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The Virtues of Not Eating Animals

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Growing up in a village

I was born in a Greek village where land and food self-sufficiency were everything. My father had a few strips of land where he raised enough food for his family and the family of his brother who lost his life during the war years of the 1940s. My father cultivated wheat, barley, lentils, vine grapes for wine, and olive trees for oil.

Animals made our lives possible – and easier. We had a mule, a donkey, goats, sheep, chickens, dogs and cats.

I learned to respect and love these animals. I could not conceive life without them.

My most interesting agrarian memory comes from our harvesting of grapes during the heat of Summer in late August. My sisters and cousins would fill wicker baskets with ripe bunches of white, blue and red grapes, load them on the donkey, and my younger cousin, George, and I would take them home. We would unload the baskets and pour the grapes into the linos, a rectangular stone and cement enclosure a meter high with a cement bottom. One of the stone walls of the linos had a hole that allowed the liquid wine to drain to a small cement pit below.

After filling the linos with the ripe and tasty fruits of Dionysos, George and I washed our legs and entered the soft hills of grapes, which we treaded to pulp while laughing and having fun.

In America

At age eighteen I left the village for America where I discovered the beauty and pleasures of Greek civilization – and much, much more. This happened slowly.

Like other young Greeks and most foreign students from many countries, I saw America as a land of opportunity for those with technical knowledge and skills. This pushed my love for the Greek classics to the back recesses of my mind. In 1961, when I arrived in America, I simply wanted some education that would enable me to earn a good living. I had a vague notion of a good life.

However, my education in zoology and Greek history and the history of science and my work on Capitol Hill and the US Environmental Protection Agency brought me face to face with modernity – and I did not like it. I could not stand looking at skyscrapers and cringed at seeing gigantic tractors crushing the land. I had the feeling I had to turn to classical thought. If I were to survive the hubris and crimes of technicians armed to the teeth, I would have to have the support of my ancestors.

I read Pythagorean writings with great interest. Pythagoras was a sixth century BCE philosopher of heavens and Earth. He said number was the constituent of everything in the cosmos. He thought music and songs had a healing and educational effect, invigorating humans with inner harmony. He even said he heard the music of the spherical planets moving around the Sun, which he equated to a large fire at the center of the cosmos. He called that fire  the House of Zeus. He was in love with animals and life. He was against destroying or eating any living thing, animals in particular. He was certain there was a brotherhood between humans and animals. He urged the Greeks to stop eating meat and never sacrifice animals to the gods.

I read Xenophon, an Athenian military man and historian who flourished in the first half of fourth century BCE. I agreed with his theory and conviction that agriculture was a school for courage, freedom, military training, and the raising of food and civilization.

Then the fourth century BCE philosopher Aristotle came into my life like a breath of fresh air. In contrast to the dry and uninspiring classes I took while studying zoology at the University of Illinois, the writings of Aristotle brought me in touch with the roots of zoology. His works on animals, especially his History of Animals, lifted me to heavens. They were insightful, riveting, enormously important, and pioneering. They explained to me the origins, complexity, and beauty of the animal kingdom, the perfection of nature, and the meaning and importance of the science of zoology, which Aristotle invented.

At work

I cannot say these Hellenic scientific and philosophical insights blended nicely with my life. After a couple of years on Capitol Hill, in 1979, I started working for the US Environmental Protection Agency. For the first time, I began to grasp what America was all about.

I was so embarrassed the United States had fallen so low: pretending its scientists at the EPA and other agencies like the US Department of Agriculture could employ science in the “regulation” of the abominable chemical weapons it called “pesticides.” Those deleterious chemicals kill more than unwanted insects and weeds. They kill all life. They should have never reached agriculture, a political, cultural and scientific process of raising food and civilization.

I was confused, and not a little concerned about this gigantic country I had chosen as my second home.

Decoding scientific research

Unable to influence or change policy, I turned to research and writing. Scientists often publish important work. But to protect themselves, they garble their stories and publish them in obscure journals read by few people.

