Why animal welfare is a “green” issue

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Where bacon begins

Environmentalists love animals, the more exotic, the better. You can find environmental organizations dedicated to the protection of pandas, polar bears, sea turtles and birds. Elephants and whales, too.

Pigs, chickens and cows? Not so much.

But the way we treat animals in agriculture has profound environmental implications. And the group doing the most to change that is not a green group at all but the Humane Society of the United States. I recently interviewed Wayne Pacelle, the HSUS’s president and CEO, about the environmental impact of the animal welfare movement for the website Yale Environment 360.

In the interview, Pacelle makes the point that crowding pigs, chickens and cows into so-called factory farms inevitably creates environmental problems, particularly around waste disposal. So, of course, does the sheer number of animals we raise for meat–about 9 billion in the US alone–and the enormous amount of grain that most be raised to feed them.

Pacelle told me:

We cannot humanely and sustainably raised nine billion animals in the United States. And we’re asking consumers, if they care about animals and the environment, to eat a smaller amount of animal products. 

As regular readers of this blog know (see this or this), I agree with Pacelle that all of us should, at minimum, think about how we consume meat and, to a lesser degree, fish. There’s debate about the environmental impact of animal products but  a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that quantifies the land, water and greenhouse gas burdens of meat, eggs and dairy production points to “the uniquely high resource demands of beef.” So there are compelling environmental reasons to avoid steak and hamburgers from factory-farmed cows. Of course, there are health reasons as well to eat less meat, as well as strong moral reasons to avoid meat from factory farms or, for that matter, all animal products.

HSUS has had a big impact on how animals, especially pigs, are raised in the US. The organization’s savvy campaign against gestation crates has helped persuaded big brands like Costco and McDonald’s to eliminate the crates from its supply chains, bringing pressure of major pork producers like Smithfield and Cargill.

Pacelle, as it happens, is a vegan. But HSUS is not trying to abolish animal agriculture. In our interview, he said

We are an organization that embraces humane and sustainable farmers. The vast percentage of our members eat meat, drink milk and consume eggs.

Others see that as a betrayal of animals. I saw this tweet the other day from Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, himself a vegan, which led me to an interview with Phillip Wollen, a former Citibank executive who became a hard-line animal rights activist after visiting one of his bank’s client’s slaughterhouses.

An Australian, Wollen has this to say about the so-called humane slaughter of animals:

Anyone who tells me there is such a thing as “humane” slaughter should contact me. I see a wonderful business opportunity to sell them the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I seriously wonder how they define the word “humane”. It is a saccharine, feel-good word designed to provide convenient cover for an atrocious act of barbarism. And it gives consumers a smug sense of satisfaction that eating animals is ethical, after all. A ghastly con – a betrayal of the worst kind.

Fascinating, no? You can read more here from Wollen.

I’m not yet persuaded, as Wollen is, that eating animals is being complicit in murder.

But I don’t feel good about continuing to eat chicken and fish.

Yet another reason to eat less meat

chickens-4The more I learn about the way most chickens, pigs and cows are raised and slaughtered in America, the less appetite I have for meat. I’m not a vegetarian, and may never become one. But, hey, I’ve given up the NFL. I’d like to give up industrial meat, too.

I’ve long been aware of the negative environmental impacts of factory-produced meat. There’s plenty of evidence that the meat-heavy American diet isn’t good for our health. We’re learning than the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture puts human health at risk. And chickens and pigs raised for food are confined in cages and crates barely larger than their bodies. It’s not a pretty picture.

Last week. at a forum organized by the New America Foundation called The New Meat Monopoly: The Animal, The Farmer, and You in the New Age of Global Giants, I heard about another reason to avoid factory-farmed meat: Big meat companies, and in particular Tyson Foods, have grown so powerful that they have made life harder than it needs to be for small-scale farmers and ranchers. At the Washington event, farmers, ranchers, anti-trust experts and animal welfare advocates lined up to pillory the big guys.

Among the speakers at the event was  New America Foundation fellow Christopher Leonard, the author of a well-reviewed new book called The Meat Racket:  The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. Leonard argues in the book (which I haven’t read, but hope to) that companies like Tyson “keep farmers in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy.” They are able to do so in part because many farmers have only one or two customers to sell to, so the customers hold all the cards.

