Down The Farming Rabbit Hole With One Brave Woman, Sonia Faruqi
You wouldn't know it from looking at the sweet face of Sonia in this photo - but this woman would have to be one of the strongest and bravest! Her recent book, Project Animal Farm, absolutely blew my socks off. Not only was it one of the most beautifully prosed literary defeats I have read, her thorough journey of discovery into international farming, from Canada and US, to Mexico and Belize, to Indonesia and beyond, went deeper than I could imagine. The result is a story that weaves jaw-dropping facts with a captivating personal story. And I'm not the only one who thinks this; just look at the list of hard hitting names yelling praise on her website.
"Written in the most vivid and engaging way, this remarkable book demands to be read by anyone who cares about where their food comes from.”
Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming and author of Farmageddon
Once a big meat eater who worked long hours on Wall Street, Sonia's trip down the rabbit hole of farming happened by accident when she volunteered on a Canadian organic dairy farm. There she was shocked that the treatment of the animals was not at standards she had presumed they would be and was drawn to explore further, continuing to find it a jarring sight to see thousands of animals under a single roof, often unhealthy and unable to move.
"I found it ironic that outsiders are considered dangerous harbingers of germs when it is factory farms themselves that are filthy. It's as if the definitions of "cleanliness" and "dirtiness" have somehow gotten switched in the agricultural dictionary. Either way, the primary method of preventing outsider contamination is no more significant than making people change their shoes - equivalent in its effect to protecting oneself from a storm by putting up a curtain." Project Animal Farm Excerpt
Despite everything she saw and experienced, when I spoke to Sonia she still has hope for a better future, because as she says, "the hope lays with us." The more we know, the more we can empower ourselves to make choices that support ethical farming and consumption. So for us to have hope, hope has to have legs. I encourage you to read Project Animal Farm and be part of that movement of hope.
In your story you bond with many of the farmers you stay with, in your opinion what is it that stops farmers of factory farms from relating to the animals they keep?
There is a term in George Orwell's 1984, called doublethink. It enables one to believe two conflicting truths at the same time. Farmers are conflicted between the idea that they are dealing with animals and that they are treating them like objects.
What was the difference between the farmers attitudes on ethical farms?
On more humane farms, attitudes were more about getting to know animals and letting then enjoy their true nature. Attitudes were more cooperative and less controlling of animals. There was also a recognition that animals are living beings and not objects.
Can you shed some light on what you discovered on dairy farms?
Dairy farms can be tie-stall, which means that cows spend most or all of their lives tied to a stall that is hardly larger than themselves. Given that cows are otherwise active grazers, such a housing system, where they cannot even move, is unable to meet their needs.
"Calves at Nelson's dairy farm lived in a seperate, small, ramshackle barn. They were crowded, their legs smeared with one another's excrement. Strangely, their faces and backs were scarred with coarse, gray, crater-like crusts. The crusts resembled the dry, rough scars that form after burns, before skin heals. Cringing but curious, I reached out a hand to touch a scarred calf's face.
"This is a disease called ringworm and it can be transferred to humans!" Nelson exclaimed. My hand snapped back. "Ringworm's not a worm, " he continued casually. "It's a fungus that eats the skin and hair of the calves and cows. It's a skin condition. It's really contagious; calves and cows get it from one another. It takes months to heal. Sunlight is the best cure for it, because funguses and moulds don't like sunlight - they thrive in the dark."
Nelsons tone was nonchalant, but I was shocked. Such is the grazing outdoor nature of cows and calves, such is their need for sunlight, that when denied their nature, they actually get sick. It's not just their muscles and bones that suffer in feedlots but also their skin and hair. Cows are more susceptible to ringworm when they are deficient in certain essential vitamins - vitamin D, from the sun, and vitamin A and E, from grass - just as people are susceptible to scurvy when they are deficient in vitamin C. The existence of a fungal disease such as ringworm highlights that cows have not a preference, but a biological need for sunlight and grass. But dairy farms still crowd them into shadowed lots. The outcome is that ringworm explodes to become a contagion" Project Animal Farm Excerpt
Sonia noticed while working on factory farms the extreme lack of people; "in the US, just one worker is often responsible for thousands of pigs and hundreds of thousands of chickens and egg-laying hens."
What do you think the risk is with this disconnect with human contact when raising animals for food?
It is a common truth that consumers are disconnected from their food but it is a terrifying truth that farmers are also growing increasingly disconnected. Factory farms are run by machines and contract growers step inside their operations for just minutes in a day, or even every few days. The danger is that if there is no human inside, we don't have a reason to make these places more tolerable, even if just for ourselves. Conditions can deteriorate sharply.
"With the zones, and the phone, and the robotic tone, the chicken operation was like a futuristic science fiction film - a version of The Matrix. Factory Farms are so automated that people don't even need to be present for supervision. It is difficult for people to even survive in such toxic environments, in fact, Terry being a case in point." Project Animal Farm
When you discover that factory farms are rolling out cages for broiler chickens I was shocked! I thought (hoped) the trend was moving towards cage-free, as in EU, but it seems in Asia and America this isn’t the case - can you elaborate?
In Europe, there is a higher degree of consumer awareness and government involvement than in other places. The trend toward broiler chicken cages can be stopped if more people get involved.
" 'This is our old design of farm," Mr Tan told me. "This house is eleven years old. In our new design, we will have cages of seven floors, not five. We will have ninety thousand hens per house.'
I couldn't even imagine how tall seven-floor cages would be. I didn't want to imagine it." Project Animal Farm (from when Sonia was in Malaysia)
What are three effective ways people can affect change for the better?
- The most important thing we can do is to reduce meat consumption. That way, we are reducing or eliminating our participation in a system that contradicts our values.
- Another important step is education: spreading the word.
- We also need government regulation. Under the law, farm animals should be recognized as what they are - animals - rather than forms of property.
I really encourage you to read Project Animal Farm and travel with Sonia through her pages, on her global expedition to find out what really happens behind farm doors - even if you think you already know, I promise, you will learn things - and then we have to decide, what will we do about them?