I tracked down dozens of those stories, which I decoded and merged with the highlights of the stories I heard from my EPA colleagues, who also gave me their memos and briefings. In addition, I met a few outstanding scientists who answered my questions: about pesticides, agriculture, animal farms, water, endangered species, biodiversity, politics. They worked for universities or the federal departments of the Interior and Agriculture.

Out of this chronic investigation, the picture that emerged was disturbing and just as deleterious as that about pesticides.

The plight of animals

The industrialization of agriculture started in late nineteenth century. Machines replaced animals in the cultivation of the land and the irrigation and harvesting of crops. The size of the farms expanded without limits. Stone and wooden fences between farms became obsolete. The new mechanized farm surpassed the slave-run plantation. Almost nothing could stand on its way, least of all animals.

The factory farm, sometimes described as meat processing operation, put domesticated animals in the maws of machine feeding, slaughter, and sales to the insatiable appetites of meat-eating humans the industry calls “consumers.” Armies of academic and for profit corporate scientists issue false claims that confuse the public by legitimizing the inhuman treatment of animals.

Most of these agribusiness scientists teach and do research and extension at land-grant universities funded by the federal and state governments and industry. They are a parody of the original agricultural colleges founded by the Morrill Act of 1862.

Congressman Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont introduced the land grant college bill and President Abraham Lincoln signed it. Morrill and Lincoln inspired that great innovation to help family farmers. Now these 76 schools have become the brains of agribusiness, thinking and inventing all the gadgetry and machinery and chemicals fueling America’s gigantic farms and agribusiness.

Land-grant universities designed animal farms. It does not bother them that it is wrong treating animals like inanimate things good only for eating.

Animals are living beings. They have feelings of enjoyment and fear. Those who have pet dogs and cats see their pets like their children. I have had dogs all my life. They are my best friends. I speak to them in Greek and English. They look at me straight in the eyes and shake their tales. I saw once a few days old calf in a farm at the Central Valley of California. It had tags on both ears. It turned and looked at me, his big eyes telling me of its horrible fate, taken away from its mother and expecting slaughter soon, so the farmer might sell veal.

At another time, in a visit to China, I saw a white bull in absolute terror written all over its eyes.

Animals probably coevolved with humans and, for millennia, were indispensable to human survival and civilization.

With some exceptions, most people have been eating domesticated and wild animals for millennia. However, the difference between traditional people and modern people eating animals is fundamental.

Traditional people ate animals because they often had to. Those living in mountainous regions with limited access to fishing or growing fruits and vegetables, relied on sheep and goats. Ancient Greeks, for example, ate primarily wheat and barley bread, cheese, olive oil, fruits and vegetables, and every so often they ate the meat of sheep and goats and even sacrificed them to their gods.

In contrast, modern animal farms completely dissolve any contacts people have had with animals or the natural world. They make animals dead meat through mechanical slaughter. Ordering a hamburger is no different from ordering French fries. Both have been made commodities of a cruel factory.

Mechanizing the slaughter of animals is the last straw of human violence against animals. It dehumanizes the relationship of people with animals. It undermines the philosophical and biological connections humans have had with the natural world.

Gaming the system

In practical political terms, the brutal treatment of animals has been increasing corruption among farmers, ranchers, butchers, and consumers. Large farmers / ranchers game the system. Their money power trumps our meager protection of human health and that of the natural world: laws defining and protecting organic food, meaning food raised without synthetic chemicals and without the genetic engineering of crops; laws designed to prevent pollution of the water we drink and laws protecting endanger species.

Large ranchers / meat companies are monopolizing the slaughtering of animals, forcing out of business smaller companies competing with them. In 1986, the largest 4 poultry processing companies controlled 35 percent of the market. In 2015, they slaughtered 51 percent of the country’s  poultry.

With the virus plague all over the country and in the slaughtering plants, and with the non-existent regulatory regime of the Trump administration, meat monopolies endanger workers, farmers and those eating meat.

