Many different concerns, from convenience to culture, go into personal dietary choices. But our individual food choices can have a huge effect on the world around us: Diet, more than ever, is both a personal and a public issue. Only we know the way food affects our personal well-being, but cruelty to animals, global warming, and polluted rivers are everyone’s concern. At Farm Forward, we aim to provide thoughtful, evolving recommendations on what food choices minimize animal suffering and increase sustainability. And we do our best to keep those recommendations simple. To reduce it to one sentence: Eat conscientiously—as few animals as possible, ideally none.
Why do we say that?
Land devoted to raising or feeding livestock covers one-third of this planet,1 and industrial fishing has reached such intensity that we can actually measure a drop in the health and diversity of ocean life as a whole. Animal agriculture shapes the globe. And each one of us is a farmer “by proxy,”2 helping to shape the world we live in through the food choices we make.
There’s no question that American consumers are making food choices with increasing concern for ethical and social issues—we are demanding more locally, humanely, and sustainably produced animal products—but it can be difficult to know what the various food labels and certifications mean. Is meat from pasture-raised and grass-fed animals better than organic meat? (Yes.) Does it matter where I shop for meat in the first place? (Yes.) Are tuna and salmon a better alternative to beef, pork, and chicken? (No.)
Also, does adopting a vegetarian diet actually help the situation? (Yes.) Would increasing the productive capacity of the more ethical ranches and slaughterhouses help the situation? (Yes.) Is it better to increase demand for humane and sustainable animal products than it is to simply avoid them? (Not now.)
By most measures, confined animal production systems in common use today fall short of current ethical and societal standards.” –Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production
Nearly all the animal products available in supermarkets and restaurants (meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy) come from factory farms or destructive, inhumane fishing methods. Given this disturbing situation, how can we eat conscientiously?
The Foods You Eat
Since the egg and chicken industries are among the most abusive to animals, some conscientious consumers eat beef but boycott poultry and eggs. Others eschew meat when eating out, but at home—where there is more control over the product—eat as a selective omnivore. Still others find it simply more convenient and personally meaningful to cut animal products out of their diets entirely.
With effort, it is possible to selectively eat products from animals raised outside the factory system. Labeling laws make this possible, but most labels are misleading or meaningless. If you haven’t been told what a label means by a reliable nonprofit source, assume the label is an advertisement. Farm Forward’s research to date shows that beef products labeled as “100% grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” are likely to be among the most humane and sustainable meats available (though not the most efficient to produce). Check out our label guide for beef for more details. There are also some good options for buying pork outside the factory system. Seafood (especially tuna, salmon, and shrimp) and poultry products (chicken, turkey, and eggs) are among the most difficult to obtain by humane, sustainable methods.
There is currently no label one can look for on poultry products—not free range, not organic, not anti-biotic free—that can ensure humane and sustainable practices were followed. The same is true of seafood, but in this case we can recommend the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program for detailed information on the relative ecological impacts of eating different species (there is no equivalent in poultry). The extreme situation in poultry stems from the nearly all-pervasive factory genetics used by almost all poultry farmers, whether large or small. Today only one farmer has created a commercially viable flock of birds recognized as heritage (having pre-industrial genetics) by the USDA. Farm Forward is working with small poultry farmers to change that and ultimately to launch BuyingPoultry.com, which will provide free, independent advice to consumers who wish to buy ethical poultry products.
Where You Buy
Beyond the kinds of products you choose and the kinds of farming methods you give preference to, where you choose to shop also makes a difference. Progressive independent grocers or the Whole Foods chain of supermarkets, for example, tend to source at least some of their animal products from local producers or from operations with higher animal welfare and sustainability standards. Food co-ops are also likely to carry fewer factory-farmed products and may be highly selective in the animal products they do carry. Local farmers’ markets give you the opportunity to make direct inquiries to producers themselves and often provide the most humane and sustainable option.
We invite you to take a step—any step—toward conscientious eating and see how it feels. Commit to making a dietary change for a week or month or season. We think you’ll like how you feel—and one step forward is usually followed by another. You won’t be alone on your journey—join our free mailing list and get plugged in to the most exciting revolution you’ve never heard of: the one on your plate.
