Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Compassion. Responsibility. Respect. Human decency. A conversation with Gene Baur

On February 23rd, I had the good fortune of sitting down with Farm Sanctuary’s co-founder Gene Baur. He is a friendly and healthy man with graying hair and a broad smile. Gene has been a vegan since 1985 and one of the country’s most active animal rights advocates for the last 23 years since Farm Sanctuary started. He is eager to understand modern people’s place in nature, our interaction with animals, and what the human implications are of how we treat animals in factory farms, a problem he calls “the commodification of sentient life," a concept he develops in his book Farm Sanctuary (pictured at right).

How does what we eat affect nature? What do people do to each other as a result of the way we treat animals? Do we really eat according to the ethics we say we do? And finally, what can informal and formal education do to help us understand our place in the world? [They do have a guide for teachers here.]

Gene thinks that it’s “important for people of conscience and who recognize the harm to do something about it.” Many of us agree. But some of us act on principle more than others.


Me: I am sitting here with Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary. How are you doing Gene?

Gene: I am well Peter. How are you?

Me: Great. So you co-started Farm Sanctuary?

Gene: I co-founded Farm Sanctuary back in 1986.

Me: What is that led you to decide to start it?

Gene: Well in the early 1980s I hitch hiked around the country and I became familiar with various concerns including what happens to them on farms. Prior to that I had been involved with environmental groups. I have a degree in sociology so I worked with kids who were having difficulties. I just always wanted to do something to make a positive difference.

As time went by I started realizing that industrialized farming really combined so many issues of concern whether it was animal cruelty, justice, truth in advertising, consumer rights issues, environmental issues. All these things converge on a factory farm so that was an area that needed attention in the 1980s. So to address it we wanted to learn and see first hand what was going on. So we started visiting stockyards and farms and finding living animals thrown in trashcans or on piles of dead animals. We rescued them and took care of them.

The organization just grew from there and we were always responding to needs. We’d see an animal on the dead pile you take them home. Now we need a sanctuary. People came and wanted to come and visit so we put in bed and breakfast cabins and a visitor program. We didn’t really have a five-year or ten-year plan. We just responded to various needs as we grew.

Me: Was there a particular instance that happened that you made you say, “Wow. This is really terrible.”

Gene: There was no real particular instance that moved me completely in this direction. There were several instances or events that got me thinking.

One of those was when I was in high school, maybe fifteen years old. I had come home from school and my mother had made a chicken dinner. And I saw the chicken on the plate on its back. I saw the legs. I saw the wings. And I didn’t like the idea of eating an animal. So through a lot of high school I was a vegetarian. I didn’t call myself a vegetarian but I just didn’t want to eat meat. But, in college as I interacted with more people who were eating meat I got back into the habit.

And then when I hitchhiked around the country in the early 80s I went to some farm areas. I learned about Francis Moore Lappé’s book Diet for a Small Planet. I saw Ralph Nader speak in college. He talked about how we grow up learning about how to market and sell things but we don’t learn how to be smart consumers. So that was another thing that I saw.

And I’ve always just wanted to make a difference. I’ve been very interested in the movement in the 1960s to challenge assumptions and challenge common behaviors. So that’s part of a framing that these other instances sort of fed and led me toward this area.

Again, this was an area that wasn’t really being looked at and citizens were unwittingly involved in and purchasing products that were raised in a way that was appalling if they looked at it, was unhealthy, was destroying the planet, and was harming rural communities.

So in 1986 there was very little attention going to industrial farming and so we wanted to learn about it and take it on.

Me: It sounds like you were an on-the-ground Peter Singer in a way. You saw this huge amount of waste and suffering and just thought it was ethically undefensible.

Gene: Absolutely. We wanted to see firsthand, not just read a book and talk about it. I wanted to see firsthand what was going on. So I spent a lot of time going to stockyards and farms and crawling around these places and it was not fun. But was important to so that we could see the reality.

