Gene Baur is the president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, an organization whose mission is to promote compassionate living through the rescue of farm animals, education and advocacy. A vegan since 1985, Baur has been called "the conscience of the food movement."
"Farm animals, like all animals, have feelings," Baur says. "They have complex cognitive abilities... and they deserve to be treated with respect and compassion."
He spoke with Earth Eats when his speaking tour made a stop in Bloomington, Indiana.
AC: You've worked toward the ban of foie gras in Chicago and California, I'm sure much to the chagrin of a number of chefs. You've encouraged the ban of battery cages, veal crates, gestation crates in California, Michigan and Ohio -- all those states have passed legislation. I'm wondering what in your mind is one of the biggest, best, most important accomplishments that Farm Sanctuary has made?
GB: I'm most proud of the fact that these issues are starting to reach mainstream consciousness and people are starting to think about what happens to animals on farms. So, that's huge.
In terms of our legislative accomplishments, I think Proposition 2 passing in California in 2008 is probably one of the most important. That was an initiative effort where we collected signatures to get a measure on the ballot for popular vote. The industry spent about $10 million trying to defeat Proposition 2, but despite that, citizens in California voted overwhelmingly to ban cruel farming systems, specifically they voted to ban the use of veal crates where young calves are chained by the neck in these 2-foot wide wooden crates for their whole lives. They voted to ban gestation crates -- metal enclosures that are barely larger than a pig's body. They voted to ban battery cages which is how egg-laying hens are kept, in their small wire enclosures where each bird is given less space than a sheet of paper. She can't even stretch her wings. She's constantly scraping against the wire bars of her cage and her feathers wear off. She has bruises and abrasions on her body. So, Proposition 2 banned veal crates, gestation crates and battery cages and that's one of our most significant victories.
No Cameras Allowed
AC: Let's talk about getting the awareness out to consumers. It's part of what's going to help factory farms become unnecessary in the future, people just becoming aware. What's happening in states like Iowa and Utah most recently, they have laws on the books now restricting taking photos and making videos in factory farms. They're calling them ag-gag laws. I wonder from an activist's point of view what this means for the work you do.
GB: I think it's very telling that this is an industry that is so concerned about the way its animals are treated that it's making it illegal to take pictures and to show people how how these animals are being treated. That speaks to the fact that these conditions are outside the bounds of acceptable conduct in our society. I am not happy that the industry is pushing for and passing laws to make it illegal to video tape and show pictures of these animals.
But, I ultimately believe that the truth has a way of coming out, that there are lots of video tape and pictures that already exist, and that with YouTube and other internet information available, people are going to learn about what happens on factory farms and ultimately you can't hide the truth. I'm confident that citizens will continue to dig more into these issues as they've started to do and will ultimately reject factory farming and change is going to have to happen.
A Future Without Factory Farms?
AC: Let's talk about the future then. Do you foresee a time when factory farms just simply don't exist in this country?
GB: I am hopeful that factory farms will no longer exist in the not-too-distant future. A lot depends on what happens in the coming years of course. We're in the midst, I believe, of a burgeoning food movement where people are going to farmers markets more regularly, they're supporting community supported agriculture programs, community gardens, and the more that that happens, the more we're going to see factory farms pushed away.
But, factory farming has been a dominant form of raising animals in this country, and unfortunately, it's also now being exported to places like China and India, and that has me very concerned.
But here in the U.S., there is a new awareness and there is a movement towards more sustainable farming. There are new small farms that are being established, new entrepreneurs who are setting up shop around Bloomington and other parts of the country, and they are producing food in a more sustainable way.
More Work To Get Done
AC: What issues are coming up that Farm Sanctuary has on their plate as we need to fight this, we need to work against this?
GB: We are working against the ag-gag bills, you know these efforts to make it illegal to take pictures and video tape in factory farms. We think that's un-American and that citizens have a right to know what happens. So, we're fighting those ag-gag bills.
We're also supporting federal legislation that's been proposed to outlaw the use of battery cages across this country. So, there are some efforts now to ban battery cages nationwide. That's something we're supporting.
And when the Farm Bill comes up for discussion in the coming year, we're going to be advocating that farm policy promote the production of healthy foods that are plant-based instead of supporting commodity crops like corn and soy beans that are used for feed for livestock. We think that the government should not be encouraging citizens to be eating any more animal foods as it has been doing. The health consequences of that approach are very clear. Heart disease and cancer are the top killers in our country, and the risks of both can be seriously lessened by shifting to eating more plant foods and less animal foods, and by eating more whole plant foods instead of processed foods.
So, we think that's the approach the Farm Bill should take rather than supporting commodity crops and animal production. It should support local, sustainable, community-based farming systems, whole foods, plant foods, and connecting consumers more closely to the producers, to the farmers.
More: Read part 1 of Earth Eats' interview with Gene Baur where he talks about how animals are treated on factory farms and why vegan living is his religion.