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The Leading Voices in Food

E26: Aaron Gross on Factory Farming and New Ways to Support Farmers

Hosted by: Sarah Zoubek (Duke)
March 9, 2019

What does it mean to be a conscientious consumer of food? Does it make a difference to the economy, the environment, or is it simply a personal decision? What do people of faith have to say about it? We’ll explore these issues today on the Leading Voices in Food Podcast with our guest, Dr Aaron Gross, an Associate Professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego.

Aaron Gross as a historian of religions who writes and speaks about animals and factory farming, as well as modern and contemporary Jewish thought and ethics, and Jewish food and animal ethics in particular. He is the co-chair of the American Academy of Religions’ Animals and Religion Group and is the founder and CEO of Farm Forward, a nonprofit advocacy organization that seeks to promote conscientious food choices, reduce animal suffering, and to advance sustainable agriculture.

Interview Summary

Aaron, you write and speak about animals in factory farming. What first inspired you to engage in this work, both in your scholarship and through the Farm Forward?

I think entrance into the food space often comes through different doors. For me, the door was really thinking about animals. And it happened when I was pretty young, based on values I had from my family and the real, kind of explosive moment, was learning about industrial farming, really from reading materials from nonprofit organizations and just getting a kind of quick picture of what the poultry industry, beef industry, and the pork industry had come to look like. And I had a very different vision of what that was supposed to be. On my mother’s side, she grew up on a working farm. I had a kind of picture of what those ethics were supposed to be. A lot of my own values I understood as really coming out of an experience of being a farmer. And it was this huge delta between the reality of what I had learned had become virtually totally dominant, And this other picture of what farming should be. It kind of first propelled me into these issues. First with the sensitive sensitivity to the animal issue. But once you start paying attention to the system, you realize it’s kind of a bad for multiple issues at once. Many issues intersect there. So I became more interested in the ecological issues. Ultimately the questions of social justice and equity concerned me. And so it’s not been hard to make a career of it. It turns out

You’ve collaborated with novelist Jonathan Safran Foer on the book and subsequent documentary Eating Animals. Could you tell me more about the genesis of that partnership?

Yeah. One of the interesting experiences that I’ve had is the reactions I get from people when I tell them I’m interested in these issues. In particular, reactions that I often get to being a vegetarian, which is surprisingly complicated in ways that I didn’t necessarily expect. There’s a certain kind of way you can find yourself threatening people without having any intention to because you eat very differently. This was something that Jonathan and I got to kind of bond over when there was a major investigation into a kosher slaughterhouse that became a pretty national issue that broke in the New York Times. Followup stories ended up being part of my dissertation later on, but when it first happened, it exposed just horrific cruelty in a kosher slaughterhouse. Aberrant stuff. So the details are difficult and not necessarily worth the trauma of rehearsing them. Not specific to kosher, or it didn’t have to be specific to kosher, though it was bound up with it in this case.

And Jonathan and I both as people from a Jewish background cared about it more because of that kind of connection to our community. And we got talking and we both had that same experience that his on and off and my fairly steady commitment to vegetarianism had provoked a lot of interesting intellectual conversations that told us that there was some depth going on here. Something that was raising deeper questions for people. And Jonathan wanted to write about this, that is a combination of kind of social concern, kind of animal suffering at the center and kind of going out to consider all those other issues I mentioned. And then tying that with the reality that not anybody can talk about these issues. Just directly talking about, the animal suffering and environmental pollution or social inequity tied with it often just shuts people down. And so it seemed like a good challenge for somebody who is primary a novelist and works kind of with empathy and how do you speak to people on their own terms. And for me, coming at it more as an advocate, and a scholar, it was an exciting thing to be able to help somebody who has that facility in writing and that kind of audience talk about these issues. So it was a very exciting collaboration.

You started the organization Farm Forward in 2007. Could you tell our listeners just what makes the organization unique and what are some of your goals?

