The pro­gres­sive blind spot

Why farmed an­i­mal wel­fare should be part of the pro­gres­sive agenda

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - Spe­cial to WiG

Raised by lib­eral Jewish par­ents, I’ve been a proud pro­gres­sive most of my life — and also a ve­gan and an­i­mal ad­vo­cate.

So by the time I be­gan vol­un­teer­ing in 2007 for a long-shot pres­i­den­tial can­di­date named Barack Obama, I as­sumed most Demo­cratic can­di­dates shared my core pro­gres­sive val­ues: re­pro­duc­tive rights, hu­man rights, civil rights, en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and an­i­mal wel­fare.

At a town hall fo­rum that year, then-U.S. Sen. Obama chal­lenged this as­sump­tion when I asked for his thoughts on a 2006 U.N. re­port that found fac­tory farm­ing gen­er­ates more green­house gases than the trans­porta­tion sec­tor. Obama said he hadn’t read the re­port, and more im­por­tantly, he didn’t think fac­tory farm­ing could be so harm­ful.

As for the wel­fare of farmed an­i­mals, well, that seemed of even less con­cern.

Obama’s re­sponse has be­come a re­cur­ring theme among the many Demo­cratic can­di­dates and elected of­fi­cials I’ve met over the years, but his paucity of knowl­edge and in­ter­est on the is­sue didn’t stop me help­ing elect him — twice.

It did, how­ever, make me won­der why a party that cham­pi­ons the lit­tle guy ig­nores abuse of de­fense­less an­i­mals.

Part of this dy­namic is fed by a de­sire to ap­peal to Mid­dle Amer­ica.

The Harkin Steak Fry — a nowre­tired event in Iowa at which prom­i­nent Democrats ate a lot of steak — is em­blem­atic of a party whose can­di­dates wrongly as­sume sup­port­ing fac­tory farm­ing will help them win ru­ral votes. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the Demo­cratic plat­form in 2016 didn’t men­tion an­i­mals at all, much less farmed an­i­mal wel­fare.

There have been mo­ments where Democrats have risen to the oc­ca­sion and given an­i­mal cru­elty the se­ri­ous­ness the is­sue de­serves.

Hil­lary Clin­ton’s plat­form in­cluded an­i­mal pro­tec­tion.

Jon Ste­wart ex­posed Gov. Chris Christie’s cru­elty when he ve­toed a bill to ban ges­ta­tion crates, which con­fine mother pigs so tightly they’re un­able to turn around for months on end. (Ste­wart has also be­come ve­gan and started a sanc­tu­ary for abused farmed an­i­mals.)

Most no­tably, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., is a ve­gan and out­spo­ken an­i­mal ad­vo­cate.

Even Obama has ac­cepted the fact that high meat con­sump­tion is bad for our en­vi­ron­ment and health.

But it’s a mis­take — and a missed op­por­tu­nity — for the vast ma­jor­ity of Democrats to re­main silent. A clear ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans op­pose an­i­mal cru­elty, and poll af­ter poll shows con­sumers want food industry re­tail­ers to re­duce suf­fer­ing for farmed an­i­mals in their sup­ply chains.

There’s a good rea­son Amer­i­cans so uni­formly agree we need to change how we farm and eat: The lives of farmed an­i­mals are hell on Earth.

For in­stance, chick­ens raised for meat are bred to grow so fast that many col­lapse un­der their own un­nat­u­ral weight. They live in their own waste, which causes am­mo­nia burns, and the poor air qual­ity of fac­tory farm sheds can cause res­pi­ra­tory dis­eases and even eye le­sions.

Chick­ens who don’t die be­fore mak­ing it to the slaugh­ter­house are shack­led up­side down by their feet and sub­jected to painful shocks in an elec­tri­fied wa­ter tank. Fi­nally, their throats are cut open, of­ten while the birds are still fully con­scious.

Un­like most of the de­vel­oped world, the United States has no fed­eral law that pro­tects all farmed an­i­mals from birth to death. The few pro­tec­tion laws we do have ei­ther ex­clude some species or are woe­fully un­en­forced.

The Hu­mane Meth­ods of Slaugh­ter Act, for ex­am­ple, pro­vides no pro­tec­tions to chick­ens or tur­keys at slaugh­ter, even though they con­sti­tute nearly 90 per­cent of land an­i­mals killed for food.

For­tu­nately, an­i­mal pro­tec­tion isn’t a par­ti­san is­sue.

It is cer­tainly true that most politi­cians who sup­port an­i­mal wel­fare leg­is­la­tion are Democrats and tend to rep­re­sent more pro­gres­sive, ur­ban vot­ers.

But some Repub­li­cans from pre­dom­i­nantly ru­ral states — such as Sens. David Vit­ter, R-La., Su­san Collins, R-Maine, and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., — have strong vot­ing records on an­i­mal pro­tec­tion bills. In the House, Martha McSally, R-Ariz., Robert Dold, R-Ill., Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., and oth­ers have equally re­spectable track records.

For­mer U.S. Sen. El­iz­a­beth Dole, R-N.C., for whom I in­terned in 2006, was a cham­pion for an­i­mals.

There’s op­por­tu­nity for ru­ral Repub­li­can mem­bers of Congress to win over more vot­ers by crack­ing down on fac­tory-farm pol­lu­tion that harms nearby res­i­dents and drives down ru­ral prop­erty val­ues — and by ad­dress­ing fac­tory farm­ing’s ab­hor­rent record of jeop­ar­diz­ing worker safety and health.

Those de­fend­ing the sta­tus quo on this is­sue can seem in­tran­si­gent — in part be­cause the meat industry is so pow­er­ful. Tyson, Smith­field and other meat gi­ants dole out mil­lions in po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions yearly. As a re­sult, fac­tory farms abuse an­i­mals and harm the en­vi­ron­ment with few to no con­se­quences.

For those of us who con­sider our­selves pro­gres­sive and care about the op­pres­sion of those who have no voice, our cir­cle of com­pas­sion should ex­tend well be­yond our own kind. In the per­sonal realm, this ex­ten­sion can in­clude sim­ple ac­tions such as eat­ing less meat and more plant­based foods.

In the po­lit­i­cal realm, it can in­clude stand­ing up to pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions and pass­ing state laws to ban the worst fac­to­ry­farm­ing prac­tices — such as ex­treme con­fine­ment of egg-lay­ing hens and breed­ing sows — and elect­ing lead­ers who take ac­tion against an­i­mal cru­elty.

Un­til then, we’ll fall far short of the pro­gres­sive val­ues most worth fight­ing for.

Jared Mil­rad, JD, MS, is global cam­paigns lead for Mercy For An­i­mals, an in­ter­na­tional farmed an­i­mal pro­tec­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion.

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