Book Review - Gene Baur Q&A

The Farm Sanctuary author talks about changing hearts and minds

Hundreds of animals have found their “happy place” on 175 green acres in upstate New York thanks to Gene Baur and friends. Baur co-founded the refuge known as Farm Sanctuary with other animal-rights activists more than 20 years ago as a safe haven for diseased and abused animals caught up in the food supply chain. In his new book, Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food, Baur reveals the faces behind the food and the links between public health issues and animal agriculture.

Farm Sanctuary is open to the public for tours, events, and as a bed and breakfast. Can you talk about the farm as a refuge for both animals and humans?

Farm Sanctuary operates two locations, one in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and one in Orland, Calif. These are place where the animals get to live out their lives. The pigs get to root in the soil, to wallow in the pond. The chickens get to scratch in the dirt and roost. Cows and sheep get to graze and go be with their friends and their herdmates.

We encourage people to come visit and to spend time with these animals and to be touched by them. These animals were all rescued from abuse – some literally taken out of trash cans, some when they were dumped on top of piles of dead animals. When the animals come in they’re often afraid and it takes them a while to learn to trust people again. When people come to visit Farm Sanctuary they come to see animals in a new light and to recognize that they are living, feeling creatures, and many people are profoundly affected.

The rescue, relief and prevention of “downed” animals is the crux of Farm Sanctuary’s mission. Can you explain what a downed animal is and how Farm Sanctuary has evolved over the years to address “downers?”

The downed-animal campaign was one of our first and still one of our most important campaigns. It seeks to prevent the marketing and slaughter of downed animals. These are animals that are too sick to walk; they are literally dragged from place to place with chains or pushed with forklifts. They’ve been slaughtered and used for human food in the United States for years and we think that it is inhumane and unhealthy and it should not be allowed.

You’re a vegan and promote a vegan lifestyle, but also lament the decline of family farms, including those that produce animal products. Are there circumstances you find acceptable and even might encourage in terms of human meat and dairy consumption?

Well, Farm Sanctuary is a vegan organization and we do not promote or encourage any meat or dairy for consumption. We encourage people to see farm animals as living, feeling creatures, not as commodities to be exploited and killed for food.

But in terms of lamenting the decline of the family farm, a large reason for my concern in that area has to do with the loss of community. As these industrial operations move in, they destroy local economies, they destroy local community and with the family farm past there was a greater cooperation among neighbors. That’s really what I think we need to get back to and I think that there is starting to be people in the countryside that are now growing quality food – fruits and vegetables, herbs, grains, organic foods – and that’s what I would like to see more of.

I think one of the issues that people might have with the vegan lifestyle is the question of how realistic it is. So I’m wondering, do you think it’s possible for a population with such a meat-heavy diet like the United States to sustain itself without factory farming?

I do. I actually think it’s possible and even healthier and more sustainable to move away from animal agriculture. Animal agriculture is extremely inefficient; it takes something like 16 times more fossil-fuel input to produce a meat-based meal compared to a vegetarian meal, according to an article that was in the New York Times earlier this year.

Also, our meat industry is a greater contributor to global warming than the entire transportation industry. All cars, SUVs, trains, plains, boats, don’t contribute as many greenhouse gases as our meat industry. So I think that the notion that meat and dairy are efficient and that factory farming is an efficient way to produce them is completely wrong and needs to be looked at carefully and assessed. I think when the empirical evidence is taken into account it is clear that eating plants is much more efficient than eating animals. It is much more humane, obviously, and it’s also healthier.

When you talk about environmental effects, global warming and the greenhouse gases are you referring to – in your book you talk about the dairy farms out in the West and the Southwest and all of the greenhouse emissions that the cow manure produces – is that mainly what you’re referring to there or is it a combined cost of the transportation between the boats and the cars and everything that the animals are emitting themselves?

This figure comes from the United Nations and they accounted for a variety of activities including growing food, the emissions from the animals themselves and I believe the processing as well. This was a United Nations report called “Livestock’s Long Shadow” and it pointed out the various problems globally and locally associated with animal agriculture and one of the most surprising was its contributions to global warming through greenhouse gases.

Baur reads from and signs Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food Mon., April 21, 7:30-9:30 p.m. Borders, 3637 Peachtree Road, Suite C. 404-237-0707. www.farmsanctuary.org.

Read a review of Farm Sanctuary and listen to a podcast with Baur here.