Wednesday, July 25, 2007


An article in today's NY Times reports on the growing success of the animal rights/welfare movement in altering the nation's eating habits:

...all of these believers have learned that with less stridency comes more respect and influence in food politics. So they no longer concentrate their energy on burning effigies of Colonel Sanders and stealing chickens. They don’t demonize meat — with the exception of foie gras and veal — or the people who produce it. Instead, they use softer rhetoric, focusing on a campaign even committed carnivores can get behind: better conditions for farm animals.

Activists have adopted a variety of approaches:

Certainly, concerns over health and food safety, and a growing interest in where food comes from among consumers and chefs, has made animal welfare an easier sell.

Technology has helped savvy activists deliver their message, too — specifically mass e-mail, easily concealed cameras and the ability to quickly distribute images online, like footage of slaughterhouses and the 2004 spoof “The Meatrix.”

They have also learned to harness the power of celebrity in a tabloid culture, courting as spokespeople anyone famous who might have recently put down steak tartare in favor of vegetable carpaccio.

Beyond image polishing, animal rights groups also learned how to marshal resources and set up a classic “good-cop, bad-cop” dynamic to put farm animal welfare on legislative agendas. The Chicago foie gras ban was passed because the nation’s largest animal rights groups coordinated their strategies, according to several who were involved.

Like PETA, the Humane Society has purchased enough stock in corporations like Tyson, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and Smithfield’s to have the legal clout to introduce resolutions.

[Head of the Humane Society] Mr. Pacelle understands that not everyone is going to stop eating animals, so he focuses on what he calls the three R’s: refinement of farming techniques, reducing meat consumption and replacement of animal products. That way, he hopes, the Humane Society tent is big enough to include both ardent meat eaters and hard-core vegans.

And that's a laudable goal. I think in the past animal rights activists have been guilty of the same hubris that sometimes infects idealogues of all stripes. Believing themselves to be on the morally correct side of what they see as a critical issue leads them to be strident, obnoxious and morally righteous. This has been a problem for PETA, whose members have difficulty learning the lesson that you can't disgust people into not eating food by waving chicken bones and blood in their face. I think a lot of people who adopt that approach have trouble remembering that if you can convince just a small percentage of people to not eat animals, or to choose to eat humanely raised animals, you've still improved the conditions for untold numbers of animals, even if you haven't improved the conditions for all animals everywhere. And I think animal welfare activists have to accept that there's a percentage of the American people who really don't care about animals or the horrible conditions they can be raised in; they just don't care what happens to their food before it arrives on their plate. But I firmly believe that a majority of Americans would alter their eating habits to one degree or another if they were more fully informed of how animals are raised for food and the negative consequences the food industry has on our health and the environment. But to change their eating habits requires a balanced approach of educating the public and confronting companies that stubbornly resist changes in how they raise animals. I strongly doubt that Americans can ever be persuaded to give up animal products entirely (nor do I believe they should) but I think we are witnessing the very beginning of the end of the ear of "factory farming", even if that ultimate end is still decades away.

1 comment: