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Autobiography as History

Sometimes revolutionary actions begin with a simple question. 

When Bob and I became  vegetarians  in 1983,  we had no idea we were joining a revolution.  I had read a description of factory farming in Richard Schwartz’ book, Judaism and Vegetarianism (which we subsequently published) and was revolted by the description of the crated veal and factory farming.  It was difficult to believe that this could apply to the meat we ate. We ate kosher meat.  But  doubt invaded my certainty, and I called my butcher.  I read the pages to him and asked him, “Where does our meat come from?” 

His answer changed our lives.  “Mrs. Kalechofsky, all meat for the commercial market, kosher or otherwise, comes from the same place.  We just kill the animal differently.”

All Jews, and many non-Jews, believe that kosher meat is somehow different from other meat.  But meat is meat and it always comes from an animal.  In the Western world, ninety percent of meat to be sold in  commercial markets is raised in what is called the CAFO system: “Confined Animal Feed Operation,” and this system breeds endless problems for the environment and for personal health.

One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of Animal Machines by Ruth Harrrison.  Published in 1964, it may be the first exposé of the CAFO or factory farming system.  My copy contains a Foreword by Rachel Carson, prophet and  doyen of the environmental movement.  Fifty years ago, she wrote,

As a biologist whose special interests lie in the field of ecology, or the relation between living things and their environment, I find it inconceivable that healthy animals can be produced under the artificial and damaging conditions that prevail in these modern factorylike installations, where animals are grown and turned out like so many inanimate objects....The question then arises: how can animals produced under such conditions be safe or acceptable human food?...The menace to human consumers from the drugs, hormones, and pesticides used to keep this whole fantastic operation somehow going is a matter never properly explored.

Almost fifty years later, and perhaps too late,  we are  beginning to explore the problem, while the problem has gotten worse.  Antibiotic resistant diseases are now a grave danger to human health.  But I wrote my first article as a vegetarian on this problem around 1985.  For the article I interviewed Dr.Stuart Levy, who is among the world’s most renowned experts on antibiotic resistant diseases and retroviruses.  It was  bold of me to interview him, at the time, because I barely understood the nature of the problem. When I called him for the interview, he asked me why I thought my readers wanted to hear what he had to say on this subject.  I hesitated to answer, knowing that my readers did not want to hear  or know anything about this subject.  “Dr. Levy,” I said,  “my readers don’t know this problem exists, and can’t say whether they would want to read about it or not.”  His answer was wonderful. “Right” he said, “call me tomorrow at noon.”  

There were other exposés from time to time. An article published in Animals Agenda on the subject about the same time had the grisley but apt title, “Feeding an Epidemic.” Yet the bread and butter medical community largely remained silent.  The complaints were seen to be voiced by those “cranks,” the vegetarians, and the complaints therefore could be ignored.

Similarly with global warming, with  growing deserts, with the destruction of waterways, with the failure of the monocrop agricultural system.  Again and again, vegetarians were the first to raise the issue and to point out that at the bottom of these severe environmental threats  and threats to our  personal health and communal health  was our food system----mainly meat. (This issue is dealt with in a chapter in Vegetarian Judaism)  The publication of the UN report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which can be accessed on the internet,  has now specified in  detail, exactly what it is that meat does to the environment, to the air we breath, the water we drink, the earth our vegetables are grown in, to environmental pollution and to global warming.  Vegetarianism is not a personal life style choice---as people sometimes say to me--like my choice of clothes--it’s  a communal response we make to the environment.

