Tuesday, December 03, 2019

A most unsettling story list of this thing we still call farming

Credit: Moscow Ministry of Agriculture and Food
I'm a loyal reader and financial supporter of the British non-profit news outlet The Guardian, and subscribe to its "Animals Farmed" newsletter. Every couple of months or so, the newsletter arrives in my email inbox with news of the wild, weird world of what we still call farming, but that mostly just looks like mass murder at this point.

Even just reading the little summary blurbs about the stories is an excellent reinforcer of my efforts to ramp back my meat consumption to almost nothing. I used to love my farm set when I was a kid, but realistic play with a modern-day "farm set" would require stuffing your cute plastic animals into an overcrowded, hellish stink-barn for a very short life of misery, with not a whiff of green grass or fresh air to be found.

So let's start there with my first link from this morning's newsletter, about how Russian industrial farms are experimenting with virtual reality for dairy cows, to see if tricking them into thinking they see an open meadow will make them happier. And able to produce better milk, of course. Because it's a given that anything we do in industrial farming that outwardly looks like we're being a bit kinder to the animal is in fact just a way to trick them into giving us better, tastier, or more products from their bodies.

Next time you eat a lamb shawarma in the Middle East, think about the 14,346 Romanian sheep that died last week when the cargo ship they were being carried on overturned. Romania is the third biggest exporter of sheep in the European Union, and the sheep were bound for Saudi Arabia. Speculation is that the ship was overloaded, but at any rate, the sheep were trapped in the hold and didn't stand a chance when the ship flipped.

Only 254 sheep ended up rescued. I'm hoping that none of the dead creatures were among these sheep that passed by us when we were visiting Romania this past spring, but the future's not bright for Romanian sheep overall.

The risk of mass sheep death at sea is not just an issue from "over there," either. More than 22,000 lambs a year make the journey from New Zealand to the United States to satisfy hungry consumers, and that number is up 20 per cent from a decade ago.

And how is life going for our pig friends? Not so good. African Swine Fever is in the process of wiping out what's expected to be a quarter of the world's pigs. In China alone, some 100 million infected pigs were killed last year in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.

But that's great news for "farmers" of non-infected pigs, who are finding surging global demand and increasing sale prices when piggies go to market nowadays. The value of monthly UK pig exports hit £36.4 million - $63 million in Canadian dollars - in September, a 50 per cent increase over a year ago.

In other pig news, Britain's Conservative Party has backed away from a promise to ban farrowing crates, because they go against everything a mother pig would naturally do to prepare for and care for her piglets. But pig producers have worked equally hard to shut down that conversation.
The crates are small cages that pregnant pigs are kept in from before their piglets are born until they are a month old.

Now let's turn to China, the home of my ancestors but also a country that often seems viciously committed to eating every species from the face of the Earth. That includes donkeys, 4.8 million of whom are killed every year just to satisfy China's demand for a gelatinous traditional medicine called ejaio, which is made from the hides of donkeys. If demand continues apace, half of the world's donkey population will be wiped out within five years.

Bummed out yet? We ought to be. I get that humans are omnivores and have a long history of killing animals for food, but we're so far past any kind of hunter-gatherer framework with modern-day industrial farming. One last link before you go, this one to a deadly algae bloom of "red tide" in Florida that wiped out 200 manatees, 127 dolphins, 589 sea turtles and hundreds of tonnes of fish when it hit in 2018, and is now back again.

It's a naturally occurring phenomenon, but you can likely guess what makes it much, much worse. Yup, industrial farming, which in Florida is flooding the sensitive wetlands with agricultural runoff.

I started into "flexitarianism" mostly because there's only so long you can keep telling yourself that your eating habits are harmless, but reducing our meat intake is also a major step toward reducing our individual (and ultimately, global) carbon footprints. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that industrial livestock production is responsible for 14.5 per cent of human-caused carbon emissions.

Do the right thing. Put peas on your fork.