Meat monopolies are also taking over a large part of the slaughter of grass-fed animals. Which is to say, they occupy a significant niche in organic food production, pretending their organic brand shows a concern for human health and the environment.

The risks and effects of animal farms

Large farmers /ranchers, and slaughter companies put cattle, pigs, and chickens and turkeys by the hundreds and thousands next to each other in confined spaces. According to PETA, an animal welfare organization, factory farm animals are flooding the country with huge amounts of toxic and pathogenic waste:

“Animals on factory farms generate many times the amount of excrement produced by the entire U.S. population, and this waste pollutes the air we breathe and the water we drink. Every second, our nation’s factory farms create roughly 89,000 pounds of waste, which contains highly concentrated chemical and bacterial toxins—all without the benefit of waste-treatment systems.”

At about 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a study that justifies the concerns of PETA. The study concluded: “Concentrated animal feeding operations [CAFOs] or large industrial animal farms can cause a myriad of environmental and public health problems.”

The study reported that even the air close to CAFOs is unhealthy:

“The most typical pollutants found in air surrounding CAFOs are ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and particulate matter, all of which have varying human health risks.”

These risks are serious. The CDC study summarized the health effects of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and particulate matter in the air:

The CDC report also listed some of the pathogens found in the enormous amounts of manure in the CAFOs:

“Sources of infection from pathogens include fecal-oral transmission, inhalation, drinking water, or incidental water consumption during recreational water activities. The potential for transfer of pathogens among animals is higher in confinement, as there are more animals in a smaller amount of space. Healthy or asymptomatic animals may carry microbial agents that can infect humans, who can then spread that infection throughout a community, before the infection is discovered among animals.” (emphasis mine)

For us, in 2020, living through the corona virus plague, these results are terrifying. The sources for the pandemic are all over the United States, in thousands upon thousands of CAFOs. Yet, the US government has been turning a blind eye, allowing these festering disease factories to go on.

Despite the grave risks to both animals and people, the owners of these large animal feeding operations refuse to shut them down, much less face the responsibility for the colossal and toxic and pathogenic wastes of their factories. They pour all those rivers of filth and plague into lagoons.

The stench from those wastes is powerful enough to make life unbearable to powerless and, usually, minority communities neighboring animal farms. This is especially blatant in east North Carolina where blacks live not far from millions of pigs confined for feeding and slaughter in giant industrial hog farms.

CAFOs are equally dangerous to wildlife. Their waste lagoons become death lakes for flying and migrating birds. In addition, during storms, waste lagoons overflow into creeks, rivers and ground water aquifers – harming both wildlife and humans.

To prevent plagues among thousands of caged animals and plagues from escaping animal farms, agribusiness workers add antibiotics and hormones to the pesticide-rich and genetically engineered feed animals eat. This guarantees the consumers of those animals also eat meat rich in antibiotics, pesticides, hormones and genetically engineered crops – and potentially pathogenic diseases.

The other significant consequences of mass slaughter of animals is water pollution and the gases these animals emit into the atmosphere.

Manure gives off methane and nitrous oxide, which, respectively, are 23 and 300 times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. These emissions from manure have been affecting climate change in a significant degree.

According to the Humane Society, the country’s largest animal protection organization, “There is no question that the meat, egg, and dairy industries contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.” The  society “ encourages each individual to take important, daily steps to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change:”

Stop eating meat

For these reasons (ethical, political, environmental and existential), vegetarianism is more timely and important now than ever before.

Stop eating meat. Stop being a consumer cannibalizing other living creatures. That way, you send an unmistakable message to careless administrations, like the hazardous administration of Trump, corporate exploiters, meat monopolists and profiteers and eaters of animals. You tell those unethical and violent business and political guys that you are not going to continue supporting their hazardous business.

Second, abandoning meat means you help our chances of surviving the colossal climate change around the corner.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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