What does "respect" mean?

The recently-concluded Denver event “Hoofin It” (August 17-20th) featured a different hoofed animal each day at different restaurants for customers to eat. The meat is from “responsibly raised hoofed animals,” and it was a benefit for the Colorado Food Guild, and tickets were not cheap: $60 for dinner for one person. The theme of the event was “respect your dinner.”

Had this been just another event of the “happy meat” people, vegans would have greeted this news with yawns and the ritualistic rolling of the eyes. But this event had an unexpected feature; the key sponsor was The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

This has brought cries of anguish and feelings of betrayal throughout Colorado and beyond. The Denver Vegans meetup and the Boulder and Beyond Vegan Meetup Group urged letter-writing campaigns; Peaceful Prairie blogged about it, saying that “respecting animals means living vegan.” How can an organization with the adjective “Humane” in its title endorse this sort of obvious cruelty?

There’s no question that vegans could support a number of HSUS’ individual programs. No one is going to argue with their campaign against “foie gras” or against confinement of pigs. Based on these programs and the word “Humane” in their name, many vegans continually expect HSUS to somehow be “on their side.” But like Lucy in the comic strip “Peanuts,” yanking the football away at the last minute, HSUS never quite comes through.

The HSUS debacle follows another disturbing development: Whole Foods is now selling rabbit meat. Whole Foods, a relatively enlightened natural foods store which supports organic foods, wants to butcher bunnies, thus adding yet another species to the list of animals that it is acceptable to slaughter and kill. Whole Foods gave lip service to the idea that at least the rabbits would be raised in a “humane” manner, but this is doubtful.

At first, this may seem like another replay of an old debate: the radicals versus the reformers. When unhappy letters started being written to HSUS, Jacqueline Pyun (of HSUS) referred people to a statement written in 2009. This policy attacks factory farms, and encourages people to eat less meat, but leaves the door open for “humane, sustainable” animal agriculture. Really, what do you expect? The core of HSUS’ support is cat and dog people, who mostly eat animal products of all kinds.

But this double blow from HSUS and Whole Foods has had a marked effect. This really has radicalized the vegan movement in the area. The movement is less inclined to view half-measures or compromises as even tactically acceptable. If you are talking about environmentalism or animal well-being, and you are not talking about veganism, you are wasting your time.

The radicalization of the movement has been aided by the release of the recent film Cowspiracy. Cowspiracy sought to expose the hypocrisy of environmental organizations, which largely ignore the fact that animal products are hugely destructive to the environment. Livestock agriculture is the key cause of deforestation in the Amazon and contributes more than 51% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. So why don’t groups such as the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, and Greenpeace speak out on this issue? The answer, suggests Cowspiracy, is in their donor base; they don’t want to lose their supporters by suggesting something that would actually work, but require their donors to change deeply ingrained behavior.

HSUS (which is not primarily an environmental group) is never mentioned in the film. But the suggestion of the problem of their donor base seems to apply here, and Cowspiracy clearly targets groups with an agenda similar to that of the Colorado Food Guild, which HSUS is supporting. Grass-fed beef, while possibly the most “humane” of all meat, is actually worse for the environment than factory-farmed meat.

There is an underlying and intractable problem here. Being nice not only costs money, it burns up natural resources. In livestock agriculture, there is a basic contradiction between “humanely treated” and “environmentally sustainable.” You can go in one direction or the other, but not both. Humane treatment requires that additional resources be devoted to animals, to create a semblance of their natural environment. Treating chickens more humanely increases their carbon footprint. And it is precisely the relatively best-treated livestock animals — pasture-fed cows — who contribute the most to climate change, and the most to other environmental problems as well.

The Amazon rainforest is being destroyed for pasture-fed cows. Pasture-fed cows have destroyed the most habitat, contribute the most to the methane problem, and contribute the most to soil erosion. If you want to conserve resources, you need to treat them less humanely. Bring those cattle to market quicker and feed them corn instead of grass, so they won’t emit as much methane and carbon dioxide. But that is exactly the logic of factory farms, and we are back at square one.

HSUS is going to lose this debate. Their argument that the animals eaten at “Hoofin It” are more humanely treated is tenuous but arguable. But their contention that this contributes to environmental sustainability, even relative to factory farming, is just flat-out wrong. The humane objective and the environmental objective are contradictory. HSUS should stay out of the sustainability business, or go vegan.

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