Me: I know from some of Farm Sanctuary’s material that you talk about and write about social human costs, costs to animals with their suffering, and these natural environmental costs. Can you talk about those different kinds of costs that this industrial system causes?

Gene: In terms of the food and our own health, what we eat has profound consequences and most people in this country are eating in a way that is making them sick and killing them prematurely. Cancer and heart disease are the top two killers in the United States and the risk of both can be lessened significantly by eating healthier plant-based foods instead of animal-based foods. We are eating in a way that is inconsistent with our own interests.

We are also supporting an agricultural system that is inconsistent with the wellbeing of the planet. The industrial agricultural system depends on enormous quantities of land, water, and other resources including fossil fuels. A New York Times article that ran a few years ago compared the fossil fuel use that goes into producing a meat-based meal versus a vegetarian meal. It concluded that the meat meal required sixteen times more fossil fuels. So it’s an extremely wasteful system that also contributes to global warming. The United Nations found that the livestock industry contributes more to global warming than the entire transportation industry. There’s massive environmental consequences that are inconsistent with our global interests in living on a clean and healthy planet.

Then, what happens to animals today is an abomination. These animals live their whole lives in cages and crates so tightly confined that they can barely move. Sometimes they can’t turn around, they can’t walk, they can’t exercise, they can’t exhibit natural behaviors and they suffer both physically and psychologically. Finally, they are killed at a very young age.

When people see what happens to the animals they’re upset, they’re usually appalled, and sometimes they say, “I don’t want to look at it.” And I would say that people should be aware of what they are supporting and should be able to look at it and feel okay about it. But right now people are eating in a way and supporting a system that abuses animals horribly and is inconsistent with their values. So a key part of our message is to encourage citizens to make choices that are consistent with their values and consistent with their interests.

And I think that if we saw that happen, we would see factory farms’ profits plummet and we’d see a move toward a different kind of agricultural system where people are eating more plants than animals, people are getting food from local sources, from farmer’s markets, from community supported agriculture (CSAs), from community gardens where people would be growing their own food. And by doing this you feel connected and empowered and you feel better because you are eating better food as opposed to food raised in toxic environments.

Me: CSAs are becoming way more popular too.

Gene: Yes. In the last five years we’ve seen enormous growth toward community gardens and CSAs. Even the USDA has put in a community garden at its headquarters in Washington, DC. The Obamas have planted a garden at the White House that is an example of eating healthy food.

This issue touches on so many aspects of how we live on this planet. What we eat has profound ramifications.

And it’s an emotional issue because we grow up eating a certain way and we develop certain habits. We were taught this by our parents and we share food with family and friends so it has a lot of emotional components. But when those foods are harmful we need to look at them with an open mind and make changes despite the fact that often doing so often causes some social distress.

Often when people become vegan, their families think that they are being rejected, that the person who becomes vegan is rejecting their family. But I would argue that the person choosing the vegan lifestyle is actually making choices for compassion and against cruelty and exhibiting values that they were taught by their parents. They are positive values.

Me: Are you saying that vegans are embracing something that people say they want to believe in but that a vegan is actually acting on it?

Gene: That’s right. They are acting on it in a way that is consistent with their values and with most people’s values. Most people don’t think that it’s okay for animals to be abused.

Me: The Michael Vick dog incident for example.

Gene: Oh gosh. When people heard about that they were appalled and they wanted him penalized and he was penalized. But what happens on factory farms is all over the place and it is much worse frankly when you look at all of the ramifications.

On factory farms you have the commodification of sentient life. The animals are seen as pieces of meat from the day they are born until the day they die. They are denigrated, disrespected, and abused. That’s bad for the animals but it’s also bad for the people.

Me: So I hope that you can say a little about that. You can say, “Oh. The animals are treated so badly and the people who work there must be treated badly.” But can you give an example with hens or cattle?

