by James McWilliams
St. Martin’s Press (175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010), 2015.
278 pages, hardcover, paperback, or Kindle.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
In The Modern Savage, Texas State University history professor James McWilliams’ sixth successful book since 2005, McWilliams returns to some of the themes he explored in his first book, A Revolution In Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America, and in Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (2010).
McWilliams also makes considerable and effective re-use of some of his research for American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT (2008).
As in Just Food, McWilliams trashes many of the shibboleths of alleged “enlightened” eating. McWilliams, an outspoken vegan, does not endorse eating without enlightenment, and certainly not without conscience. But McWilliams has little patience with the sort of shallow, trendy, short-thinking rhetoric that sustains Whole Foods Markets, plus alleys of imitators, guides the policies of entirely too many alleged animal advocacy organizations, and makes possible the existence of companies such as Rent The Chicken, now supplying coops and poultry to would-be backyard chicken ranchers in three states and southern Ontario.
“Consumers who oppose industrial production of chickens are constantly urged to accept the imagery, ignore the reality, and eat guiltlessly. They’re told to source their chicken products from their own hens or to buy only from small and local chicken farms. Family farms. Artisanal farms. Organic farms. Pastured farms,” recites McWilliams.
Thus the online forum BackyardChickens.com has reportedly grown in eight years from 50 members to more than 3,000.
The explosion of backyard chicken farming, in combination with the barely restrained proliferation of cockfighting, has contributed just in the first four months of 2015 to the spread of H5N2 avian flu from wild migratory waterfowl to commercial flocks in 11 states, at cost of the lives of more than 15 million chickens and turkeys.
“Defining features of factory farms”
In the absence of outdoor flocks, H5N2 could not have spread from the droppings of southbound migratory birds to commercially grown birds who spend their entire lives in enclosed environments. Outdoor, almost exclusively amateur-raised flocks, however, provide an incubator for viruses which then spread to indoor flocks on the boots and clothing of workers.
“We tend to identify overmedication, indifference to animal welfare, unnatural living conditions, bodily mutilation, exposure to dangerous pathogens, and the use of toxic chemicals as defining features of factory farms,” writes McWilliams. “But these qualities are evident on small chicken and egg farms as well.”
And not only small chicken and egg farms. McWilliams succinctly reviews each of the major branches of backyard animal agriculture in chapters entitled “Humane chicken,” “Utopian beef,” and “Painful pork,” demolishing the cherished beliefs of generations of back-to-the-earthers with extensive quotations from the would-be farmers’ own web postings.
As a back-to-the-earther myself for a dozen years, decades ago, I soon learned that as a vegetarian I started out with an immense advantage over those who hoped to produce their own meat products on a household scale: much less output of effort could produce far more meals. There was a good reason why all of the longtime back-to-the-earthers of note were vegetarians, including among my acquaintances the lifelong peace activists and writers Lowell and Virginia Naeve, Growing Without Schooling founder John Holt, and two generations of the James Cooney family: what they were doing simply could not be done any other way.
Marginal amateur farmers
Living according to Gandhian ideals began with a Gandhian vegetarian diet of necessity. And even then, while growing one’s own food may have had certain advantages in saving monetary expense and achieving alleged spiritual enlightenment, it was impractically time-consuming as a way of life if one had other work to do, as even Mohandas Gandhi himself eventually concluded.
None of the hundreds of back-to-the-earthers I knew in upper New England and Quebec who opted to raise animals for meat remained in the back-to-the-earth lifestyle for long. I cannot recall any who raised poultry, pigs, or rabbits who kept the animals for slaughter for more than a couple of years, at most. Only some who raised sheep or cattle or beef lasted for decades as marginal amateur farmers. Even those people did not come close to producing the equivalent of their entire meat consumption, or make a profit selling meat, unless they expanded their operations up to a commercial scale and adopted commercial practices.
The myth of grass-fed meat
“Proponents of pasture or grass-fed beef are prone to making grandiose claims without much to support them,” McWilliams observes. “Take a closer look at these utopian schemes and you’ll soon realize that what’s not being said is more important than what is. Start with the free lunch claim. The idea that, in a rotational system [i.e. where land is alternately grazed and left fallow], the energy absorbed from the sun equals the energy embedded in the food is a deeply appealing ecological transaction. But it’s also a fallacy…No matter how the cattle are raised, it will always be more efficient to use a plot of arable land to grow plants for people to eat than to grow plants for cows who will be eaten by humans.”
Nor is raising grass-fed meat of any kind ecologically light on the land, given the necessity of feeding the land manure which must in truth be imported from factory farms.
“Professor Judith I. Capper, of Washington State University, advises that we replace our ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ with a ‘high-powered microscope,’” McWilliams continues. “ Her comparison of grass-fed versus conventional production, published in leading peer-reviewed journals, found that, pound for pound, grass-fed beef had an overall carbon footprint that was roughly 20% higher than feedlot production.”
As a quirk of book structure, McWilliams begins his review of backyard animal husbandry where most would end, with do-it-yourself slaughtering.
“Butchering your own animal,” McWilliams explains. “is a crude, microcosmic approximation of what routinely takes place on an industrial scale. In fact, when the person doing the killing is inexperienced, which is often the case, or when something goes awry, as it often does, the slaughter is more inhumane than the cold but comparatively merciful efficiency of a commercial slaughterhouse.
“People who raise and butcher their own animals claim that they are opting out of––and in turn challenging––the business of industrial agriculture,” McWilliams continues. “Not so. Backyard slaughterers affirm the most disturbing qualities that they claim to oppose.”
Concludes McWilliams, oddly indicting himself as well as “happy meat” proponents, after delivering a 229-page charge sheet, “By holding up the animal-based alternatives to industrial agriculture as our only alternative, we have silenced discussion of the most fertile, most politically consequential, and most reform-minded choice: eating plants.”
The money is in selling the idea
The more one knows about the “happy meat” industry, the more one will be inclined to agree. I learned first-hand, circa 35 years ago, that the real money in back-to-the-earth animal husbandry was in selling the idea to others.
Many of the people I knew who “successfully” raised animals in their back yards for slaughter did it just once or twice, and wrote about it for back-to-the-earth publications.
Some, who enjoyed access to adequate investment capital, expanded into commercial-scale farming, while promoting the myths associated with smallness, especially in the brand names they developed for themselves.
Most, though, just got back out of scaled-down agribusiness as quickly as they could.
“As a society, we don’t really like commitment,” Rent The Chicken founder Jenn Tompkins recently told Kathy Matheson of Associated Press.
Another way to put that, though, is that people who invest in entering commercial-scale agribusiness cannot easily opt out. Hobby farmers can and do.