan stance on household pets? I had two dogs and four cats in South Africa that were all rescues of some sort. Are they my prisoners? And should they be raised on beans? They are being shipped to Canada in the new year in case anyone is wondering what I did/will do with them. And I love them, but will not eat them ;) [more speciest behaviour].

One final point is that everything we do needs balance and we do need to refrain from excesses. So do reduce the amount of meat eaten and you can grade it in terms of energy inputs. If you feel that the beef industry is problematic then buy lamb or chicken. Know where your food comes, and how it is produced. Demand free-range chickens and eggs if you cannot or do not wish to produce them yourself. Do not eat McDonald’s or other fast foods that do not tell you where their ingredients are from or where you know them to be problematic. Do try and live ethically but save me the hyperbole and lies.


  • Michael Francis

    I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.