Project Animal Farm: An Accidental Journey into the Secret World of Farming & the Truth About Our Food
by Sonia Faruqi
Pegasus Books (80 Broad Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10004; www.pegasusbooks.com); 390 pages, hardcover. $27.95.
Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat
by Philip Lymbery, CEO, Compassion In World Farming, with Isabel Oakeshott, political editor, Sunday Times
Bloombury Publishing (385 Broadway, Fifth Floor New York, NY 10018; www-bloombury.com); 448 pages, paperback. $19.99.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Project Animal Farm, the highly praised first book by Sonia Faruqi, and Farmageddon, a book of apocalyptic title but mostly restrained tone by Compassion In World Farming chief executive Philip Lymbery, with Sunday Times political editor Isabel Oakeshott, are in many respects the same book written by authors of initially very different background and perspectives. Globe-circling investigations of factory farming bring them to much the same outlook.
Faruqi, a Toronto resident of Pakistani parentage, began her explorations of animal agriculture as a recent Dartmouth graduate, who lost her job as a Wall Street investment banker in the 2008 money market collapse.
Vegetarian but unaware
Though culturally a lifelong vegetarian, Faruqi by her own admission literally “did not know hay from straw,” and knew little or nothing else about either any sort of agriculture, or the many food and economic issues involved in farming, until more-or-less on impulse she wrote to a variety of farms, volunteering to work for a few weeks.
Faruqi at the time anticipated a quick return to Wall Street, where her twin sister remained employed. Faruqi appears to have had no prior contact with organized animal advocacy of any sort, and only minimal contact with animal advocates at the conclusion of Project Animal Farm, after four years of investigation in Canada, Mexico, the U.S., Belize, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Thus Faruqi was surprised to find her offers to volunteer mostly greeted with suspicion that she was some sort of undercover spy––which, in effect, she was, though she did not realize it herself at the time.
Accepted at last to help out for a couple of weeks on an organic dairy farm, Faruqi went on to serve volunteer stints at egg, chicken meat, turkey, pig, and veal farms––all of them small by current standards. Faruqi also visited a hallal slaughterhouse, and chicken and pig facilities belonging to some of the biggest corporate producers in the world, as well as one of the middle-sized dairy farms that have now almost entirely replaced the traditional dairy farms of upper New England, the northern Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest.
Student & scout
Along the way Faruqi found herself often mistaken for a student of agricultural economics, working on a dissertation. This, in effect, she also was; Project Animal Farm is the dissertation.
At times, too, Faruqi was mistaken for a scout for would-be investors in agribusiness. This she was as well. Moved by the animal and human suffering she observed throughout her journey, and continually shocked and appalled by the magnitude of the pollution and resource use issues she discovered, Faruqi nonetheless tended to retain much of the outlook of an investment banker, asking continually whether what she saw could for much longer remain economically viable.
“Cannibalism” & “Free range fraud”
Some of Faruqi’s chapter subheadings summarize her most significant conclusions: “Organic dairy cows: tethered, trained buttercups,” “Egg agony: cannibalism among crimson combs,” “Porkmaking by machinery: foam and fire,” “Trilling turkeys: the free-range fraud,” and “Slaughter horror: unrelieved and needless suffering.”
Much, however, is also conservatively understated. The strength of Faruqi’s writing is that she describes her observations in vivid detail, while refraining––mostly––from preaching.
Faruqi packs plenty of statistics and other factual data into Project Animal Farm, but it remains a fast, easy read, and has already been read by thousands of non-vegan, non-activist people who have been drawn into her book as a voyage of self-discovery by a well-educated young woman who, throughout, has more in common with other young women working in big cities and big business than with the typical animal advocate or food industry critic.
Mega-farms of 1970s, 1980s now “small”
Faruqi’s most significant insight, for me, from my perspective including having worked on a variety of farms myself when young, and having reported for decades on farm-related news beats, is that most of what I learned and experienced during the first decades of the transition from family farms to factory farms is now obsolete.
Visiting and writing about animal agriculture in several regions that I once knew well, Faruqi found that what were the mega-farms of the 1970s and 1980s are now the “small” and struggling operations, soon to disappear.
Loss of limits
The then-trend of ever larger animal barns hiring workers from as low as possible on the socio-economic scale continues. Transient immigrant labor hired at minimum wage without fringe benefits long ago replaced local workers who held at least a tenuous grasp on a Middle American or Canadian lifestyle.
But even the worst-paid transient immigrant farmhand is easily debilitated or incapacitated by the intensity of fecal odors, fumes, and dust inside the intensely climate-controlled barns of today, where clean cold drafts rarely if ever penetrate the aluminum siding.
Formerly, Faruqi points out, the minimum standards for farmed animal care were set by the conditions that workers could withstand. Today, many mega-barns are so fully automated that the animals inside rarely see humans––just the occasional technician in a “moon suit.”
Thus the limits of human endurance no longer limit the suffering of animals who, by the multi-million, live their entire brief existence in environments consisting mostly of their own feces.
Philip Lymbery, unlike Faruqi, began his explorations as an already seasoned campaigner on animal, environmental, and food issues. Lymbery had worked closely for years with Ruth Harrison, whose 1964 opus Animal Machines introduced the term “factory farming,” and with Peter Roberts, the dairy farmer who founded Compassion In World Farming in 1967.
From that perspective, Lymbery already knew much of what he would see when a few years ago he began doing the site visits, or in some cases re-visits, that inform Farmageddon.