Yeah, so at the time I started Farm Forward, it was the only organization that specifically focused on factory farming as an issue instead of it being a kind of subset of a larger agenda. There were a lot of other organizations working on it at the time as there are now. I felt good about those organizations, but I thought not being able to focus exclusively on this issue lead to certain kinds of challenges. So the main motivation was just, there wasn’t really a space completely focused on this and one of the effects of that was you tended to have a split in orientation. Some that would be advocating for vegetarianism or veganism as a way to kind of combat or divest from factory farming.

And those groups would talk about meat reduction, but very unlikely to talk about high welfare farming and really serious support for farmers who were trying to do it outside of the factory farm system. Certainly no resource allocation. They might feel good about it, but tended to not do it. On the other hand, you had groups which were pretty committed to helping farmers, trying to get people who are running sustainable high welfare farms to survive. But in general, in that community, not so good to acknowledge that vegetarianism and veganism might be another way to challenge the factory farm.

What do you mean by high welfare farming?

So that’s a complicated question. It would depend on the industry. So we’d have to really drill down and look at specifically, the meat industry and poultry or the egg laying industry in poultry.

And I could tell you about some of my particular thoughts. What I’ll say is the shorthand is there’s a certification called Global Animal Partnership. That’s the largest animal welfare certification in the country. At all Whole Foods stores though products with that label are sold everywhere. And they break it into five tiers. Tier one being just a little bit better than industry standard, and tier five being kind of top tier and you could walk through all of those differences. So when I’m saying high welfare, I’m thinking things that are step three, four and five on the gap system, things that are significantly better than average but may or may not be optimal. And that’s directly related to the treatment of the animals. So welfare, I’m using specifically to refer to the treatment of animals. Though the correlation between welfare and sustainability and justice issues is far greater than I think is generally appreciated.

And in my own kind of reflection on these issues, I think it’s often a reluctance to address these issues in tandem that leads to the kind of fractured approaches to resisting factory farming. I mean, what we do know is nobody’s really been successful resisting factory farming. It’s just grown, and grown more slowly in places where there’s been points of resistance, but that’s not exactly a victory and I do think that has a lot to do with the way in which people who would have a concern about factory farming has been kind of divided into these different constituencies which then can be handled.

How are those things linked – the environmental sustainability and the animal welfare?

So a lot of the environmental problems come from concentrating animals and unnatural numbers and if we look at the kind of history of how that happened, it broke a lot of taboos about how you raised animals. Post World War II you have a change in attitude towards farming and the kind of introduction of a strongly, well let’s say an attitude that claimed science as it’s guiding kind of light though no more motivated by kind of industry and profit, but claiming a scientific outlook. And they really kind of overthrew husbandry treatment oriented approaches. So this was very visible at universities. You had departments of animal husbandry closed down and replaced by departments of animal science, which is pretty much what we have today at big land grant universities, at least in the U.S. It’s a little bit more complicated in places like India where there still are departments of animal husbandry. So husbandry referred to a tradition that was very serious about productivity and economics. It was about, raising animals in an economic context, but that had long standing values that came out of the farm tradition kind of baked into it. That was, in some ways, the point of a critique of the scientists. So this isn’t a fully rational system, this is a system that’s got these, a strange ways of looking at things.

They consider animals as sentient beings that have to be managed as such, instead of just an economic production unit. So straight through the 1970’s, if you look at a industrial farm magazines and materials, the language, which is not the way they would put today, is extremely explicit in terms of things like treat the pig just like a machine. Don’t look at these as animals. Look at them as production units. And where you previously had a kind of concern for the animals overall wellbeing kind of balanced with profitability and linked to profitability–where you genuinely had an overlap between keeping an animal healthy and vibrant and having an animal that would be profitable for you. And that link was just totally severed in this new system. It said if we could completely erase all of our values and just could do anything we want to these animals, how would we raise them?

