The third in a series of four lessons gleaned at the 34th annual EcoFarm Conference at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove
January 28, 2014 – A session called Cotton, Cows and Carbon: Botanical Imperialism, Domestication, and Political Ecology raised provocative questions on the evolution of commodities.
Professor Glenn Adelson, Chair of Environmental Studies at Lake Forest College in Illinois, looked at human evolution and the evolution of cows from the prototype aurox and wondered: Have we domesticated cows, or have they domesticated us, or have we domesticated each other?
Clearly, cows have proliferated, despite our gusto in eating them. According to statistics from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, there are 729,000 beef cow operations in the U.S. We export 2.5 billion pounds of beef around the globe. The USDA estimates that there are around 1.3 to 1.5 billion cattle in the world. In 2009, they became the first living creature with a fully mapped genome. And, cleverly, a woman in the audience asked if perhaps lactose intolerance is their way of getting revenge.
Today, eating organic, grassfed, pastured meats from happy animals is a dominant food trend among enlightened consumers. Many of the best restaurants of California north and south specialize in fine meats. The DIY movement has also led to greater interest in traditional crafts, such as making prosciutto. And there is the bacon-in-everything fad, like bacon ice cream and bacon donuts.
Responding to the times, the Eco-Farm Conference has beefed up its animal husbandry program. This year saw two pre-conference intensive sessions on ethical animal handling, including Low-Stress Livestock Handling and Creating a Sustainable Flock of Heritage Poultry. There were about 10 workshops on managing farm animals and, most notably, a plenary with Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University and the author of several books.
Dr. Temple Grandin is a star, literally: Clare Danes played her in an HBO biopic called Temple Grandin in 2010. That year she was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 most influential people.” She’s the famous autism and animal welfare advocate who created kinder, gentler animal handling guidelines for the American Meat Institute (meatami.com), and she designs low stress animal handling facilities for large operations. In other words, she makes factory farms better.
Grandin’s talk, entitled Decoding Animal Behavior & Translating Understanding to Animal Welfare, held in Merrill Hall, was packed with over 650 people and barely any standing room. Although her talk was technical, and geared to livestock professionals regarding best practices, it was interesting to the lay eater. She explained cattle psychology—how these creatures perceive the world, what makes them afraid, what sets them at ease. The answers lie in the design of feedlots and slaughterhouses, lighting, the behavior of the human handlers, and other easily defined strategies.
At dinner, the oddly glamorous Grandin sat down at the table next to ours. It was exciting to be near her; she emanates magic, although we liked that she was humble, just a regular person sitting in the dining hall.
My partner Ken noticed she had opted for the vegetarian dinner, not the fat, succulent, delicious-looking servings of oven-fried chicken, which most people were eating. We’re vegetarians, but was she? She is deeply compassionate when it comes to animals. But no. In an NPR interview she explained that she’s a carnivore: she needs meat protein to feel good.
Maybe she just doesn’t like chicken?