The Return of the Cowboy: The only way to ethically farm cattle

Introduction:
I believe it is important to be someone who has an opinion, someone who stands for something, someone whose actions takes a step closer to a better world. An integral part of this life includes contemplating ethical choices of what enables us to sustain this life, food. I can proudly say that I try to educate myself in regards to the source and quality of food that I consume. I started five years ago, by boycotting fast food restaurants on the basis of the cruelty and the morally repulsive living conditions of the animals that they raise. I then turned to the quality of grocery store products and forced my family to shop at Whole Foods. And now living away from home, where I cannot control the quality of the food available to me, I limit my consumption of meat. In part, this, what I then considered, a strict moral code is what drew me to this Maymester. I saw it as a course talking about what I already spent so much time revising in my own life, a confirmation, that in contrast to those around me, I am eating responsibly. However, what this Maymester, through both class lectures and our excursions to farms, has helped me realize is that my individual silent protest is not enough. Passively sitting next to my friends while they eat a big mac, or a burger from lower Kimball is not enough. In doing so I am just removing myself from the problem. There is much more to be contemplated in regards to the ethical consumption of meat and there should be a more systemic approach.
My New View Point:
Rooted in my experiences here, I have come up with a new mode of moral conduct based on a deeper understanding of the problem at hand and the feasible solutions, that if the production of certain foods cannot be ethically done, then it should not be done at all. And it is our job as consumers to collectively not support unethical practice with our patronage.
What I Consider to be Ethical Food Production:
Peter Singer in his book, “Animal Liberation,” addresses the ethical problems of meat consumption. He calls for the adoption of a vegetarian diet as the only solution to what he calls speciesism, which he defines as “a prejudice or basis in favor of the interest of member’s of one’s own species and against those of other species (Singer, 1975). He argues that because animals can suffer that they should receive equal consideration of interest, that we are not justified in the killing and eating of animals just for our benefit of satisfying the want of meat (Singer, 1975). Though Singer makes several good points, I don’t think that vegetarianism is the solution to the ethical problem of animal sufferance or that animal sufferance is that ethical problem at hand. Yes, animals are suffering by our hand but suffering is an inescapable part of life. As Stiegler states in his article “Taking Care,” agriculture, the act of eating, is to commit violence, to both plants and animals, in other words to inflict suffering. With that in mind, we not only cause the suffering of animals but also the sufferance of plants (Stiegler, 2006). By using Singer’s definition of the ability to suffer as a way to argue that we as humans are speciesist and to promote vegetarianism, then are we then not still speciesist by causing the suffering of plants and of the land? Should we then not eat plants as well? The consumption of plants and animals does not make us speciesist because humans need substance, just like any other animal that needs substance and obtains it through the consumption of other living entities. Instead, as Stiegler suggest, we must come to terms that death and suffering are apart of life; that we need to inflict violence in order to survive. That life is cyclical and we cannot hold this tragic conception of death. Death is part of life and the life I take and the suffering I inflict returns to me upon my death. Therefore, it is not the presence of sufferance, but undue sufferance that is ethically problematic. Before I can address what kind of agricultural practices I believe do not perpetuate undue sufferance to those that we consume, I first have to define what undue sufferance means to me. In the case of plants undue sufferance is caused by the exploitation of the land through the use of pesticides and other practices that leads to soil erosion and eventually, the infertility of the land. In regards to animals, undue suffering is the lack of adequate cleanliness and size of living quarters, the inability to graze, the administrations of growth hormones, and excessive infanticide. This can be achieved by biological farming of plants and animals.
How This Effects My Food Consumption:
During this maymester, I have seen several instances in which biological farming not only met my ethical criteria but was also economically profitable such as the vineyards of Le Fonti, Le Cinciole, and Nittardi, as well as the goat cheese producer in Greve, thus illustrating that ethical production of most food can be done while still maintain profitability. However, during my time in Italy there has been one exception that I have consistently saw where biological farming is not feasible, and that is in the production of beef. It was either not profitable, such as in Dario’s project; not of high enough standard, such as in Sabatino’s farm; or not re-creatable such as in the Maremmana.
Dario’s Project:
The economic infeasibility of the ethical farming of cattle is exemplified in Dario’s project. Dario’s project is an experiment in which he is currently raising approximately 55 Chianina, a large white breed of cow for their full life span. He also allows them to graze, thus creating the ideal, humane living situation for domesticated cattle until they reach the end of their life at which they will then they will be killed and butchered for consumption. Dario’s project was the first farm I visited while in Tuscany, therefore I had nothing to compare the experience to and no expectation of what a good farm should look like. Despite this, I was still struck by the beauty of the place and majesty of the massive snow-white cow. No one had to tell me that raising this large animal for upwards of twelve years is an expensive endeavor. As I learned from our guide, Tommy, as well as from class discussions, this way of raising cows is very costly and thus impractical for several different reasons. One of the main reasons is the length of cultivation. In order allow for the cow to live out its life in its entirety, one has to care for it for its entire life span, approximately 14 years. That means if you buy a cow today no profit can be made until fourteen years later and during those fourteen years you have to invest a significant amount of money, to feed it, to care for it, and to pay vet bills. That means you invest money for fourteen years before you ever see a return on that money. Another significant factor is that land is finite. In order to avoid undo suffering to the cow there needs to be ample living quarters and grazing land, which is one of the most expensive commodities. Another aspect to consider is the marketability of the end product. Meat in the industrial food market typically comes from cows that are young and never had much exercise. Because of this, the taste and texture of the meat is much different then the meat of the Chianina cows in Dario’s project, which will be much more gamey and tough than what the average consumer’s pallet is accustomed to and therefore what they enjoy. In addition, because of the expensive process of raising the meat, the price of the meat would be exponentially more expensive then the average steak, therefore you would have to sell “bad” meat at higher price than what consumers would pay for meat they they consider to taste good, or you would have to retrain the pallet of the consumer to like the taste of the Chianina. Both options do not make sense and therefore Dario’s project would not work in a capitalist market and is only possible now through Dario’s wealth and celebrity status.