Gene: Well, with hens who are used in egg production live their whole lives in small wire battery cages where they can’t stretch their wings, develop bruises and abrasions, and when they are no longer profitable they are killed. They used to be sent to slaughterhouses. But increasingly slaughterhouses don’t want them because they are so skinny with no meat on their bones. They’re beaten up and bruised so the flesh isn’t profitable. So a lot of these “spent hens” as they’re called are just killed.

There was a case in California where an egg factory disposed of 30,000 spent hens with a wood chipper. We tried to prosecute them for cruelty to animals but they were found not guilty because this was considered to be a common practice. On farms bad has become normal. And people start to rationalize cruelty as acceptable.

We had another case in New Jersey where I found two hens thrown in a trashcan with other dead birds. They were alive. So we tried to bring a case in that situation.

The egg factory’s lawyer argued in court that they could legally treat the birds like manure. The judge asked, “Isn’t there a difference between live birds and manure and their attorney affirmed the position that there is not a difference. So you have people making these arguments that are inhumane and, I would say, out of touch with basic human decency. That’s what happens in these places. Bad has become normal. Cruelty and violence become routine and acceptable.

If you look at human history, there have been a number of instances where a lot of people have gone along and done bad things and accepted bad as normal. So when bad things are happening it’s important for people of conscience and who recognize the harm to do something about it.

Me: You’ve seen Food, Inc. right?

Gene: Yes.

Me: There’s a scene in Food, Inc. where they go to the chicken barns of a woman who has a contract with a major poultry producer. She lets the film crew into see the broiler chickens who can barely walk. And then there’s this brutalization of the animals by, it seems reasonable to infer, by a group of undocumented workers. And this treatment of workers is this whole other thing that I hope you can talk about regarding the human costs.

Gene: I think that when there’s an insensitivity to animals it can jump the species barrier. Violence and callousness is an attitude that can spread. I’d say that in factory farming it begins with a disregard for the animals’ sentience and suffering, a lack of empathy, and a lack of responsibility for one’s own conduct which is then legitimized and justified instead of observed from a humane standpoint. When you start to justify cruelty to animals you can justify other kinds of cruelty.

Animals are seen as resources to be extracted from. We take eggs from hens, milk from cows, and kill them for meat, extracting value. It’s a mindset. We extract water from underground to such an extent that we are running out of it. We act in irresponsible and short-sighted ways. We extract value out of workers in the same short-sighted way.

Me: It sounds like you’re saying it’s economic value at all costs.

Gene: That’s right – short-term economic value without a concept of the broader costs, the external costs. There are social ills where you have these factory farms.

Back in the 1940s there was an anthropologist named Glodschmidt who came up with what is called the “Goldschmidt hypothesis.” He looked at two farming communities in central California: one of them was an industrial farm town with one big operation and the other was made up of more diversified small farms. What he concluded was that in the diversified community social health was much better. Money stayed in the community. There was better healthcare and services. But in the industrial operation there lots of problems. And we’re seeing that today.

We see industrial farms getting big tax breaks. They pollute the environment and they don’t clean it up. They treat their workers badly and their workers get sick. And because they aren’t paying their fair share of taxes the healthcare system in place cannot accommodate workers. Also, workers are oftentimes in the United States illegally so there are problems with that. And agribusiness has been happy with that arrangement because these are people who will do the work and when they get sick they aren’t going to try to get protection. They’ll get their cousin to come and replace them for a little while and there’s a revolving door of workers who can stand it for a while but then leave and then come back. So there’s an underground network of labor that supports these systems that exploit animals, workers, and the environment.

I’d also say they exploit consumers too because they market things and represent them as something they are not. For example, saying that you need to drink cow’s milk to get calcium to prevent osteoperosis. That shouldn’t be said. It’s a myth. But it’s something the dairy industry promulgates because when people think that way they will buy more cow’s milk. If you look at our country, we drink a lot of cow’s milk, and we have a lot of osteoperosis. So I don’t think that’s the answer. They’re selling products that disrespect animals, workers, consumers, nature and even their neighbors because they are polluting. They’ve passed “right to farm” laws so that they can do whatever they want without any consequences.

Me: It’s a “right to farm” if you have an enormous amount of money to invest you might say.

Gene: Those are the ones that are really pushing it. It’s the golden rule. Whoever has the gold makes the rules.

Me: In the last few presidential election cycles there’s been talk about “outsourcing.” We are outsourcing jobs for this and that and sending them overseas. But it sounds as though part of what you are talking about is that we outsource jobs right here to people who have the least power and that we outsource to them our cruelty so that we don’t have to do it.

Gene: That’s part of it too. These are people who are made to do very difficult jobs. You know it results in psychological harms. Alcoholism. Violence to animals is a precursor to violence against people.

In my book, I talk about a worker at a poultry slaughterhouse. He explains how became very hardened to the suffering of the animals and how that went home with him. A lot of workers have that happen.

Me: There is a big and growing movement to develop responsibility about our food and about our relationship to animals, and to nature, and climate change and all this stuff. So I hope we can talk about that.

Gene: Sure.

Me: Farm Sanctuary has promoted forms of public education with these Green Food Resolutions and others. And the Green Food Resolution seems especially good because you can do things right where you are.

Gene: Exactly.

Me: Can you explain those?

Gene: Sure. The Green Food Resolutions are urging cities to make a statement that they want to promote more local plant-based agriculture and local plant-based food consumption. The way we eat affects our health in huge ways. One of the reasons that our healthcare costs are so high is that we are eating so poorly. We are so disconnected from our food and making choices that are bad and not aligned with your own values and interests. So a Green Food Resolution puts it out there that we should be eating food that is grown responsibly and sustainably and healthy for ourselves that supports a healthy economic community.

We’ve had one passed in Tennessee and we anticipate others being passed. Hopefully, they will encourage expanding farmer’s markets, CSAs, community gardens.

We are in the midst of a growing grass-roots movement where people are tired of eating junk. They are tired of eating food that makes them feel ill and being tired.

Me: This food makes you tired.

Gene: It’s awful. It’s crazy that we are eating the way we are. If you think about it logically why would you eat food that makes you feel bad and makes you sick.

Me: There has been a study done by an anthropologist I believe that showed how far from our evolved diet, from say a human thousands of years ago in the Pacific Northwest, we have come. So from our evolutionary history all these buttons are being pushed in us when we eat Doritos. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I eat Doritos. But the kinds of things that happen to people are not things that we have adapted to in these quantities.

Gene: We have certain old evolutionary tendencies to eat a lot because we have come from a place of scarcity. But now we have so much around us that we are continuing to eat and obesity is an epidemic. Right. So we have certain historic propensities…

Me: Michael Pollan talks about salt, fat, and sugar.

Gene: Right. We have a real strong desire for those things and in certain environments those might work. But in a different environment we have a problem. So today we have a convergence of those historical roots leading to problems. And the environment we’ve created needs to be assessed. We have to decide what works and what doesn’t. Most of what we’ve done today in farming doesn’t work.

Me: And a Green Food Resolution is a way for people to bring that into their local commerce then.

Gene: Bring it into the community. Absolutely.

You know there are a lot of problems in the world and there are lots of things we can’t do very much about. But when it comes to what we eat, each of us has a lot of control. Each of us can decide, for example, not to buy hamburgers from McDonald’s. We can decide to get a veggie burger or something from the farmer’s market.

We vote to choose politicians. And that’s important. But that only happens a couple times a year or less. But every time we eat and spend a dollar, we are supporting something in the food system. So every time you give a dollar to McDonald’s you are supporting their activities. But every time you give a dollar to a farmer at a market or CSA you are supporting that. Each time you do that, it grows. I think consumers now have had enough and are moving toward a system that makes more sense. It makes me very optimistic.

Me: I’m a teacher. I study education and schools and I work with future teachers. Everyone agrees that school is an important place and has been a really important place in the U.S. since at least child labor laws came into effect. We shape people in school.