What would we do? And so you had a very different system arise and one of the things that you started doing was cramming animals in small spaces and figuring out you could make that work if you gave them drugs in their feed and controlled their conditions inside. And then you had a concentration of feces that turned from an advantage and extensive systems that were driven by kind of husbandry logic to becoming a kind of toxic problem. And then you had, good old things like the expense of getting rid of that, driving a kind of let’s just let it leak out into the rivers and so forth. And so you have kind of pollution. You also are eliminating at the same time, the small farmer. So, if you go back to the 1920’s, we’re dealing with something like 25 million-plus small poultry farms producing eggs with an average of less than 30 birds. Now you can’t be producing eggs with less than, I mean, realistically, probably no less than 100,000 birds.

That is a couple barns with at least, 30,000 animals in a barn. Totally different system. And you also went from a lot of independent ownership. A lot of the Ag industry was, for example, in the hands of a women, to being owned by these corporations, which increasingly became totally vertically integrated. And so you had all these questions of how people were now being treated. So instead of it being a place where somebody can, work hard and make a living and build a farm, it became a system where people were hired hands, or these contract farmers. Especially in the poultry industry where they’re technically independent farmers, but they don’t own their birds, the equipment and stuff that’s mortgaged and they’re completely in the control of the large companies by design. So here now, we’ve got a kind of justice issue kind of mixed into this, but it’s in some ways driven by throwing out this ethical orientation of traditional animal husbandry and deciding to cease looking at animals as animals. And cease looking at farming as a system of organizing how we relate to other life forms and seeing it just as a business.

What is Farm Forward’s role in taking us back to more of a husbandry and sort of welfare minded system and what are the activities that you engage in to do self?

We try to work in three areas that is changing actual farming practices, changing things on the farm, changing how people are eating, especially at an institutional level and changing the stories we tell. Obviously the way I just narrated the history of modern farming is not the way we normally tell that story, which is one of victory and progress and efficiency with, maybe there was a few problems introduced as we got efficient along the way. So in the area of farming, we do a lot of work through certifications. This is one of the ways to add value to a farmer’s product in a way that also a consumer who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of knowledge can trust. So I see one of the best ways to help farmers is getting them into certification systems, making sure certification systems are actually farmer friendly, because a lot of the best farmers are least adapted to current certification system.

So I would say that’s one of the major areas we’re working on right now. If you want to just get a lot of people in a certification system, you’re working with industry because that’s the dominant industry. And so you could create a certification system that does improve things for animals, improve conditions on the farm for the workers, but isn’t necessarily really focusing on the best farmers. It’s focusing on a little bit better than the norm. Getting really top farmers in the system and getting them to benefit from it is a more challenging thing. So that’s where those tiers, I mentioned before, having a tiered welfare system where your lower tiers are going to be an inexpensive product that’s produced in a way that’s better than average, but probably not optimal. Acknowledging that that’s not the best, instead of just saying it’s got a humane label, it’s perfect. Where tiers four and five should really be representing a relatively small number of farmers into tier five who were really the leaders and who needed to be reached out to probably don’t have the resources to be putting time into doing the kind of paperwork and stuff that’s involved in doing these certifications, and getting them in the system in an easy way that really allows them to communicate to the public what they’re doing.

What are the kinds of practices that make you a top farmer in your eyes or the eyes of this certification?

Yeah, so let me speak to that. Again, it’ll be industry specific. So let’s take the chicken meat industry, which is really the most fully industrialized. One of the tragedies in the chicken industry that is not as well understood as it could be is the way in which genetics have driven suffering. So the chickens we eat today, if I compare them to chickens from 50, 60, 70 years ago, they’re growing three times as fast while eating a third of the feed daily. So sort of picture this: you’re dealing with, if you were to imagine an analogy with a human child, you’ve got a five year old who’s gone through puberty, it looks like they’re 15 and they’ve only eaten breakfast. It’s a dramatic a modification of the animal’s genome and it’s done through a form of breeding that doesn’t involve gene splicing, but is definitively I think genetic engineering by any kind of common sense definition of it, even if it falls outside of that definition by a certain kind of technical definition.

