The following post and interview were originally published on 12/08/08, after Gene Baur’s book tour through Athens and Atlanta. I reprint them here with an introduction from Flagpole magazine, more or less in their original form.
For Amber A., Farm Sanctuary fan:
Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food fires another salvo in the war against the established food system in America. Where Michael Pollan described the insidiousness of the corn industrial process, Gene Baur takes the reader to one of the ugliest destinations of all that Midwestern maize. If it’s not in your Coke or your fuel tank, it’s battening the nation’s meat supply at some massively dense feedlot.
Baur’s book is a striking indictment of stockyards, slaughterhouses and agribusiness in general, which has everything to do with the robotic efficiency of an assembly-line factory and nothing with the nurturing ideal of a family farm. Baur investigates the off-hand cruelty with which animals are treated and makes a personal plea for the compassionate treatment, in all phases of their lives, of our four-legged food.
Baur is the co-founder and president of Farm Sanctuary, one of the country’s leading farm animal protection organizations and food-advocacy groups. While documenting conditions at a stockyard, he was inspired to start the refuge after a sheep, cast aside and left in a pile of dead animals, raised her head and looked at him. “Hilda” became the first resident of Farm Sanctuary, and each year the organization rescues hundreds of sick and mistreated animals unfit for processing.
I’ve been sitting on this for too long, considering Mr. Baur’s travels through the Peach State have already come and gone. Better late than never, right? It’s important to note that Baur, although vegan, is a reformer–not some fire-breathing proselytizer of herbivorousness. While it operates with staggering speed and economy, the nation’s meat supply has obvious difficulty defending itself against constant charges of being cruel and unsafe [recent news of the latter]. And, lastly, humane and organic/sustainable are not mutually inclusive terms. One should presume the other, as each symbolically stands against the cold abstraction of feedlots, assembly-line slaughterhouses and the industrial food machine. However, there are plenty of animals on organic diets living insufferable lives, and vice versa.
For the record, this was not a completely disinterested interview since I gave Baur my own agricultural background, having been raised on a heavy-breed poultry farm with a cattle herd of about 250; viz. The cows have it pretty good. Lots of acres to roam around and chew the fescue. But the cows got me thinking as a kid. Where did they go after they went to the sale barn? Why did they become totally invisible after they left the farm? And was that Bessie wrapped in cellophane at the Publix down the road? And if it wasn’t her, who was it? So I asked some questions, got some unsatisfactory answers. And I realized [I needed] to go out and talk about farming and food and resuscitate a rich body of knowledge and culture that is being lost.
Gene Baur’s answers are in bold below:
I’ve read the story about Hilda and the inspiration for founding Farm Sanctuary. Were you always concerned about animal welfare? I imagine growing up in Hollywood you didn’t have much contact beyond the retail side of food.
I grew up in the hills and was intrigued and inspired by wild animals there (deer, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, snakes, frogs), and as a boy, I had a cat, Tiger, who I loved. But, I didn’t think much about the animals’ bodies on my plate. As time went, I came to feel more strongly about the need to confront animal cruelty, which I also see as part of a larger pattern of societal violence that needs to be confronted.
What do you see as Farm Sanctuary’s ultimate goal? I think people might be confused at first, especially those with few questions about the food industry, and think you work solely on the micro-level giving refuge to sick animals. What’s the macro goal?
The macro goal is to challenge assumptions about how we treat other animals, and to forge a better, more respectful relationship with other animals. Acting with kindness to other animals is good for them and us. Farm animals are among the most intensely exploited and abused, and in grave need of our attention.
I think most people would say that Georgia is behind most other states as far as raising the consumer consciousness about food. Our total number of farmers markets is woeful, despite Georgia Organics’ best efforts. You could probably ascribe a good portion of that blame to the poultry lobby, as chickens are big business here in the Peach State. Without humane local options, what do you think is the best method for Georgians to achieve compassionate treatment of their food supply?
I think consumer consciousness is lacking in most states, but I agree that in states with powerful animal industries (like the poultry industry in Georgia), there are additional pressures and mechanisms that serve to keep consumers in the dark, and maintain the status quo.
To rephrase, Georgians overall like to elect steak-eating, free market-loving politicians to the highest offices. In general, they’ve got agribusiness interests in their back pocket. Local alternatives to big-box retailers are not numerous. What should we do to implement change legislatively? On the national level, should the solutions be top-down or bottom-up?
I think solutions need to come from both directions, from the top down and bottom up, and through changing consumer patterns. It’s very important to recognize that our purchasing choices can have a major impact, as we essentially vote every time we spend a dollar. I’d encourage Georgians to buy vegan foods at farmer’s markets or other retail outlets that provide healthful plant foods, and to become engaged in the political process by expressing you opinions about pending legislative items. (People can learn of these by contacting Farm Sanctuary.)
How would you respond to those people who object that a compassionate food system simply wouldn’t feed America? That the nation needs factory farms and “efficient” assembly stockyards because family farms simply can’t meet demand?
The production of foods derived from animals is inherently inefficient, and there are many unrecognized external costs. We can produce more food and healthier food by eating plants directly rather than by feeding them to farm animals.
I think this one is a related question to the previous one. Does the system have to be revolutionized? Can you count on big retailers and food operators to buy humane? Or do we need to change the entire way of doing things? Of course, that’s a huge idea because it’s not just about food, it’s about agriculture and land-use policies and about increased pricing.
I think change will occur on various tracks. I believe there can be small adjustments on the part of large companies to eliminate some of the most egregious cruelties, which are positive steps, but I believe we need a completely reformed food system. Rather than relying on consolidation, globalization and industrialization, I think we need to get back to more of a community based system, with smaller farms producing food for local markets.
I’d like to thank Mr. Baur, encourage everyone to read his book and emphasize his last statement. Buy local. If you know your farmer, you know your food.