Farm Forward is working with leading poultry farmers and animal welfare experts to create BuyingPoultry.com—a free online and smart phone-based buying guide that takes the guesswork out of finding alternatives to factory farming. BuyingPoultry.com will rank every poultry brand and product in the U.S., so you know how they treat their animals. With BuyingPoultry.com, consumers will be able to see who’s best and who’s worst nationally and in their local grocery store, find information about what these companies can do to improve conditions for animals, and make it easy for everyone to add their voices to the cause. The site will also provide information about the best plant-based alternatives and where you can find them.
As Few Animals as Possible, Ideally None
We eat too much meat—this is something on which virtually everyone agrees. The chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that the best and fastest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce meat consumption.3 The small amount of meat available from more responsible producers cannot come anywhere near to meeting existing consumer demand (Farm Forward has heard from several producers of non-factory animal products that they regularly decline large orders because they lack the production capacity). The less meat one eats, the more one reduces the burden on an overtaxed and imperfect system. The infrastructure to provide non-factory animal products in large (let alone sufficient) quantities is very much a work in progress.
In part because of this situation, an increasing number of people are giving up meat or all animal products. For many, this is an empowering and energizing way to eat ethically. Actor Natalie Portman, who describes herself as a “strict vegetarian,” put it simply: “I just really love animals and I act on my values.”4 For others, of course, giving up meat seems difficult—eating animals is a significant part of our culture and our culinary habits.
Farm Forward has no ideological commitment to vegetarian or meat diets, as most organizations addressing food do. We are proud to have both carnivores and vegans, both ranchers and animal rights leaders, on our board. The future of how we eat doesn’t belong to any one vision of what it means to eat ethically. How the next generation will eat—even how the youth of today will eat—is wide open, more than most of us realize. Our choices and nothing else will shape this future. A world where animals are raised on pastures as a rule instead of a rarity or a move toward plant-based diets are both possible, happier futures.
Today, however, the reality of meat is unambiguous. And at Farm Forward we don’t pull any punches when we face inconvenient realities: Most of the animals raised and killed for food (more than 99 percent, to be precise) come from unsustainable and cruel factory farms or, in the case of sea animals, other industrial operations. We are aware of no seafood producer that humanely kills fish. And even in the case of an animal like shrimp, where their ability to suffer is uncertain, so many other animals (sharks, birds, seahorses, turtles, and many others) are killed in the process of obtaining the shrimp that the suffering of the shrimp themselves is by no means the only consideration. Current methods for capturing shrimp have “bycatch” rates as high as 98 percent:5 This means that for every 2 pounds of shrimp taken to market, 98 pounds of other sea animals are dumped back, dead, into the ocean.
Every person who adopts a vegetarian diet reduces suffering and environmental degradation and helps stretch the small supply of non-factory meat, dairy, and eggs currently available for those who choose to eat meat. As long as the demand for non-factory animal products exceeds the supply to this degree, it is best to avoid even these products. But whatever our approach to eating ethically, the important point to remember is that withdrawing our financial support from factory farming reduces the greatest barrier to humane, sustainable agriculture: the wealth and power that the factory farm industry draws from the money we funnel to it daily.
At present, it is not consumer demand that is limiting the non-factory meat supply but the availability of ranchers with the means and the know-how to raise and slaughter animals humanely and sustainably. Small, progressive operations with strong animal welfare practices are growing rapidly: Niman Ranch is eagerly seeking more pig and cattle ranchers, and Good Shepherd Ranch sells out their supply of heritage turkeys five months before they become available and has standing orders for 1,000 chickens per week.
Odd as it sounds, the best lifestyle of all for someone hoping to reduce farmed animal abuse and grow the supply of non-factory, sustainable meat would be to become a vegetarian cattle rancher! If cattle ranching isn’t in your future, we hope you’ll consider supporting Farm Forward or local community groups to create a post-factory-farming agriculture.
Join the Farm Forward mailing list to receive updates about victories to come and important information about how you can get involved.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Livestock’s Long Shadow, 2007.
- The idea of “farming by proxy” comes from writer and farmer Wendell Berry, who uses it throughout his writings on rural life, agriculture, and conservation.
- Juliette Jowit, “UN Says Eat Less Meat to Curb Global Warming,” Guardian, September 7, 2008.
- Holly Charon, “Natalie Portman,” Seventeen, November 1999.
- Environmental Justice Foundation, “Squandering the Seas,” 2003.