Friday, August 6, 2010


Published on Friday, August 6, 2010 by The Huffington Post
Resolved: Eating Animals Is Indefensible

by Bruce Friedrich

For the past few years, I've been spending a lot of time on college campuses, discussing the ethics of eating animals with college debate teams; I argue that vegetarianism is an ethical imperative for all members of the student body, and my adversaries (two members of the school's debate team) argue that it's not.

Last year, I visited Harvard, Yale, BYU, the Universities of Texas, Georgia, and Florida -- and dozens of other schools, coast to coast. This fall, I'm slated to visit Cornell, Princeton, Boston College, the University of Minnesota, and half a dozen additional schools.

The topic is a hot one on college campuses, and the teams that have accepted have been rewarded by what they have consistently told us to be their largest event audiences ever. You can watch many of the debates online, if you're so inclined, but here is the crux of my argument:

First, eating meat wastes and pollutes our land, water and air-- as I discuss more thoroughly here. Second, eating meat drives up the price of cereals, which leads to starvation and food riots -- as I discuss here. Finally, eating meat supports cruelty to animals so severe that it would warrant felony cruelty charges were dogs or cats so horribly abused -- and that's true even of so-called "humane" farms (video).

Cruelty to animals is where I focus in these debates, because it's the issue that is most obvious: We are a nation of animal lovers -- according to a Gallup Poll last May, fully 97 percent of us support laws to protect animals from abuse -- and yet the animals with whom we come into contact most frequently are the animals we pay other people to abuse and kill for us.

The arguments that seem to resonate with students most deeply are:

First, other animals are made of flesh, blood, and bone -- just like humans. They have the same five physiological senses (i.e., they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch) that we do. And they feel pain -- again, just like we do. At most colleges and universities, students are unanimously opposed to eating dogs or cats; the idea revolts them. Yet there is no ethical difference between eating a dog, cat, chicken, pig or fish. If anything, eating your dogs or cats would be morally preferable, since they would have led a good life until you killed them.

In fact, both pigs and chickens do better on cognition tests than dogs or cats. Chickens can navigate mazes, learn from television and have both a capacity for forethought and meta-cognition. Pigs dream, recognize their names, play video games far more effectively than even some primates, and lead social lives of a complexity previously observed exclusively among primates.

Dr. Richard Dawkins, the foremost living evolutionary biologist, calls other species our evolutionary "cousins" and denounces what he calls "speciesist arrogance" -- the idea that we are better than, and can do whatever we want to other species. Darwin taught us that other species are more like us than they're unlike us. Eating meat entails eating "someone," not "something." Eating meat entails eating bits from an animal's corpse. That's not hyperbole; it's reality. That's not sentimental; it's a fact. Don't want to eat corpses? Don't eat meat.

Second, if we're eating meat, we are paying people to abuse animals in myriad ways that would violate anti-cruelty laws if these were dogs or cats rather than chickens and pigs. Animals are deprived of everything that is natural and important to them; they never breathe fresh air, raise their young, develop normal relationships with other animals, explore their surroundings, or do anything else they would do in nature. Artificial breeding practices are used so that animals will grow far more quickly than they would naturally, and their organs and limbs simply can't keep up. For example, chickens' upper bodies grow seven times as quickly as they did just 30 years ago, so these factory-farmed animals who live for fewer than two months (they're still chirping like infants when they're sent to slaughter) suffer from lung collapse, heart failure, and crippling leg deformities.

Michael Specter, a longtime staff writer for the New Yorker , visited a chicken farm and wrote, "I was almost knocked to the ground by the overpowering smell of feces and ammonia. My eyes burned and so did my lungs, and I could neither see nor breathe... There must have been 30,000 chickens sitting silently on the floor in front of me. They didn't move, didn't cluck. They were almost like statues of chickens, living in nearly total darkness, and they would spend every minute of their six-week lives that way."

Similarly hideous conditions exist for all animals raised for food; rather than further detailing the horrid details, I will ask that you if you eat meat, you watch "Meet Your Meat," which is narrated by Alec Baldwin, and "Glass Walls," which is narrated by Sir Paul McCartney -- I generally show the opening two minutes of Meet Your Meat as a part of my 10 minute opening statement in college debates. Both videos offer a gruesome window into what we're supporting if we choose to eat chickens, pigs and other farmed animals. If we eat meat, we should at least ensure that we know what we're paying for.

