The Abatement Of Cruelty, Ctd

Readers revive a recent thread:

Okay, I know it’s been a little while since you discussed this topic, but you might want to pay more attention to what you feed Eddy and Bowie. I’ve been a vegetarian since college and thought I didn’t really have to worry about “cruelty free” beyond buying the occasional cage-free eggs. However, this thread has forced me to admit that the dog food and cat food I’m dishing out to my pets is probably coming straight from the worst of the factory farms. Searches for cruelty-free dog food on the web only come up with pet food that hasn’t been tested on animals, or vegan dog food that doesn’t seem to be a realistic option for carnivores. My local pet store has some frozen food that comes directly from local farms, so I might end up going with that (incredibly expensive) route. Still, it could be worth putting it out to other Dishheads – any humane dog or cat food that doesn’t need to be cooked and is only moderately expensive?

Update from a reader:

We have been feeding our critters Sojos and they freaking love it. Sojos original mix is a blend of dried grains and veggies. You add your own meat and water to the dry mix. This way you can choose ground meat from locally sourced, humane producers. Hate to do a plug for a product in general, but this stuff is great.

Another:

I feed my dog a dry food called Orijen, which is made by a Canadian company and uses only free-range protein sources. It’s a little more expensive than other dog foods (I pay around $70 for a 28.6 pound bag) but it feeds my 65-pound dog for almost two months, and he loves loves loves it.

Another shifts gears:

I am concerned that your reader who gave up eating meat solely to reduce his carbon impact is missing a holistic understanding of how necessary animals are to the healthy functioning of an ecosystem. This TED talk by Allan Savory explains it far more powerfully than I ever could, but I will summarize by saying that healthy ecosystems require grazing animals. Healthy ecosystems also happen to be huge carbon sinks. Conversely, desertification in particular, and ecosystem destruction in general, may well contribute more to global warming than the burning of fossil fuels.

Your reader is certainly correct that, from a carbon standpoint, as measured in grain consumption, eating unprocessed, industrially produced plant foods is far preferable to eating industrial meat, especially cattle (I am not so certain about all processed, plant-based foods). However, that we are even measuring their relative efficiencies in terms of grain consumption illustrates the false dichotomy presented. Cattle did not evolve to eat grain. Feeding cattle grains, which is difficult for them to digest, is the cause of the virulent strains of E. coli bacteria, rampant abuse of antibiotics, and a host of other problems. Cattle evolved to eat pasture, which humans are unable to digest. Thus, properly employed, cattle are a method of making the energy and nutrients contained in pasture bioavailable to humans.

Cattle is fed grain because it is cheap (due to mass subsidization by taxpayers), because it makes cattle fat, and because it is easily transported. To the last point, when you mass animals together in industrial feedlots, not only do you create serious knock-on problems with disease and excrement, but you require external feed inputs. You also have serious knock-on problems on the land the cattle leave behind, in terms of a broken nutrient cycle and the loss of the beneficial disturbance which results from well managed rotational grazing.

More to the point, even plant-based industrial agriculture is causing us to strip-mine the fertility of the soil. We do this, year after year, with mono-cropping, stripped bare soil, and broken nutrient cycles leading to corresponding pest and disease infestations, top soil loss, nitrogen run off (leading to ever expanding dead zones in the ocean), and lost soil fertility.

Another continues that line of discussion:

Your reader cited that NYT story quoting that it takes 2-5x (and up to 10x in the USA) more grain to produce the same amount of calories of beef than were available in the original feed.  You also tied this to the amount of arable land in the USA, with the implied conclusion that if we just stopped raising cattle and used the land to grow grain for human consumption, then we would actually have more food.

I’m neither a farmer nor a rancher, but I’m skeptical of this simple analysis.  For starters, not all cattle are raised on grain; many are grazed on public lands, eating scrub and natural grasses.  Putting aside the fact that humans cannot consume those things (meaning that the cattle are essentially eating “free” calories), the last thing we’d want to do would be to convert those lands to farming.  The Bureau of Land Management lands that they are grazed on are often scenic forest or grasslands that hunters, campers, hikers, etc. use for recreation, and at least in states like Colorado they are often high mountain areas that with climates inappropriate to growing grains.  I don’t know the proportion of cattle raised in this way, but a quick Google search leads to this page, which claims that 40% are.  That’s a huge proportion.  The Wikipedia page on cattle feeding states:

In fact most beef cattle are raised on pasture from birth in the spring until autumn (7 to 9 months). Then for pasture-fed animals, grass is the forage that composes all or at least the great majority of their diet.

Moreover, though I’m sure some cattle are fed only grain, my (admittedly limited) experience with western ranchers has been that the cattle are generally pastured and then only switched to grain as the final fattening step in feedlots before being slaughtered.  Of course, feedlots are an entire story of cruelty in and of themselves, but my point is that the “calories from grain” story is leaving that part out and thereby overestimating how much benefit we’d gain from switching to eating the grain ourselves instead of first converting it into beef.

Finally, there’s the issue of the kind of grain that we’re talking about.  Corn makes up a lot of that, but the corn raised and fed to cattle is not something you’re going to be enjoying on your dinner plate anytime soon; it’s been specifically developed over years for hardiness in the climates where it is grown and high yields, among other things, not for taste.  In fact, it tastes pretty bland and starchy.  Now, you might ask, could we grow things that humans might like, instead of that starchy corn?  Probably.  But now we’re comparing apples to oranges: yields would be different (and not necessarily higher), cultivation methods might have to be changed, storage methods would undoubtedly be different, etc.

So like anything else, the full story is more nuanced than the one implied by those simple quotes. Nevertheless, I’m 100% in favor of reducing cruelty to animals, myself.  Although not a vegetarian, I only eat fish when I do eat meat, and only fish from sustainable wild fisheries.  It gives me some cheer to see via your blog posts that other people are thinking about these things and considering the ethics of meat consumption.

In the above video, Charles Camosy addresses how Christians should approach the carnivorous nature of humans. In the following video, he extends that line of thought to evolution:

Watch all of his videos here.