Farm animals activist seeks to raise awareness

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, has been one of the strongest advocates for farmed animals in the United States since the 1980s. His investigative exposes and advocacy efforts on behalf of farm animals have earned international media coverage. Time magazine described Baur as the “conscience of the food movement.” In March 2008, Baur released a book titled “Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food.”

Baur will give two talks locally: 5:30-7:30 p.m. March 27 in Room 227 of the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library, 205 Calhoun St., and 7:30-9:30 p.m. March 28 at Jivamukti Yoga Charleston, 320 W. Coleman Blvd. in Mount Pleasant.

Q: It seems like awareness about the ills of factory farming has come a long way in 25 years. Back then, did you feel like you were a voice crying out in the desert?

A: Yes, it has come a long way. It was frustrating that so few people weren’t thinking about these issues back in the ’80s.

Even today, people still aren’t thinking of these issues as much as we need to be, but we’ve come an awful long way. Vegan food is much more readily available. There are plenty of alternatives to cow’s milk, for example, coconut milk, almond milk, rice milk, oat milk or hemp milk. And many of these are available in regular grocery stores.

I think it’s a lot easier now (to be a vegan) than it used to be, and I think the idea of not eating animals and eating plants is becoming more widely acceptable.

... Vegan living is actually tied into some prominently held values and beliefs that most people have. Most people want to be kind to other animals, but most people are unwittingly supporting cruelty by buying these animal foods that are raised in these horrible conditions. I think what’s happening is that people are starting to align their own behavior with their own values. And that’s where a big part of the change is happening, I believe.

Q: Do you get people asking isn’t vegetarian good enough? Why do I have to go all the way vegan?

A: Any step people take in a positive direction is something we support and encourage, but when you look at the reality of how these animals are being treated, dairy and eggs are, in many cases, some of the worst abuses because these animals live a longer period of time in horrible conditions.

In the case of dairy cows, they have their calves taken away from them every year because in order to produce milk, like other mammals, cows have to have a baby. Then the mother is produced to push 10 times more milk than she would normally produce.

They are pushed hard and live short, painful lives, and then they are slaughtered for beef. Then their babies, if they are male, they are raised for veal, which is one of the worst cruelties, too.

Q: What about pasture-raised and certified humane eggs?

A: I don’t think the word humane is accurate. Dairy cows, even if they are raised on a pasture, they still have their baby taken away from them. Then they are killed when they are no longer profitable for milk production.

As for certified humane, chickens, even if they are free range, they’ll still have their beaks cut off. Those terms seem to sound a lot better than they really are. Free range only requires that animals be given access to the outdoors, but the access is not defined. So you commonly find animals by the thousands with a small door to a crummy paddock.

That can still be called free-range, but that’s not what consumers think they are buying.

You have a strong demand for alternatives to factory farm foods and a lacking supply. What’s happened is that standards have been pushed down.

Besides that, you don’t have a robust infrastructure to certify and to visit and make sure these operations are in compliance.

Q: Do you see any trends, anecdotally or statistically, about a move to vegan lifestyle? It seems like women are more apt to adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle than men.

A: I think women tend to be more open-minded to these issues than men generally. But we’re starting to see more and more men get involved, as well. People like Bill Clinton are going vegan, mainly for health reasons, but people like Mike Tyson went vegan a couple of years ago. ... We’re seeing more men getting into it, including athletes.

Q: What’s the status of possible changes with the federal farm bill?

A: I wish I could say I was optimistic about that, but I’m not terribly. What happens in Washington, D.C., is so difficult.

The types of changes that need to happen are big, but the changes that are allowed to happen through Washington, D.C., are going to be small.

We’ll work on whatever we can to advance these issues through the farm bill, by promoting more plant-based eating and less for factory farm industry, but the change will be modest.

The big change will happen as consumers that are shifting away from eating animals to eating plants and supporting local plant production, farmers markets and a whole different agriculture system. There are more farmers markets, the organic food industry is growing, there are more CSAs. We’re seeing the shift.

That’s where, ultimately, change is going to happen.