If you would not personally slice a chicken's beak off, or castrate a pig without pain relief or slice open an animal's throat, why pay someone else to do it for you? Where is the basic integrity in entering into this mercenary relationship? Is the person who hires someone to do something less culpable than the one who carries out the action? Of course not. Eating meat involves paying people to do things for us that most of us would not do ourselves. Where's the basic integrity -- the consistency -- in such a relationship?

Or, put in a more affirmative way: Vegetarianism allows me to live my values -- to "pray ceaselessly," as St. Paul puts it: Every time I sit down to eat, I cast my lot: for mercy, against misery; for the oppressed, against the oppressor; and for compassion, against cruelty. There is a lot of suffering in the world, but how much suffering can be addressed with literally no time or effort on our part? We can just stop supporting it, by making different choices.

So what's the trade-off: Why do people eat meat? And are the reasons we eat meat -- the benefits -- worth the costs?

Well, we get a few moments of pleasure -- most of us like the taste. We have more options at the grocery store and at restaurants. We can eat over at a friend's house without having to bring a dish. We never have to explain our dietary choices...

Is that really it? That it's convenient? That it's easier?

Although I don't discuss this on university campuses, where everyone knows plenty of healthy vegans and thus knows they don't need meat to survive, I should take a moment to point out that meat is absolutely not good for us. The American Dietetic Association -- the largest body of nutrition professionals on the planet -- conducted a meta-analysis of all the studies that have ever been done on diet and disease, and found that vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and obesity than meat-eaters (they believe that the studies indicate causality, not just correlation). Their position paper on vegetarian and vegan diets concludes that vegetarian and vegan diets are appropriate for all people and during all stages of life, including infancy and pregnancy.

So add it all up: Eating meat wastes and pollutes our natural resources -- requiring many times the water, land and energy of eating plants (a moral imperative on its own). Eating meat requires about 1 billion metric tons of grain, corn, and soy -- fed to the animals, who burn most of that energy off, which drives up the price of food for people who are starving (another moral imperative, on its own). And eating meat involves paying other people to do a wide variety of things to animals in ways that most of us would never do ourselves.

Put another way: If we believe that people should try to protect the environment, OR we believe that we should try not to cause people to starve OR we oppose cruelty to animals, the only ethical diet is a vegetarian one.

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Bruce Friedrich is vice-president of policy and government affairs for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the world's largest animal rights organization.


When Agrochemical Corporations Invented Nature

Friday 06 August 2010

by: Julio Godoy | Inter Press Service | Report

Berlin - A civil society protest against a British agrochemical company that claims it has invented a particular sort of broccoli has again focused attention on the question who owns natural biodiversity, especially vegetables, seeds, and many forms of meat and animal food products.

Delegates from some 300 environmental and consumer organisations from all over the world gathered last month in Bavarian capital Munich, some 500 kilometres south of Berlin last month to demonstrate outside the headquarters of the European Patent Office (EPO) against the patent the agency accorded on broccoli seeds, plants and breeding methods to the British agrochemical company Plant Bioscience.

EPO granted the patent in 2002, on a method claimed by Plant Bioscience for increasing a specific compound in broccoli through conventional breeding methods. The patent, which also faces opposition by two other agrochemical multinationals, includes the breeding methods, and the broccoli seeds and edible broccoli plants obtained through these procedures.

The demonstration in Munich took place as the EPO opened its litigation procedure on the legitimacy of its own patent agreement. A decision on the issue is expected in October.

Plant Bioscience claims that its breeding methods increase the anti- carcinogenic glucosinolates in the species. This is one of hundreds of similar claims presented by numerous agrochemical multinational companies, such as Monsanto and Syngenta.

For environmental and consumer activists and independent farmers, such patents amount to an attempt to expropriate natural biodiversity for the benefit of a handful of corporations, which would rule as a cartel upon agriculture, especially in developing countries.

Christoph Then, expert on intellectual property rights for the environmental organisation Greenpeace, told IPS that what a handful of biochemical multinational companies are doing is to "misappropriate biodiversity."

Then is co-author of a study on the 'The future of seeds and food', in which he warns of the "monsantosizing of biodiversity." Earlier this year he led a successful European campaign against a patent filed by Monsanto, in which the company claimed it had invented a particular sort of ham.