And one of the features that’s know very bad for farmers is it means the animals that are sold to farmers can’t be reproduced. So you have to go back to the corporation to get these things. One of the things that’s very bad for animals is their bodies are built to grow so fast that for about the last third of their life, they’re in chronic pain. They can’t walk without pain. They certainly can’t fly, which is a normal thing for a chicken to be able to do. I remember seeing kids visit a traditional farm, getting to the higher welfare farm ,seeing chickens fly and being like, chickens don’t fly! And the farmer responds, my chickens do! So there are farmers who have preserved the traditional genetics. These birds are going to grow slower, they’re going to cost more, the feed is going to be a lot more, but they’re going to have healthy, robust immune systems. They’re gonna survive out on pasture. They can navigate through a foot of snow. It’s a totally different kind of animal and that would be the real distinguishing characteristic in poultry of top tier. And if you wanted to identify it, it would be you’re looking for American Poultry Association certified breeds, the ones that were a pre this kind of hybrid breeding system that I mentioned, this intensified breeding.

Let’s focus in on the top or best or better kind of value base assignments that you’ve given. How would you respond to folks who would argue that in terms of efficiency and farmer livelihood and the market-based system that they’re operating within, how to assign those values of being better on the welfare side versus the ability to run a farm efficiently in the current system that’s set people up to do things in a more efficient manner in the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation Style) and that produces affordable food for folks.

Well, two things there. One, I think it’s really a myth that the system is efficient. You’ve caught me that I’ve said “, in the name of efficiency,” but the reality is the system only appears to be efficient because of the degree of externalities. If you externalize all your environmental costs, you’ve externalized all your workers healthcare costs, deliberately organize your processing and slaughter plants with the use of undocumented labor. If you do all these things, yeah you can “be efficient,” but somebody is paying for it. And this is not even getting into the health problems that get generated by just a quantity of otherwise previously expensive foods like meat dropping in price and quantity explosion and that creating other issues. So I’m not so sure it’s actually more efficient, but a farmer in that system has to face that dilemma and we just have to be attentive to that.

That’s where a certification is very powerful because a certification can allow the farmer to sell their product for more. The truth is there’s plenty of people ready to pay more for higher welfare products. The problem is with the supply, is with getting that supply, and building the connective tissue in a kind of reliable way. So consumers, in some ways I’ve already kind of stepped up and said, if you all demonstrate to me that this product is really different, I’m ready to pay a good bit more for it. And this is true across economic classes. I mean in rural India with people living on the equivalent or five or $6 a day, it is common for them to pay 100 percent more, twice as much for eggs or meat from birds that are the equivalent of these heritage birds I mentioned in the Indian context.

So whether we’re talking about in the US or abroad, wealthy people or people of modest means–they’re ready to pay more for animals that have been raised in a good way. We just haven’t created the system that allows the truly high welfare farmer to distinguish him or herself from somebody who’s just trying to game the system and make money off of this demand. So free range, for example, is an unregulated term that means virtually nothing. Somebody who is marking up their chicken and calling it free range might be doing something better, might not. Right? Those are the kinds of problems we need to address.

Your scholarship focuses on religion, especially the Jewish tradition. So how does that faith-based element factor into your work?

Excellent. Yeah, so I mentioned that one of the things Farm Forward tries to focus on this narrative. One of the things I think we often don’t realize in change movements is the degree to which we have narratives that shape what we do. And this is where religion becomes very powerful because religion often holds the kind of master narratives that guide us in communities of faith, are the places where we discussed these stories about who we want to be. Is efficiency our ultimate value? At the end of our lives we want to say, “and I was efficient as a farmer,” or do we want to talk about values like stewardship, which has a long tradition going back to the Bible. And what would that really mean and how would it look like? So faith communities I think are both places we can tell the story of farming differently, and also resources for what that new story might look like.


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