Jonas on what ethical farming means to consumers

Tammi Jonas, who is writing her PhD on the role of food in a cosmopolitan, sustainable society, always has some wonderful insights into the expectations of farmers and consumers, so I was thrilled when she agreed to write this guest post for Milk Maid Marian.

In a number of recent discussions amongst farmers and with non-farmers, there has seemed to be an impasse. It goes something like this:

Non-farmer: ‘how can you treat animals that way?’

Farmer: ‘we love our animals, you’re just being misled by activists showing you worst practice’

Non-farmer: ‘I just want you to be kind to the animals while you raise them, and to kill them with as little stress as possible’ [many vegans snort at this point, though not all]

Farmer: ‘we treat our cows/sheep/etc better than our children! They’re pampered! We love them!’

Non-farmer: ‘but you handle them roughly and slaughter bobby calves young after starving them!’

Farmer: ‘what do you want us to do with all the bobby calves? We can’t afford to raise them all? But we send them to a nearby abattoir to minimise stress and time off feed…’

Non-farmer: ‘but the poor calves!’

Non-farmer then in most cases goes and purchases milk from Coles or Woolworths at $1 per litre for private label, or slightly more for ‘branded’ milk. They also consume meat and dairy daily, yet don’t want their meat to come from intensively-raised animals.

Who’s right here? And what’s at stake?

To get to the heart of the matter, I asked a very simple question on the twitterz yesterday:

Non-farmy (meat-eating) types – what do you want from farmers in the raising of the animals you want to eat? Be specific!

Here were the replies:

@trib: animals get more open space than legislated, only necessary drugs, healthy, natural food, capacity to behave naturally, eg herding

@FreeHugsTommy: I want the animals to be living a life as close as possible to the one they would live if they weren’t being farmed.

@hadrian33: Happy animals (allowed to roam and eat what they like best) As stress-less a death as possible

@andrewfaith: Organic, free range, humanely treated. Treat them the way we would like to be treated – with care and respect.

@katgallow: For animals 2 have chance of self-expression. Eg pigs root around, wallow etc as expressn of ‘pighood’

@drnaomi: I would like food animals to have good living conditions, good natural food and to not be traumatized by transport and slaughter.

@th3littleredhen: the best possible quality of life (& death) before it becomes food.

@graceonline: Truly pasture-raised, pasture-fed; no feed or plants with GMO or animal parts or slurry; respectful butchering; clean;

@abbystorey: to know where & how animals are raised. Sounds obvious but pics of happy farmyards & slippery terms like freerange are misleading.

@stillmansays: want cows raised in deep pasture w cow/calf herds & slaughter in pasture to allow cows opp to grieve & re-form herd dynamics

@EmpiricalBaker: reasonable prices, animals raised outdoors in nature, open communication with farmers

Now, my communities of interest on the twitterz are overrepresented with food-focused folks, and many of them are much more conscious of ethical consumption than average. But by and large, what they said they want is roughly what I believe most people would actually say they want in the treatment of farm animals. As @kirsty_l pointed out, it would make one appear and feel ‘not good’ to suggest one doesn’t care about the treatment of animals.

And yet in the supermarket, where the average consumers’ interactions with food take place, people are confronted with the constant appeal of ‘lower prices’. ‘Consumers win!’ ColeWorths and their mates at the Institute of Public Affairs tell us. But do we? Actually, the only winners here are the shareholders and highly paid execs of the duopoly.

The rest of us consumers lose – we lose choice as they label everything with their own brands, further obscuring an already impenetrable barricade of marketing spin – where are the farmers behind these products? The traceability of our food in supermarkets is now so clouded is it any wonder consumers have forgotten that there are real people out on the land working hard so they can purchase their daily bread in bright, shiny packages?

So back to the farmers – the majority of Australian farmers I believe do care for their animals, but they are very aware that they are raising these animals for slaughter. There is an inescapable level of pragmatism when handling animals destined for dinner plates, but that doesn’t mean most farmers are treating their animals in ways consumers wouldn’t like.