Last April, EPO revoked this patent given to Monsanto in 2005. Then told IPS that the "revocation of the patent is a major success for consumers and farmers in Europe. The EPO's decision shows that even the most powerful transnational companies must give in to public pressure."

According to Greenpeace and other environmental organisations researching patent claims by agrochemical corporations, the EPO has to decide on more than 1,000 other property rights filed on vegetables, seeds and animal products presented by the firms Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont-Pioneer, Bayer Cropscience, BASF and Dow Agrosciences, and others.

The broccoli case is typical of this battle among multinationals over conventional breeding methods. The agrochemical companies Limagrain and Syngenta, which have filed opposition against the Plant Bioscience patent, argue that the patent has to be revoked as its claims refer to an essentially biological process, and so to conventional methods.

According to the European Patent Convention, essentially biological processes are not patentable.

Despite this, most patents filed today by agrochemical multinationals concern conventional breeding methods. In a study for the Gen-Ethical Foundation, German biologist Ruth Tippe showed that the number of patents filed by agrochemical multinationals on conventional breeding methods has grown more than 20 percent since 2000.

"Nowadays, 30 percent of all patent applications on plant breeding filed by Monsanto involve conventional breeding methods," Tippe told IPS. "Before 2005, such patent applications did not reach five percent of the total."

"The patent on broccoli has become a test case for the patentability of conventional seeds and breeding methods," Franz Schaettle, director of the international campaign No Patent on Seeds, told IPS.

No Patent on Seeds
represents hundreds of environmental, consumer, and farmer organisations across the world, to fight the "monsantosizing of biodiversity", and has formulated a global appeal against patents on conventional seeds and farm animals addressed to the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office, governments, and the executive boards of agro-business companies.

"The continuing patenting of seeds, conventional plant varieties and animal species leads to far reaching expropriations of farmers and breeders," Schaettle told IPS. "Farmers, especially in developing countries, are deprived of their rights to save their harvested seeds, and breeders are under strong limitations to use the patented seeds freely for further breeding."

Numerous examples of patent applications by agrochemicals confirm the warnings of Tippe, Schaettle, and Then. In Monsanto's patent application WO2008021413 on maize and soy, methods are claimed that are widely used in conventional breeding.

"On more than 1,000 pages and in 175 claims Monsanto apply for patents on various gene sequences and genetic variations, especially in soy and maize," Schaettle said. "Monsanto even goes as far as explicitly claiming all relevant maize and soy plants, inheriting those genetic elements. Furthermore, all uses in food, feed and biomass are listed."

By filing specific regional applications Monsanto shows especial interest in applying for this patent in Europe, Argentina and Canada.

By the same token, in patent application WO 2009011847, on meat and milk, Monsanto broadly claims methods for cattle breeding, the animals, as well as "milk, cheese, butter and meat." Other companies have also filed patents on genetic resources needed for feed and food production.

"All these patents are the backbone of a strategy for taking over global control on all levels of food production, "Schaettle said. "The patents do not stifle research and innovation; they are simply meant to block access to genetic resources and technology and to establish new dependencies for farmers, breeders and food producers."

This is particularly the case in developing countries, especially in Africa and Latin America. In such regions, in contrast to Europe, small farmers and consumer organisations do not have legal or financial resources to fight unfair patents. Under such circumstances, the likes of Monsanto can claim they have actually invented natural diversity.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Are vertical farms the future of urban food?
A conceptual illustration of a vertical farm A conceptual illustration of a vertical farm. Photograph: /Oliver Foster
With more mouths to feed and increasing demands on land, Duncan Graham-Rowe looks to see if high rise city blocks will be the source of tomorrow's supper

Duncan Graham-Rowe for Green Futures, part of the Guardian Environment Network, Thursday 29 July 2010 10.20 BST

The vaults rose up as high as the city walls, bearing reeds richly bedded in bitumen and gypsum. The layered galleries peered each beyond its neighbour to reach the sunlight, and water drawn from the river was pumped through conduits up to the highest level. The topsoil was thick enough to root even the largest trees...

These were the renowned Hanging Gardens of Babylon, as described by the Greek historians Diodorus and Callisthenes, and the earliest example of vertical farming – at least according to Dan Caiger-Smith. His company, Valcent, is taking the concept into the 21st century, recently launching the first farm of its kind at Paignton Zoo in Devon.

It's a beguilingly simple idea: make maximum use of a small amount of space by filling glass houses with plant beds stacked high one above the other.