Also unlike Faruqi, Lymbery already had a theme and message in mind when he began researching and writing Farmageddon. His book is in part a summation of the Compassion In World Farming perspective on animal husbandry issues, a manifesto for the changes CIWF would like to see made, and a work of campaign literature, meant to inform and inspire donors.
The most absorbing parts of Farmageddon, however, are the portions where Lymbery discovers aspects of the issues that he had not previously considered. Of particular note, Lymbery is a lifelong avid birder, whose observations about birds and bird habitat are frequently revealing about the effects of animal agriculture, as well. Indeed, Lymbery’s many passages pertaining to birding and factory farming could be excerpted to assemble a book that would probably have a great deal more mass market appeal.
Prophecy & prescription
On the ground, Lymbery investigates mega-dairy farming in California, both small-scale and mega-pig farming in China, mega-pig farming in Mexico, and soy bean production for use in animal husbandry in Argentina.
Lymbery also appears to veer off topic a few times to discuss industrial fishing and issues involving insects, but rapidly illustrates how these seemingly unrelated topics are indeed relevant parts of his narrative: huge amounts of fish, for instance, are processed into animal feed.
Farmageddon runs into difficulty when Lymbery proceeds from exposition to prophecy and prescription.
Faruqi, Lymbery, and practically everyone else who has looked in depth at the ecological and economic impacts of factory farming over the past 50 years or more has concluded that mega-husbandry is not in the long run sustainable.
This, as a general proposition, is easily accepted, even among the investors, inventors, and others whose work continues to enable mega-husbandry to expand.
Less self-evident is what “in the long run” means.
Early predictions wrong
Ruth Harrison, Peter Roberts, and other eminent early critics of factory farming including Barbara Ward (Spaceship Earth), E.F. Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful), Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb), and Frances Moore Lappe (Diet For A Small Planet) all anticipated a time when advances in technology could no longer compensate for finite limits in the amount of animal protein that could be extracted from the soil and water available to us.
The short-lived “energy crisis” of the early 1970s appeared at the time to indicate that those finite limits might very soon be reached. The back-to-the-land and “survivalist” movements that followed the 1960s hippie movement were intertwined responses to the notion that factory farming could not feed the world––or even the affluent portion of the world that it then fed––for very much longer.
In truth, factory farming had barely begun.
Thrived & expanded
Decades later, looking back, it is today clear that factory farming not only survived, but thrived and expanded, with exponentially growing momentum. Intensive confinement animal agriculture, despite all the inputs of energy, feed, and water that it requires, has now managed to grow for approximately the same length of time that animal agriculture was practiced with the aid of trucks and tractors before the advent of factory farming, and also for about as long as animal agriculture was practiced in much of North America before the introduction of motor vehicles.
There may indeed be finite limits to factory farming, but in view of the resilience it has already demonstrated, and the ever-increasing amounts of investment capital put into animal husbandry, to presume that the factory farming modus operandi is likely to collapse of its own weight in the near future must be considered naive.
What will topple factory farming, as we know it now, will be the same evolution of methods that ended cattle drives, vast suburban stockyards, corner butcher shops, and Old McDonald’s farm, raising a few of as many species as the singers could imagine anyone keeping.
Someone will devise another approach, which will somehow economically out-compete the methods now in use. Humane and ecological considerations may provide much of the impetus, but realistically, even ending slavery required that the alternatives gained economic as well as moral momentum.
Not just “more” but “better”
This is where Faruqi’s outlook, informed by investment banking background, appears to be more persuasive than Lymbery’s long stretch to suggest specific “alternative” approaches. Faruqi appears to understand the cultural transition that occurs when quantitative needs are met, and qualitative considerations begin to overtake the quest just to get enough of whatever the commodity.
The signs of hope Faruqi sees emerge mostly from her perception of consumers gradually coming to want “better” food, not just cheap food, with “better for animals” among their qualitative considerations, and not eating animals or animal products at all tending to become an ever more attractive alternative.
Lymbery fails to convincingly explain why, if collapse of the factory farming system is inevitable, “smart” money continues to invest billions of dollars in it.
Obviously a variety of subsidies help to increase the profitability of factory farming. But furnishing the subsidies would in itself become unsustainable if factory farming was really starving both consumers and producers out of the market for factory-farmed products faster than the market could be expanded.
Much of the latter portion of Farmageddon alleges that the numbers of animals currently raised in intensive confinement could be drastically decreased if only American and European consumers could be persuaded to waste less food. This proposition rests heavily on the theories of just one researcher, whose message appears to echo mainly the slogans of the World War II and postwar era in Britain, when animal products were rationed and “waste not, want not” were watchwords.
“All but the squeal”
Here in the U.S., as in much of the rest of the world, agribusiness has prided itself since before Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle (1906) about the Chicago slaughter industry in using “every part of the pig but the squeal.”
Agribusiness embraced recycling as an economic way of life even before most Americans knew the word. The rendering industry, traditionally disposing of surplus hides, bones, blood, and fat from slaughtering, has nearly disappeared in recent decades, as slaughterhouses themselves have become ever more efficient at processing “waste products” into money.
Waste in animal agriculture today consists mostly of misuse of resources for which the industry pays less than full cost, and of course the waste and misuse of the animal and human lives caught up in the industry.
This sort of waste will decline only as the industry itself does, as ever more people decide that meat of any sort is not “what’s for dinner.”
(See also Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.)