Volunteer with MN350's Communications Team
NOTE: This is the third part of a three-part blog on the industrial farming of animals and its implications for the impact of eating meat on the environment. Part 1 provides history and background, Part 2 explores the ethical problem that eating meat poses today, and Part 3 offers solutions.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
— Michael Pollan
When you’ve truly come to see your fellow animals as sentient beings with mental and emotional lives similar to yours, you’ll find it natural to change how you relate to them. This will happen most dramatically with the animals that have been raised and killed for food. It’s likely that when you pass the meat section of your supermarket, it will be difficult to see the slabs of meat only as future meals and easier to think of the animals as living beings who gave up their lives so that people could eat. If you decide it’s just too hard to become a vegetarian or vegan, you’ll take the time to find out where that meat came from and avoid any from industrial farms, willing to pay a little more for meat from animals raised and slaughtered humanely on organic and regenerative farms. This will give you the opportunity to shop locally and support farmers markets and grocery outlets where this meat is brought to market.
Establishing contact with farm animals so you can experience them as fellow creatures can be an important step in making your food decisions, but may be difficult, depending on whether you live in the city or in a rural area. Four venues that offer this opportunity are discussed below, including independent farms in your area, media featuring Polyface Farm in Virginia as an ideal model, farm animal sanctuaries, and state fairs.
Whether you live in a small town or city, you can research independent or free-range organic farms near you. Some will allow you to visit, talk to the farmer, and engage with the animals to experience them on a more personal level. The farmer is likely to be familiar with the personalities and behaviors of the animals and can help you look for their unique features as you hang out with the cows, pigs, chickens, or other animals he or she may have that, ideally, are observable in a free-range setting.
If you aren’t able to visit a farm locally, a prominent national model for organic farmers you can explore online and in videos is Joel Salatin’s 550-acre Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. His farm has been featured in two documentaries, Fresh and Food, Inc., and in bestselling author Michael Pollan’s book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, as the ideal for how a truly humane and financially viable operation should be run. Salatin uses no chemicals in the animals’ locally produced feed suited to each species’ natural diet. This includes the purposeful cultivation of healthy grass, with cows moved from one pasture to the other, followed by the chickens in portable coops so that they can feed on the protein-rich fly larvae in the cows’ dung and fertilize the fields with their droppings. Salatin, who also raises pigs, rabbits, and turkeys, sells his meat, eggs, butter, and other products by directly marketing to consumers and restaurants in his region so that his customers are able to use farms in their area and keep the money in their own community.
The best setting to see farm animals behaving naturally is on a farm animal sanctuary, where they can live out their lives in a safe setting. There’s a fairly complete listing of sanctuaries on Vegan.com, including the Spring Farm Sanctuary in Long Lake, MN, just outside of the Twin Cities, founded by Robin Johnson in 2016. It is located on 27 acres of land and includes a central barn with stalls for the 20 or so animals living there at any one time, gated pens adjacent to the barn where they can step outside to get air and additional feed, and paths leading to a nearby lush green pasture where all the animals can roam freely and graze. Spring Farm, like most other farm animal sanctuaries, is nonprofit and is always looking for volunteers and donations; by contributing your time or money, you can solidify your commitment to a new lifestyle eating less or no meat.
A less ideal option for engaging with farm animals face-to-face is at state fairs, where they are brought in by farmers to show for prizes and are housed in an animal barn for fairgoers to view. This obviously isn’t their natural setting, but by spending some time with individual animals and looking them in the eyes as you observe their behavior closely, you may be better able to shed your stereotypes gained from storybooks and media and experience them as relatable, complex beings who deserve your compassion.
Even as you experience a change in how you relate to farm animals by engaging with them in such settings, you may decide you still want to eat meat—because you enjoy it, because you feel you and your family need the protein it provides, or because becoming a vegetarian or vegan is too unappealing in terms of the changes to your diet and meal preparation. By cutting down on how much you eat, e.g., eating meat only so many times a week, only when you eat out, or following Jonathan Safran Foer’s suggestion to only eat meat at dinner, you can still contribute substantially to decreasing the greenhouse gases that farm animals contribute to the soil, water, and atmosphere as described in Part 1. And by taking the next step to eat only organic meat and avoiding meat from factory farms, you will further lessen animal suffering and contribute even more dramatically to the health of our planet.
