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The Locavore Pig Debate: Sustainability and Ethics in the Local and “Happy” Meat Movement

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Earlier this year a Glaswegian company called Locavore announced plans to raise pigs for consumption within the local area. This project has now run its course. The two pigs kept on Locavore’s “Croft” (a patch of land on the edge of the Queen’s Park Recreation Ground) were slaughtered last week, and their meat is now stocking the shelves of the Locavore shop.

Locavore intended for the pig project to support the wider remit of the company - encouraging “ethical” and “sustainable local food economies” - by both highlighting specific issues associated with and offering an alternative to large-scale industrialised agriculture. [1]

In this post I will discuss and evaluate Locavore’s pig project with these intentions in mind. I will consider Locavore specifically as well as the wider context of the locavore movement and animal agriculture more generally. I will briefly reflect upon the ongoing debate about the pig project, the form it has taken, and the implications that this has had. Finally, I will suggest two courses of action now open to Locavore and locavores alike.

The pig project and the environment

It is widely acknowledged that our current systems of animal agriculture are unsustainable in every sense of the word. Large-scale and intensive farming practices have been an unmitigated ecological disaster, directly causing extensive deforestation, land degradation, pollution, global warming, and much more, all of which researchers have warned us of for at least the last decade. [2]

Locavore’s mission statements for the pig project echo these warnings. Reuben Chesters, the company’s founder, states it clearly:

“As a social enterprise all about making sustainable local food work we need to address meat…Depending on what numbers you quote, meat is responsible for 14-22% of all man made green house gas emissions, this in the context of foods [sic] total of around 30%. For us not to tackle meat would be grossly negligent of our aims.”

“Through the project we’ve hoped to highlight issues such as the British pork industry’s reliance on imported soya bean as feedstock. This means the industry can feed more pigs by importing feed from abroad. The footprint of the area needed to grow the UK’s soya demand is the size of Yorkshire. Most of the UK’s soy is imported from South America where the growing demand has caused mass wildlife habitat and carbon sink destruction.” [3]

Thus, the pig project is pitched both as part of Locavore’s wider effort towards sustainable agriculture and as a direct and workable response to global warming, deforestation, and other environmental issues: a way of both drawing attention to the problems caused by current methods of meat production and proposing an alternative to these methods.

In intent these aims are reasonable. In effect, however, Locavore’s pig project falls short of both goals. The potential of the project both as an educational tool and as a model for an alternative food production system is severely compromised by Locavore’s focus on the method of reform of rather than the scale of animal agriculture; that is, by their promotion of “sustainable” meat over and above some form of vegetarianism.

Locavore’s stated and implied position is that the current method of meat production - industrialised, factory farming - is the most important driving factor behind the industry’s environmental impact. Scale is identified as a contributing factor but only insofar as it necessitates production methods of this sort. Thus, they say the following:

“Our stance is that we think conventional meat production, particularly intensive pork production, is unsustainable, unethical and should stop. We also think people should on average eat less meat, but above all we think that the meat people should eat should be produced in the best way possible.” [4]

Locavore do mention reduction; however, this is heavily rooted in and generally subsumed by an overarching emphasis on production methods. Accordingly, reducing meat consumption by adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet, is not per se proposed as the best solution. In fact, eating meat from animals reared like Locavore’s is presented as a “different way of being vegetarian”, with both it and vegetarianism being “good” for the environment:

“We think having our pigs will help raise awareness of the unethical and unsustainable practices under which most meat is currently produced and help people make more sustainable food choices....... be that to only eat local organic free-range meat, or to become vegetarian. Both outcomes are good for food sustainability.” [5]

Additional statements such as “meat is [not] unsustainable by definition” and indeed the very act of keeping the pigs similarly imply that there is a sustainable way to eat meat, a way for everyone to have “a little meat now and then.” [6, 7]

Locavore’s method-focussed approach is misleading in several respects. Firstly, it implies that Locavore-type operations are a “good” option environmentally speaking and, moreover, that they are as “good” an option as vegetarianism (even veganism) environmentally speaking. Both of these implications belie the true nature of meat and its impact on the environment.

As products go, meat is probably as close as anything could be to “unsustainable by definition”. From emissions to land and resource usage, the inherent toll of meat production is so massive that it is simply not feasible to suggest that method reform, either alone or in tandem with partial reduction, presents a viable environmental solution, and certainly not one that is comparable to veganism.

Consider the following facts:

  • Even the lowest estimate for greenhouse gas emissions from meat production (14%) is higher than total emissions from transport. This means that meat production (let alone dairy and egg production) accounts for more emissions than all of the world’s cars, planes, and trains combined!
  • Producing 1 pound of animal flesh (beef) requires around 5,124 gallons of water. Put another way, you’d save more water by giving up a single pound of beef than by giving up showers for an entire year.
  • 1 pound of beef requires 16 pounds of grain to produce.
  • Animal agriculture is estimated to be the direct driver for around 80% of all worldwide deforestation.
  • The area of land used for grazing animals (i.e. not including feed crop production) is currently 26% of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet. This figure equates to almost 80% of the total land utilised by humans.
  • Even eggs, milk, and chicken (widely thought to be more sustainable than beef and pork products) require 12-23 times more land to produce than edible vegetables. [8]

The Locavore and locavore approach tries to answer these and other facts with method reform. For example, locavores suggest that one answer to deforestation is simply to feed livestock different types of food (e.g. kitchen waste), thus bypassing the need for crops currently imported from deforested land. Locavores extoll the virtues of eating locally to offset “food miles” and thus, greenhouse gas emissions. They argue that local food systems (such as that implemented in the pig project) make use of land that can’t otherwise be cultivated for edible crops, thus decreasing pressures on land availability. [9]

Unfortunately, the efficacy of these and similar measures is highly doubtful. Research suggests that Locavore-type food systems would actually increase pressures on land, water, and other resources per animal raised. After all, “sustainable” and “organic” animals take longer to raise, thus eating more feed, drinking more water, and releasing more waste and more emissions; since they are afforded more space, they also take up more room. In a world which, according to the above figures, is already struggling to sustain the animals we raise (95%+ in factory farmed conditions), affording more resources and more land to animal agriculture is clearly not a sustainable option. [10]

Altering method, such as locavores propose, does nothing to address the basic inefficiencies of a system which sustains both animals and the plants which feed them; the only logical solution is to either consume these plants directly or to use the land on which they grow, and the land on which animals live, to grow plants that can be consumed; in other words, to push for a widespread shift to plant-based diets. If the global community depended on plants and not animals for food, we would massively reduce water usage, energy consumption, gas emissions, land usage, deforestation, and all the ills associated with animal agriculture; and to such an extent that we could feed far more people (think ending hunger) on much less land (so much less that we wouldn’t even need to contemplate using the “uncultivable” land which locavores proudly claim to use). [11]

And limited or even significant reductions in meat consumption levels would never be comparable to veganism in terms of environmental impact. Lest we forget, a global population of 7 billion (and counting), all eating “a bit” of meat, “every now and then”, still constitutes a great deal of meat-eating. In any case, the gulf between the environmental impact of animal product consumption and the environmental impact of vegetarian and particularly vegan diets is so huge that even an almost complete reduction in animal product consumption per capita would not come close to achieving the same results. We can refer to the above figures to put this in perspective; if every person on earth only had one single pound of beef per year, and no other animal products at all, that’s still thousands of billions of gallons of water wasted, thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gas emitted, and thousands of acres of land deforested and used.

Studies conducted by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews at Carnegie-Mellon underline the basic environmental gulf between even local, “sustainable” animal-based diets and plant-based diets. Having completed a systematic comparison of life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in both diets, the authors conclude:

“We suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than ‘buying local’. Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to…a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.” [12]

“In other words,” Vasile Stanescu summarises, “shifting from beef to vegetables for even a single day a week would in fact be more helpful in reducing greenhouse gases than shifting the entirety of one’s diet to exclusively locally produced sources.” [13]

Information such as this demonstrates why even implicitly equating limited meat consumption with vegetarianism, as Locavore do, is misleading. The toll that meat takes on the environment compared to plant foods is so massive that really, any level of meat or animal product consumption is ill-advised from an environmental perspective. Stanescu again summarises:

"'If we want to fight global warming through the food we buy, then one thing’s clear: We have to drastically reduce the meat we consume,' says Tara Garnett of London’s Food Climate Research Network. So while some of us Americans fashionably fret over our food’s travel budget and organic content, Garnett says the real question is, 'Did it come from an animal or did it not come from an animal?’” [14]

This leads us to the crux of the issue. Actually the real question here is not “are Locavore-type systems more sustainable than large-scale factory-type systems?” (a question which Locavore consistently distract us with), but “are Locavore-type systems more sustainable than veganism?”. Small-scale, local operations may or may not be a better choice than factory farming, but even if they were, they could not even closely match a widespread shift to veganism in terms of environmental impact.

This raises numerous questions for Locavore. Being that veganism represents a more sustainable option than even the most “sustainable” local meat, is it right to call operations like the pig project “sustainable” or “environmental”? Or, perhaps more importantly, if effort is being made to educate and advise on sustainable food systems, why bother promoting “sustainable” meat, something that is at best a half-measure and at worst a fantasy, over and above veganism outright?

The pig project and ethics

Locavore’s pig project is supposed to educate about ethics as well as the environment. Again, the intention is to educate about the ills of the current system and also propose another option. Again, this is not a bad intention because indeed, factory farmed animals suffer the worst and most horrific tortures imaginable. Torture is no misnomer either; commonplace practices and occurrences in global and British industrial pig farming include the use of farrowing crates (metal boxes which completely restrict animals’ movements), beating, kicking and body slamming till death; conditions are statistically highly likely to be poor, with many investigations revealing cramped, unclean, barren living quarters, and sick, injured, dead, and decaying pigs left without attention. Animals in other industries - beef, chicken, dairy, eggs, etc. - fare similarly poorly. [15]

Locavore’s approach - and indeed the approach of many animal charities - focusses on improving conditions like this for farmed animals. Their idea is to treat the animals we use for food as well as possible; to give to them a high standard of living or welfare. Locavore expound this approach often: 

“Our pigs have had the happiest and most sustainable rearing. They have the space usually occupied by 100’s of animals and have been spoiled rotten with slightly past it organic produce and lots of attention.”

“Our pigs will be very well looked after while they live at their lovely spacious home at The Croft and we think they will be the happiest pigs around…We condemn conventional ‘factory farming’ where animals are kept in small spaces inside sheds year round.” [16]

This focus on welfare - or welfarism - is problematic in several respects. Firstly, In the wider context of animal agriculture more generally, welfare reform simply doesn’t achieve much from a practical perspective. The terms ‘high-welfare’, ‘humane’, ‘free-range’, "Quality Assured" and similar are all notoriously unregulated and misused by those who use them (including the food giants against whom Locavore and other welfarists protest). By and large these terms are actually meaningless marketing words designed to make people feel better about doing something that basically concerns them: buying and eating meat. This is less the case with Locavore, who are an example of welfarism probably achieving as much as it can; during their lives the Locavore pigs were surely treated better than many of the animals raised in other “humane” and “free range” operations. [17]

However, even in this, “the best” of all “high-welfare” operations, the basic fact remains: the pigs were slaughtered for human consumption. The flaw of focussing on welfare alone is that it essentially and inexplicably ignores this act; worse, it suggests that killing and exploiting animals is not in a fact an ethical wrong. Welfarism maintains the notion that our moral responsibility to animals somehow only goes as far as treating them well in their lifetime; it does not highlight that the killing and exploiting of animals is in and of itself ethically wrong.

Why is killing and exploiting animals ethically wrong? For the same reason that keeping them in poor conditions is unethical: because causing unnecessary suffering to animals is morally wrong. This is something which virtually everyone agrees on. We all agree that animals have at least some moral value and that we have an ethical obligation not to impose unnecessary suffering on them. As Gary Francione points out, whatever we think “necessity” is, we all agree what it is not; we all agree that it is not necessary to inflict suffering for purposes of pleasure, convenience, or entertainment. [18]

But why do humans eat animals? It’s not for survival. No one maintains that it is medically necessary to eat animal foods. Even the most cautious and conservative health organisations - including the British National Health Service and the American Dietetic Association - agree that vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and appropriate in all stages of life. I won’t even get into the growing body of evidence which suggests that veganism may actually be beneficial in terms of health - that’s not important here. Whether or not you believe that animal products are detrimental to health, there is no argument that animal products are necessary for health. It is also widely agreed that the consumption of animal products, as I have discussed, is fuelling widespread environmental disaster. Given that we have no nutritional need to consume animal products, a practice which is in fact causing widespread harm to our planet (and, perhaps, to our bodies), why do we continue to do so? Taste is the bottom line: pleasure. We harm (kill) and exploit animals for pleasure. [19]

Think about it another way. We recognise that humans, like animals, have an interest in and a right to continue to live, and to do so without being exploited and harmed. At the very least, we recognise that violating these basic rights constitutes an ethical wrong. As with animals, we agree that inflicting suffering on humans, particularly for purposes of pleasure, convenience, and entertainment, is ethically wrong. Now think about this: there are no morally relevant criteria which consistently separate animals from humans which exempt them from deserving the same basic rights; and just like humans, they are all sentient, they all want to live, and they all have the capacity to suffer. And like intelligence, gender, sexuality, race, age, or any other characteristic, species is no reason to deny the basic right of a sentient being to not suffer unnecessarily. [20]

How does this relate to Locavore’s pig project? It means that no matter how good the treatment of the pigs in life, the killing and exploiting of them still logically constitutes an ethical wrong, and the same is true of all “happy”, “free-range”, and “organic” animal operations. There is no such thing as ethical meat or an ethical animal product.

Locavore have been presented with these issues already, and it’s important to consider their responses. They say that:

“Everyone has to decide their own ethics”,

“We’re not vegan”,

and,

“We’re not saying meat is wrong or right.” [21]

I should point out that these are odd things for Locavore to say given that, firstly, they claim to be an “ethical” food supplier and by so doing they have already stated their position to judge right and wrong; they are claiming to be an arbiter of ethics. Secondly, they do suggest that meat is “right” both by selling it and by labelling it as “ethical”. [22]

Everyone does decide their own ethics, that much is true. The problem is that this fact alone does not say anything about what actually is ethical. Saying that ethics are a personal choice is an absurd, non-sequitur response to the assertion that we shouldn’t kill, eat, and exploit animals; just as it would be an absurd, non-sequitur response to the assertion that we shouldn’t kill, eat, and exploit humans, or commit rape, or any other unethical act.

Another of Locavore’s preferred responses, and perhaps their most used, hinges on their assertion that they are “less wrong” than large food suppliers. They consistently suggest that there are much “bigger evils” out there, and that their critics ought to concentrate their efforts on the food giants instead - Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons, whoever supplies factory-farmed and “low-welfare” meat and animal products. Again, Locavore are somewhat correct here; these surely are deeply unethical companies (of which, indeed, most activists are also critical). However, the issue here is that saying you are “less wrong” than someone else, again, says nothing about the rightness of your own actions; it also misinterprets the true nature of ethics which is, after all, about what is right and wrong, good and bad, black and white. [23]

Think about it. What if someone said this?

“I killed a man yesterday, but I didn’t beat him to a bloody pulp or lock him in a cage first. I just killed him. I am less wrong than that other guy who did do those things first.”

Would you give this person credence? Would you let him call his actions “ethical”? Of course you wouldn’t. Because being “less wrong” doesn’t equal “right”.

(Just to clarify: I'm not equating meat-eating with human murder or torture; what I'm doing is drawing a parallel between the two actions, both of which violate the basic right of sentient beings to not suffer. I'm saying that in both instances there is clearly wrongdoing, and to only make that judgement in the case of a human makes no logical sense.)

Thus, the ethical issues with Locavore’s pig project parallel the environmental issues. Being that welfarism does not cover or protect even the most basic rights of sentient animals, because even in the “happiest” farm operations animals suffer (are slaughtered) for no reason other than pleasure; being that veganism therefore represents the only ethical option when it comes to food; it is deeply inaccurate to call operations like the pig project “ethical”. Again, if effort is being made to educate and advise on human-animal ethics, why bother promoting high-welfare meat, something that is at best a half-measure and at worst a fantasy, over and above veganism, which directly avoids animal exploitation on principle?

Conclusion

The main problem with Locavore is that they portray the pig project as ethical and themselves as purveyors of ethical meats. This deeply misrepresents what ethics is. At best, the pig project addresses only a small part of our actions against animals which are unethical: those which violate standards of welfare (whatever we think they actually are). It ignores the fact that killing and otherwise using animals for food (for pleasure) are themselves unethical practices which violate the rights of animals (just as these actions would also violate the rights of humans and therefore also be unethical).

Locavore’s identification of the pig project as an environmental option is also misrepresentative. Doing so underplays key information about the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Even small-scale, localised animal production represents a significant environmental threat, a threat which would not subside if, indeed, our rapidly expanding global population subscribed to the idea of having just “a little” “well-produced” meat every now and then.

In case this wasn’t clear enough: I do not doubt that Locavore present a better option than many when it comes to food production. My qualm is that Locavore’s self-identification as “ethical” and “sustainable” is at best not wholly representative of what these terms encompass and at worst highly misleading and fundamentally inaccurate. These are simply the wrong terms to use when in effect the system Locavore champions addresses only issues of welfarism and method in ethical and environmental terms respectively. The problem is not that Locavore are as “bad” as Tesco (or any other large-scale animal product producer), but that by portraying “happy”, “local”, “organic” meat as being as environmentally and ethically effective as veganism, they are presenting half measures as whole ones; they are suggesting that “less wrong” does in fact equal “right”.

Simply put: if you say you are setting a sustainable and ethical example, then set a sustainable and ethical example.