Now we are faced with another threat, a threat of a different nature whose danger is not immediately apparent.   The Organic Consumers Organization has an alert that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been working for over five years to force a National Animal Identification System (NAIS) onto American animal owners.  NAIS is designed to identify and track each and every individual livestock and poultry animal owned by family farmers, hobby farmers, homesteaders, and pet owners across the country. This sounds reasonable, but it is a substitute for good husbandry practices.   In Orwellian talk, the justification for it is that it will be easier to track diseases in animals---than to eliminate the causes of these diseases.  This is called Orwellian think.  The same system of factory farming, with all its hazards for human and global health,  will still be in place.
In order to satisfy the appetite for meat, we keep inventing more and more expensive systems  such as irradiating meat, and now the National Animal Identification System, to address a failed system.  This new system will “create an expensive and time-consuming tagging and reporting requirement for small farms,”  which  could  endanger the budding movement for organic meat because the tagging requirements will be too  burdensome for those farmers who raise sustainable livestock on pasture.   This would affect those few Jewish farmers who do raise organic meat., though NAIS does nothing to improve food safety for consumers or prevent animal diseases.  This program is a one-size-fits-all program developed by and for big Agribusiness.  NAIS will further increase consolidation of our food supply in the hands of a few large companies and stall  the budding movement toward local food systems.

A grassroots movement protest has already successfully stalled USDA's plans for NAIS, which originally called for the entire program---registration, animal identification, and tracking ---to be mandatory by January 2009.  It is imperative that people speak up to protect our right  to an uncontanimated food supply--not to tracking contaminated animals, and the best way to do that is to tell your Congressperson.  The email or snail mail address of every senator or member of congress can be found on the internet.

The tracking system will be expensive and will do nothing to address other problems of how we raise animal meat today.  Factory farms will still be breeding grounds for  diseases, which can then spread to the wider community via many routes ---not just in food, but also in water, the air, and the bodies of farmers, farm workers and their families. Once those microbes become widespread in the environment, it's very difficult to get rid of them, and further raises the danger of antibiotic resistant diseases.

A 2008 report from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, a joint project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, underscores those risks. The 111-page report, two years in the making, outlines the public health, environmental, animal welfare and rural livelihood consequences of what they call "industrial farm animal production." Its conclusions couldn't be clearer. Factory farm production is intensifying worldwide, and rates of new infectious diseases are rising. Of particular and persistent concern is the rapid rise of antibiotic-resistant microbes, an inevitable consequence of the intensive widespread use of antibiotics as feed additives in industrial livestock operations.  Tracking diseased animals may make the public feel that something is being done, but it will not address the issue of environmental pollution due to the way these animals are raised. It is  amazing that rather than go back to good, sound principles of husbandry, our government constantly initiates costly ways to track food animal diseases.

Wendell Berry, poet, philosopher,  and Kentucky farmer,  has been compared to Thoreau. He is our modern Virgil, who celebrates the values of a sane agricultural system, as did the prophet Isaiah. In The Gift of the Good Land, Berry wrote,

The story of the giving of the Promised Land to the Israelites is more serviceable than the story of the giving of the Garden of Eden, because the Promised land is a divine gift to a fallen people.  For that reason the giving is more problematical, and the receiving is more conditional and more difficult.  In the Bible’s long working out of the understand- ing of this gift, we may find the beginning ---and, by  implicaton, the end---of the definition of an ecological discipline.”

Both  stories of the Garden of Eden and the Promised Land contain the whole of the message of the importance of agriculture and simple, sane food to survival.


I became a vegetarian because of a loathing of the pain visited on the animals, but I discovered that over the years vegetarians were right  about all the other issues. We are now in the midst of a food revolution---fifty years late---and in a fight for the planet.    The Food Revolution is about saving the environment, our healtcare system, yourself.  This is a revolution that anyone can join. You don’t have to pick up a gun to join, or stand at the barricades on a cold street.   The kitchen is the modern barricades and the weapon is food.  Say no to the CAFO system, to factory farming, and anything that will prolong this treacherous system.

Samuel Johnson, the great English literary critic, was once asked how one can know a great work of literature.  His response was, “Only the test of time can reveal that.”
Vegetarianism has withstood the test of time---as have the stories of the Garden of Eden and the gift of the Promised Land.