The Locavore Movement's Mistake: Deregulating Animal Slaughter

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Inexpertly killed animals suffer immensely. Better to keep this ugly process confined to slaughterhouses kept at a "graceful distance."

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Over the past ten years the United States has undergone a revolution in the way we eat. Communities throughout the country have localized food systems, placed power back in the hands of local farmers, and shortened the distance between farm and fork. The benefits of this trend have been considerable. Consumers have become more critical of overly processed food, better aware of the connection between diet and health, and more appreciative of eating seasonally. I've been critical of this movement from the start, but I admit it has been a cultural achievement of historical significance.

An account by a farmer about killing a chicken for the first time has the homesteader wringing the bird's neck repeatedly, only to find it still breathing.

That said, the movement is pursuing an idea that could undermine everything it's accomplished. Up to this point, the bulk of the locavore movement has focused on fruits and vegetables grown on local farms. Now, however, food reformers are working to localize meat production as well. Central to this goal is deregulating an act necessary to bringing local animals to the local plate: the slaughter. Should this happen, should everyday citizens be entrusted to kill animals, the consequences would be dire -- not only for the animals, but for the locavore movement as a whole.

Organized pressure to deregulate animal slaughter began several years ago in Oakland, California, the epicenter of urban homesteading. Bay area locavores have persuasively argued that deregulating animal slaughter would help alleviate the "food deserts" afflicting impoverished residents. After years of raising and slaughtering animals in quasi-legal conditions, they have successfully lobbied Oakland's planning department to recommend including animals in their new policy amendment.

As matters now stand, Oakland could very well alter its urban agriculture code in order to allow virtually any urban homesteader not only to raise goats, chickens, rabbits, and ducks, but to slaughter them on site. And what happens in Oakland -- a test case of sorts -- is bound to be replicated elsewhere.

Such a deregulatory policy might seem perfectly consistent with the locavore vision of agricultural decentralization. But it's actually a recipe for disaster. For one, just because a consumer enjoys local meat doesn't mean she has the skills required to properly slaughter and process it. As one poultry specialist explained to me, "Most amateur slaughterers don't know a carotid artery from a jugular vein."

Blogs kept by urban farmers confirm this ignorance. An account by a San Francisco farmer about killing a backyard chicken for the first time -- which she openly admitted to having no idea how to do -- has the homesteader wringing the chicken's neck repeatedly, only to find it still breathing. In the end, this women "settled on covering her nostrils with my fingers" and suffocating the bird. Needless to say, an inexpertly slaughtered animal experiences immense suffering.

A second problem with deregulating animal slaughter is that any policy making it easier for backyard enthusiasts to raise and process their own meat is automatically a policy that establishes the preconditions for more animal neglect -- the kind of neglect that locavores have long fought to end in their vehement opposition to factory farming. Proof, once again, comes from none other than the advocates of backyard slaughter themselves.

Oakland animal farm bloggers offer a litany of horrors already perpetuated on animals kept on urban farms. Readers can learn about a mother rabbit succumbing to heat stroke (and leaving behind seven kits), a chicken who dies from eating glass, ducks succumbing to rat poison, and chickens killed by invading possums -- all mishaps unique to backyard animal husbandry. The East Bay Urban Agriculture Alliance argues that a deregulated environment will be "better for animals." Given their own accounts, though, it's a hard claim to stomach.

Assessments outside of the movement are just as dire. The Oakland neighbor of a backyard goat "farmer" reports listening to a goat die an agonizing, four-hour death after eating from the garbage can. A rabbit keeper was documented keeping twenty-one rabbits in absolute squalor. The abused rabbits were birthing stillborns, riddled with parasites, and suffering from broken limbs.

Such abuse is what we expect to hear from heady exposes of factory farming. But, as these anecdotes suggest, localized operations are by no means immune to systematic animal abuse. And because of the deregulated organization, local animal welfare groups have made it clear that they have no way to monitor such abuses.

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A final reason locavores should dismiss the Oakland initiative has to do with the psychological impact of killing animals that are kept as part of an urban household. How can we comfortably support a movement toward the local slaughter of sentient animals when we nurture and love 78 million dogs, 86 million cats, four million birds, one million rabbits, and one million lizards as companion animals? Perverse as it may be, keeping systematic slaughter at bay (and in big slaughterhouses) allows us to live in convenient denial. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it "a graceful distance."

Advocates promote backyard slaughter as part of the larger goal of "food literacy." But, given such troubling contradictions, it strikes me more as a program designed to perpetuate confusion in order to fulfill a romantic idea of small-scale animal husbandry. Kids ask honest questions, and I for one am in no position to explain why it's okay to kill the "meat rabbit" but not the pet rabbit.

Locavores have beaten the odds and taken their message to the streets. Today, to say that something is "locally sourced" is to rightfully earn a culinary badge of sustainability. By extending their mission from the plant to the animal world, however, those who want us to eat local risk reducing this hard-earned victory into nothing short of a bloody mess.

Image: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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