Will COVID cure our culinary cognitive dissonance?

Why supporting animal agriculture is like supporting Trump

My husband is so diligent about mask wearing and pointing out any perceived violations (to me, at least) that I started calling him “Corona cop” in April.

Photo from Corona Cop, by author

Masks are the condom of 2020: a gateway to responsible and “safe” living. We’re not just masking up just for our own safety, but trying to protect others. It’s striking but unsurprising that the President of the USA just trended on Twitter for wearing a mask for the first time, roughly four months too late.

COVID-19 has taught the masked-up among us that when we see someone’s mouth and/or nose gallivanting around in public like it’s 2019, we can deduce they are behaving like a preschool child who has refused to wear their winter cap (or taking a quick drink of water). Friendships have even ended over masks.

Photo by Unsplash

In addition to anti-Asian racism fueled by Trump’s hate speech, COVID-19 jackhammered our bumpy roads to unearth vulnerable and inequitable systems from carceral and policing to housing, employment, and healthcare. In this excavation, another deadly virus, anti-Black racism, was finally protested nationally and globally.

Factory farming is unethical. But why do most of us still support it?

Our vulnerable and inequitable systems are largely kept afloat at the expense of “essential” workers (read: euphemism for disposable in lower paid jobs) such as retail workers, sanitation workers, janitors, and housekeepers. Adding to this list, there is one particular system that behaves exactly like Trump — yet almost 100% of us support it — that I suggest we also dismantle: The industrialized animal agricultural system, aka factory farming.

In this latter system, animal meat continues to be produced at the expense of the suffering of workers. It’s no secret that working in meat processing plants during non-pandemic times is one of the most dangerous, but COVID takes it up to 11, thriving in these fast-paced and crammed conditions.   

factory farming is unethical. Meatpacking workers chop up animals in close proximity.
Meat packing plant in San Antonio, TX
Photo courtesy USDA / Flickr

The safety of what (and who) we eat is fundamental, since most viruses start due to our exploitation of animals. COVID-19 is a wake-up call — actually, more like the 10th time we’ve hit snooze call — to end so many of our unjust systems including our factory farmed food system that’s been well-covered by the media, including this excellent segment and this Op-Ed.

Our new mask-enthusiast-in-chief Trump ordered meat plants stay open early in the pandemic after he was lobbied by his doppelganger, the animal agricultural industry. He also reversed his initial decision on curtailing immigration, which would have crushed factory farming since it relies on exploiting undocumented workers to sustain its business and give us cheap meat.

Non-White workers are disproportionately impacted in animal agriculture. A recent CDC report highlights this disparity: Of those reported, a full 87% who tested positive for COVID-19 were people of color.

This exploitation is not in line with a civil society. In fact, 99% of meat, dairy, and eggs come from an industry that acts like Trump: And at least 57% of us should have a problem with that. Why we do not has a simple two-word answer: Cognitive dissonance.

factory farming is unethical. Meme on why supporting industrialized animal agriculture is like supporting trump.
Meme by author. “Author’s first meme.”

Contrary beliefs and actions are commonplace, and I am no stranger to my own dissonance. Whether it’s buying products from companies who exploit their workers or driving my car despite my environmentalism, I’m guilty of compartmentalizing beliefs and actions separately.

cognitive dissonance definition
Cognitive Dissonance
Image from the (now defunct) thevegansdilemma.com

I’ve never excelled at math, but there is one equation that fails to add up unless we add one heaping cup of cognitive dissonance. While 94% of people believe animals should be protected from harm and exploitation, that same amount support an industry that perpetually does the opposite by its very design.

This cognitive dissonance is particularly true of corporations with slick publicity campaigns to make their actions palatable to the consumer. Consider “free range” cows and chickens. The phrase implies a natural outdoor life but means nothing since there is no defined outdoor access or enforcement. Cruel processes are still practiced. It’s all marketing. Which brings me to The Animal Agricultural Alliance.

“We’re still going to have to keep working in fear, but we know that we need to continue working. We have no option.”

–Woman at a meatpacking plant, through a translator (PBS News Hour)

Industry interest groups and the media are responsible for lifelines to an unjust system

The Animal Agricultural Alliance purports to “bridge the communication gap between farm and fork.” Indeed, they are correct about that gap. But expecting this group to “bridge” this gap is like asking Trump to bridge the divide between his “wall” and Mexico. On their homepage, accessed May 5th, 2020, there were two telling statements revealing this Trump-like group’s true alliance. Allow me to summarize each above their actual statements:

#1: We care because your working pays our industry, but not enough to keep you safe

“We would like to thank the farmers, ranchers, packers, processors…for keeping the supply chain flowing and shelves stocked…” In other words, “essential” workers must continue working, no matter the risk (and thank you).

#2: We care about your money

“Our number one priority is to ensure the health and safety of our members and attendees. With that in mind, we have decided to move the 2020 [Stakeholder] Summit to a virtual-only event.” Translation: Investors and “stakeholders” are the number one priority. They must be kept safe.

These statements were right next to one another. The overt disregard for one life over another could not be more clearly laid out.

