Archive for the ‘agriculture’ category

Vegetarian vs. veterinarian

March 31, 2009

Every so often at suppertime, my 7-year-old breaks into gales of laughter when he sees me eat a few bites of meat. “Mum, you’re a veterinarian, you can’t eat meat! – I’m going to tell your boss on you!!” His 11-year-old brother rolls his eyes and tries to explain for the umpteenth time the difference between veterinarian and vegetarian. But for Z, it’s a running joke – I’m pretty sure he knows the difference – the words are too similar and the idea that an animal doctor would eat her patients is a crazy kind of funny.

The fact is, I’ve never craved the taste of meat. I prepare it, cook it, serve it, and eat it more out of cultural habit, convenience and concern for getting enough protein, B12 vitamins and iron in the diet, rather than zeal for its taste and texture. Last summer I put a name to my approach to eating meat, with the word flexitarian. Basically, there is no maximum amount of meat allowed for a flexitarian, which is handy. I came across this concept in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. Pollan’s writing on food has been influential for me, from The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – not because I felt he exposes information that I know nothing about; quite the contrary. It is wonderful to read someone like Pollan, an American with the travel opportunities, journalistic skills and funds to flesh out exactly what I already know about the trends and changes I’ve observed since my early days in grocery-store foraging in the late 1980s and through my nitty-gritty experience on the working end of North American agriculture. I’m gratified that he’s noticed all the things I’ve seen and thought about over the years.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if it’s finally time for me to ramp up my flexitarianism, and shift into a completely vegetarian diet. For the past nine or so years, I’ve only eaten local meat, provided by a neighbour who took over the small cow-calf operation that I ran with pain and misery for the first few years, or else from the sheep and beef farmer down the road, who also produces chicken, turkey and various flavours of sausage. I haven’t eaten pork in years – I’m angry at the way the pork industry has polluted wide swaths of southern Quebec, and its up-and-down globalized cycles have ruined too many farmers. I came out of my visit to a pork operation in my first year of veterinary medicine thinking that there is nothing ethical or healthy about eating pigs, in any time or place. I’m with Moses on that one.

Right now, my freezer contains a one-pound bag of ground beef, a single turkey thigh, and some fish from last summer’s catch. I didn’t ration the meat at all during the winter, in fact I was relentlessly emptying the freezer and cooking all kinds of stews and meat dishes in anticipation of reaching the End of Meat. For the past few weeks, noting the coming penury, I’ve been buying and preparing cans of different bean varieties, some whole barley, lentils, falafel mix, and a package of tofu, which I breaded and baked (not bad, but could be better).

I have no idea if a steer will be slaughtered in the coming days or weeks; that would surprise me because this is the wrong time of year. Any young steer that was born too late in the 2008 season for slaughter in the fall would be too slim after a winter in the barn, and I’d like to think he’s looking forward to a summer in the fields. I certainly don’t want to deny him that pleasure after a long, dark winter in cramped conditions. Buy meat from the grocery? Ha, no. When you’ve had meat from the farm for so many years, grocery meat is not an option anymore – especially not chicken.

If it were just up to me, I’d make the shift relatively easily. I’d go by trial and error, cook up spicy and flavorful dishes with all kinds of vegetables, legumes, tofu, seitan and other items I’ve never even tasted before. But my main hurdle is the kids. Even at the best of times they don’t think much of my cooking (they still treasure fond memories of the food at their daycare babysitter’s, a real professional when it comes to making nutritious kid-friendly food). Anything too exotic, sticky, limp, fishy, colourful, chewy, spicy, or overly bland is automatically suspect. And since they’ve become a part of my life, I haven’t thought about food and cooking in the same way. For starters, I don’t think about what I would want or like to eat, instead I think about What They Will Eat Today; it’s a mindset I can’t shake, a fact of life that defines the way I move through the day, even when I try to pour myself fully into something else altogether, like work. When I buy fresh fruits or vegetables, as I do a few times a week, it’s not so much to eat them myself, it’s to make sure they have enough for their snacks and lunches at school and to ward off any searching for easy, junky food and candy, which they manage to eat enough of anyways. Their health is my quiet obsession: I think about the bodies they are growing into and the young adults they will be in a few years, and when I look at the young men in the world out there, I am frankly worried. What I see are too many dough-boys: large shapeless faces and guts that overhang trousers, oversized clothes and over-taxed joints. Guys in their early 20s! Obviously I’m getting old, because the young men I remember from 20 years ago didn’t look like that, or if they did, they were the exception. And when I look at old pictures of my dad’s contemporaries, men circa 1940 – they were all wiry and scrawny, nearly to the last man. OK – they were eating British army rations at the time, which were notoriously bad, but to me they look healthy and muscular, in spite of their small size. Kind of like the vegans and vegetarians of today – those people out there whose faces have definite shape and contour, and who have the kind of leanness and vitality you don’t see as often in young people anymore, unless you’re looking at the ones running in the Olympic triathlon.