Financial and environmental pressures on modern agriculture have sparked new interest in vertical farming. With global population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, competition for land to grow both food and energy crops will become increasingly fierce. Four-fifths of us will live in dense urban areas, and increasing awareness of the carbon and water footprints of well-travelled food will have pushed locally grown produce even further up the list of desirables.

So it's easy to see the appeal of a system which, its proponents insist, can surpass the productivity of existing agricultural spaces by up to 20 times, while using less water, cutting mileage and energy costs, and delivering food security.

"It answers so many of the big questions of the future", says Caiger-Smith.

Valcent's system requires about the same amount of energy as having a home computer on for ten hours a day. That's enough to produce half a million lettuces a year – and, the company claims, seven times less than is required to grow the same crop on a traditional farm.

The 100 square metre farm at Paignton Zoo grows leaf vegetables for animal feed. It applies a technique called hydroponics, where plants are grown in nutrient rich solutions instead of soil. Stacked in trays eight layers high, the crops are continually rotated to ensure that all have adequate access to air and sunlight. The system also allows nutrients that have not been directly taken up by the plants to be collected and recirculated, along with the water, reducing usage and minimising waste.

This is just the beginning, says Caiger-Smith. His company now has more than 150 clients around the world queuing up to see how hydroponics could meet the needs of human food production, too.

How indeed. Inspiring concepts and artists' impressions abound, but with none actually up and running yet, how can vertical farms meet the impressive efficiency and production claims being made for them?

By cutting lots of corners. For a start, they remove the need for tractors and other fuel-dependent equipment. Distances to ship the produce from grower to retailer to consumer are also slashed. As Jeanette Longfield, Co-ordinator of the food and farming non-profit group, Sustain, puts it: "Intensive agriculture is currently entirely dependent on fossil fuels, from its use of nitrogen-based fertilisers to mechanical equipment, transport and refrigeration – and so urban agriculture really makes a lot of sense". In particular, Longfield sees "great potential for perishables that don't travel well".

Moreover, the traditional dependence of yield on the weather is taken out of the equation, offering greater security to the full supply chain.

Proven business models are still a way off. "It takes a stock market to build a high-rise," says Natalie Jeremijenko, an aerospace engineer and environmental health professor at New York University. She doubts that the income from vertically farmed crops would be sufficient to recoup the rent. But this hasn't stemmed her interest. Instead, she's come up with two designs to sidestep the problem: one is a small hydroponic rooftop pod with a curved shape to maximise exposure to the sunlight. The other is a vertical farm designed around a fire escape on an occupied high rise.

Sustain has also set out to demonstrate that urban land doesn't always come at a premium. The organisation has launched the programme Capital Growth, which aims to create 2,012 new food growing spaces in London before the city hosts the Olympics that year. The search encompasses "all kinds of nooks and crannies" – from school grounds and the banks of canals to roof terraces.

The other option is to simply do things on an industrial scale. Dickson Despommier at Columbia University, author of The Vertical Farm: The World Grows Up, believes there is scope to take vertical farming to an entirely new level, quite literally. He wants to create a new type of skyscraper to pierce the Big Apple's skyline – vast multi-storey buildings dedicated to vertical farming. According to Despommier, a single 30-storey building could provide enough food for 10,000 people.

And he's not alone in thinking big. Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut has drawn up plans for a huge tower, also in New York, on the city's Roosevelt Island (see 'Weak signals: how to track a changing horzion'). Callebaut's vision, dubbed the Dragonfly, is to create buildings with lush, fertile interiors that function as self-contained, sustainable eco-systems, producing food for their residents.

It's not just a flight of fancy. Will Allen in Milwaukee has already demonstrated the concept with a community food aquaculture system he calls Growing Power. This symbiotic cultivation system relies on aquatic life, such as tilapia fish and yellow perch, to redistribute nutrients. Waste products from the fish fertilise plants, while vegetable waste and worms from the gardens feed the fish. Both the vegetables and the fish are sold to local businesses at a marked up price, so that local residents can buy the produce directly from the farm at a subsidised price.

If vertical food does prove cheaper to produce and consume, then it's unlikely to face much opposition. In years to come, "locally grown" may mean just a few blocks from home.

• Duncan Graham-Rowe is a former staff writer for the New Scientist and a regular contributor to The Economist and The Guardian.

• Additional material by Anna Simpson, Deputy Editor, Green Futures.