Looking a cow in the eye | VailDaily.com

Looking a cow in the eye

Alan Braunholtz

“Seeing is believing” though I’m more inclined to follow the 19th century proverb: “Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.” I’m not sure where modern media fits into this with editing, Photoshop and carefully chosen angles, but Web cams are a good bonus.

How bad is the drive to Denver? Well, take a peek at the Eisenhower Tunnel. Did Vail get as much snow as they said? Why they did, better start looking for those late travel deals. Vail must’ve looked great to all those bored, Web-surfing Denver office employees on Friday, judging by the happy crowds.

Pity other products we buy don’t have such transparency in product preparation. Slaughterhouses might not be able to have glass walls but why not Web cams? Yes it’d be disturbing but if you can’t look your dinners’ suffering in the eye, then you shouldn’t be eating it. Same for farming as most animals do not live on the rustic fields and yards of ‘Babe’ but in horrific factory farms. A few Web cams here would do wonders for animal welfare, as we’d be shocked enough to choose the more humane producers. Happy animals would be a great selling point.

More and more consumers do want to know how and where their food comes from, but the big producers don’t want us to. Country of origin labels (COOL) are now on fish, but due to industry pressure won’t be on dairy or meat till 2008. The USDA proposes to change the label “Grass Fed” to a voluntary standard not requiring access to open pastures and allowing antibiotics and growth hormones. The USDA looking out for industry again and not the remaining ranchers who actually raise grass-fed beef.

Surveys report large support for labels identifying local produce, animal welfare, social and environmental issues. Perhaps why farmers markets are growing in popularity; knowing a farmer beats most labeling for information.

Whole Foods is the only chain I’ve seen that regularly puts country of origin on its food. “Organic” labels mean no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics or the unleashing of growth hormones in the cows, or you are what you eat. There are many labels out there and any honest certifying organization will be very open about who they are. The American Humane Association certifies the Free Farmed dairy label ensuring these animals get close to Babe’s lifestyle. “FishWise” labels come from http://www.sustainablefishery.org, and the Marine Stewardship Council certifies fish from well-managed and sustainable fisheries.

Buying humanely farmed labels is the first stirring of a conscience that questions whether a sentient being suffer for my pleasure. They’re tough questions to answer, as it’s hard to deny that pain is bad (though sometimes justified, e.g. a dentist visit) and that suffering isn’t unique to humans.

While our self-awareness makes us capable of greater emotions as we anticipate and plan ahead, I’m not so sure how this relates just to suffering. Knowing what’s going on can be a great comfort at times.

We’re very compartmentalized in our views. “Nasty Koreans eat puppy dogs” while we gorge on millions of Babe the pig. Congress passed a law protecting horses from the slaughterhouse as they’re “historically unique companion animals.”

“Nice work if you can get it,” moo the sad-eyed cows over the fence.

Still any progress on how we raise and kill our meat means a large reduction in suffering in the world. Fish used to be an easy out to me, as they lived free and definitely weren’t cuddly as they slithered around all cold and slimy when dumped on the dock. Now it looks like we’re strip-mining the oceans of all life – talk about short-sighted destruction of what could be an incredible never ending resource – so it’s ecologically tough to justify and then there’s the issue of depriving every future human of the pleasure of eating, watching etc. fish.

Once you get out of the habit of seeing animals merely as instruments for our satisfaction, then fish, bug-eyed from loss of water pressure, flopping and slowly suffocating, are as stark an image of suffering as anything. They have a central nervous system, but no lungs to scream with.

This growth in organic and free-range labels suggests a public awareness that’s a first step. I’m guessing that in a century we’ll look at museums of slaughterhouses with horror and disbelief. The problem is meat tastes too good and we’re all interested parties in this debate. Technology may help us out and at some point we should be able to “grow” meat in a laboratory. Wonder if the “Franken food” anti-genetically modified food crowd will be for or against artificial meat. Technology is rarely purely good or bad; it’s how we use it that matters. GM crops will be essential to cope with climate change, and it’s silly to condemn all of them because of a dislike for the business practices of a few companies who sell them.

If all you care about is the amount of human happiness/suffering, then artificial meat is a no-brainer. By wasting food, energy and water on the inefficient raising of animals we’re reducing the amount of food and water available to the hungry. The creation of a pound of wheat uses up 50 times less water than a pound of beef. Useless measurements are in vogue so here’s one: To produce a 1,000-pound steer takes enough water to float a destroyer.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado CO

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