You Tell Us: An argument against urban animal agriculture

The urban livestock enthusiasts profiled in “Meet the farmer next door” in the Chronicle are pertinent to why Oakland residents should be concerned about encouraging neighbors to breed and kill animals as a hobby in our city.  Look past the smiling faces and investigate the claims they use to justify urban animal agriculture in Oakland — an uncomfortable truth will come to light.

One of the animal farmers interviewed explains that it is important for people to have a “connection to their food source.” Another says that breeding, slaughtering and eating animals is a choice she is comfortable with, and that she is bothered when people “go to the grocery store and buy a chicken.”  At first blush, this sounds like a good thing: knowing where your food comes from.  But what is it really saying?

By choosing to only kill and eat animals they are personally connected to, the urban animal farmers interviewed demonstrate an awareness that killing these animals is unnecessary for their survival.  It is a personal preference.  They know they won’t go hungry tonight, next week, or next year if they don’t slaughter the goat munching on grass in their backyard.  And inadequate nutrition isn’t something they will ever face in their lives.

No one should look down their nose at regular people who buy food at the grocery store.  Consumers may be “disconnected” from their food source, but is that really their fault?  Should we judge them?  The real problem is the food system itself, which makes unhealthy, inhumane and environmentally destructive food choices seem like the only viable option to many people in the food deserts of Oakland.  Buying food at a corner store isn’t “convenience capitalism,” as one animal farmer insinuates, it’s just what people have to do to survive.

The people profiled are not continuing the family farm out of economic necessity.  Nor are they killing animals because they lack protein in their diet.  They are educated, published and politically connected, and they choose to slaughter and eat their backyard animals because of a personal preference to consume a culinary delicacy: locally raised organic meat. Food empowerment this is not.

Food empowerment supports and educates people to make ecological, healthy and compassionate food choices.  Food empowerment encourages people to grow abundant crops that feed themselves and their community.

We have an overburdened animal shelter and a police department that is in no position to enforce new animal welfare laws.  Oakland doesn’t need policies that encourage people to breed, kill and eat animals for nothing more than gastronomic gratification.

To make the best use of our limited farmable land and to fight the obesity, diabetes and heart disease that plague our communities we need to grow our infrastructure and policy to encourage healthy, plant-centered agriculture.

Ian Elwood is an animal rescuer and volunteers with Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary, the Central Valley Chapter of House Rabbit Society and is a former volunteer at Oakland Animal Services. His day job is as Web Producer at International Rivers.

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24 Comments

  1. Commercial animal processing factories are a terrible tax on the environment and a horrible form of torture to the livestock — be they chickens raised in tiny cages or cattle packed in overcrowded feedlots. To vegetarians or vegans the utilization of animal products are often condemned out of hand. This screed attacking local farmers appears to be such a blanket condemnation. Surely those who are involved in urban farming are far more responsible stewards of the land and the fruits, vegetables and animals than corporate “farming”.

    • emily wood

      So the answer to cruelty within the food system is to localize it?
      It is a nice thought and hope that my neighbor will be more knowledgable and responsible than a factory farmer, but it is quite clear from reading the blogs and books of proponents of this lifestyle that they are uninformed, fairly uncaring, and are just learning as they go along (even while they teach classes to others) at the great expense of the animals in their charge, their neighbors, and the taxpayers in their wider community who have to pick up the tab of the animal shelter (when “predator proof” enclosures allow animals to escape into neighbors’ yards), the police department (when cruelty charges are filed, or their “hen” shipment contains roosters who’s dulcet tones the neighborhood does not appreciate), the public health department (when sharing their “products” violates federal statutes). And who also have to live with the environmental toll of increased waste and vermin, plus the 40x of truckloads of feed coming into town for every unit of animal product produced. Local this is not. Sustainable this is not. Moral this is not.

      • Emily,

        Before I disagree with you, I want to make one thing crystal clear. I appreciate your commitment to sustainability and urban livability. This debate has highlighted many Oakland residents’ commitment to making our city a better, safer place to live which is heartening to say the least.

        You mention that it is “quite clear from reading the blogs and books of the proponents of this lifestyle that they are uninformed, fairly uncaring, and are just learning as they go along”. My question is this: have you even bothered to meet these people and get to know them or the practices they employ?

        I’ve developed a keen interest in urban agriculture and in meeting different urban farmers I find people who have varying levels of commitment (i.e. large tracts of land which they cultivate or small yards) and experience.

        I’ve met people who raise chickens solely for eggs and devote large spaces for the birds to forage comfortably. I have also met those who routinely slaughter their livestock with care and compassion.

        The urban farming community is rife with knowledgeable men and women who care for their plots and animals deeply. One of the reasons I am drawn to it is because I am interested in cultivating my own food sustainably. As I research various methods (many having to do with permaculture) I find ways in which waste output and water input can be minimized dramatically.

        Keeping chickens, for example, can be helpful because their waste (manure and used hay) can be used as a growing medium for edible mushrooms or compost for soil enrichment. They are also effective pest neutralizers and weed control(a fabulous alternative to pesticides, which hurts urban beekeepers and their colonies).

        I think that it is imperative that before anyone opposes livestock as an option that they consider the benefits of raising animals in conjunction with crops. Animals have been our partners in agriculture since its inception. If you object to consuming meat or even to people keeping or owning animals, that’s fair. I encourage you to organize around those issues on their own moral basis. But do not attempt to shade the truth by insinuating that keeping animals in an urban environment is less sustainable then raising them en masse in feed lots and factory farms which cause undue suffering and waste. Likewise, it is absurd to submit that these animals will end up in shelters when it is far more likely that they will end up on someone’s plate.

        And for the record, I am a budding ecotarian. I stopped eating meat months ago when I realized the harm industrial meat production causes to the environment and the animals. I’ve only just begun eating meat again (in small amounts, I’ve little evidence to support eating heaping plates of meat) now that I have access to humanely raised local meat.

  2. Thanks for reading, and all of your thoughtful comments, please sign the following petition to help Oakland’s food policy be more just, humane and sustainable:

    http://www.change.org/petitions/prevent-the-proliferation-of-backyard-livestock-and-animal-slaughter-in-oakland

  3. I agree whole-heartedly with this article. The push for urban animal slaughter has nothing to do with increasing food security or community self-sufficiency and everything to do with a deeply questionable (and very bourgeois, very privileged) “locavore” mindset. In the end, it amounts to killing animals as a hobby, like sport hunting.

    The animal welfare concerns are obvious, and there’s little reason to think that urban slaughter hobbyists would be more responsible “stewards.” To the contrary, stories abound about novices killing “their” animals in all kinds of unsavory, accidental ways (or losing them to predators … or teenagers). Further, raising and slaughtering animals in the city would also be a disaster in terms of public health, safety, noise concerns, and on and on.

    Plant-based urban agriculture? Absolutely. Urban animal slaughter? Absolutely not.

  4. Brad

    I have a hard time believing many people are going to butchering their own urban livestock. Farmers don’t even butcher their own livestock. (I grew up on a family farm.)
    You make it sound like Oakland is going to be full of smelly 1950′s slaugherhouses.

    Instead of opposing and being a vegan in disguise, educate how urban farming can be done correctly. Unless of course you are vegetarian/vegan, then I guess you should state that first in your opinion.

    • Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

      It’s so funny that if you’re vegan, you’re accused of being biased, but if you’re a meat-eater, you’re supposedly neutral. Or if you’re part of the status quo, your intentions are pure, but if you’re outside of the status quo, your opinions can’t be trusted. It’s bollocks. We all have agendas that dictate our behavior and our opinions. What’s more is that the status quo’s embracing of meat, dairy, and eggs has been fed to them by industries who have the most to gain, but they never accuse those industries of being biased.

      In the case of the backyard livestock and slaughter issue, what’s so remarkable is that many of the people fighting for backyard livestock have businesses that will benefit financially from legalizing the raising and killing of animals. The argument against it on the basis of animal advocacy? Not exactly a profit-driven position.

      So, from an open, proud, and joyful vegan with an agenda to empower people to live according to their own values of wellness and compassion, thank you, Ian, for speaking on behalf of the animals.

    • emily wood

      I agree, Brad — there are very very few people who actually want to slaughter animals in their homes. They are a very vocal couple of people, though, who are currently dominating the discourse and are lobbying hard to have backyard slaughter legalized in Oakland.

  5. Diana

    Everyone has their opinion, and it’s a matter of opinion that killing animals for food is simply a matter of “gastronomic gratification.”

    Personally, as a former vegetarian who feels infinitely more healthy adding meat to a vegetable-centered diet, I call eating animals who die to support my health something different: “nourishment.”

    Far better for that to take place in the context of those animals living a natural, healthy life connected to humans who will eventually kill them than in a factory farm situation.

  6. I am opposed to the unnecessary killing of animals in our neighborhoods. We certainly shouldn’t be spending valuable City resources to radically restructure our city code to promote it.

    We’re already making the appropriate code changes that, among many other benefits, allow easy access to healthy fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods where those items have been scarce. There’s simply no reason to wade into this controversial extension of urban agriculture that will bring about more problems than it solves.

    Let’s all enjoy the fruits of our labor brought about by the existing code changes and leave the poor animals out of this.