IMG_5208 (1) IMG_5209

IMG_5231

Sabatino’s Farm:
Unlike Dario’s experiment, the next farm I visited, Sabatino’s, is the best currently used farming method to commercially produce meat. However, without first being told this, I would never have come to that conclusion on my own. The barn itself was small, dark and had a strong pungent odor. The air was so thick that I felt claustrophobic and I was on the other side of the metal bars, on the free side, with autonomy to leave to get fresh air, unlike my bovine counter parts. In comparison to Dario’s Chianina, the animals seemed unhappy. There were two young calves separated from each other and from their parents, bottle feed instead of being nursed by their mother. The adult cows were confined in small areas and never graze, never to see the outside world. There short life, all they know is the inside of that barn, until they are sent off to the slaughterhouse at the ripe age of 24 months. I would not consider it to be a good quality of life or any quality at all. It may be one step above cruelty but it is not humane and certainty is causing undue suffering. Though it is better than industrial meat production, by no means it is a good way to produce meat. In addition to what I consider subpar living conditions for the animals, Sabatino’s farm is no longer fiscally viable either and thus his farm and this way of farming is becoming extinct and most likely won’t continue on to the next generation. So essentially the most humane way of raising beef is slowly dying out, and replaced by the morally repulsive industrial farming. It was after this experience that I started to really evaluate my consumption of beef.IMG_6406 IMG_6416 IMG_6412

