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Ethical farming III — stuffed and starved

I decided to write another blog on the topic to further clarify my position on a few issues and to adopt a more conciliatory tone. Too many people are worried about being wrong, they say nothing or refuse to change their position no matter how untenable. Reading the comments and debating with some of the people has been enriching and quite interesting. I have learnt a few things about the vegan lifestyle as well as some disturbing things about the very industry my family are a small part of. A sick imbalance in the world exists where the 700 million hungry are out-numbered by the 1 billion overweight. Global obesity and global hunger are part of the same processes (see Raj Patel’s book Stuffed and Starved for an enlightening view of many products from plate to production). I think all people should be aware of and make conscious decisions about their food — where it comes from and what is involved in its production?

My overall stance on meat will not change anytime soon. I like to eat meat and do not feel that sheep are or should be treated as equal to humans as some people seem to suggest. I am tempted to make a remark about their poor arts and sciences and that their overall use of logic is woolly at best but do not wish to be flippant. What I would like is for those who oppose the meat industry to go beyond YouTube and use the internet to look at academic and government documents instead of vegan websites that cite other vegan websites. I would also suggest that you visit a farm and talk to people about their opinions and what their farming practices are. If you simply oppose the killing of other creatures that is fine as well, but be fair in your representations of the meat Industry and those involved in it.

If I wrote anything that was inflammatory or derogatory towards anyone that was never my intention. I do get annoyed when labels such as “evil” are applied to all farmers and farms and the meat industry is treated as a monolith. That results in a more terse writing than I perhaps would normally adopt. I do also get annoyed when there is a misrepresentation of facts and truisms that I know to be false. I do not mean to set up vegans as “straw men” by representing them as caricatures even as some of the responses were clichéd. I hope that some of the readers do the same and read widely and delve into the topic of food as we all depend on it.

One thing I have read up on and engaged with is the use of growth hormones in beef production in Canada and South Africa. I know many farms do not use growth hormones and I know the figures are overblown and inflated by those opposed to the meat industry on ideological grounds — the 80% figure is grossly inflated — but as I said above I have learnt a few things through this debate. In Canada there are a number of growth hormones that are approved for use in cattle. It can raise the efficiency of growing meat by 10-25%, meaning less grain per cow is needed. Much of the science says there is no harm to those consuming the meat and many of these hormones would be destroyed in the digestive tract, but there is also science that says there are potential health risks that are not fully known. So I will no longer eat beef that is known to contain hormones. Why run the risk when the industry can function without them?

That brings me to perhaps my biggest bone of contention with the use of growth hormones — we as consumers have so little choice in the matter. Many producers do not use them but hormone-free beef is sold alongside all the other beef so there is no way to tell them apart in the shops unless one buys organic. Where I currently live there is no organic beef for sale in the shops. So this brings me back to my stance on buy local. I will now source my beef directly from a farmer who does not use growth hormones and buy a whole cow. There are some logistical barriers that will need to be overcome due to slaughtering and transport and the need for a larger freezer, but until then I will only purchase organic beef. I am of course in a financial position to purchase the more expensive organic meat and I will always forgive someone in different circumstances if they do not. Until these options are more widespread the cost factor will be a large barrier to overcome. I hope that demand can help fuel supply and allow more farms to become organic. There is an issue with labelling that needs to be addressed and I know meat can be traced from shop to the farm through the tagging systems used, but that information is not available to the consumer.

And this leads me to reiterate my stance on meat farming. It can be done ethically and humanely. We all should oppose cruel and unnecessary practices. Globally farms are linked through supply chains that encircle and abuse all of us. A few companies control the distribution of our entire food supply. We sell our lamb at 20% of the price the consumer sees in the stores. Both the producer and consumer are getting screwed in the process and the middle-man is benefiting. Small farms like ours survive due to external sources of income and because my father refuses to quit. As these farms disappear from lack of support then the cost of our meat will rise and we will be forced to buy from afar to supply the demand for meat. While this demand may be one of the reasons used to decry the industry it again shifts the focus away from the particular. I would like to see small-scale farms given the support they need to survive as well as delinking them from the large corporations that control all our food. If not, local producers will be pushed out and the meat will be sourced from the Amazon. This of course is not unique to meat. Plants and plant products are also sold through the same large corporations and small farms are destroyed and producers suffer from unemployment and poverty and the consumer suffers from higher costs. In Africa the higher costs feed into cycles of malnutrition where families live on processed maize meal and in richer countries the poor eat unhealthy ready meals from a box as a cheaper option than cooking from scratch. So the poor are often the hungry and the fat; both are victims of limited options or an array of false ones. More than 40% of children in sub-Saharan Africa have stunted growth from malnutrition, especially from protein deficiency. I do not think that an all-vegetable diet would help them as the vegan diet is quite complicated to follow if it is to be done right and many vegans take supplements that would not be available for the poor. An all-vegetable diet among the poor often means maize meal or rice and a handful of beans a day would not suffice for required protein. Other sources such as nuts, seeds, grains and legumes need to be taken as well. I know that due to my activity level my recommended amount of protein is more than 100g per day — a difficult amount to obtain via a vegan diet. Pregnant women also require more than 70g to 100g a day according to my doctor.

Someone asked “what does this blog have to do with Africa?” Everything, because Africa has the potential to be a food exporter and also suffers the worst in terms of world hunger. Famine and hunger in Africa is due to poor politics, not poor production. But when they sell their produce on the world market they compete with the other poor farmers of the world at the behest and to the benefit of the few large corporations engaged in the world food trade and production. Food prices reflect global trends, these corporations can ignore local contexts and local production costs because they control the entire process. South Africa has more than enough ability to grow its own food supply. There is no turning back to happy peasant agriculture as the current land-reform process would do because it carves up successful farms into small plots of subsistence agriculture. I would like to see a radical push for more food sovereignty for all people and would encourage people to fight for by-laws that will allow them to keep chickens in the cities and for everyone to grow some vegetables instead of just flowers (if you mix them it’s pretty and tasty). When I lived in Durban I found the soil quality was poor but easily enriched with compost made from leaves from the garden. A three-metre square garden produced a month’s worth of carrots, masses of tomatoes and a variety of other vegetables. Though hardly a mass saving it was a start and what we did could have been taken much further and made even more productive with slightly more effort and care (and less dogs digging). Much of Africa is suited for cattle and animal husbandry but not for other types of food production and poultry can be produced simply and cheaply to augment food security and develop a small livelihood.

I do not buy the arguments that the meat industry contributes up to 18% of human-caused climate change. I think that it does contribute only slightly more than food production of other crops. A large factor is the transport of food around the globe, yet another argument for buying local that would reduce the carbon footprint. Farming is not inherently bad for the environment as I see humans as part of that environment. We need to treat our farms as ecosystems with a cycle of life and death, renewal and recycling. Matter must be returned to the system at the rate it is removed. The sun obviously helps with its contribution to the system via the plants and the sheep do their part with their manure spread out across the fields. Our little farm needs no artificial fertilisers and by the way the worst users of fertilisers are urban lawns and golf courses, not farms. A lawn is a terribly wasteful aspect of the property in terms of labour and inputs. Form your garden around food and trees and bring back the wonderful birds and butterflies so often missing from city landscapes. We do add to the carbon footprint of our lamb through the use of diesel to run the tractor that brings them hay as well as water heaters that run off of electricity to keep their water ice-free in winter. In terms of inputs, I will use more fuel to drive to work each year than what we spend on diesel for the tractors (we have two for different purposes). Yet half of our land has been returned to forest and we have successfully fought the county from removing the beaver damn and draining the wetland on our farm and by default from upstream. My parents were even proudly labelled beaver-loving tree-huggers. Both the forest and the wetland are large carbon sinks that help offset our carbon footprint. Wetlands are said to be the largest source of methane in the atmosphere but the amount of algae and plant life associated with it acts as a carbon sink. Though I am arguing here from anecdote and local experience (I am an anthropologist after all) there are many little farms trying to do the same and they need local support. If we are serious about feeding the world then we need to think out of the box and if we think in smaller boxes we can help the world’s poor by keeping food production in the control of the people and keep the prices low. We also then know what went into our food and where it came from.

So in conclusion there have been some good points raised and I have found out more about food production and alternative diets and lifestyles. Some of the premises we fight from are actually the same: organic is best, agribusiness and corporate control over our food supply is a bad thing, food security is vital, gluttony and greed of any kind are bad, over-consumption needs to be curtailed, global warming needs to be addressed as do the causes, and so on. So perhaps some common ground can be created so that a fight for control over our food supply through buy local, buy organic, and for the creation of greener alternatives. None of the alternatives from go vegan to organic are panaceas for problems in world food production and distribution or for global warming. Everybody needs to do their part and seek alternatives to create a better world.


  • 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.