Wednesday, 18 May 2011

‘Sustainable Intensification’ of the Livestock Industry

Vast factory farms a step closer after ministers order research into ‘sustainable intensification’ of the livestock industry

A new generation of vast pig and dairy factory farms look set be built.
Ministers have ordered a research project on how to pursue what they call ‘sustainable intensification’ of the livestock industry. In practice this will mean the building of mega dairy farms, or units, populated by as many as 8,000 cows that are milked around the clock and spend most of their lives inside.

Changes: Ministers have ordered a research project on how to pursue what they call 'sustainable intensification' of the livestock industry

Changes: Ministers have ordered a research project on how to pursue what they call 'sustainable intensification' 
of the livestock industry

These so-called zero grazing or battery cow systems are highly controversial and one scheme, at Nocton, Lincolnshire, has already been defeated by public opposition. However, it is clear the Government is keen to support this kind of factory farming as part of a drive to provide cheap food. Britain already has a large number of massive pig factory farms where the animals never go outside, but the new generation will be even larger. 
One plan at Foston, Derbyshire, would create a 30-acre pig factory housing 25,000 sows and piglets. 
The Government’s stance has been condemned by animal welfare campaigners, who warn factory farms are cruel. Peter Stevenson, of Compassion in World Farming, said support for intensive farming was at odds with promises made by the Conservatives and Lib Dems.

Is this the future for our countryside?

We have a Government that committed itself to promoting “high standards of farm animal welfare” now encouraging a growth of factory farming,’ he added. Details of the approach emerged in a tender document calling for organisations to bid to carry out research on how large factory farms should operate. The document states: ‘Government policy supports “sustainable intensification” of the livestock industry. Evidence is needed to assess the potential of mega scale units to meet the challenge of improving productivity and efficiency, while minimising environmental impacts and maintaining animal health and welfare.’
Separately, the Government is changing planning rules that will make it easier for farm businesses to get permission for the vast complexes. The idea that factory farms can operate in a way that is sustainable and protects animal welfare is rejected by critics. Mr Stevenson said: ‘Cows are zero-grazed, never or rarely being allowed out to graze on grass. Pigs kept in mega units are generally packed into barren pens, never enjoying fresh air or daylight and unable to perform their natural behaviours.’ A spokesman for Defra said the study would ‘investigate the pros and cons of sustainable intensive farming’.

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Sunday, 16 January 2011

This Little Piggy Went To Market

In their Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer discuss the difference between an ‘animal representative’ and an ‘animal specimen’. A rabbit in a laboratory does not, according to the authors, represent its own kind in the same way as, say, a zoo or a wild animal does. It may stand in for its species but only after it has been stripped of all its individuality. In the attempt to describe this peculiar mode of life-forms, the authors bring in the notion of ‘universal interchangability’. Here, the life journey of an animal specimen is compared to that of a commodity. Under the zeal of the laboratory any rabbit will do, as it receives its value from being subject to exchange.
The analogy between the animal specimen and the commodity is oddly echoed in a recent product advertisement by the internet retailer ‘’: real taxidermied piglets turned into actual piggy banks, hollowed out rather than stuffed, then finished off with coin storage units and cork plugs. At first it looks like a joke; a poor one for sure, but still a joke. But to the scrutinising eye it appears to be real. The mere existence of this object then begs the question: How would it feel to have a thing like that sitting in one’s living room? Is there a difference between our relationship to this object and to, say, a leather sofa? These are questions that inevitably open up to new ones which cannot be answered here. The retailer assures us that the piglets have died of natural causes. Yet, the final product is an uncanny reminder of the alienation of animals within society at large.
‘Animals Are Passing From Our Lives’ is the wonderful title of one of Philip Levine’s poems which recounts the story of pigs being let to the slaughter and tells of ‘consumers who won't meet their steady eyes for fear they could see’. But how exactly may a dead, hollowed out piglet stare back at us? Sold for the sum of $4000 ‘Piglet Bank’ is a product for the few and financially privileged. So, to echo a famous children’s rhyme, this little piggy did indeed go to market. Yet, this little piggy also came home in the guise of a consumer fetish waiting to be filled with money. In the end, the question this object poses is not whether there is a difference between a ‘real’ piggy bank and a leather sofa, but how we might deal with or ‘face up to’ the animal killings we participate in. The thought of dead animals coming back to haunt the home is, of course, not new. Here, one needs only to remember that to Freud, the animal (specifically the crocodile) exemplified the uncanny or unhomely per se. ‘A very specific smell begins to pervade the house’ he wrote, as a vague animal form is seen ‘gliding over the stairs’ and ghostly creatures appear to ‘haunt the place’.But the main question, however, is really about the seriality of life proposed by the notion of ‘universal interchangability’ which makes it possible, even easy, for animal lives (and deaths) to enter into general economic circulation.
Rikke Hansen, 2010.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Plants Experiment - The Silence of the Plants

Dear All,
As you may be aware, we are currently working on an issue entirely dedicated to plants and our ultimate aim is to engage those who have already embraced ( or are in the process of embracing ) the challenges posed by the animal in order to trigger a discussion that may lead to a broadening/questioning/re-considering of the field. 

