And locals aren’t the only ones appalled.
The Oakland planning proposal to deregulate animal slaughter and officially sanction backyard “husbandry” is the focus of James McWilliams’ blistering critique in The Atlantic.
It turns out that reconstructing the city’s yards and vacant lots as “sustainable” animal farms and urban “homesteads” is a bit problematic. (Warning: some descriptions are graphic.)
Judging from the comments, the proposal is just as contentious outside the East Bay.
And to absolutely no one’s surprise, vegan perspectives expressed online are greeted with frenzied blathering and digital tantrums.
The article, on the other hand, is great!
Framing the local issue for a wider audience, McWilliams makes an important point early on:
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.
This point is important for a number of reasons. For better and for worse, the locavores of the Bay (and the East Bay, in particular) have positioned themselves as the leading voices and public representatives of Urban Homesteading and Sustainability (TM). They and those deeply influenced by their thinking would like to see this proposal put into practice, and replicated elsewhere.
For better because it’s enormously important to encourage local, organic food production, address the lack of access to fruits and vegetables in urban food deserts and schools, and foster community self-sufficiency and empowerment. These are all issues that have been championed by the likes of Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and their acolytes. They deserve credit for bringing them somewhat into the mainstream.
But it’s most definitely for worse: interwoven with this vision, and sometimes eclipsing the original goals, there’s a creepy fixation on the necessity of killing animals, despite such killing being less necessary now than at any time in recorded history. What’s more, the killing is meant to be somehow virtuous and right, a matter of social justice and cultural reclamation. Even if the amateur butchers themselves are not always particularly skillful and humane at the killing part; even if it means more inputs and less land to grow food on; even it means expensive animal products rather than the fruits and vegetables basically everyone agrees need to be made cheaper and much more accessible; and even if the push for deregulated animal slaughter is coming less from those most screwed over by the broken food system than from best-selling authors, upper-middle class hobbyists, and, bizarrely, young, usually white progressives and radicals.
The backyard slaughtering vision is wrong on multiple levels. It aspires to be an alternative to factory farming but really only offers an addition to it. And alongside the egregious and predictably “excessive” violence against animals, there’s also a crucial insight that’s been hijacked: Our food system really is in bad shape. We really could be feeding ourselves in ways that make much more sense, while also not destroying the world. Addressing food security and access were the original, stated reasons for initiating the food policy discussion in Oakland in the first place, prior to the sudden emphasis on killing animals.
A key point of McWilliams’ piece is its first paragraph, which has gone totally unremarked in 201 comments and counting (as of the time of this writing):
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.
This is absolutely true, and something to be recognized and appreciated.
But what we strive to put in place of the broken and ultimately self-destructive food system shouldn’t replicate its cruelties, desensitization, and inherent inequalities of access. There is at least a bit of common ground to meet on – specifically, how we need to grow hella food as much as we can – and we should take advantage of those points of agreement.
Locavores certainly need to stop being so fixated on the virtues of “honest slaughter,” for starters, not to mention on fictitious “closed systems” that ignore the existence of the rest of the world, to all of our detriment.
And vegans need to engage with these policy debates, because they’re happening with or without us. In our absence, we should probably expect a bunch more proposals like Oakland’s.
Rick Kelley is a recent transplant to the Bay, having fled the brutal Minnesota winters for warmer climes. He spends his days at a Oakland workers’ rights nonprofit and his evenings probably playing moderately accurate renditions of Propagandhi songs with his awesome partner and their rescued pup, Bandit. He’s also currently active in organizing against Oakland’s “Let’s All Kill Some Chickens in Our Yards For Fun” proposal. He used to blog, and might do so again someday. The adorable chickens above were rescued by Animal Place and they’re not for eating, they’re for feeding grapes to! And hugging maybe if you’re lucky.