Q and A with Gene Baur, founder of Farm Sanctuary

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gene Baur, the president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, has been one of the strongest advocates for farmed animals in the United States since the 1980s.  His  investigative exposés and advocacy efforts on behalf of farm animals have earned international media coverage. “Time” magazine described Baur as the “conscience of the food movement.” In March 2008, Baur released a book entitled “Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food.”

Baur comes to Charleston this week to give two public talks -

5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday in room 227 of the Addlestone Library, College of Charleston, located at 205 Calhoun Street. Free.

7:30-9:30 p.m. Thursday at Jivamukti Yoga, located at 320 W. Coleman Boulevard, Mount Pleasant. Donation of $10-$20 for Farm Sanctuary suggested.

Q: It seem like awareness about the ills of factory farming has come a long way in 25 years. Back then, did you feel like were you a voice crying out in the desert?

A: Yes, it has come a long way. It was frustrating that so few people weren’t thinking about these issues back in the 80’s. Even today, people still aren’t thinking of these issues as much as we need to be but  we’ve come an awful long way. Vegan food is much more readily available. There are plenty of alternatives to cow’s milk, for example, such as coconut milk, almond milk, rice milk, oat milk or hemp milk. And many these are available in regular grocery stores. There are veggie burgers – even Burger King has a veggie burger.

I think it’s a lot easier now (to be a vegan) than it used to be and I think the idea of not eating animals and eating plants is becoming more widely acceptable …

Vegan living is actually tied into some very prominently held values and beliefs that most people have. Most people want to be kind to other animals, but most people are unwittingly supporting cruelty by buying these animal foods that are raised in these horrible conditions. I think what’s happening is that people are starting to align their own behavior with their own values. And that’s where a big part of the change is happening, I believe.

Q: Do you get people asking isn’t vegetarian good enough? Why do I have to go all the way vegan?

A: Any step people take in a positive direction is something we support and encourage, but when you look at the reality of how these animals are being treated, dairy and eggs are, in many cases, some of the worst abuses because these animals live a longer period of time in horrible conditions.

 In the case of dairy cows, they have their calves taken away from them every year, because in order to produce milk, like other mammals, cows have to have a baby. Then the mother is produced to push ten times more milk than she would normally produce.

They are pushed hard and live short, painful lives and then they are slaughtered for beef. Then their babies, if they are male, they are raised for veal, which is one of the worst cruelties, too.

Q: What about pasture-raised and certified humane eggs?

A: I don’t think the word humane is accurate. Dairy cows, even if they are raised on a pasture, they still have their baby taken away from them. Then they are killed when they are no longer profitable for milk production.

As for certified humane, chickens, even if they are free range, they’ll still have their beaks cut off. Those terms seem to sound a lot better than they really are. Free range only requires that animals be given access to the outdoors, but the access is not defined. So you commonly find animals by the thousands with a small door to crummy paddock.

That can still be called free-range, but that’s not what consumers think they are buying.

There is not enough infrastructure right now to enforce (the standards). Even the minimal standards on the books right now, even if enforced, are pretty weak.

You have a strong demand for alternatives to factory farm foods and a lacking supply. What’s happened is that standards have been pushed down. Besides that, you don’t have a robust infrastructure to certify and to visit and make sure these operations are in compliance.

Q: Do you see any trends, anecdotically or statistically, about a move to vegan lifestyle? It seems like women are more apt to adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle than men.

A: I think women tend to be more open-minded to these issues than men generally. But we’re starting to see more and more men get involved, as well. People like Bill Clinton are going vegan, mainly for health reasons, but people like Mike Tyson went vegan a couple of years ago …

We’re seeing more men getting into it, including athletes. Last season, Arian Foster of Houston Texans went vegan (and later got lambasted for eating chicken). You have people doing it for a variety of reasons. MMA fighters. Lance Armstrong – I hate to mention – when he was working on his comeback, he was eating more plant-based.

Q: Is social media helping the cause?

A: I think that social media is playing a huge role. People have to become aware of these issues. For many, many years, people have not been aware and social media makes it easier for people to become aware.