THE DEBATE MORE GENERALLY AND THE NEXT STEP

Locavore have encouraged people to give feedback on their pig project and, indeed, they have received this. Fierce debate has ensued over the past few weeks and, more frequently than I had hoped, this debate has included namecalling, slander, aggression, and threats from both sides. I hereby call for a more thoughtful and peaceful approach; one which does not, as this one has, draw the focus of the debate to personalities (poor/evil Ruben and poor/evil Locavore vs. poor/evil activists). It is my hope that this article will realign the Locavore debate away from this and towards what actually matters: the environmental and particularly the ethical issues at stake.

I hope that Locavore will appreciate this approach and circulate this post as they have others. I realise that this has not been a complete discussion of the issues involved and welcome genuine questions from Reuben or any other member of the Locavore team.

I respectfully ask Locavore to recognise the innate unsustainability of meat production and the fact that if they, like most of us, believe that causing unnecessary suffering to animals is ethically wrong, then veganism is the only logical, sustainable, ethical solution. I hope that Locavore will reevaluate their actions and identifications based on this conclusion and live up to the terms they apply to their products; the only alternative is changing these terms.

Vegan Lass

Sources

Photo sourced from The Daily Record.

All quotes from Locavore are sourced from their website [1], their Facebook page [4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 16, 21, 23], Twitter [21, 23], or email campaign [3, 6, 9, 21, 22].

Environment

Bluejay, Michael. “Want to Save the Environment? Go Vegetarian.” Vegetarian Guide, 2008-12. http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/environment.html [2, 8, 11]

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” 2006. ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0701e/a0701e.pdf [2, 8, 11]

Mc Williams, James E. “The Myth of Sustainable Meat.” NY Times, 13 April, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/13/opinion/the-myth-of-sustainable-meat.html?_r=0 [2, 8]

Patterson, Lindsay. “Pamela Martin on environmental impact of the American meat diet.” EarthSky, 14 June, 2009. http://earthsky.org/human-world/scientist-says-health-of-planet-and-people-are-linked [2, 8]

Stanescu, Vasile. “‘Green’ Eggs and Ham? The Myth of Sustainable Meat and the Danger of the Local.” The Journal of Critical Animal Studies, VII. 3 (2009): 18-55. Reprinted in Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, Rowman & Littlefield (2011): 8-38. (Available here: https://www.academia.edu/367613/_Green_Eggs_and_Ham_The_Myth_of_Sustainable_Meat_and_the_Danger_of_the_Local) [2, 8, 11, 12, 13]

Wageningen University and Research Centre. "Agriculture is the direct driver for worldwide deforestation." ScienceDaily, 25 September 2012. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120925091608.htm [2]

Walsh, Brian. “Meat: Making Global Warming Worse. TIME, 10 September, 2008. http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1839995,00.html [2]

WorldWatch Institute. “Is Meat Sustainable?” 2004. http://www.worldwatch.org/system/files/EP174A.pdf [2]

Ethics

Capps, Ashley. “A Closer Look at What So-Called Humane Farming Means.” Free From Harm, 27 September 2012. http://freefromharm.org/animal-products-and-ethics/a-comprehensive-analysis-of-the-humane-farming-myth [15, 17]

Charlton, Anna and Gary Francione, Eat Like You Care: An Examination on the Morality of Eating Animals. 2013. [17, 18, 19, 23]

Francione, Gary. “‘Happy Meat’: Making Humans Feel Better About Eating Animals.” Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach, 25 June 2009. http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/happy-meat-making-humans-feel-better-about-eating-animals/#.VIF_SUtGhuY [17, 18, 19, 23]

Francione, Gary. “‘Happy’ Meat/Animal Products: A Step in the Right Direction of ‘An Easier Access Point Back’ to Eating Animals?” Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach, 7 February 2007. http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/happy-meatanimal-products-a-step-in-the-right-direction-or-an-easier-access-point-back-to-eating-animals/ [17, 18, 19, 23]

Free From Harm (Staff Writers). “Eating Animals: Addressing Our Most Common Justifications.” Free From Harm, 27 March, 2014. http://freefromharm.org/eating-animals-addressing-our-most-common-justifications/ [15, 17]

Grillo, Robert. “Responding to the Objection: ‘But I Only Buy Humanely-Raised Animal Products!’” Free From Harm, 21 January 2013. http://freefromharm.org/veganism/a-common-sense-vegan-response-to-but-i-only-buy-humanely-raised-animal-products [15, 17]

Wilkinson, Emily. “Veganism: The Basics.” Vegan Lass, 28 November 2014. http://www.veganlass.com/blog/2014/11/28/veganism-the-basics [20]

Until next time...

Vegan Lass