For example, the average dairy cow in Australia grazes happily in the paddock, coming in for milking twice a day (some dairies have gone to three, I understand, due to intense financial pressures in this deregulated market). Yes, on most dairies the calves will be taken off the mother between 12 hours and three days after birth, and some 700,000 calves will go to slaughter between 5 and 30 days old. There are concerns about how long these animals are left without feed in their final day of transport and while waiting at the abattoir, just as there are concerns about their handling throughout. We farmers would do well to listen to those concerns and always aim for best, humane practice, as I believe the majority do. And if we know or hear of farmers, drivers or abattoirs who are treating the animals poorly, rather than responding like the Catholic church and remaining silent or being defensive, we should be the loudest voices denouncing their behaviour.

Australia is lucky – this isn’t America – our beef and dairy cattle and sheep are still living out their lives in the full glory of cowness and sheepness (except in the case of ‘grain fed’ cattle, who are kept in feedlots for long periods even in Australia) – I only wish I could say the same for pigs and poultry, the vast majority of whom are raised intensively.

But I’ll finish by returning to consumers. We vote for humane treatment of animals with our dollar. So long as we over-consume meat and dairy while seeking the cheapest prices, we’ll get what we pay for – intensively farmed animals. If everyone decreased their meat and dairy consumption and paid more for it, farmers could afford to give the animals the space we say we want them to have. Next time you’re not sure you can afford that free-range pork, eat a couple of vegetarian dinners and then splash out and eat the tastiest shoulder you’ve ever had. Everyone will be happier, from your taste buds to the farm critters to your grandchildren. Ethics requires all of us.

22 thoughts on “Jonas on what ethical farming means to consumers

  1. Absolutely brilliant! In a time where there is so much disconnection, what is the most effective manner of getting this across to the consumer…

    • Well written Tammi! Eating more plants and less meat and dairy-and paying more for these treats-will not only aid the welfare of animals, but also go a long way to benefit the health of humans and the planet.

      The most effective manner of getting this across is I think – what we are doing – talking about it. Starting with the most passionate, growing the community and spreading knowledge and learning through word of mouth.
      Movements begin at the pointy end.

      Food media plays a role. If only we could get on TV 🙂 But I also think apps and social media (especially blogs and Twitter) do too. It does take some effort to think of meals that are vegetable-rich… omnivores do tend to think of Protein first. We need to support the thinking of what’s best and fresh… the best cuisines are vegetable-rich!

  2. I so passionately agree with this, Tammi:

    “And if we know or hear of farmers, drivers or abattoirs who are treating the animals poorly, rather than responding like the Catholic church and remaining silent or being defensive, we should be the loudest voices denouncing their behaviour.”

  3. My sentiment, exactly: “We vote for humane treatment of animals with our dollar. So long as we over-consume meat and dairy while seeking the cheapest prices, we’ll get what we pay for – intensively farmed animals. If everyone decreased their meat and dairy consumption and paid more for it, farmers could afford to give the animals the space we say we want them to have. Next time you’re not sure you can afford that free-range pork, eat a couple of vegetarian dinners and then splash out and eat the tastiest shoulder you’ve ever had.”

    Very well said, Tammi!

  4. I am an inveterate carnivore. (OK, I did go veggie for a brief time, when I was fifteen – but we all do odd things when we’re teenagers 😉 The two things that upset me most are lack of transparency (which I would extend to all food products) and excessive live transport.

    When I first moved to this area, meat used to come from a good, local, butcher. The majority of the “large beast” meat was local – really local. Prices were only marginally higher than the local Woolworths. For a few years, I was very happy with the situation. I knew – if by proxy – exactly where all that meat came from, and how far it had traveled to slaughter.

    Unfortunately, it all started going wrong. The prices started going up, the quality started going down. I am convinced that meat was not being hung for adequate time “oh, but we’re so busy…” and – as the cook – was not happy about that. The last straw was when my wife, after a gluten challenge, became highly sensitive to gluten – including contamination. We had multiple (but grumpy) assurances that certain things were gluten-free, despite the obvious lack of hygiene, where crumbed products were handled in the same area as plain meat. After the second illness resulting in a gluten-contaminated chicken (I was unaffected,) I called enough enough.