Financial interests of the “Alliance” aside, the media is similar in its duality. Progressive outlets continue to disproportionately promote — against science, our collective future, and worker safety — animal-based foods. For a case study in cognitive dissonance, I’m looking at you New York Times Morning Briefing. One briefing linked to an article about meat shortages and the terrible conditions in the meat packing plants and followed it with a story critiquing cruelty to songbirds. Then, it shared a chicken recipe, ostensibly encouraging meat shortages as well as worker and bird cruelty.

some birds are spared, others eaten. supporting factory farming is unethical.
Birds. Specifically, two future chickens, and one free songbird (not to be confused with Freebird)
Photo top left by Rodney Campbell/Flickr; right Thomas Vlerick/Flickr; bottom left Quibble/Flickr

Another April 30th New York Times briefing  shares the article “Powerful Meat Industry Holds More Sway After Trump’s Order” with a mention of Tyson Foods, the largest producer of chicken. Tyson led the meat industry’s lobbying efforts. In an odd turn, the Times then shares a roast chicken recipe with the statement: “Chicken stock is part of a productive kitchen’s ecosystem.” You mean the ecosystem you just reported was broken?

Animal activist Regan Russell -- supporting factory farms is unethical
Toronto Pig Save’s sole purpose is to give temporary relief — water — to truckloads of pigs stuck in scorching hot trucks before they are slaughtered. Recently, Joaquin Phoenix attended a vigil for a long-time volunteer, Regan Russell, who was killed by one of these trucks.
Photo of Regan Russell courtesy of Toronto Pig Save

Somebody’s tone deaf and it’s pretty much all of us; It’s well established that there are animals we care about (dogs, cats, wildlife) and those we may *want* to be cared for in theory but eat anyway. As the majority of us embrace this duality, it’s easier to brush aside. Yet, factory farming is unethical.

Correction: Supporting factory farming is unethical.

A pig in a slaughter-bound truck
Photo courtesy Toronto Pig Save

Since the media has sway, there is a responsibility to share knowledge that supports the anecdote to what they critique. Publications must break through the dissonance and uplift ethical solutions and systems. Arguably, the idea of not eating animals is deviant behavior or taboo, despite Op-Eds railing against factory farms or sharing the occasional veg recipe. Publications reflect the dominant view as I’ve outlined in this article about objectivity.

factory farming is unethical. Pictured here, anti-suckling devices
An agricultural school at New Mexico State University describes matter-of-factly the commonly used “anti-suckling device” that prevents baby calves from nursing because it causes so much pain to the mother that she kicks them away. Note that the author does not mention the spike’s impact on the mother. Buying dairy (or veal) supports this and many other cruelties — factory farm or not.
Photos: Top left, author of the article on using the pictured “anti-suckling device,” Craig Gifford. Right, a calf with the device, photo from same New Mexico State University article. Bottom left, a calf with an older version of that device, photo courtesy John Oberg.

Moving beyond the horse & buggy to sustainable and equitable systems

Both industry and individuals must change. The answer lies not in raising more animals for food but within the plant dynasty. Fortunately, there are companies advancing this change, like the women-owned Rebellyous Foods which just raised six million dollars to continue advancing plant-based chicken nuggets. Their new Board member Ela Madej, co-founder of venture capitalist Fifty Years, said “We need a pandemic-proof food system that can meet the nutritional needs of our growing human family.”

plant-based chicken is on the rise
Chicken nuggets, plant-strong
Photo by Rebellyous Foods

It’s our human family Trump is not considering when he orders all meat plants continue operating despite COVID-19. We must shift to a kinder system and label 2020 in posterity as “Co-Veg,” not just because we’re binge-streaming Netflix (might I recommend Game Changers?) but due to the plant-based innovations and people who may just come out of this.

Impossible Foods is now available nationwide
Impossible Foods: Now available at BK, Starbucks, and more.
Photo by Impossible Foods

It’s hard to believe after seeing initial memes about plant meats being left on the shelves, but plant-based meat sales are soaring including a sales jump over 200 percent, with additional reports that the pandemic accelerated a shift to meat substitutes. In China, plant protein is back on the “top of the menu.” Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren recently co-introduced a bill to phase out factory farming by 2040.

impossible foods pork in a cast iron frying pan
Impossible Foods has now developed a pork product.
Photo by Impossible Foods

Perhaps if more of us recognized that animal agriculture does not support our values, as it is merciless to humans and non-human animals alike, we will follow that morality to the plate.

Maybe COVID-19 will help us see that supporting industrialized animal agriculture is like aligning ourselves with Trump himself.

If it spares us, COVID can potentially make us better people. More compassionate. More attentive to the world around us and our role within it, including the growing movement to dismantle racist and unjust systems.

Photo by Unsplash

Supporting innovative new companies who treat their workers well and leave animals out of the equation is a huge step towards not supporting Trump, but dismantling systems can be overwhelming and leave us feeling helpless in where to begin. With industrialized animal agriculture, it is as simple (and complex) as what you choose to eat. (This choice pairs well with red wine, and dismantling all other antiquated systems.)

If our collective struggle against viruses helps us develop herd immunity to cognitive dissonance, many injustices will vanish as quickly as masks in a post-vaccinated world, to be discarded with our (hopefully) former President.

Who doesn’t enjoy a dip in the water?
Photo by Unsplash

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