For the sake of "inclusivity," a Montreal restaurant recently added some animal products to its vegan menu: eggs, milk and cheese. No bacon or smoked salmon, though. And, above all, a certification that will make customers feel better: everything is organic. The products are sourced from small producers who care about their animals, not from industrial farms.
Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, organic egg and milk production can hardly be labeled "artisan." Truth be told, there is at least as much suffering in a piece of vegan cheese as there is in a beef sirloin.
In my book Cash Cow, I told the story of Marc Allard, a journalist with the Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil, who tried to eat organic and local food for a month. After a reader cued him to the fact that there isn't really a difference between organic and conventional milk, Allard decided to go investigate for himself.
First stop, the Pérou farm in rural Baie-Saint-Paul, which produces conventional milk. The cows he saw were tied to their stalls, but the owner explained that it's for their own good. The journalist then got back on the road and, three hours later, landed at the organic farm Optimus in Lotbinière. The scene was oddly familiar.
Were there differences between the organic Optimus and the conventional Pérou farms? "I expected to see a di erent setting, perhaps a little more bucolic [. . .] . The barn was almost identical. Cows tied in stalls, grazing, sleeping, peeing, defecating and being milked twice a day, every morning and evening. A mechanical system removes manure, which is stored in airtight containers and reused as fertilizer. The same kinds of milking machines and sanitary equipment are used."
Allard's experience is not exceptional. In terms of animal welfare, there are very few differences between organic milk and conventional milk. Organic cows have the same genetic makeup as conventional ones, and both have been selected to make lots and lots of milk: about two and a half times more liters per day than in the 1960s.
"Consumers want eggs, milk and cheese that come from kindly-treated animals. Sadly, there is no such thing. The large-scale exploitation of animals cannot happen without suffering."
The cows spend their days tied to their stall and get inseminated every year. They are separated from their calves at birth and suffer from mastitis and lameness, just like their conventional cousins. After four or five years, they are trucked to the same auction houses and then to the same slaughterhouses, just like all Canadian cows. They -- all of them -- become ground beef.
The differences between organic and conventional practices are truly small. In the summer, organic cows are pastured one or two days per week. They are fed organic grain and do not receive antibiotics when suffering from an infection. Is that really enough to take the guilt away from a vegetarian cheeseburger?
The situation of organic hens isn't cause to rejoice, either. Last July, the New York Times published an article with the headline: "Eggs that Clear the Cages, but Maybe Not the Conscience." The article related how consumer and activist pressure pushed big retailers such as Walmart, Costco and McDonald to request that all of their suppliers go "cage-free."
In reality, "cage-free" doesn't mean much of an improvement. Whether their eggs get labeled "cage-free" or "organic", hens are raised in large warehouses like those used for [meat chickens]. Instead of cages, the warehouses do have nests and perches. Just like organic cows, organic and cage-free hens are granted access to the outdoors when weather allows, however the gates are often narrow and hard to access for the fowls.
(Photo: Mizina/Getty Images)
Looking at it through the eyes of a hen, there is no doubt that being able to walk freely, even in a cramped space, is a bit better than sitting in a cage where she can't even stretch her wings. However, cage-free production also has issues. The death rate is higher there than in battery-cage operations due to higher communicability of infections. Hens are more likely to get injured from pecking at each other. Workers get exposed to a higher concentration of ammonia and more frequently suffer from respiratory issues. On the positive side, the hens are fed organic grain. But does that really change much?
After a year or two, organic hens are packed in plastic crates and trucked to the same slaughterhouses as their conventional counterparts. There, they will be turned into chicken nuggets and deli meat. Meanwhile, in organic as in conventional productions, male chicks will be systematically tossed into grinders at birth because they are deemed economically useless: they obviously do not produce eggs, and their genes aren't optimized for fast growth. Whether one eats the egg or the chicken, the problem remains the same.
Legal scholar Gary Francione suggests that the marketing of "happy animals" is first and foremost about us: we are bothered about animal agriculture, but the label appeases our conscience. Consumers want eggs, milk and cheese that come from kindly-treated animals.
Sadly, there is no such thing. The large-scale exploitation of animals cannot happen without suffering. Meanwhile, the happy ones are the producers who wrap those animal products in reassuring labels -- with a higher price tag -- that relieves our guilt.
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