  7. Eric Patterson

    I guess the veggie lefties think that the government will keep the food supply safe. Pretty typical line of thought for people with no clue. Allowing people to grow their own food and raise their own animals to eat is one way of opting out of our contamination prone food system. I’m glad people are trying to do urban farming because when things get really bad these people are going to be able to eat!

    • Gina Seraichyk

      It is amusing to read all these comments and see the two sides presented. Meat eaters always argue that meat is nutritious and natural. Non- meat eaters that it’s immoral and unnecessary. As an animal loving vegetarian I have to side with the latter. We have proven as a society time and time again that we can’t be trusted to treat the animals in our charge with respect…. If you choose to eat meat, why not just be honest, and say that you enjoy eating it and animal welfare is not a priority for you. I do plenty of selfish things, but I’m able to recognize them as such….

    • spitbug

      seems to me that the term “lefty” is more appropriately aligned with the animal raising local food side (vegan or not) and corporate industrial agriculture hegemony is supported by the political right.

      Your idea of a libertarian approach, everyone for themselves, aligns closely with the corporate structure. It’s only through community or cooperative actions to take control of the food we eat that will help change the disastrous food polices now in place.

  8. spitbug

    I’m responding to the comments rather than the article.
    First let me say this: I applaud vegans and vegetarians for their position whether for moral, health, or sentimental reasons. Reducing meat consumption is good for the planet and is a socially responsible thing to do as livestock production in the way it is being carried out today is partially responsible for diminished levels of nutrition in developing countries.

    Raising animals for food will always be seen as cruel to some people. Carnivores believe killing and eating animals is ok and conscientious carnivores want to give the animal a good life before the time to slaughter. What often gets left out of this discussion is that even keeping pets – dogs cats, rabbits, horses,etc. – all result in the slaughter of animals through the production of animal feed, breeding and culling, and pet overpopulation. Many animals die so that our beloved pets can live.

    Eating any dairy (cow, goat or sheep), eggs, fish oil supplements, etc., also results in slaughter. Only females produce milk and eggs , what do you think happens to the males? The meat from cattle, goats,and chickens (and poorly bred horses for that matter) are the other side of the dairy, egg equation.

    We also can’t expect to eat vegetables grown in a environmentally and sustainable way without the use of animals so even just eating vegetables has an impact (slaughter) on animals.

    Organic farming the world over relies on manures which requires sufficient animal populations for a supply. out of necessity some of those animals will be eaten. Take away manures and you’re left with petroleum based fertilizers and mined potash. Mines and oil wells contribute to the slaughter (BP gulf of mexico, Exxon Valdez) often of wild animals already bordering on extinction.

    In short, if you are alive you are contributing to the slaughter one way or another, unless you live in a cave eating only wild plants! The question is how do we minimize the slaughter and even more importantly how do we minimize the cruelty and inhumane treatment of the animals during their lifetime? Back yard farmers are mostly a positive development in this regard.

  9. Brian

    I disagree with the author, but I commend Oakland North for reaching out to someone with a strong point of view on this controversial and timely issue.

    I am also grateful to the author for sharing his views.

  10. NS

    Food sovereignty would advocate that each person has the right to define their own food system. We would be wise to be more tolerant and even understanding of the choices of our neighbors, whether they live next door or around the globe.

  11. Jessica

    Spitbug’s got it right. The author’s argument doesn’t hold water. They don’t like people eating cute animals. Period. It would be far more honest of them to come out and say so, and that that is the reason for their objection to urban agriculture, than to go through this rhetorical exercise.

    Individuals who equate the quality of life of backyard-raised animals to factory farmed animals, who consider raising one’s own meat to be “localizing cruelty”, are misinformed at the very least. I hope my own death, whenever it comes, is as quick and painless as the one I give to each of my own food animals.

  12. Elmer Fudd

    Rabbits are delicious and nutritious!

  13. Elmer Fudd

    Yummy wabbits, yummy wabbits, yummy WAAAABIIIIITS!

  14. Bunny Blue

    Rabbit is the fruit of the land. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sautee it. There’s, um, bunny kebabs, bunny creole, bunny gumbo, pan fried, deep fried, stir fried. There’s pineapple bunny and lemon bunny, coconut bunny, pepper bunny, bunny soup, bunny stew, bunny salad, bunny and potatoes, bunny burger, bunny sandwich… That’s, that’s about it.

  15. Chicken killer and eater

    I raise my own chickens and slaughter them and eat them. I usually throw away every part but the breast. I don’t care what any whack job libtard ecotard socialist thinks about my private decisions I make with my private property (my chickens) and as far as I am concerned you are not part of my society and I not part of yours. We live in ideological apartheid, I don’t wish to associate with you and I wish you’d all leave me alone which includes staying out of my private food supply decisions. I also have eaten whale on three occasions it was great. I own several guns. I eat meat, I’m proud of this fact, and only humans have rights.

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