Oh dear, it looks like the “ethics” of not eating meat is overshadowed by my concern for human health. I can’t help it – that’s the way I was raised, and that’s the way I was trained as a farm animal veterinarian. One of my professors in bovine medicine and surgery proudly proclaimed, every chance he got, that he became a farm animal veterinarian “to feed the world”. After the second time my eyes would automatically roll, but the message stuck. Milk, eggs and meat: the foundations of industrial civilisation, and that’s what you are working for. Your job is to make sure they are always available, as cheaply and as abundantly as possible, in spite of what that might do to the animals who provide, in spite of how we continually betray the ancient unwritten and non-verbal contract of domestication. If I had the chance to respond now, I’d say that we’ve fed this part of the world too much, and not nearly well enough.

It’s just possible that this veterinarian has come to the end of meat. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, but I have a feeling there’s a whole world of food out there that I know very little about…

Temple Grandin, feeling like an animal

February 11, 2009

Temple Grandin is back in the news, with a new book, Animals Make us Human (the sequel to Animals in Translation). A university animal science professor and consultant and designer of livestock handling facilities, Grandin is also the subject of an upcoming HBO semi-biographical film with Claire Danes.

I’ve been thinking about Grandin on and off ever since I was in veterinary school in the mid-1990s, when she was starting to gain recognition for her approach to fixing problems in cattle handling facilities such as feedlots.

In 1998, I was invited to be on a committee to rank candidates for a major U.S. animal welfare award. Of the list of candidates with impressive resumés in animal welfare work, she was the only one I had heard of; the one who had made the most notable impression on veterinary education and practice. I ranked her as my first choice, based on her resumé and what I had learned about her when I was a vet student headed for large animal practice. In one of my classes, we briefly studied some corral designs by this professor from Colorado State University, designs which had rapidly replaced the old models in the space of a few short years. I had presumed Temple was a man’s name, and only found out later that not only was Grandin a woman, but she was autistic, and that she was all about a cinemascope attention and memory for sensory details plus fundamental knowledge about cattle instincts. Her novel designs for corrals and squeeze chutes meant that handling for vaccinations and other procedures went more smoothly for everyone involved.

I learned in bits and pieces that she saw the world through animals’ eyes, and translated their experience so that “neurotypical” people such as myself (I presume that’s what I am) could understand their reactions and motivations a bit better. In the end, she was awarded the prize from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation (that’s R$ for Rockefeller, and Dodge, for the car company), along with Diane Halverson.

In 1997, I had a summer job as an assistant researcher in the bovine medicine department, and one of our projects was to study a new Big Pharma cattle dewormer. On the first day of the project, we had to put a group of jumpy dairy heifers through a corral with a squeeze chute at the end to identify each one with an ear tag, take individual manure samples, and collect a small vial of blood from the tail vein. Once we were done, we opened the squeeze chute and sent each tagged heifer into one of three study groups. Halfway through, in spite of our improvised Grandin-style corral, the remaining heifers decided as a group that they wouldn’t be cooperating with us anymore – one of the farm hands was drunk and behaving unpredictably, periodically yelling abuse and jumping at them to chase them out of the chute. About fifteen heifers backed away and galloped off to the opposite end of the field, some 500 metres away. Rounding them up looked impossible, at the very least it looked like one of those time and energy-consuming activities that I dread. Some of us wanted to call it a day, but the head researcher reminded us we’d have to start all over again at the beginning if we put it off.

Inspired by Grandin, I remembered my pre-veterinary experiences with cattle, back when I was delighted by their friendly curiosity. If you walk into a field of cattle, they won’t take their eyes off you for minutes on end, and if they are docile like dairy cattle, they’re likely to come right up and lick your boots and clothes. I walked out towards them till I was about 10 metres away from the boldest ones, and showed them a long rake I’d brought with me. Then, I turned around and dragged it behind me, hoping they would follow. I started out slow at the beginning and then faster so they’d have to pick up the pace. The long stick dragging along the ground was intriguing enough for the more dominant heifers, and the rest of the herd followed. Nobody wanted to be left behind in the field all alone.

