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October 2004
Dismantling Animal Agriculture

Book Review by Mark Hawthorne

 

Meat Market: Animals, Ethics and Money by Erik Marcus (Ithaca: Brio Press, 2005*). $21.95 hardback; $14.95 paperback. 288 pages.

In the 1990s, frustrated by the lack of literature in the vegan movement, animal advocate and former technical writer Erik Marcus turned his communications skills to creating books and other materials that vegans and non-vegans alike would find accessible and informative. His first book, the groundbreaking Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating (1997), introduced many readers to a new kind of activist writing: prose that makes its case without overt emotional appeals—the facts eloquently speak for themselves. Vegan showed that Marcus didn’t mind challenging some of the movement’s cherished tenets. The book was well received, regarded by many critics as on par with the work of John Robbins, and has become an indispensable guide to vegan living.

Among the few critical remarks reviewers offered of Vegan was that Marcus could have gone into greater depth on how meat production strains the environment and natural resources. Rather than simply an oversight, perhaps that was in keeping with the author’s broader philosophy, which becomes clear in his latest book, Meat Market: Animals, Ethics and Money. This powerful indictment of factory farming examines the abuses perpetrated by corporate agriculture, and also offers an assessment of how the animal protection movement can claim victory—and the good news is, his proposal makes sense.

Meat Market is organized into three main sections, beginning with an exploration of how the mega-corporations that rule the agriculture industry have created many of their own problems—and, by extension, misery for animals—by striving for consolidation and economic restructuring. When we read of agriculture’s often-ridiculous assertions (the beef industry, for example, claims that it cares about animal welfare, yet it persists in rejecting animal welfare reforms), we have to wonder how factory farms can even stay in business. They do so, says Marcus, by maintaining an efficiency that disregards many of the basic needs of farmed animals and, ultimately, by keeping their cruel conduct out of public view. Meat Market will likely bring the compassionate reader, perhaps uninitiated in the methods of intensive animal confinement, to an emotional crossroads. Of course, this is the book’s ideal audience: those flexitarian and ethically minded diners most likely to fully embrace a vegetarian or even vegan lifestyle, if only they were confronted with the compelling documentation found in a book like this one, which presents the cold facts of modern agribusiness.

And what cold facts they are. Meat Market is at times a distressing exposé of what those in industrialized agriculture euphemistically call “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.” Marcus invites readers to witness the brief, tortured lives of animals raised for food. We meet cattle who are butchered while still alive because the slaughterhouse line must not be interrupted; barely hatched male chicks who are cast into grinders, also alive, because they have no value (male chicks grow too slowly and don’t lay eggs); and pigs who die from respiratory ailments because the air inside pig sheds is so fouled with contaminants. Many readers will be familiar with these practices, but there are surprises for the engaged advocate, too, such as Marcus’ assertion that consuming eggs contributes more to animal suffering than consuming meat products. This is an example of the author’s unconventional thinking—he boldly offers new perspectives on accepted wisdom—and is one reason Marcus’ work is such an important contribution to animal advocacy. (Indeed, a 2000 poll conducted by thevegetariansite.com ranked Erik Marcus as one of the most influential people in the vegan movement, placing him in the company of such activists as Peter Singer and Ingrid Newkirk.)

Breaking the Chains
Meat Market goes beyond the popular three-pronged argument for veganism: that a plant-based diet is good for our health, the environment and the animals. And while Marcus isn’t the first to suggest that the struggle to end animal exploitation is similar to the abolitionist movement, he recommends in Part Two that animal protectionists learn from anti-slavery proponents and focus their attention on the evils of factory farming. Abolitionists recognized that 19th century America was not ready for racial equality, but most Americans could agree that slavery was abhorrent. The lesson for the animal welfare movement, according to Marcus, is to avoid debates about veganism being good for the planet or our bodies and instead invest the full force of its energy into the position that factory farming, like slavery, is inherently evil. He also cautions against diluting the animal welfare issue with arguments pertaining to hunting, medical research or companion animals, since these shift attention away from farmed animals and allow the animal agriculture industry to win a wider share of public opinion.

A change in policy, Marcus believes, would lead to the dismantling of animal agriculture. The author devotes much of the middle section to this bold premise, defining a new movement to finally liberate animals from factory farming. “The surest way to eliminate animal agriculture’s cruelties is to seek to eliminate animal agriculture itself,” he writes. “To accomplish this, we need a new movement expressly designed to go on the offensive, with the purpose of ushering animal agriculture out of existence.”

It’s in this second section that Meat Market truly excels. The writing is cogent and immensely readable, and his insights should appeal to anyone interested in animal advocacy. It is exciting to read a book that introduces fresh ideas to frustrating struggles, and I felt like a kid reading the latest Harry Potter story, devouring page after page of hopeful recommendations. Marcus’ proposed movement might not seem radical on paper, but it would call for a paradigm shift that most activists are probably not prepared for. He also makes a tenable argument against some forms of militancy (destroying property in the name of animal welfare).

The Power of Outreach
The final third of Meat Market consists of a wealth of supplementary material: eight activist essays and nine appendices covering the most fundamental arguments in favor of a plant-based diet. The essay writing varies in quality, but the activists, who range from a retiree to an M.D., offer some sound advice for aspiring advocates and demonstrate that anyone can be involved in vegan outreach, something Marcus considers critical to bringing down factory farming.

The appendices, meanwhile, cover some familiar ground, starting with the health and environmental consequences of eating meat. But there’s additional material that, while not part of Marcus’ main proposition, nonetheless supports vegan ethics and will come in very handy should you find yourself having to defend the activist position on hunting, selective breeding, animal testing or the meatpacking industry, still one of the most hazardous in the country. The author concludes with a recommended reading list and an extensive collection of explanatory endnotes that add a significant layer of texture to his well-woven polemic. Meticulously researched and devoid of lectures, Meat Market: Animals, Ethics and Money is an invaluable addition to vegan literature.

* Note: Marcus is offering Meat Market in a limited advanced printing at a discount—$12.95 paperback and $16.95 hardcover (he will sign all hardcovers)—on his website, Vegan.com, and at speaking engagements through January, when the book will be available nationwide.

Mark Hawthorne is a California-based writer and animal advocate.

 


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