Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Perspective and context

A friend stopped by the ranch the other day and caught up with me as we were finishing weaning calves.

Weaning calves is part of responsible animal husbandry and food production.

My friend was raised on a ranch, did the usual ranch chores while he was growing up, participated in 4-H, and had, as I did, the stereotypical idyllic farm-kid childhood.

Our paths diverged after high school. My friend went to college, got a degree, then a masters and a doctorate, and became a college professor. I joined the navy, served around the world in peacetime and in war, retired and returned to ranching. He’s still the same old friend, the very same person who I grew up with. I’m pretty much the same person he grew up with.

Unsurprisingly, we have divergent opinions about many things. This is natural, considering the different paths we’ve taken to reach our present stations in life. I feel very fortunate that our friendship transcends our opinions, and that we can honestly discuss and debate without arguing or feeling defensive. My friend has shown me different viewpoints on a wide range of topics and I completely respect his perspective. He’s taught me a few interesting and valuable lessons. I hope I’ve been able to do the same for him.

I showed my friend the pen of calves we had just finished working. They were, to my eye, a big, strapping, vigorous lot. I pointed out several of the calves who’d been plagued with bacterial scours shortly after birth, and explained how demanding their treatment had been and how close to death they had come. Each of these calves weighed 50-70 pounds less than their cohort, but each was alive and vigorous and rapidly catching up. I also showed him a yearling heifer scheduled fo slaughter. She’d been born with some birth defects, had a very shaky start, but had eventually done quite well. She’d never make a feedlot calf or a replacement heifer, an at 18 months she weighed only 400 lbs. With her misshapen jaw, contorted body, and obvious neurological disorders, she was a testament to survival.

My friend shook his head. “It seems so ironic,” he said. “You save their lives only to kill them.”

It’s a valid point, and one that I fear most non-ranching folks would buy into. But it’s more a superficial, emotion based conclusion than one derived from an understanding of reality. Let’s take a look.

Do livestock producers raise animals with the sole intent of killing them? Hardly. We raise food animals. Those animals harvest grass, which harvests sunlight. The livestock convert grass, which people cannot digest, into protein-rich meat, which people can digest. And on which people thrive. It’s probably no accident that the human evolution of cognition came at the same time humans began to consume meat. No livestock producer raises animals simply to kill them.

To turn food animals into food, though, they must be killed. They have to be slaughtered, dismembered, portioned, packaged, and distributed. For most consumers, slaughter takes place so far behind the scenes that they seldom, if ever, consider what it entails or how natural it is. Nearly all of us, livestock producers included, pay others to do the killing and slaughtering. This reduces our personal burden, so that we don’t each have to hunt, kill and process. We do this hard, labor intensive chore by proxy. The livestock producer does the job of the hunter, while the slaughterhouse does the processing chore. Even though consumers pay others to do the hard work, each consumer is directly responsible for the killing and slaughtering. Those who see livestock production only as killing are being intellectually lazy or dishonest. One can understand consumers feeling guilty about killing animals, but only with the deeper understanding that the guilty cannot or will not look at the whole picture, will not consider nature’s reality.

My friend, who decided to become a vegetarian a few years ago, agreed with my basic points, but argued that there is an alternative which doesn’t involve killing animals. I can understand his argument, but I have to counter again with natures reality. Every plant we consume is also killed. Most grain crops, of course, naturally die back at the end of the growing season. Yet we harvest their grain, which are seeds, and in a very real sense, are plant babies. So we’re killing the unborn plants, which an honest broker must consider as little different than killing the offspring of food animals. Both are forms of life, and both have their lives taken from them. But just as carnivores kill and consume herbivores in nature, so do herbivores kill and consume plants in nature. Though we consumers harvest plant material by proxy just as we harvest meat by proxy, we are each directly responsible for killing and consuming living organisms.

Another consideration is that the very nature of cultivating and harvesting plant crops has the unintended consequence of killing non-food animals and plants. In rice production, for example, untold millions of amphibians, fish and crustaceans are killed when paddies are drained and the grain harvested. In other food crop cultivation pesticides and herbicides kill countless insects and plants, and no small number of birds, mammals and reptiles are inadvertently killed during tillage and harvest operations. Yet without the use of herbicides and pesticides and without modern tillage and harvesting operations no adequate supply of food could be produced. And despite arguments to the contrary, a switch to subsistence farming would mean starvation for millions.

So yes, even the strictest vegan is directly responsible for killing untold numbers of living organisms.

In that light, bringing context and perspective to bear, one must conclude that rather than murderers, we humans are all a part of nature. The reality of life is that we can only exist as part of nature. Most of us live in highly artificial environments, but in reality, we each occupy the same place in nature that the frontiersman did two centuries ago. We harvest renewable resources to feed, clothe and shelter our existence. We do this largely by proxy, which is the only way so many of us can survive. But we’re still linked directly to nature and constrained directly by nature.

The cure for feeling guilty about our artificial existence is to learn and understand. Fortunately, most people have the ability to learn and understand. The ongoing challenge for agricultural producers is to help our fellows to do this. We’re most effective in sharing knowledge when we respect our fellows opinions, but insist that they look at the world the way it is. Getting bogged down in an argument about which of us is responsible for murder is a wholesale waste of time and misses the reality of our existence entirely.

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