I always thought this mix of curiosity, skittishness and attention to random detail was something more scientists and vets should think about, just as Grandin pays scientific attention to sensory details and behaviours. It would add some interest to the boring data collection we always seemed to be doing, and would contribute to animal well-being.

But when I left research and started practicing bovine medicine, the more I paid attention to behaviour, reactions, sensations and emotions of cattle, the less I was able to concentrate on doing my job. Not the jobs where I was caring or healing, relieving pain, replacing a prolapsed uterus or helping an exhausted cow during a calving – those were invigorating and rewarding; it was the job of fitting in and playing my role in the industrial-agricultural system – treating the intractable metabolic diseases and lameness that result in short lifespans and which are caused by the kind of nutrition and genetics that make cows produce incredible amounts of milk; endless infections of the mammary glands from bacterial resistance, crowding, stress, little or no time outdoors, milking machines, etc.; and most important of all, ensuring that estrus and pregnancies are properly detected and monitored so that no time is wasted between a calving and a new gestation, to keep the milk flowing. The objective of my new job as a farm vet was increasingly oriented toward figuring out ways of making dairies more efficient and profitable, and culling the non-profitable animals. It’s a system that not only wears down the animals, but it wears down everyone who’s involved with it, including me, and it wore me down quicker than most. I wasn’t in it long enough to even glimpse the rewards, but I always suspected they were driven by the evil twins of debt and profit.

As for Grandin, I am sure that she is driven by a desire to do what is right by animals. She believes it is ethical to use animals for food, and she wants it to be done right so that animals can have a decent life and a painless death. I think that’s a good and sensible approach, but I can’t help noticing that her designs and push for ethics are co-opted by a cattle industry that wants things working more smoothly for its own ends (debt and profit again), not for the animals. Still, I suppose that what she does “has to be better than simply wishing [the system] didn’t exist in the first place.”

Still. In her new book Grandin claims that it’s hard for “normal” people to think like animals, because we think in words, while the animal world is all sensory-based, all the time. Her own lifetime spent overcoming a purely sensory-based world as an autistic human supposedly places her in the unique position of identifying with and empathising with animals, and encouraging everyone else to tune into sensory experience to think more like animals.

I haven’t read the book, and I’m not convinced that thinking in words is really all that easy for humans. Most people struggle to find the right words to communicate their feelings and experience, whether in speech or in writing, and a lot of the time we don’t even come close, especially if we count the part of our lives we spend as babies and small children. And yet words have been used skilfully in so many books to communicate animals’ experience, by recording observations and sometimes even imagining what they might be thinking. One of the best examples of this is Black Beauty, but there are so many others. Some of my greatest revelations about animal and human experience have come to me through reading novels; then I’ve returned to animals and humans with a different attitude that has made me more empathic and observant. In fact, my own sensory experiences haven’t always made me more empathic, sometimes they’ve even had the opposite effect.

But whether our empathy comes from sights, sounds or words, there is still the fact that we have this food-producing system that’s built on the backs of suffering animals, a system that grinds them down for as long they have something to give, after which we dispose of them callously – when it’s not with outright cruelty.

Grandin worries that there are less people all the time who are willing to go out into the field to work with cattle, to observe, to participate and to make changes that will give them decent lives. I see the same thing she does, but from the other side of the fence. I’ve crossed that field already, and I don’t wish to go back, because I’ve seen that the role of workers such as veterinarians and scientists is to find ways of making things work more smoothly, more profitably; animal well-being is only a collateral benefit. Problem is, the more we acknowledge that animals share our emotions, sensations and perceptions, the more we shy away from engaging with them in the system we’ve built.

The upshot is that the ones who stay to work with it are those who don’t think about these things, or if they do, they have no other viable choices to make about their working lives. I don’t mean to say that there is no one left who engages empathically with animals; certainly there are, but as long as they are playing the role of facilitators of an industrialised system, I’m not sure what to think about their efforts to improve animal welfare. Vet students know this; every year it’s harder to get students to choose farm animal medicine.

Not that I ever got away from it myself: as long as I drink milk, and eat butter, cheese and meat, or wear leather, I’m still participating in a system that makes me shrink inside.

Here’s Temple: