Tuesday, November 13, 2012

New York Times: Perpetuating Libels?

Today the New York Times ran a shoddy report about Green Mountain College's decision to euthanize one of the pair of aging oxen who were the school's mascots.

The two animals, Lou and Bill, became near celebrities when the college announced plans to slaughter the animals and serve their meat in the student dining hall.  But those plans were canceled when no slaughterhouses nearby would accept the two.  Times journalist Jess Bigood quotes the college provost as saying that "slaughterhouses were barraged by threats from the animal rights activists and refused the animals, so we were unable to carry through with our plan."

This claim has been repeated and reprinted endlessly, but has any reporter ever tried to verify it?  The plain fact is that whether or not you agree with their more confrontational tactics, animal rights activists have never killed anyone or threatened bodily violence to their opponents. With a few rare exceptions involving property damage, animal activists have pursued peaceful ends through peaceful means, in the Gandhian spirit.  Those means include letter writing, petitions, picket signs, calls for boycotts, and publicity campaigns, which are all legitimate and far short of intimidation or physical bullying.  

I have read Green Mountain College's Facebook page, where there are indeed dozens or hundreds comments regarding the oxen's fate posted from around the world--many angry, passionate and opinionated but not one even hinting at any kind of mayhem.  A typical rant: "Shame shame shame ... what a disgraceful primitive act, may karma rear its ugly head ..."  Were slaughterhouses also threatened with bad karma?  Perhaps, but the New York Times--without any factual basis--makes it sound like something far more sinister was involved.

I am tired of having animal advocates falsely branded as perpetrators of violence when their entire philosophy is one of non-injury and compassion.  The Times has unfortunately compounded this libel by its failure to investigate the actual nature of the "threats" received by Vermont slaughterhouses.  My guess is that the real "threat" posed by animal activists is in making visible the hidden brutality of what happens there.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

What's Wrong With The Heifer Project?

As Christmas nears, many of you will be receiving a gift catalog from Heifer International, inviting you to help the poor by donating an animal to a family farmer in Africa, Latin America, or Asia. The photos in the catalog are warm and fuzzy and the message is appealing. But there's another side to the story.

Heifer Project International provides cows, sheep, and other livestock to rural families around the world with the aim of fighting hunger. They claim to have more than 300 projects in forty countries. With endorsements that cross the ideological spectrum, from Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter, Heifer is virtually a sacred cow--an organization that everyone seems to love. But there are problems with exporting animal agriculture to the Third World.

So What's Wrong With The Heifer Project? I think Heifer does some good work--they are committed to small scale, local agriculture as opposed to factory farming. But the emphasis on raising animals for food contributes to a general misunderstanding among North Americans about the causes of hunger, which are very much related to our consumption of a meat based diet.

Globalizing American farming methods is as big a mistake as cultivating a taste for lamb chops and barbecue among the world's poor. Neither is the answer to starvation. Did you realize that an acre of prime agricultural land can produce 40,000 pounds of potatoes, or 30,000 pounds of carrots, or 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, but only 250 pounds of beef? The grain that could feed twenty people suffices for just one cow. Peasants cannot afford this kind of waste and inefficiency.

Thus in country after country, food security has suffered as people switch from rice, beans, and corn to eggs, dairy and meat to satisfy their nutritional needs. Worldwatch Institute documents the trend in “Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment." The authors point out that Taiwan increased its consumption of meat and eggs by 600% between 1950 and l990. While the island nation was a grain exporter at the beginning of this forty year span, it depended on massive imports of grain by the end of the period in order to feed its growing population of livestock. Food self-sufficiency is undermined when people increase their reliance on animal protein. The pattern has been repeated in the Middle East and Central America.

Mexico is one of the countries where Heifer works. Twenty-five years ago, livestock consumed only 6% of the nation's grain. By 1990, the figure had climbed to 50%, as increased numbers of cattle required more imported feed. Most of the meat produced in Mexico and other Latin American nations is exported for dinner tables north of the border while the little that remains at home is usually priced out of reach of the poor.

Two-thirds of non-Caucasians on the planet are lactose intolerant and cannot digest dairy. Among blacks, the numbers are even higher. Writing in "Science in Africa," Dr. Harris Steinman points out that approximately 90-95% of Africans lack the enzyme lactase and are unable to metabolize milk sugar. The common symptoms of this genetic predisposition are nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping. Despite this, Heifer is spending millions on initiatives like the Small Scale Dairy Project in Zimbabwe, when the last thing that a hungry child in Africa needs is a milk cow.

Heifer seems wed to the belief that animal agriculture is the answer to the world problems, even when evidence indicates the contrary. Americans over consumption of beef is damaging our health and ravaging the environment-a fact the Heifer's public information officer readily admits. But then why is Heifer spending $123,558 to fund the "St Helena Beef Cattle Project" in Louisiana, whose stated purpose is to boost beef production among American farmers? And isn't it a mistake to encourage people in developing countries to emulate a diet that we know is unsustainable?

