Mercy For Animals, the nonprofit animal-rights group behind several recent undercover animal-cruelty videos, which Farmer Goes to Market has reported on, has officially called the match: Cage-free eggs are now inevitable.
In a blog post written nearly a year ago, the group"...dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies," quoted the United Egg Producers president as conceding the U.S. egg industry now has no options but to go cage-free.
How did Mercy for Animals take UEP, over the course of less than a decade, from spending $10 million to fight California legislation requiring cage-free to agreeing to back a system nationally that it not only predicts will increase egg farmers' housing costs by two to three times, but also stands a good chance of actually making chickens less healthy, less productive and more stressed?
Mercy For Animals, the nonprofit "...on the frontlines fighting to protect farmed animals, ...dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies," put out its latest cinematic drama in late June. The footage, shot this spring by a hired MFA plant pretending to be a farm worker at Washington's Briarwood Farms, a supplier for egg distributor Eggland’s Best, edited together footage of people engaging in questionably cruel behavior with somber and brooding images of caged chickens, artfully gloomy background music and poetically suggestive narration. It all combines to further the group's constant narrative: The system of caged-hen production is unacceptable.
This June video followed the same model of MFA's past works targeting not only poultry, but also pigs, milk cows, turkeys, veal calves, and even ducks. They all skillfully use isolated depictions of animal cruelty (some real, some implied or staged) by individuals to cinematically indict the wider system of intensive animal production or individual practices like caging hens, keeping pregnant pigs in individual stalls, beak-trimming to prevent cannibalism, or confined housing.
Their ultimate goal? To name and shame suppliers to large companies, who can then be pressured to announce changes. Those announcements can then, in turn, be used to coerce smaller, less powerful retailers and food producers into submitting. All are designed to make food production more burdensome and more expensive, even as they do little to really improve animal welfare.
Eggland’s Best's director of quality assurance told Fortune he was skeptical about the authenticity of this latest video. He said MFA contacted Eggland’s Best numerous times prior to publishing the video, promising that if the company publicly committed to cage-free eggs, the group would edit the narration to spin in favor of the company. If not, the story would position Eggland's as cruel and inhumane. “It seems a little bit like this is a set up,” the director said.
"Following pressure from caring consumers," the video narrator of the final video breathlessly intones, "many of the biggest companies in the world, including McDonalds, Kroger, Walmart and many others, committed to stop cramming hens in cages. But not Eggland's best."
Meanwhile, the Independent Grocers Alliance, which represents over 1,000 retailers nationwide, joined the growing list of retailers who have caved to the group's pressure, announcing, "It is our goal to source 100 percent cage-free eggs for IGA by 2025 based on available supply. IGA, its retailers and its wholesalers do not tolerate animal abuse of any kind, and we expect our suppliers to adhere to accepted industry standards."
Although it's understandable to be sympathetic to a retailer who feels they can't win against the public spectacle of a well-financed juggernaut like Mercy for Animals, pushing back against this corporate extortion is critical to the health of the food system in the long run, says lawyer and award winning author, Wesley J. Smith. A senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and an expert in bioethics regarding both animals and humans, Smith's A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement tears apart both the tactics of the animal rights movement and its underlying, flawed philosophy.
"Animal rights activists have very successfully positioned themselves in public society in a way that is false," Smith told us shortly after publication of his book. "Most people think it's about just being nicer to animals, which of course is an important human endeavor. But the purpose of the animal rights movement literally is to end all domesticated animals and put all animal industries out of business."
MFA's video protestations about poor animal welfare notwithstanding, animal-rights groups like Mercy for Animals aren't really interested in the welfare of animals, beyond how much it furthers their animal-rights mission. In fact, Smith argues, animal-rights activists hate the animal-welfare movement, because it recognizes a moral superiority of humans that gives them dominion to judge welfare by their own standards. "In animal rights dogma," he says, "animals and humans have equivalent moral value. What animal rights activists have done is they have hidden much of their true agenda behind the good reputation of animal welfare."
Corporations like those that MFA praises in the video which have acquiesed are playing into their strategy, walking a dangerous line by agreeing to standards that science demonstrates have little to do with welfare, but ultimately advance the ideology of animal rights.
MFA attracts viewership and sympathy by cinematically creating an illusion that animals are human, worthy of equal moral consideration, and then evoking pity for them and outrage on their behalf from the consuming public. Those emotions are then channeled to further the mission of dividing the food chain against itself. They know that when the modern food chain is united in its shared goal to feed everybody as efficiently and as effectively as possible, there’s no stopping it in that goal. In fact, consumers who understand what’s at stake won’t let it be stopped. But when those animal-rights groups successfully pit consumer against consumer, consumer against retailer, retailer against farmer, big farmer against little farmer, pet owner against animal farmer, and on and on, they can pick off otherwise unwinnable targets one by one. Understand that argument, and retailers can begin to understand there's no adequate defense in the middle ground of appeasement.
The farmers market, laments the Washington Post recently, just isn't what it used to be. The more than 8,000 such markets across the country were supposed to be public spaces where, as the Post says, average consumers could make "an investment in the future of local and sustainable agriculture." Farmers Markets were meant to fill in the "food desert" holes in the food-distribution chain. They would, in the words of former Undersecretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan just four short years ago, take up the slack where full-service groceries like yours had abandoned serving the local citizenry, often the poor and minorities.
Turns out that's not the way it's working. Instead, as Virginia farmer Zach Lester complains to the Post, "[Customers] arrive for a bite or some booze, maybe a pizza at Red Zebra or a bottle of gin from One Eight Distilling.
“A lot of people that walk through markets are not shopping," he says. "They’re there to meet. They’re there to socialize.”
It shouldn't come as a surprise.
Farmers markets may be about politics inside USDA and within regional "food policy councils," but for shoppers, they, along with the wider notion of "community supported agriculture" are really about a yearning to rediscover pastoral and local values they can't find in supermarkets, writes University of Wyoming marketing professor Melea Press.
Community supported agriculture, Press writes, enlist the same classic ideas about American pastoralism that, first, drove urbanites into the suburbs in the 1950s and then tempted them back to the land in the '60s and '70s. CSA and the farmers market share several traits of a longing for pastoralism with those trends:
Farmers markets, as a part of the whole concept of "community supported agriculture," according to University of Wisconsin professor Craig Thompson, are built to focus consumers not on the food it delivers, but the experience of being involved in it.
Think about it this way, Thompson writes: If you set out to purposely design a food system that offered only limited selection, at limited times of the year, at higher prices, determined largely by what the producer had to sell rather than what the customer wanted, pushing items you often aren't familiar with and don't know how to use, you couldn't do better than a community supported agriculture program.
The irony, according to Thompson, is that those very disadvantages of farmers markets compared to supermarkets are the strengths that draw shoppers to be there. Shopping through community supported agriculture is a form of austere "ethical consumerism." Ethical consumerism tells consumers they can use their dollars to make a difference in terms of sustainability and social justice—or, more cynically, hide their status-consciousness in social-responsible pretense. But he believes both of those interpretations of ethical consumerism miss the mark in defining farmers markets. His in-depth interviews of farmers and customers suggest it's the very inconveniences and aggravations of community supported agriculture that "enchant" the experience with shoppers. In stark contrast to ‘Disneyfied’ and ‘McDonaldized’ consumption that's prepackaged, microwaved and forced, shopping the farmers market disrupts and exeptionalizes the traditional food-shopping experience and, by extension, the morality of the consumer.
Why you little! Researchers from University of Minnesota asked about 2,100 kids averaging 14 years old to name their three favorite TV shows. They then coded three episodes each of the 25 most popular shows, looking for food-related content, including perceived healthiness of the food, its portion size, whether the character ate at the dinner table or in front of the TV and other social contexts.
They found Bart, Stewie and crew are bad, bad influences in the food arena:
"Although snacking behaviors on television shows may seem innocuous," the Minnesota team granted, they cite "extensive research" claiming on-screen behaviors create behaviorial social norms that continual viewers can come to see as typical or expected.
According to a 2015 report, adolescents now spend an average of 17 hours per week watching television. Research on smoking, early sexual activity and violence has identified links between viewing entertainment media content and enacting these behaviors. Given enough TV viewing, the Minnesota researchers argue, youth can come to eventually form “pseudofriendships” with television characters and look to them as role models. The strength of their influence may depend how similarly they identify with the character in terms of sex, race or attributes like body type, which makes the unhealthy eating by significantly more of those types of characters in their content analysis particularly important.
They suggest their research points out the fact that the lion's share of media research linked to the obesity epidemic that focuses only on food advertising may be missing the more important programming cues in between the commercials.
From visions of abandoned inner-city buildings giving way to gardens of heirloom tomatoes and edible flowers to surburban developments centered around truck farms rather than golf courses to skyscrapers with U-picks built into their walls to Eden-styled public fruit trees where anyone is free to forage for themselves, the vision of urban agriculture is common theme within today's new food movement, "not just because it tastes better but also because it builds community, helps with nutrition, generates economic development and can even offer food safety benefits," says a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette superfecta of wishful thinking.
But the harsh light of economics could consign the city farm to passing fad.
That's the implications a new study published in the British Food Journal suggests. This first attempt, according to the authors, to systematically examine U.S. urban agriculture at the farm level used data obtained from 370 farmers responding to a 2012 national survey of urban farms located around the country.
The study found that similar to U.S. rural farms, most urban farms in the survey sample were small. For all farms, average sales amounted to a respectable $54,000; however, several farms raising high-value, premium-priced crops in climate-controlled greenhouses that reported sales above $750,000 skew the average upward. Remove those high-sale farms from the average, and the median urban sold only about $5,000 in produce per year.
Of the total number of survey respondents, 94 reported their farm as operating as a nonprofit, which comprised 33 percent of those responding to questions about business organization. For approximately one-third of all urban farms in the sample, the primary farmer reported earning a living from the farm. There was no statistical difference in the farmer’s ability to earn a living between the nonprofit and market-oriented urban farms, the authors report.
For now, the boom in urban agriculture is being driven by government grant money, non-profit status and over-reliance on volunteer labor. In the long-term, with so few urban farmers making a living, one of the study authors told the online e-zine CityLab, “I wonder if 10 years down the line, people will be tired of working really hard without making a good living. I wonder if urban farming might just be a passing trend that fades into the background.”