An interesting article on the subject of plants and ethics was published on The New York Times. It is a provocative and challenging piece  pushing a number of buttons form vegetarianism/veganism to sentient/non-sentient and questions about animal/plant life.
The comments will be published in our issue, currently titled "Why Look at Plants?"  We aim to close this thread in early 2011.

So let's get talking.....

December 22, 2009

Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too

I stopped eating pork about eight years ago, after a scientist happened to mention that the animal whose teeth most closely resemble our own is the pig. Unable to shake the image of a perky little pig flashing me a brilliant George Clooney smile, I decided it was easier to forgo the Christmas ham. A couple of years later, I gave up on all mammalian meat, period. I still eat fish and poultry, however and pour eggnog in my coffee. My dietary decisions are arbitrary and inconsistent, and when friends ask why I’m willing to try the duck but not the lamb, I don’t have a good answer. Food choices are often like that: difficult to articulate yet strongly held. And lately, debates over food choices have flared with particular vehemence.
In his new book, “Eating Animals,” the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer describes his gradual transformation from omnivorous, oblivious slacker who “waffled among any number of diets” to “committed vegetarian.” Last month, Gary Steiner, a philosopher at Bucknell University, argued on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times that people should strive to be “strict ethicalvegans” like himself, avoiding all products derived from animals, including wool and silk. Killing animals for human food and finery is nothing less than “outright murder,” he said, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “eternal Treblinka.”
But before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way. The more that scientists learn about the complexity of plants — their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar — the more impressed researchers become, and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze. It’s time for a green revolution, a reseeding of our stubborn animal minds.
When plant biologists speak of their subjects, they use active verbs and vivid images. Plants “forage” for resources like light and soil nutrients and “anticipate” rough spots and opportunities. By analyzing the ratio of red light and far red light falling on their leaves, for example, they can sense the presence of other chlorophyllated competitors nearby and try to grow the other way. Their roots ride the underground “rhizosphere” and engage in cross-cultural and microbial trade.
“Plants are not static or silly,” said Monika Hilker of the Institute of Biology at the Free University of Berlin. “They respond to tactile cues, they recognize different wavelengths of light, they listen to chemical signals, they can even talk” through chemical signals. Touch, sight, hearing, speech. “These are sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals,” Dr. Hilker said.
Plants can’t run away from a threat but they can stand their ground. “They are very good at avoiding getting eaten,” said Linda Walling of the University of California, Riverside. “It’s an unusual situation where insects can overcome those defenses.” At the smallest nip to its leaves, specialized cells on the plant’s surface release chemicals to irritate the predator or sticky goo to entrap it. Genes in the plant’s DNA are activated to wage systemwide chemical warfare, the plant’s version of an immune response. We need terpenes, alkaloids, phenolics — let’s move.
“I’m amazed at how fast some of these things happen,” said Consuelo M. De Moraes of Pennsylvania State University. Dr. De Moraes and her colleagues did labeling experiments to clock a plant’s systemic response time and found that, in less than 20 minutes from the moment the caterpillar had begun feeding on its leaves, the plant had plucked carbon from the air and forged defensive compounds from scratch.
Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.
Enemies of the plant’s enemies are not the only ones to tune into the emergency broadcast. “Some of these cues, some of these volatiles that are released when a focal plant is damaged,” said Richard Karban of the University of California, Davis, “cause other plants of the same species, or even of another species, to likewise become more resistant to herbivores.”
Yes, it’s best to nip trouble in the bud.
Dr. Hilker and her colleagues, as well as other research teams, have found that certain plants can sense when insect eggs have been deposited on their leaves and will act immediately to rid themselves of the incubating menace. They may sprout carpets of tumorlike neoplasms to knock the eggs off, or secrete ovicides to kill them, or sound the S O S. Reporting in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Hilker and her coworkers determined that when a female cabbage butterfly lays her eggs on a brussels sprout plant and attaches her treasures to the leaves with tiny dabs of glue, the vigilant vegetable detects the presence of a simple additive in the glue, benzyl cyanide. Cued by the additive, the plant swiftly alters the chemistry of its leaf surface to beckon female parasitic wasps. Spying the anchored bounty, the female wasps in turn inject their eggs inside, the gestating wasps feed on the gestating butterflies, and the plant’s problem is solved.
Here’s the lurid Edgar Allan Poetry of it: that benzyl cyanide tip-off had been donated to the female butterfly by the male during mating. “It’s an anti-aphrodisiac pheromone, so that the female wouldn’t mate anymore,” Dr. Hilker said. “The male is trying to ensure his paternity, but he ends up endangering his own offspring.”
Plants eavesdrop on one another benignly and malignly. As they described in Science and other journals, Dr. De Moraes and her colleagues have discovered that seedlings of the dodder plant, a parasitic weed related to morning glory, can detect volatile chemicals released by potential host plants like the tomato. The young dodder then grows inexorably toward the host, until it can encircle the victim’s stem and begin sucking the life phloem right out of it. The parasite can even distinguish between the scents of healthier and weaker tomato plants and then head for the hale one.
“Even if you have quite a bit of knowledge about plants,” Dr. De Moraes said, “it’s still surprising to see how sophisticated they can be.”
It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.