A United Nations Environment Programme survey counted 6,500 distinct breeds of domesticated mammal and birds in 170 countries across the planet, including cows, goats, sheep, buffalo, yaks, pigs, horses, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and even ostriches. Unfortunately, much of this variety being lost because of programs like those funded by Heifer, which is introducing Irish goats into Kenya. In China, their "Pixian Dairy Cattle Importation and Improvement Project" is using imported cattle to provide "high quality semen and embryo transfer” for dairy development supposedly to increase the quality of the breeding stock. But the effort to "improve" the gene pool with foreign imports can have unforseen consequences. "The greatest threat to domestic animal diversity is the export of animals from developed to developing countries," say the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, "which often leads to crossbreeding or even replacement of local breeds." Loss of diversity puts animals (and the people who depend on those animals) at heightened risk.

So that's my beef with Heifer. The roots of world hunger are systemic and usually lie in an unfair distribution of land, which is itself related to an imbalance of economic and political power. Addressing these underlying causes of malnutrition is essential. Hunger is not caused primarily by lack of food. In fact, the world currently produces enough calories to feed every person on earth an adequate diet. Unfortuantely, too many of those calories are fed to cows and pigs rather than
getting to the people most desperately in need.

Heifer is now branching into praiseworthy efforts at reforestation and water purifcation. But the charity's insistence on putting animal agriculture at the center of their mission hampers their otherwise laudable goal of “ending hunger, caring for the earth.”

(The above is a reprint of an article I wrote several years ago, which has been widely distributed around the web.  Researchers with updated information are invited to get in touch.)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Lincoln: The Movie, the Myth and the Man

Lincoln, the new Stephen Spielberg movie due out in theaters next week, will undoubtedly revive interest in the historical personality—as opposed to the myth—of our greatest American President. 

Not coincidentally, Stephen Mansfield has released a fresh biography of Lincoln’s Battle With God (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2012) intended as a counterweight to previous works which portray Abe as a skeptic or freethinker in matters of faith.
Lincoln never joined a church during his lifetime.  During his Springfield years, he was part of a debating society where he seemed to support the views of Tom Paine and other deists of the Enlightenment.  He once called Jesus a bastard and Christ’s mother a base woman.  In an Illinois congressional race, he was dogged by charges of atheism and impiety.  These facts are not disputed.

Mansfield, who is an alumnus of Oral Roberts University, doesn’t deny that Lincoln rejected organized religion as a young man.  But he argues that under the assault of life-changing losses (the death of two sons and the carnage of war) Lincoln experienced something close to a complete conversion: to belief in a personal God accessible through prayer.  He opens his book with widow Mary Todd Lincoln’s remembrance, years after the fact, that her husband’s dying wish as he bled to death from an assassin’s bullet was to walk in the footsteps of his savior.  All the other tangled threads of Lincoln’s lifetime lead to this uplifting finale of faith.

To his credit, Mansfield realizes that first person accounts of Lincoln’s religious life—whether from Mary, his law partner William Herndon, or the various Protestant ministers who sought to befriend him and claim the President as one of their own—need to be taken with a grain of salt.  Sources are not always reliable.  Unfortunately, the author suffers from his own questionable citations.

For example, Mansfield recounts that during his Indiana childhood, Abe “had an impressive capacity for memorization, particularly of sermons.  Those who knew him often recalled how he would take a break from work by getting up on a stump and repeating almost word for word the sermons he had heard in the week before.”  

This un-footnoted passage seems to come from a letter written by Lincoln’s second-cousin Dennis Hanks who wrote to Herndon that “you asked Me what Sort of Songs or Intrest Abe took part in I will say this any thing that was Lively He Never would Sing any Religious Songs it apered to Me that it Did Not souit him But for a Man to preach a Sermond he would Listin to with great Attention.”  Hank’s son-in-law A.H. Chapman wrote Herndon that “When about 10 years old Lincoln first showed his talent as a speaker & from that forward would gather the children together Mount a stump or Log & harang his juvenile audience. he done this so often that it interfered with their labors when at work on the farm & caused him Many reproofs from his father, He would often after returning from church repeat correctly nearly all of the sermon which he had heard mimacing the Style & tone of the old Baptist Preachers.”

Judging from this accounting, was the boy manifesting a serious interest in matters of faith, or rather mocking the frontier revivalists?  In such cases, Mansfield almost always gives evangelical Christianity the benefit of the doubt, taking the episode as an indication of how the camp meeting preachers made an impression on “Abe’s eager mind.” 

Mansfield is a talented writer and I believe he makes a genuine attempt at objective reporting.  But his biases are also apparent.

I would recommend that anyone seriously interested in Lincoln’s faith journey read Allen Guelzo’s  Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, which seems a more careful and balanced approach.