Of course, you can eliminate the most greenhouse gases from farm animals by becoming a vegetarian or vegan. If you decide to give up all or only red meat, you can choose from a variety of vegetarian diets, depending on what meat and meat by-products you decide to include or exclude, such as eggs, dairy products, seafood (allowed by pescatarians), or, excluding all these foods as a vegan. Whatever your choices, in an article from “Med News Today,” Jenna Fletcher  tells us that, while there are many potential health benefits, there can also be risks, so “it is important for a person switching to a vegetarian diet to make sure that they eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains.” A healthy diet should also include high protein foods such as beans, nuts, edamame, quinoa, and the many soy and other grain-based products available, including tofu, mock duck, tempeh, and seitan. You will be able to do this more easily today than just a few years ago, with many vegetarian cookbooks and blogs available, an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants and non-meat protein options in commercial restaurants, and the availability of better-tasting plant-based meat products even found in some fast-food restaurants. As these products improve in taste and texture, they have a great potential for winning over even the most devoted meat-eaters.
If you want to take steps beyond dietary changes, you can also get involved politically by supporting government policies that favor independent farmers who raise their animals humanely or use regenerative agriculture methods to grow animal feed that keeps CO2 in the soil. Find out where your representatives stand on these issues and let them know their choices on animal-friendly farm bills will affect your vote. Some good things are happening: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker recently introduced legislation to crack down on the monopolistic practices of multi-national meat packers and place a moratorium on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). And Minnesota has a good track record as one of the 20 states that defeated “ag-gag” legislation designed to silence whistle-blowers revealing animal abuses on industrial farms.
Another factor is that industrial farms receive huge government subsidies and tax breaks that allow them to continue to increase the number of animals they confine, which contributes to their advantage over independent free-range farmers who give their animals more space to roam and feed. The 2018 farm aid bill didn’t improve matters. The New York Times reported in December 2018 that, “This year’s bill continues to offer enormous subsidies to large corporations rather than prioritizing the needs of struggling small farmers. Farms in the top 10 percent for crop sales received 68 percent of all crop insurance subsidies in 2014, according to the American Enterprise Institute.” Let your representatives know that by supporting farm policies that give independent farmers a better chance to compete and survive, they will have your support and vote. Take the time to educate yourself on these issues and find groups and organizations, such as MN350’s solutions committee food group, who share your values and contribute to their efforts with your time and money to have a greater impact.
Probably the simplest, most natural thing we all can do to support our decision to eat less or no meat is to share with friends and family how and why we’ve changed our diet. To ease the transition to a vegetarian diet, ask your friends and family to join you in finding recipes and cooking group dinners so you can share both your successes and difficulties as a new vegetarian. Offering this as something important to you personally, rather than preaching to convert people, is the best way to open up dialogue that will bring about positive results. This can most naturally be presented in the context of a lifestyle commitment you’ve already made to have a personal impact on climate change, including lowering energy use, using clean transit, voting for green candidates, shopping smarter and less, investing in clean companies, and divesting from polluters.
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An article by Emma Reynolds appeared recently on CNN’s website concerning a letter from the Lancet Planetary Health Journal signed by 50 experts, stating that the world must reach ‘peak meat” (i.e., an upper limit of livestock production) by 2030 to meet climate change targets. Otherwise, they believe that continuing to raise cattle even at the same level as today can contribute to almost half of greenhouse gas emissions targets by that date. The experts’ solution: “We’re suggesting agriculture transitions to optimal systems, and that’s plant-based.”
This three-part blog series has focused on each of us contributing to that transition by breaking through any denial we may have, as well as coming to terms with our responsibility to eat less or no meat and no animals raised on industrial farms. I contend that this is one of the most effective and personally satisfying ways to make a daily impact on reducing greenhouse gases and, therefore, climate change. No less significantly, we will also have the comfort of knowing we are putting our highest ethical standards into practice by helping discourage the mistreatment of farm animals and contributing to the preservation of a habitable planet.
 “What to know about becoming a vegetarian,” December 6, 2019 https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/327251.php
 New York Times, December 14, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/14/opinion/farm-bill-agriculture.html
 Earthday.org, https://www.earthday.org/campaigns/green-cities
 CNN.com, December 12, 2109, https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/12/world/peak-meat-2030-lancet-intl-scli-scn/index.html
Note: Some passages in all three parts have been adapted from my personal blog, regardinganimals.net
Sid Farrar is a writer, editor, and volunteer with MN350’s Communications Team.