Skip to main content

Gene Baur, President of Farm Sanctuary, visited the Globe and Mail editorial board Aug. 10. He co-founded this farm animal protection organization in 1986, and began by selling veggie hot-dogs at Grateful Dead concerts. The organization has two sanctuaries, in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and in Orland, CA.

Q: What does your organization do?

We started by visiting farms and stockyards and slaughterhouses. We would find living animals literally thrown in trashcans or on piles of dead animals. We started rescuing them and now we have two sanctuaries. We currently care for almost 1,000 animals: cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. These animals are our friends, not our food.

Q: What is your larger mission?

We work to challenge the factory farming system. We've worked on initiatives in Florida, Arizona and California to require that animals be given at least enough space to turn around and stretch their limbs. Most people assume and I think want to believe that farm animals are treated well. But in fact, they're treated very badly and the laws have been very weak.

Farm animals are excluded from the federal Animal Welfare Act in the U.S. Farm animals are not protected under most state anti-cruelty laws in the U.S. Common farming practices are exempt in most states.

Q: How has public opinion evolving on this issue?

In the last 10 or so years, I think there has been a burgeoning awareness about the inhumane treatment of animals on factory farms. And at the same time, there's a growing awareness about the benefits of eating whole plant foods instead of eating processed foods and eating animal foods in the quantities we do in North America. We have obesity, heart disease, cancer are huge problems. Many celebrities are vegans, including Bill Clinton who is eating primarily plant foods; Mike Tyson, the championship boxer; Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter; Brian Greene, the string theorist. Lots of individuals are starting to make choices that are more aligned with their values.

Q: What about you?

I've been a vegan since 1985. This year is Farm Sanctuary's 25th anniversary so I drove across the country in an old Volkswagen van. And all across the country we saw vegan food. In Omaha, Nebraska, in Erie, Pennsylvania, in Chicago, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But one of my favourite stops was the old Lancaster Stockyards, which used to be the largest stockyard east of Chicago. That's where we rescued Hilda, a sheep left on the dead pile, and brought her to the sanctuary back in 1986. Today, the stockyard is gone and next door to it is the Stockyard Inn. And so we had a vegan event and it was sold out. And the owner of the restaurant said he had learned a lot through this experience and that this is the future. And he's going to now have a vegan item on his menu going forward.

Q: Is public support growing?

A: Gandhi said the goal is to bring people to their senses, not their knees. I think most people are humane and want to be humane and want to see themselves as humane. But when they're acting in a way that is pretty hard to say is humane, one of the responses is to then denigrate the victim of the abuse. 'Well they don't deserve any better, they don't know any better,' and that kind of closes down our empathy, which is something you can't really put a dollar figure on but I think it's significant. Most people want to live on a planet that's not polluted; where we have fresh water and resources that are used for everybody's benefit, instead of resources that are squandered and polluted like they are in the factory farming industry. So if people start shifting towards making food choices that are more aligned with their own values and interests, we're going to see a massive change.

Q: What about people who don't want to become a vegan but support the cause. Is there kind of a middle road?

When it comes to the question of eating animals or not eating animals, we recognize that people have to make their own choices. But we will always encourage people to consider eating plants instead of animals. But if people are going to eat animals, it's better to move away from the industrial production techniques to the more local, community based farming system. And the strong part of community-based agriculture where people get to know where their food comes from and there's more of a connection to the land and to the people who are producing the food.

Q: But there's also a cost there. It becomes people with means who can afford to buy this kind of food.

A: One of the reasons that costs are so much higher for certain types of meat products is because the market is so strong. I don't necessarily think the production costs are that much higher. And also, the profit margins on those products are higher for the retailers and also sometimes for the farmers. And eating plant-based foods doesn't have to be that expensive. Rice and beans aren't expensive. Instead of buying a bag of potato chips for example, you could buy a sack of potatoes. For probably about the same amount, you get a lot more nutrition. So I think we have developed some very bad habits about how we eat. I don't believe that eating well always has to be expensive.

Q: What about the legislation prohibiting video cameras on farms? Was it federal or state legislation and how has that evolved?

Yes. Well it's quite telling I think that agri-business has introduced bills in several states, in four states during this last legislative session to make it illegal to take pictures on farms. And to make it illegal to disseminate pictures from farms. Thankfully all four of those bills were defeated.

Q: What is your position on the consumption of fish?

In terms of fish, I believe they, like mammals and birds, are sentient creatures. We are concerned about the way wild-caught fish are caught. We're also concerned about the factory-fish farms.

I think human beings are mammals so we are more easily able to understand cows and dogs and pigs and cats and other mammals. Because we're kind of like them. Birds are a little different. So it's kind of harder for us to really connect with them. Fish are even more different, so it can be even harder to connect with them. But they are individuals. They have feelings, they have emotional lives, and they develop relationships. A friend of mine is a New York City is a psychologist, and she has some fish that she pets at the top of her tank. We can live without eating them.

Q: What political strategies do you use to combat agri-business practices and laws that you oppose?

In the U.S., you introduce a bill either in Washington D.C. or in a state capital and it's referred to a committee. And the committees it's referred to are the agriculture committee in most cases. The agriculture committee is made up of legislators who represent agricultural areas so they're very friendly to agri-business.

And we've had bills introduced and have died without even having a hearing. What we've done, and we started this in Florida back in 2000, was we went to the initiative process, which allows citizens to collect a certain number of signatures to put a measure on the ballot for a popular vote. About 24 states in the U.S. allow the initiative. We got on the ballot in 2002 with a measure to ban gestation crates, and it was approved by voters with 55 per cent of the vote. We then went to Arizona and in 2006, we put another measure on the ballot to ban gestation crates and veal crates, which is how veal calves are raised; they're chained by the neck in these small wooden crates for their whole lives. And then gestation crates for pigs, which are also two foot wide enclosures where these breeding sows are kept for their whole lives, unable to even turn around. In Arizona in 2006, we got on the ballot and 62 per cent voted to ban veal crates and gestation crates. After that, Smithfield announced that they were going to phase out gestation crates. And the American Veal Association and some of the larger veal companies announced they were going to phase out veal crates. These things kind of play off of each other. In California in 2008 we got a measure on the ballot to ban veal crates, gestation crates and battery cages for egg-laying hens. This was the biggest effort of them all. This affected the lives of about 19 or 20 million animals. California is the sixth largest egg producing state in the U.S. The industry spent nearly $10 million trying to defeat it, but we won with 64 per cent of the vote.