Q; The mainstream media has often avoided the subject. Has that been a frustration of yours?

A: Yes, it’s been frustrating.

 It reminds me of a case with USDA (US Department of Agriculture). We argued that it should be illegal for diseased animals to be used for food, including animals that are too sick to eat and walk. Their response to us was that it was legal, common and appropriate for diseased animals to be used for human food. And that’s still there position.

That’s the kind of thing that I think consumers would like to know, but the mainstream media generally has not covered it.

Q: Do you worry that the industry is starting to get worried and trying to get convert films inside factory farms banned? And how important it is to see these?

A: It’s troubling that the industry is doing this, but it’s not the first time.

There was something passed in 1993 called the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, a federal law that protects animal agriculture, and more recently, an attempt to prevent people from taking pictures on these farms. That shows that they (the factory farming industry) have a lot to hide.

But I believe that there’s a lot of information out there already. People are seeing what is happening and the industry is not going to be able to hide their cruelties. They may be able to try to prevent people from saying what’s happening.

This is just the newest swath of the same old thing.

Q: You seem very hopeful and upbeat that things are going to change.

A: I am. I am. I have seen things change. There’s never been as much awareness as there is today about these issues.

There has never been more incentives, some that aren’t so positive. We’ve got an obesity crisis. Heart disease and cancer are the top two killers in this country and the risks of both can be significantly lessened by plant foods instead of animal foods. When people see that and they change, it’s very inspiring. People are becoming empowered to take control of their lives … and that does make me hopeful. But obesity, heart disease and cancer are horrible and unnecessary.

But also now we have economic problems. We, as taxpayers, have subsidized this industry in various ways. We subsidized the production of cheap corn and soybeans, which are then used as animal feed, so that the price of meat is much cheaper than it should be. We also subsidize health care …

Unfortunately, there are other economics pushing in the other direction.

The pharmaceutical people make a lot of money on heart disease. More than half of the antibiotics produced in the United States are fed to farm animals to make them grow faster.

 If people were to step back and look at these issues objectively and look at what’s in the best interest of our nation and each of us as individuals, the answer is very clear. If the idea is for a particular industry to get wealthy – the pharmaceutical, dairy, beef – that’s a different answer. But most people are not in those industries and most people would benefit to a more holistic approach to our food system and I think that we are seeing that and it makes me hopeful.

Q: What’s the status of possible changes with the federal farm bill?

A:  I wish I could say I was optimistic about that, but I’m not terribly. What happens in Washington, D.C., is so difficult. The types of changes that need to happen are big, but the changes that allowed to happen through Washington, D.C., are going to be small.

We’ll work on whatever we can to advance these issues through the farm bill, by promoting more plant-based eating and less for factory farm industry, but the change will be modest.

The big change will happen is as consumers that are shifting away from eating animals to eating plants and supporting local plant production, farmer’s markets and a whole different agriculture system. There are more farmer’s markets, the organic food industry is growing, there are more CSAs. We’re seeing the shift.

That’s where, ultimately, change is going to happen.

Some of that farmer’s market produce is meat, dairy and eggs?

That is true, but the majority of it is produce. Some of it is animal foods,too.

On a whole another area, besides the cruelty and health issues, there’s the environmental issue. It’s incredibly inefficient to be growing corn and soybeans, and feed crops,  to feed animals. If we were growing those foods to feed people, we could feed a lot more people.

If  you have cows on a factory farm, they’ll take up less space than cows in a pasture. But the cows on the factory farm need to be fed, so you need more acreage to grown corn and soybeans to feed these cows.

That was makes the issue so challenging. People are unwitting accomplices in this horrible, ugly systems. It requires ourselves to look at ourselves and ask ourselves if we should be doing what we are doing. Change is scary. Those are the things that are obstacles, from the lack of information and a fear of change.

Is eating a vegetarian and vegan diet moving away from something that hippies do?

I think there are more people adopting the lifestyle. More people know vegans and recognize  that these vegans are just trying to live in a way that is healthy and compassionate.


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