Maremmana and the Butteri:                                                                                                          The only place that was ethically and economically viable in regards to raising cattle was at the Maremma National Park, where modern day butteri, the Italian version of a cowboy (though they don’t like to be called the “c” word), raise the Maremmana. Walking onto the farm was like walking into a John Wayne movie. There were beautiful brown horses in a wooden fence enclosure, workers in cowboy hats and jeans, and huge expanses of land where the cows happily roam with little to no restrictions, a luxury even Dario’s Chianina do not have. The scene fit my schema of what I imagine the American Wild West was like and seemed to be a haven for the Maremmana. Though this was by far the best environment for cattle that I have seen, there were still instances of undue suffering. One these instances is the separation between mother and calf when the calf is still at a young age, about 8 months. This separation causes both parties a significant amount of distress. Secondly, the Maremmana endure undue suffering through the way the butteri try to maintain bio diversity. They do this by selecting only cows with the distinctive characteristics that a Maremmana should have to reproduce in order to maintain the purity of the breed. The problem with this is that those who do not meet the criteria are then sold at a young age to the beef industry. Another hole in this practice is that it is solely based on the cow’s phenotype, which is not indicative of its genotype and therefore does not actually ensure bio diversity. Without these two practices, which can easily be changed without affecting the profitability of the endeavor, the way in which the butteri raise there cattle does not cause any undue suffering.

In addition to its high ethical standards, this farm is actually economically sustainable as well. Unfortunately, the characteristics that make it so are not re-creatable for two reasons: 1) The land 2) The breed of cow that naturally inhabits the land. The fact that the land is a national park, meaning it is own by the government, means that those who farm on that land do not have to pay for it, thus reducing the cost of production significantly. This is not usually the case, so to recreate this somewhere else the farmer would have to own the land, which is expensive. What also makes it economically viable is that the Maremmana are natural inhabitants of the land. They had and continue to have the ability to sustain themselves on the land provide without the butteri needing supply them with a food source, thus lowering the cost of raising them. This is also only possible because of the anatomical structure of the Maremmana, which is closer to their undomesticated ancestors as opposed to other domesticated cows. Therefore, they have the physiological characteristics that enable them to survive with little interference. Such characteristics include, a larger stomach that allows them to digest a diet high in cellulose, more blood vessels in there chest to help regulate their body temperature, thick skin which reduces the amount of puncture wounds that one could get from pushes and other vegetation, large horns found on both the males and females of the species that allows them to push through shrubbery, and height which enables them to navigate the marshy lands. It is the culmination of all these interdependent components: the cows, the land, and those who care for them, the butteri, that makes the Maremmana not only economically profitable but also morally ethical endeavor. It would be hard, if not impossible, to recreate this complex structure in other places, thus furthering that there is no way to ethically continue our consumption of beef as a global society. And even if we could create environments like this in other countries, there would still have to be great changes in the expectation of the quality of meat, what we will be willing to pay for it, and how much we consume. Much like the meat of Dario’s Chianina, the Maremmana and those raised in a similar way, would produce meat that is much tougher and gammier. And since the animals there would not be mass produced there would be significantly less beef available, therefore one would not only have to change their pallet but also the amount of beef they consume, and the amount of money willing to be spent on what would be a scarce food.

IMG_8608 IMG_8628

IMG_8615

Conclusion:                                                                                                                                               As I said before, I believe if there is no way in which the production of certain foods can be ethical, it is the best to abstain from it. Upon reflecting on my experience here in Tuscany, I have come to the conclusion that the only ethical way to produce beef that is also economically sustainable is the structure exemplified through the butteri and the Maremmana. Unless there is a world wide return of the cowboy, I do not think the production of beef can or will improve. So until the day the cowboy returns, I will be abstaining from eating beef as well as all bovine dairy products. More importantly, though I spent the majority of this paper talking about the realization that the beef industry is amoral at its core, the greatest lesson I took away from this course is not my stance on eating beef, but the skills I learned that got me to this well-informed point of view. This maymester has taught me to think critically and helped me understand the amount of research and time need to just contemplating the information to reach my truth. And that my truth is not static, it needs to be revaluated and reassessed as the state of nature and thus the food industry continues to change.

Leave a Reply