Subsequently, I read Obama’s Game of Chicken, an excellent 2012 article Lina Khan in the Washington Monthly about abuses of power by companies like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride, and how Obama’s USDA and DOJ have failed to curb them. Khan, who’s also affiliated with the New America Foundation, describes in rich detail what she calls “the stark and growing imbalance of power between the farmers who grow our food and the companies who process it for us, and how this imbalance enables practices unimaginable in any competitive market.”

I wrote about the New America event last week for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Like politics, industrial-scale meat production creates strange bedfellows. Animal welfare advocates are joining up with farmers, environmentalists and supporters of stronger antitrust laws in the hope of engaging consumers on the issues involving the meat they buy. The aim? To counter the power of big meat companies like Tyson Foods and JBS, the world’s largest protein company and the owner of brands including Pilgrim’s Pride and Kraft.

“Maybe it’s time for a citizens revolt,” said Barry Lynn, director of the markets, enterprise and resiliency initiative at the New America Foundation. Lynn was speaking at a half-day forum in Washington called “The New Meat Monopoly: the animal, the farmer and you in the new age of global giants“.

The accusations thrown at the global meat giants were mostly familiar. By raising and slaughtering chicken, pigs and cattle on a large scale – about eight billion chickens will be raised and killed this year in the US – these companies squeeze out family farmers, treat animals cruelly, create waste and air pollution, and feed their livestock antibiotics that, over time, put human health at risk and raise healthcare costs, at least according to their critics.

What’s more, these critics argue, is that the meat industry’s consolidation and power have been supported by government policy. Subsidized corn and soy reduce the price of meat. Bank loans to farmers are backstopped by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Government regulations make it harder to build and operate small-scale slaughterhouses.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Egg-cellent news: Hampton Creek raises $23M

BeyondEggs-logo-300x300Eggs from caged hens are the cruelest of all factory-farmed products, animal welfare advocates say. So if you care about animal welfare, you should be rooting for Hampton Creek Foods, a San Francisco-based technology company that says it aims to “enable the production of healthier food at a lower cost, starting with the displacement of the conventional chicken egg.”

Today, Hampton Creek is announcing that it has raised another $23 million in venture capital money in a Series B round led by Horizons Ventures, a technology fund overseen by Hong Kong-based billionaire Li Ka-shing, one of Asia’s richest men. He joins investors and partners of Hampton Creek that include Jerry Yang, the former CEO of Yahoo!; Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures; and Eagle Cliff, the investment fund of billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer and his wife Kat Taylor, the CEO of OnePacificCoast Bank. Bill Gates, who wrote about Hampton Creek here, has also invested, through Khosla.

I met Josh Tetrick, Hampton Creek’s founder, last year at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference, after writing about the company. (See What’s for breakfast? Time to get Beyond Eggs) Josh is a very personable guy, a vegan, a former college football player and a Fulbright Scholar who worked in South Africa, Nigeria and Liberia before focusing on the food system, and how to improve it.

Josh believes that the plant-based egg substitutes being developed by Hampton Creek will deliver health benefits (they’re lower in fat and have no cholesterol) and environmental benefits (they require less energy to produce, generate fewer greenhouse gases and less waste) over conventional eggs from caged hens.

Nor will they cost more than conventional eggs. In fact, Tetrick believes that his team of food scientists can outcompete the chicken. In the press release announcing the new round of funding, he is quoted as saying: “Solving a problem means actually solving the problem for most people – not just the folks that can afford to pay $5.99 for organic eggs.”

JustMayo-600x450Hampton Creek has made a lot of progress in the last year. It now has a product called Just Mayo on the shelves at Whole Foods. It’s described as a plant-based, egg-free, dairy-free mayo-style condiment. Up next is egg-free cookie dough and an a liquid plant-based product that could substitute for scrambled eggs.

Meantime, the company says that in the last 90 days it has “signed partnership agreements with 6 Fortune 500 companies, including some of the largest food manufactures and retailers in the world.” It won’t name the companies or talk about the scale of the agreements, so it’s hard to know how meaningful they are.

Still, this new round of fundraising means that Hampton Creek has now raised $30 million in venture money. That’s a sign that the company is moving in the right direction.

An update: Early this morning, Josh Tetrick sent me the picture below from China where he had just met with Li Ka-Shing. That’s Josh T. in the middle, and on the left is his longtime friend Josh Balk, an animal-welfare activist with the Humane Society of the U.S. who works with businesses like Smithfield to improve their treatment of animals.

Picture with Mr. Li