Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Author, Gene Baur

Dec 08, 2010 10:42PM ● By Anonymous

His book,
Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food is a national bestseller. He sat down with me before a fundraiser at Great Sage restaurant in Clarkesville, Md. to talk about the nature of factory farming.

What’s Up?:
The issue of factory farming is increasingly popular, with films like Food Inc. and books like Eating Animals being released this year. Do you think that more people are asking questions about the food that they eat?

Gene Baur:
I think we’re in the midst of a burgeoning food movement, where people are starting to ask questions about what they’re eating, and, when they learn about it, aren’t happy with what they learn, and are adjusting their behaviors.

WU?: People may like the idea of so-called selective omnivorism, then feel like it’s very hard to find food they’re comfortable with.

GB: There have been a number of new products marketed that suggest that the animals are treated humanely: free range, cage free, natural, and so on. We released a report called “The Truth Behind the Labels.” The only way to really know how animals are being treated is to visit farms where they’re actually being raised. Farmers and food retailers have an interest in representing that these products meet consumer expectations and consumer values.

WU?: “Family farm” could be going that way, sort of like “green,” which has been over-used to the point that it’s lost all meaning. In a strictly literal way, what does “family farm” mean?

GB: Some of what we would call “factory farms”—like Perdue—would say that they are family farms. We define factory farming as an attitude that commodifies sentient life, which looks at animals as production units, and with that mentality that there is a tendency to look at the natural world just as resources to be exploited, to look at workers just as tools of production, and to look at consumers just as a market. Family farms are the antithesis of that.

WU?: Many of our readers are on the Eastern Shore, the birthplace of the modern poultry industry; some would say the birthplace of factory farming. In your book you refer to contract growing as a “modern serfdom.” Some of the people who are contract growers see themselves as family farmers. How do you see contract growers fitting into the question of factory farming versus family farming?

Contract growers are just another example of how factory farmers exploit their workers. I would welcome contract growers to demand that there be more transparency generally. They’re exploited; they have to dispose of the bodies of dead chickens on their properties. Their own land is polluted. They are discouraged from speaking out, and if they do speak out, they lose their contract.

What will it take for the public to realize that subsidies, environmental cleanup, and health care are the externalized costs that allow a hamburger to cost $2 at McDonalds?

GB: Many citizens are now coming to recognize that when you get a cheap hamburger the real price is more than what you pay at the counter. I think people would also rather eat healthy, and are not going to contribute to cancer, and heart disease, and obesity. And I think more people would also rather support an agricultural system that doesn’t pollute the water, does not pollute the land, and does not cause property values to decrease substantially.
When citizens start making choices that are more consistent with their own values, they’re going to start seeing a major shift.

Now in terms of stopping the subsidies, that’s something that might take more time. Agribusiness is very deeply entrenched in Washington D.C. and also in state capitals.

What do you say to the argument that there’s no realistic alternative to factory farming, even if it is inhumane, dehumanizing, unhealthy, and damaging to the environment?

GB: We’ve invested a lot in this system, and that if we invested in another system we’d have food that is more plentiful. It’s inherently more efficient to grow plants and to eat them directly than it is to grow plants and then feed them to animals, and then eat the animals. With the oil spewing in the Gulf right now, I think it’s a good time to take account of our actions and how those have consequences.

Would it be fair to say that the “bigger is better” model is simply a characteristic of a mature capitalist economy?

GB: Does a mature capitalist system mean that we’re going to be obese and die at a younger age?We’ve confused standard of living with quality of life. But certain measures that increase the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), such as increased cancer or divorce rates and their ensuing medical and litigation costs—they all increase the GDP, but they don’t increase our quality of life. So I think we need to rethink and carefully redefine what is a mature capitalist system. Do we need to have a lot of money in the bank, or is it to enjoy our lives?