Editor's Notes: Dismantling factory farms, one meal at a time

Growing up in Northeast Pa., there were few vegetarian options, which made the discovery of a veggie burger at Sweet Treat, a family-run diner decorated entirely with Pittsburgh Steelers memorabilia, so surprising. The owner had suffered a heart attack, and, from what I gathered from overheard conversations, his doctor had advised him to stop eating meat. The sign in the window, which probably didn’t win any advertising awards, read: VEGGIE BURGERS: NOT BAD. 

Much has changed in my hometown, here in Philadelphia and throughout the country. Vegetarian cuisine is flourishing, and veggie burgers aren’t just “not bad.” Some of them are great. The connection between our health and the food we eat grows stronger by the day. 

Health concerns are driving much of the change. The unpronounceable ingredients in processed food that were once the cause of wonder are now the object of dismay. Trans fats will soon be phased out. The fact that high fructose corn syrup has been vilified is a testament to a more knowledgeable consumer. 

Consumer pressure, often applied by people educated in part by the Humane Society, is also driving change regarding animal welfare. McDonald’s, Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have all enacted internal policies that have improved some conditions for factory-farmed animals.

Perhaps most telling is the recent announcement that Walmart is beginning to take animal welfare seriously. They are supporting the internationally recognized Five Freedoms, “as an aspiration for animal welfare in our supply chain.” 

These freedoms are:
1) Freedom from Hunger and Thirst
2) Freedom from Discomfort
3) Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease
4) Freedom to Express Normal Behavior
5) Freedom from Fear and Distress

While that progress is certainly encouraging, it’s appalling that these (non-binding, aspirational) concepts should appear novel. In fact, they aren’t. They were first introduced in 1965, on the heels of Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines, a scathing indictment of the treatment of animals on factory farms. That was 50 years ago.

Many of us would like to believe that capitalism just needs to be reformed a little, regulated here and there, and that a new version of the status quo will emerge that will be moral, profitable and sustainable—that we can all eat our U.S. average of 275 pounds of meat a year, even as our numbers grow, and the Western lifestyle of consumption is exported around the world. The delusion that our behavior won’t need to be dramatically altered is shared even within sustainability circles, where the idea is that sustainability will be embraced by business when it is proven to be profitable. 

The recently released Papal Encyclical does much to shatter that illusion. In it, the Pope writes, “Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature.”

There are two paths documented in this issue of Grid that offer hope for our health, environment and animal welfare. The first is to eschew factory-farmed meat and animal products entirely. Fortunately for those living in Philadelphia, there is a wealth of resources (and restaurants) that cater to vegetarians. Never has plant-based cuisine been easier to find (or so delicious), and we’re very pleased to highlight a handful of innovators and entrepreneurs in our community in our first vegetarian issue. 

Second, support small-scale agriculture that doesn’t operate behind closed doors. Grid has again partnered with Fair Food to produce the Local Food Guide, an exhaustive (and exhausting!) list of the businesses, products and places to go for the committed locavore.

Let’s support these businesses, and simultaneously our health, local economy and—most importantly—our collective values. Corporations are not going to save the day. We, as a society, need to supplant profitability with peace and justice as the pinnacle of our aspirational goals. 

Alex Mulcahy, Editor-in-Chief