Gene: Yeah.

Me: So the kinds of activity that go on in there regarding food are kind of important.

Gene: I’d say very important, yes.

Me: I know that something that happened with Farm Sanctuary that I hope you can help me understand.

Gene: Sure.

Me: Farm Sanctuary rescued twenty chickens from the Conendegua Academy in New York. They had an ecology program. One of the ecology program’s goals was to teach their students about where their food came from. And their way of doing this was to take twenty broiler chickens, rear them in cages, and I think students were going to do this, and then they were going to kill them at the end. This caused an uproar and Farm Sanctuary came in at the end and you got twenty chickens. Two are named Andre and Albert. This was in 2008.

So I wonder what could be good in that lesson and what’s not good in that lesson?

Gene: What could be good is for people to realize where their food comes from because we are so disconnected from it. What is bad, though, is that in this instance they were teaching a form of violence and callousness against birds. Those birds are individuals with feelings that want to live.

I think schools are places where children should learn to live as humanely and sensibly as possible and make choices that are as healthy as possible. Unfortunately, the school system as it operates teaches kids many bad habits regarding food.

Food served through the school lunch program is leading to our health problems. What happened at the Conendegua Academy was not as bad like that. Students were learning about food. But it would be better to learn about plant foods by growing gardens. That doesn’t require violence or killing.

When you have to give a kid a knife and say, “Kill that bird,” I think that that could border on child abuse. If the child doesn’t want to kill is being forced to kill…

Me: Or even watch killing?

Gene: Or even watch killing. That could be traumatizing and I think that’s wrong.

Me: But I think it’s kind of interesting that the industrial food system we’ve been talking about and you criticize does this exact thing and then still expects those children to eat a chicken. But we can’t ask kids to do it themselves because it might be sort of traumatizing. So maybe it’s what you were saying earlier that it’s a values conflict.

Gene: It is absolutely a values conflict. People say they love animals and they care about animals and they want to believe that they love animals and care about them but ironically most people are still eating animals raised in brutal conditions and then killed in inhuman ways. It is a values conflict and that’s why we think it’s important for people to examine where their food comes from and then make choices consistent with their actual values.

As that happens, I think we will see a shift away from industrial models to a new kind of food production system. One that doesn’t abuse animals. One that does not exploit workers. One that does not mistreat the environment with callous disregard. One that is respectful of consumers where there is transparency and citizens can see how their food is produced and feel good about it. I think we need to push for transparency and encourage people to make choices that they can feel good about by aligning them with their values and interests.

Me: So it sounds like in some way that if we were to have The Gene Baur School that it would be a school about compassion.

Gene: It would be a school system about compassion. It would be a school system about responsibility, and respect, and about human decency. I think most people hold the same values but that we have developed some really bad habits. And as we become uncomfortable with them we get good at rationalizing them. People are really good at rationalizing bad behavior. [laughs]

Me: We sure are. [laughs]

Gene: If you look at human history we’ve done a lot of really bad things and come up with good reasons to do them. But we need to step back and examine our conduct and make sensible choices. It would be about compassion, responsibility, and what is appropriate. What we are doing is just out of whack.

Me: But we might be moving in the right direction.

Gene: There are some very positive signs that people are showing. But industrial farming is entrenched and holding on and trying to expand. There’s a battle going on but there are some really positive signs.

Me: Cool. I want to thank you a lot Gene.

Gene: Thank you Peter. I really enjoyed it.


  1. He's an example of being true to ideals, an excellent thing to try for. Thank you!

  2. Great job, Peter! I wanted to let you know that Gene talked at Merrick's school after leaving your meeting. He read the story HOPE about a pig he rescued and presented the school with a cow named Faith, who they adopted/are sponsoring at Farm Sanctuary. The children were captivated by the story (mostly relating the pig to their cats and dogs at home, of course) and one of the teachers decided to go vegetarian!