Another Look at “Sustainable” Animal Farming


Smeared with animal fat and loaded with poison, an M-44 is a tiny land mine.  The sodium cyanide-filled lure is one weapon of choice for Wildlife Services—a U.S. government agency deployed to battle predator animals around farms.

Many casualties are collateral: curious pets, bald eagles, turkey vultures and wolves.  Black bears and beavers. Migratory shorebirds, otters, porcupines. Mountain lions.

But coyotes and foxes are the usual targets.

DRC-6220 was the first synthetic coyote attractant. Debuting in 1973, it was derived from the fatty acids of rhesus monkeys’ vaginal secretions.

Another poisonous salt sold to kill coyotes is sodium fluoroacetate, marketed as “Compound 1080” by the Tull company.  Australians buy it to kill dingoes, wild dogs, feral cats and foxes.  New Zealanders use it against possums. In the United States, it goes into “predacide” collars strapped on goats and lambs. It won’t save the goat or lamb from death, but the animal who bites the collar enters Hell:  Compound 1080 takes three to fifteen hours to kill. Some cattle ranchers believe an assault rifle, such as the infamous Bushmaster, is an appropriate weapon to use against coyotes.

And then there are the traps and snares that kill tens of thousands of animals annually. These deadly pieces of equipment are not in the factory-farm warehouses. The call to “end factory farms” won’t affect them.

Free-Range 101

Yet all the while, progressive people talk of humane, sustainable animal farming. The idea sounds green and caring, and it opens wallets. People can eat animals and feel like they’re donating to the animal-welfare cause too.

They ignore the lives of the free-living—those beings who still walk this planet on nature’s terms, in whatever habitat’s not covered by our outsized Earthly footprint, which we’ve enlarged several times over by breeding animals to be our workers and our food. The bobcats and coyotes, foxes, wolves and grizzlies are understandably tempted to eat the pigs, chickens, and cows they encounter on or around their habitat. The more “free-range” a farm is, the more vulnerable to predators the farm’s animals are.

If you’re farming on open space, or establishing 4-H projects, information sources like Sheep101.info will suggest trapping or shooting coyotes. Their rationale? If we kill off predator animals, then prey animals—young deer and so forth—will rise in numbers and thus the remaining coyotes will have plenty to eat without raiding the farmers’ paddocks:

The rationale behind hunting is that as the coyote population is reduced, there is less pressure on the natural food supply, so wildlife numbers rebound, in turn providing more natural food for the coyote population. Shooting is legal in most places. Coyotes can be shot from helicopters and fixed wing aircraft.

If farmers follow such advice successfully, the increase in the natural prey population can be expected to fuel those pro-hunting arguments such as “There are too many deer.”

Free-living animals are caught in a lose-lose scenario.

The Way Out

Of all the species recorded as becoming extinct in the past five centuries, most lived in the United States. Here, the wilderness has fallen to ranches.  Water pollution plagues public lands, where beef cattle and commercial pack horses and mules graze through the summers. And the fertilizer and waste oozing from animal farms turn expanses of bays and oceans into oxygen-depleted zones that suffocate every living being sucked into them.

Still, certain types of animal farming get approval, by culinary and environmental commentators alike, as eco-friendly. We’re told how farm animals “naturally” eat and live, and we’re exhorted to ensure that they do so—by putting them into our shopping carts. Some say various ranges have been grazed by herbivores since time immemorial, but purpose-bred cows were imposed on the land.

Here, as shown by scientific illustrator Karen Klitz, are the results.

Free-range grazing displaces free-roaming horses and burros, too. So it’s ineffective to cry out for a stop to the horse roundups of the West if we have yet to lay down our cleavers.

If we’d stop farming animals (for animal farming, not the concept of a factory, is the real trouble) we’d instantly be involved in the one action that can free hundreds of millions of acres from rows of feed crops. Land use would be strikingly more efficient if we feed ourselves, rather than feed animals in order to eat them.  And vast releases of methane, chemicals and waste products could be averted.

Those who hasten to invoke the benefits of farming and herding practices of people barely surviving in Africa and India might pause to remember that much of the global south’s water and biodiverse landscapes are enlisted for cattle feed destined for the multinational market; and when companies promote animal products within these regions themselves, they increase the likelihood of dependence on insecticides and on imported food.

Moreover, the emissions caused by animal farming, combined with all the related deforestation and water use, bring rising threats to everyone, wherever they live on the globe.

Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University, having carried out a study calculating greenhouse gas emissions, assert that “[r]eplacing red meat and dairy with vegetables one day a week would be like driving 1,160 miles less” each year.  This suggests:

*Animal agribusiness is tantamount per se to non-local food; and

*A seven-days-a-week shift would save the equivalent of 8,120 miles driven annually.

If we have such power, why not use it? Being vegan isn’t difficult in North America today, and actions that would decrease the hurt and harm caused by climate chaos to vulnerable populations and species is the right thing to do. As habits shift, economies will shift, lessening our reliance on vast tracts of heavily fertilized monoculture crops and on centralized food systems.

We can also press the government to shift subsidies to the direct growing of crops for people—to food, not feed.

Life on Earth is at a tipping point, and this time it’s because of humans. We’ve been at war with each other and the rest of the bio-community for a long, long time.  A cease-fire couldn’t come too soon.

Lee Hall is Legal VP for Friends of Animals, a candidate for Vermont Law School’s LL.M. in environmental law (2014); and the author of On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal Rights Philosophy Down to Earth (2010). Follow Lee on Twitter:  @Animal_Law. Thanks to Brad Miller of Humane Farming Association for helpful edits.

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