    So, from an almost perfect situation, we ended up with something almost as bad as the supermarkets. Being pragmatic about it, it is now from Woolworths that we buy our meat – of unknown origin – but with MUCH better QA regarding gluten.

    So how does this bear on ethical farming? By being part of the issue that I call ethical food-chain – from paddock to plate. It only starts with the farmer, and I know that the farmer can only follow it through so far – but it is nice if that far means as far as the butcher’s counter.

    The good news is that I’ve made arrangements with a game dealer in Adelaide – mostly handling feral rather than farmed meats – who is prepared to drop off at a cold-chain freight depot, so I should have a load of Real Meat in the freezer, by the weekend. Oh, and lower cost-per-meal than Woolies.

  5. Excellent post, Tammi. And as for “Next time you’re not sure you can afford that free-range pork, eat a couple of vegetarian dinners and then splash out and eat the tastiest shoulder you’ve ever had.” – we all know that those vegetarian dinners can be totally delicious too.

    I thought I would struggle with reducing my family’s meat consumption, but it’s been happening slowly over a few years and is ramping up, if anything. When we do have meat, it’s the good stuff.

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  7. Hi Tammi,
    What percentage of the population do you think shares this view of the world and how much are they prepared to pay for those ethics?
    If they are too few or if that price is not enough to cover the cost of production under that regime but this minority drives policy change, what then? A separate way of funding those practices?

  8. Indeed, I vote with my dollars with every food purchase I make, and I am aware that every dollar I spend is a vote one way or the other, not only for food but for the environment, climate change, and for worker health and safety in every manufacturing arena. I am lucky that I have the means to make considered choices and that I live where it is easy to buy the foods my conscience and sense of responsibility require.

    Earlier this year, I spent a week in another state, and although I was within 45 minutes of the nearest co-op, and drove there for groceries, I was stunned to discover I had almost no access even in that store to organic foods, let alone grass-fed, pasture-raised, “humanely” slaughtered (I get the oxymoronic overtone) meats.

    How could I possibly go back and encourage my much more budget-constrained family members and friends who live there year round to vote with their dollars in the grocery store. They have very little choice!

    Couple that knowledge with the understanding that, with 46 million people on food stamps in the United States today, choice is reduced even further.

    Informative article, and I appreciate so much your passion and willingness to continue to shine light on this deeply disturbing problem. Thank you, too, for asking us for our opinions.

    • Hi Kathryn,

      Right now, it’s the pointy end who can and are are able to make the effort. They’re more than likely to live in urban locations where farmers’ markets and CSAs reside.

      Things will change; with time and growing support, there’ll be more infrastructure, with regional food hubs, fresh food buses and internet shopping. Availability will increase.

      For people on the lower socio-economic level, more initiatives like food stamps for farmers’ markets and community kitchens are required.

      It’s a good point and one that I think about often. No quick and easy solution, I’m afraid. But things are slowly heading this way.

      Quality food, more congeniality, with a touch more convenience than present and *accessible to all* is the ideal we strive for.

      • FlavourCrusader, thank you for your thoughtful reply. It is so true that those with the means and resources are the pointy end, breaking trail, so to speak.

        Only recently, the California farm workers who plant, tend the fields and harvest much of the nation’s produce received the right, at last, to buy the food they grow. Now, they can use food stamps at farmers markets to purchase local, fresh and quite often organic produce. Before that, many did not have access to the very foods they worked with all year long.

        I love your idea of fresh food buses. Can you tell more about that, please?

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  11. Hi Kathryn,
    Someone who works to promote farmers’ markets in Victoria went to the States to investigate the food stamp for farmers’ markets – pollinating ideas like this are fabulous.

    Food buses solve the food access problem in a really neat way. First the idea is sexy, and everyone gets people excited! Second, they can bring produce from neighboring farms to people in food deserts. Also, think about people who aren’t mobile, like the elderly.

    Here are some links:
    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2011/11/grocery-stores-wheels/528/
    http://thefarmbus.com
    http://bkcreative.hubpages.com/hub/The-Food-Bus-A-Fresh-Food-Market-on-Wheels

    Everyone deserves the FRESH FOOD BUS!

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