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A Systems Approach to Agriculture Reform

The following is an imprecise recap of my presentation concerning agriculture at the Animal Systems Conference earlier this year. I made many of the same points at the “Lessons from Agriculture Campaigns” panel at AR2013.

First, I want to say how much I appreciate the theme of this conference. We need more systems thinking within animal advocacy. Within Western culture, we are taught to divide and categorize rather than to see connections and intersections. We learn to solve problems by isolating the variable under consideration rather than by taking context into account. That works well for algebra but not so well for complex social or ecological problems.

That being the case, I should perhaps begin by stating some of the basic tenets of the systems approach to problem solving. Whether we are psychologists looking at family systems or biologists looking at ecosystems, scientists working within a systems approach understand that we must look at the interlocking set –or system– of relationships in order to begin to understand the problem we are trying to solve.

We also understand that systems overlap and interact with each other. For example, a family can be seen as a system that exists within a neighborhood within a city within a state within a country. Members of that family participate in other systems, such as workplaces or schools. All of those social systems exist within, and act upon, the material world, which is itself made up of systems.

Stable systems tend to be self-repairing. Your body, for example, is a physical system will all sorts of strategies for bringing itself back into balance in response to an injury. Systems in stable relationship to one another tend to interact with each other in ways that tend to be mutually reinforcing. Here in the U.S., the education system churns out exactly the sort of worker-consumers the economic system needs, and the economic system deprives the education system of funds that might lead to more robust critical thinking among high school graduates.

The agriculture system, of which animal agriculture is a component, has both social and material aspects, neither of which can be ignored. Like most systems, it will seek to bring itself back into balance by the easiest means possible if it has been disrupted.

In its social aspect, the U.S. agriculture system exists within and interacts with a legal system (itself a social system) that deems both land and animals to be property. And, of course, that legal system both reflects and reinforces the values of cultural systems that define “human” as both separate from and superior to ecosystems and animals.

That’s a topic for another day. Today, I want to focus on another social-material system within which animal agriculture operates: the economic system known as capitalism, which is also all tangled up with the legal system. Think just for a moment of the government subsidies that allow farmers to sell grain to ranchers at deflated prices, thereby lowering “livestock” feed costs so dramatically that McDonalds can sell hamburgers for under a dollar and still make a profit.

The key word here is “profit.” The purpose of agriculture within capitalism is not feeding and clothing people, but profit. That’s why, when domestic consumer preferences change, the response is not to change agriculture but, rather, to use any maneuver possible to keep on making a profit by producing the same old things. That might mean advertising, trickery, exports, or some combination of the three.

Let me give you some examples. You probably know that big tobacco responded to the dip in U.S. tobacco consumption by increasing exports to and advertising in other countries, especially developing nations where more people were just starting to have a little more disposable income. You might or might not know that the fast food franchises have done the same, marketing McNuggets and milkshakes as symbols of modernity and affluence to emerging middle classes.

Here at home, you might have noticed —if you’re old enough— that lots more things have lots more cheese in them than they used to do. Three-cheese tortilla chips? Stuffed crust pizza? Both of those and more are part of what the dairy industry itself calls “cheese bombing” — a response to declining demand for whole milk by slipping more and more cheese into more and more products. Similarly, I’ve noticed that whey —a by-product of cheese production— is being slipped into power bars and other “health foods” and marketed as if it were some sort of high-quality source of protein rather than a disposal problem for the dairy industry. And now —not at all coincidentally, I am sure— we’ve got the “Greek yogurt” fad. Hmmm. How did it come to be that U.S. consumers are suddenly mad for a kind of yogurt that just happens to take twice as much milk to make?

Why go to all that trouble? If consumer tastes have changed, why not just produce something else? It’s not that simple. Imagine that you are a farmer in Maryland, “growing” chickens for Tyson and corn that Tyson will make into chicken feed. You may not know how to grow other crops or how to get them to market. You’ve got compounds of huge “chicken houses” taking up acres of land. What are you going to do with them? Or imagine a third-generation “dairy” farmer in Vermont, who’s never grown any crop but hay and whose capital has been sunk into cows and milking machines. Even if zhe wanted to get out of dairy and into organic vegetables, where would the money and expertise for the transition come from?

Which helps us to understand “happy meat.” I know that it’s become common to blame those who work for animal welfare for the phenomena of so-called “humane” meat, dairy, and eggs. I feel fairly certain that we would have seen that development whether or not anybody ever tried to ban battery cages or gestation crates. As soon as a significant quantity of consumers quit eating animal products because of their discomfort with animal suffering, it became likely that some vendors of animal products would attempt to position their products as less injurious—and to charge a premium for that. As soon as the first undercover investigator set foot in an egg factory, it became almost inevitable that some vendors of eggs would tout themselves as “cage free.”

And so we can begin to see how dangerous it is to neglect the social and material systems in which animal agriculture participates. I’m dismayed by how many animal rights activists and organizations confine themselves to promoting personal veganism, as though the magic hand of the market can be trusted to take care of transforming agriculture in response to changing demand. Like trickle-down economics, the magic hand of the market is a conservative fantasy. In real life, capitalism responds to “go vegan” campaigns with cheese bombing, Greek yogurt, and happy meat.

I used to say —and I still believe it’s true— that the key to ending animal agriculture is to undermine its profitability by means of a twofold strategy of increasing costs and decreasing demand, doing both by all nonviolent means possible. After living in two different rural regions dominated by animal agriculture (first poultry country and now dairy land), I now know that we need to add a third component to our strategy: Animal advocates must be the ones to map and make possible the transition from animal-based agriculture to crop-based agriculture.

The “meat” industries won’t do it. Big “dairy” won’t do it. Federal, state, and county agriculture bureaus are too beholden to big ag to do it without prompting. In both of the places our sanctuary has been located —the first 9 years as Eastern Shore Sanctuary on the Delmarva peninsula and the past 4 years as VINE in Vermont— we have known farmers who wanted to get out of animal agriculture but couldn’t find the funds or technical assistance to do it.

It’s time for animal advocates to step up. There’s so much work to be done, at the county, state, and federal levels. We need grassroots groups to do the intensely local aspects of that work, and we also need national organizations —they know who they are— to devote their considerable wealth and energy to federal policies (including farm aid) that support farmers who grow plant crops to be eaten by people. We also need them to quit wasting state legislators’ time and patience with one-size-fits-all bills —like laws banning gestation crates in states that don’t produce “pork” anyway!— and throw their lobbying weight behind local initiatives such as the one that helped former tobacco farmers switch over to organic vegetables. Vermont, for example, wants to grow hemp but is barred by the feds from doing so. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if HSUS were to show its support for hempmilk and hemp ice cream by asking the state how its lobbyists could help?

The upside of the hard work ahead of us is that promoting plant-based agriculture is a positive endeavor in every sense of the word. When we push for projects that help farmers transition to crops that are both truly sustainable and more profitable, crops that will improve the finances of farmers and the health of communities, we show that we are FOR (not against) farmers and rural communities.

I’ll end on another upside. Within developmental psychology, we also talk about the “chronosystem” (a fancy word for time) as another system to which we must attend when trying to understand and solve problems. The time for us to do what I propose here has never been better. Around the country and around the world, more and more people are interested in issues of food justice and agricultural sustainability. They’ve been planting community gardens, joining Community-Supported Agriculture projects,  and paying closer attention to where their food comes from. If the “locavore” movement has tended towards “happy meat,” that’s only because we’ve been too busy promoting veganism in the same old ways to be truly engaged in these emerging social movements. I’m here to say that, despite the dismaying fondness for “happy meat” shown by some locavores, I find all of this attention to food to be a sign that the time is ripe for a concerted effort to promote the policies and practices that will make the transition to plant-based agriculture possible. VINE intends to do its part in that effort, and I hope you will join us.


11 comments to A Systems Approach to Agriculture Reform

  • anitat
    So here’s an interesting question. Do you think that the marketing of products like “nuggets” and “formed patties” is a direct response to trying to remove people from their food so that the connection between animal and ingestion becomes even more removed?

    We have noticed a HUGE upswing in this kind of product in this area — selling like wildfire — and have been trying to make some sense to it, since it is lower quality food at a higher price. I firmly believe that anyone who eats animal products (and yes, i know that is abhorrent to many, but hear me out, because it is a step that many people seem to miss) ….anyway, I firmly believe that anyone who eats animal products should recognize the sacrifice the animal made to provide them with this meal. How can this happen, if you can’t even look at the food and GUESS what it is?

    How can you teach people about veganism if they can’t even recognize the food as an animal? I truly believe as people become connected with thier food, it is a first step — but how can the first step happen if the food is unrecognizable? Many of my daughter’s friends can connect venison with a deer, because daddy hunts….but have no idea chicken nuggets or beef patties come from an animal. My contemplation for the day….

  • Pat
    I am very excited about your message. It is a different point of view for me as a 3 year vegan who, as you note, has been up to now content to promote personal veganism. You have planted a seed that I will do what I can to nourish. I agree about the whey/cheese issue. It is difficult to purchase any kind of bread without whey as an ingredient. I would be be interested in your opinions/knowledge concerning Lake Champlain water quality and animal agriculture in Vermont. Thank you for your blog and emails that support and affirm my choice to remain vegan.
  • Sheryl
    What’s the plant crop charitable organization that could replace Heifer International?
  • Miriam
    Sheryl, a Well-Fed World is doing the work you ask about — they are awfully cool — check them out!
  • Sheryl
    Thank you. I will check them out for sure.

    Another thought: Since many people think of crop farming as dependent on the products of nonhuman animals, such as manure for fertilizer, what are 1) ways to address this in conversation and 2) viable alternatives? Is there a movement toward veganic farming?

  • Gary
    Sheryl, there are some veganic CSA farms in New York and California. Sometimes I point out that Native Americans were known as prolific cultivators of crops, and they did this without domesticated animals, so the concept is nothing new.
  • Sheryl
    Great info, Gary, thanks.
  • pattrice
    I’ve been collecting examples of veganic farming practices from around the world for some years now, with an eye to compiling and publishing them somehow. Maybe we’ll get some funding for that at some point. In the interim, here are some older blog posts on veganic gardening:
    Cruelty Free Gardening
    Veganic Gardening, part 2
    Go Veganic
  • Am swooning over the brilliance of this blogpost/essay, and am particularly appreciative of the idea that ‘happy meat’ may be a reversible/passing digression, at least on the part of locovores, who are not yet thinking in an integrative way. . .This week, HSUS’s new ‘celebrate farmers’ Facebook page has grabbed the attention of many animal liberationists who feel complete despair over its crossing over, up to its neck (forgive mixed metaphor), into the marketing of flesh. The cynicism of executives there who are themselves vegan, but who are too lazy to study and understand your (Pattrice’s) work, is a tragic setback for the animals. Many years ago, when the USDA proposed the face-branding of all cattle imported into the US from Mexico, most animal groups (like HSUS) fought tooth and nail to have that brand moved to animals’ hips. There was, however, another option, which was NO branding at all; and when PETA allowed me (their regulatory lawyer) to argue for quarantining instead of branding, we won at least a reprieve from all branding. . .for a while. . .I mention this only by way of flagging the animal welfare movement’s blind spot when it comes to abolitionist solutions. Time and again, that movement will choose exploitation over abolition, even when ready and winnable abolitionist solutions exist! Transition of flesh farming to crop farming offers a direct route to liberation, and one that can bypass what HSUS is trying to turn into centuries of ‘humane’ animal breeding/slaughtering, at least in the US. I’m sure that Pattrice has exerted influence on HSUS, in this connection, but clearly more pressure is needed. . .Data/science/evidence must prevail, and that is what Pattrice is offering, to a world that is currently drowning in the blood of farmed animals.
  • pattrice
    Lucy, thank you for this feedback, the effusiveness of which made me blush but also inspired me to get back to work on a book that’s been stuck in the planning stage for too long: A slim, practical volume of animal liberation theory and praxis for the here and now. I agree that the timidity of failing to seize some opportunities, or even backing down from victories, can be mystifying. We should talk. Please do write me directly. And let me return the compliments: I really appreciated your foreword to Eternal Treblinka, and I will always be grateful for the legal work you did while at PETA.
  • […] us completely unsurprised. As we have said again and again and again (and again) over the years, the success  of the animal liberation movement will depend […]

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