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In Oakland, where officials are now overseeing a zoning update for urban agriculture, interest groups are preparing for a bloody battle.

As anyone who reads Marion Nestle knows, industrial food thrives on obscuring the truth. Exaggerated health claims, selective labeling, and misleading scientific qualifications underscore the sad reality of big food’s habit of obfuscation, a habit that refuses to let accuracy interfere with profit. Given the depth of this problem, and the need for genuine reform, it’s especially disturbing when groups who oppose industrial food — organizations that conscientious consumers count on to provide the straight dope — engage in the same sort of duplicity to promote their own interests.

The authors attempt to portray keeping backyard animals as if it were as common and innocuous as growing potted herbs in the windowsill.

This is exactly what’s happening in Oakland, California, where a major battle is underway over whether or not urban homesteaders should be allowed to slaughter animals on their backyard “farms.” With interest groups on both sides making impassioned cases — opponents highlight welfare, safety, cleanliness, and quality-of-life concerns; proponents argue that it’s a basic right to produce one’s own food — the city of Oakland, which is undergoing a zoning update for urban agriculture, is seeking accurate information about urban livestock and backyard meat processing. Thus far, the leading attempt to provide such information — a report put out by advocates of urban homesteading — does little more than thumb its nose at public opinion in order to satisfy the interests of a small minority of slaughter hobbyists.

The 12-page report (adorned with seven footnotes and qualified with the term “preliminary”) — titled “Urban Livestock in Oakland” (PDF) — is visually appealing. The animal coops are architectural gems; the feed and compost bins are clean and secure; the animals are happy; the people are diverse; the sun shines. The only problem is with the numbers. They’re a mess. To wit, in order to provide an accurate reflection of “ownership and management practices” on urban animal farms nationwide, the authors relied on a mere 134 urban farmers, 36 of whom were from Oakland.

Inevitably, reported opinions and habits on a variety of urban livestock practices are derived from statistically meaningless samples. The keeping of rabbits and goats nationally are reflected in the responses of — no joke — eight rabbit owners and five goat owners. Information about manure disposal among backyard farmers nationwide comes from the reported practices of 22 farmers. As for the “positive” impacts of keeping and killing animals in Oakland, “education” is listed as one of the five community-oriented attributes. This supposed benefit is based on a grand total of three responses. Three. I could go on. But the point should be clear: Every claim in this report is rooted in a sample size that would flunk a middle school science project.

Beyond this anemic sample, there’s also the matter of inherent bias. The report notes that 44 percent of the Oakland respondents claim that their neighbors were “supportive” of their “onsite meat processing.” Do the other 56 percent have neighbors who are “unsupportive”? Indifferent? Unaware? Totally pissed? With the exception of the mention of six complaints (in another section of the study), this critical question is never addressed. Of even greater concern is the fact that an urban farmer quizzed about urban farming is automatically less likely to report negative neighborly reactions. It’s not as if the authors were facing a monumental research challenge on this point: they simply had to step next door and ask a few questions of the neighbors themselves.

There’s also the problem of omission. The authors routinely attempt to portray keeping backyard animals as if it were as common and innocuous as growing potted herbs in the windowsill. They explain that their national sample comes from 48 cities and that it reflects the increasing popularity of urban agriculture. They also remind us that over 20 cities in the United States have “recently passed ordinances to support and regulate the keeping of urban livestock.” In other words, “Oakland, you better get with the times”!

Conveniently omitted is the much longer list of currently existing municipal bans and restrictions on backyard animals. Shouldn’t the Oakland municipal government be alerted to the fact that in neighboring San Francisco slaughter can only happen in a “permitted commercial slaughter facility”? Or that Washington, D.C., has a complete backyard chicken ban? Or that one cannot kill a chicken on residential premises in Columbia, South Carolina; Milwaukee; Duluth, Minnesota; Portland, Maine; State College, Pennsylvania; Waxahachie, Texas; or Chicago (among many other cities)? Shouldn’t the report have noted that hundreds of municipalities actively restrict animal agriculture by regulating their possession, designating certain animals as “pets” (and thus making their slaughter illegal), or prohibiting slaughter outright? It seems only fair that this information should have been included.

The one thing the study does get right is its concluding remarks on history. “Historically,” the authors explain, “urban livestock, like other forms of urban agriculture, was an integral presence in many urban households, providing city dwellers not only with companionship, but also with food and income, particularly during periods of economic hardship.” Putting aside the questionable motivation of “economic hardship,” this history lesson is certainly correct. Urbanites did keep their own animals. But if the authors took a moment to visit the municipal records of major American cities between 1700 and 1900, they would see exactly why urban livestock were eventually dispatched to the countryside: manure, odor, sanitation problems, noise complaints, zoonotic disease, and the problem of deadstock. There’s a reason why there are so many restrictions on animal agriculture in urban environments today.

If Cargill ever put out a report designed like this one — say, a report arguing that there were numerous benefits to eating cheap junk food — the homesteaders, not to mention the food movement as a whole, not to mention the foodie media, not to mention pretty much everyone, would roll their eyes in ridicule. That’s the kind of deception we’ve come to expect from the purveyors of big corporate food. To see similar forms of deception at work in the food movement is all the more distressing. One only hopes the government of Oakland is more thoughtful in its assessment of this critical issue than are those purporting to tell it like it is.

By James McWilliams
Originally published in The Atlantic

Categories: In the media

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