Meat, Dairy, Psychology, Law, Economics

Over the weekend, I visited the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY. The Sanctuary is a haven for animals who have been rescued from factory farms and dairies: cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs, sheep, goats, etc. It is also a very low-key public education and advocacy organization. Having been a vegetarian for a number of years, with the intention of at some point becoming a vegan, this visit triggered my decision to eliminate all animal products from my diet and wardrobe. It was a powerful experience.

I actually did not learn anything new during my visit, but the experience made salient the things that I have known as an intellectual matter for some time now. Interestingly, the Sanctuary tends to underplay the gruesome nature of how animals are treated in factory farms and dairies, preferring instead to allow visitors simply to spend time with these wonderful animals who would otherwise have lived miserable lives and died violent deaths on the way to your grocer's shelves. In the debate between emphasizing the positive or the negative, this is a datum for going with the positive.

With this experience so fresh in my mind, and the transition to veganism a new project, I am thinking through some of my immediate reactions to this life-changing experience.

As I noted above, I did not learn anything new during my visit on Sunday; but that is because I am friends with Professors Colb and Dorf (who, in fact, suggested that we visit the Sanctuary). Therefore, I already had learned some rather shocking facts about the dairy industry that most people never know. For example, after I made the move several years ago to eliminate all meat from my diet (fish being the last to go), I felt pretty good about the fact that at least the dairy products that I ate were not associated with killing animals. It is, I thought, at least possible to treat cows and chickens humanely even as we take their milk and eggs -- even though I knew that this was more than a bit of a dodge, because actual factory dairies do not treat animals at all humanely. Still, I thought, at least there's no killing involved.

What I did not know until Professor Colb pointed it out (but which is obvious, once one thinks about it) was that it is necessary to keep dairy cows constantly pregnant in order to keep the milk flowing. Since those pregnancies result in births, and half of the births are of male cows, there is a regular "problem" with what to do with male dairy cows. The answer is to take the new-born males and put them in crates for short, miserable lives, before turning them into veal. Given that even most meat-eaters have come to see veal production as especially grotesque, it is extremely significant that milk and cheese production is so directly tied to the immiseration and killing of young cows.

Although this information was not new to me, I had not yet acted on it. What made this trip different? Again, it was in part the experience of simply seeing and touching the lucky few animals who had been saved from such fates. (There was a male dairy cow named Snickers who was a huge, impressive creature. It turns out that the reason he seemed so large in my eyes was that most of us have never seen an adult male dairy cow. They are all killed before adulthood.) What I found most interesting was that a simple slogan had a transformative impact on me: "In every glass of milk, there's a little bit of veal." This powerful statement not only captures a powerful truth, but it is devastating in its simplicity. Once the tour guide said it, I could never think about milk or cheese the same way again.

One lesson that I drew from this experience, therefore, is a renewed appreciation for the concept of framing and the psychology of learning. Even an academic who values arguments and facts can compartmentalize things if they are not presented powerfully enough. As regular readers of this blog know, I am especially fascinated by the power of rhetoric; but even I was surprised by the impact of something so simple as that bumper-sticker statement. Content matters profoundly, of course, but I will never again even consider doubting the power of form.

The other major lesson that I have drawn in the few days since I chose to become a vegan is, to put it simply, that the U.S. economy makes it difficult -- but by no means prohibitive -- to be a vegan. Again, I claim no great new insight here; but experiencing is different from knowing. The most surprising thing about becoming a vegan is that it requires so much thinking! As Professor Colb noted to me, it was a huge relief to be able to go to the snack bar at the Sanctuary and simply buy something that looked like it would taste good. (I assure the skeptics that there were plenty of items that were very appealing.) In a regular grocery store or restaurant, everything has to be filtered through the question of whether the items in question are vegan-friendly. Everything requires at least a little bit of research and a lot of skepticism. In restaurants, questions about these matters are met with blank stares, obvious misinformation, and outright hostility.

The larger point, therefore, is that we need to reduce the transactions costs of being a vegan. Even well short of the time when there could be a critical mass making it sensible for mass marketers to voluntarily market a wide array of vegan foods, laws are needed to start us down that road. Moreover, even when there is a larger market for vegan items, laws must be enforced to guarantee that we get what we pay for. Were it not for food labeling laws (which were fiercely opposed by market ideologues who might otherwise have been expected to believe in the importance of information to well-functioning markets), it would not even be possible to know what the vegan options are in a grocery store. Like the tightly enforced rules defining what is "orange juice" versus "orange drink," we need to enact and enforce rules that make it possible to know what is really cruelty-free. The market is a powerful thing, and with sensible rules, its power can allow us to make moral choices much more easily.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan