If you want transparency, you’ll have to put up with reality

This was originally posted on our farm blog, The Hedonist Life, but is part of the broader discussion I try to host here on food ethics.
In response to last week’s spot on Radio National Bush Telegraph, we had a lot of negative reaction online from people who don’t agree with eating meat. So a friend of mine and I wrote a response, which was posted on the RN site just before I went on air again to discuss the reaction and our decision to castrate in spite of a very close poll that voted against it. Unfortunately, RN edited out Nathan‘s part, which really is a shame because he’s wickedly smart and reflexive, and also happens to be a vegan.
Here’s the full text, unedited (you can see the RN version here):


Showing a vegan a photo of an adorable piglet and then asking them to help decide whether to castrate is undoubtedly a red flag to a bull. But it wasn’t vegans we were asking, it was omnivores. What some will call ill-considered (I did briefly), I will here defend as a serious exercise in transparency by farmers who want to educate the public about the realities of food production, and especially the raising of animals for meat. And my vegan friend Nathan and I will argue that vitriolic attacks on those of us committed to transparency create a perverse incentive to retreat to secrecy and obfuscation of regular food production management practices.

We’ve been farming free-range rare breed Large Black pigs for a year and a half now. We came from Melbourne with a clear vision to contribute to what we consider ethical farming – raising pigs on the paddocks who are free to root and wallow at will, and basically express what Joel Salatin calls ‘the pigness of the pig’ until they have ‘one bad day’, which they don’t even know is coming. We believe it’s morally right to eat meat, but not from animals who have suffered or been raised in close confinement their entire lives up until slaughter. Our views and farming practices are not especially controversial, and generally our efforts to raise animals for food humanely and with care and kindness are met with appreciation – both for our practices and for our openness.

So it seemed a great idea when Cameron Wilson of Radio National Bush Telegraph asked whether we were willing for them to do a series tracking one of our animals from piglet to Christmas ham. Too many people don’t know where their food comes from or how it’s raised, though the tide is hopefully turning as information is now more readily accessible and people are realising there’s a lot that happens from paddock to plate.

The idea is a monthly radio interview where we update listeners on what’s been happening with the pig, who we’ve called Wilbur 101 (we call all the boys Wilbur and all the girls Charlotte unless they’re our breeding stock, in which case they have individual names, such as Borg, Big Mama, Keen, Pink and Prudence…). Many people believe you shouldn’t name your food, but we take the view that we’d rather know the animal on our plate well than not at all.

Supplementary to each month’s interview, we agreed to allow a poll to be held to seek the public’s view on management decisions. It gives an opportunity to inform people of the multitude of issues and decisions farmers face daily, and we hoped that using a poll in addition to the podcast and information on the website would lead to more buy in from the public, and in turn more care about the type of system animals are raised in. The first question we posited (as it’s the first management decision we face with newborn boars) was whether or not to castrate.

Unfortunately, while the omnivorous public might have wanted to discuss the practicalities and ethics of castrating boars, a significant number of those opposed to eating meat joined the discussion and turned it into a rant against us, the ABC, farmers generally, and meat eaters specifically. We were called ‘sick freaks’, ‘Neanderthals’, and ‘animal abusers’, to name some of the milder insults.


There are a number of things worth considering here: namely, the ad hominem attacks, the issue of transparency, and the illusion that either veganism or vegetarianism are without their own set of complications, also linked to transparency.

The issue of ad hominem attacks, whether against Tammi and Stuart, the ABC, or meat eaters more generally, brings into question the motives of those willing to utter such comments as to what they are trying to achieve. Considered, respectful discussion is never going to be the effect, nor is any type of conversion from eating meat tenable if the basis of an antithetical argument is vitriolic abuse. Moreover, it lacks all credibility and illustrates a lack of knowledge and understanding not only of farming processes and practices, which is seemingly what this project is attempting to bring to light, but also appears to lack an understanding and knowledge of why people become vegans or vegetarians in the first place, or why people may ‘de-convert’ — a phenomenon equally present to the phenomenon of people becoming vegan or vegetarian.

All these considerations are not only deeply philosophical, but are also sociological, religious and political. If the conversion to veganism or vegtarianism is well considered, it would be charitable enough to expect that an argument against eating meat is equally considered; calling someone a ‘sick freak’ or ‘Neanderthal’ does not range in the category of a rationally considered argument.

Of course, the idea behind this project is transparency. While I as a vegan may disagree with the killing and exploitation of animals for various reasons, the kind of practices brought to light through this program are refreshing to see. In the wake of footage and articles that surround the practice of live export and animal abuse in abattoirs, the program undertaken here ought to be a welcome relief to vegans and vegetarians as we have farmers not only willing to transparently show how animals are treated, but also have public involvement. The outcome of transparency and public involvement is the basis of a descriptive set of guidelines and practices that can be adopted by all farmers. In effect, this program has the potential to become a national standard whereby consumers have the confidence to purchase animal products that have been treated in an ethical manner; whereby the ethical treatment of animals has been considered.

The issue of transparency and the ethical treatment of animals is also a problem for vegan and vegetarian foodways. The ethical treatment of animals is not just to be considered for the animals we can see, but also for the ones we don’t.  What consideration is there of the countless rodents and small marsupials that are killed through the processes of producing a loaf of bread? Are the numerous animals killed in the process of pest control of wheat crops, the storage of wheat and flour worthy of our moral consideration? What about the fish whose parts are used in the mass production of beer? Or what of the environmental cost of the global shipping of processed vegan and vegetarian food items? Is the environment also worthy of moral consideration to vegans and vegetarians?

Often the mistreatment and exploitation of animals and the environment is a symptom of a much larger problem. With the spread of global capitalism, the need to feed the starving, unemployed, underemployed and low waged is met with with cheap meat, dairy and eggs at the expense of animal well being. How does veganism approach the problem of starvation, unemployment, underemployment and low wage employment with highly priced soy products? While veganism can betray the maltreatment of animals through analytic critique, the sense in which veganism is able to confront issues of starvation, low wage, under and unemployment betrays itself as being unable to satisfactorily confront environmental and everyday living conditions; veganism requires a level of wealth and prosperity that isn’t afforded to the underprivileged. While it is important to analyse and critique the way animals are treated within the global economic market in which we live, it is equally important to engage with farmers and producers willing to be transparent about foodways and the way in which animals are treated in a respectful and considerate manner, as well as being aware of the issues of transparency within our own vegan and vegetarian foodways.


All issues and concerns around the ethics of food production and consumption are worthy of discussion and open scrutiny, but when one group restricts itself to shouting the loudest abuse, or refuses to engage even marginally with the topic at hand (and makes it very unpleasant for any who do engage), there can be no winners – especially not farm animals.

Surely we can all agree that a farming community unwilling to share its practices with the public due to sustained, personal attacks by so-called ‘animal rights activists’ is a very bad outcome. We here at Jonai Farms won’t be frightened away from the challenge of transparency – we understand why people choose veganism or vegetarianism (I was a vegetarian for seven years, and write frequently on my blog about these very questions), and we quite simply disagree with that decision while respecting one’s right to make it. Vegans have every right to disagree with our position, of course, but should think long and hard about what can happen to our food system when they so zealously shout farmers off the stage.

BIOS: Tammi Jonas is a free-range pig farmer with her husband Stuart and three children near Daylesford, Victoria. She is also a cultural theorist nearing completion of a PhD on the role of engagements with multicultural foodways on the development of a cosmopolitan, sustainable society. Tammi blogs atTammi Jonas: Food Ethics and on the farm blog, The Hedonist Life.

Nathan Everson is currently undertaking a Masters of Research degree through Macquarie University, Sydney, focusing on the structural intersections between humans and animals and how these intersections form the basis of our conceptions of politics, ethics, and law. He is a vegan working with his wife and two children on self-sustainable practices within a suburban environment.


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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

15 thoughts on “If you want transparency, you’ll have to put up with reality”

  1. Nathan said this: “veganism requires a level of wealth and prosperity that isn’t afforded to the underprivileged”

    This could not be more wrong. The fruit and veg shop that I go to is very cheap, especially when compared to purchasing animal products. Because animal products are expensive to produce (as it requires anywhere from 6-12 kg of plant protein to produce 1 kg of animal protein), people in poorer countries are often “vegan by default”.

    If we want to feed the 7 billion people in this world, we need to feed our plant-based food directly to people, rather than waste it by feeding it to livestock.

  2. Even if your arguments were completely rational, surely attacking an ethical, free range farmer who is bringing transparency to the process of rearing an animal for food is the wrong place to start!

    If you want to call people “sick”, “neanderthal” or “abusive”, your vitriol would be better directed at large corporations running factory farms. But calling names won’t help anything!

    These guys are doing a good and brave thing. By showing people where their bacon actually comes from – they might even win people to the vegan cause!

    But eating meat is a reality – and it is far better people are ethical omnivores than totally ignorant of what they consume.

  3. Fantastic article – The vitriol and hateful language that’s been directed at you is quite shocking. I’ve been a vegetarian for years but I make no claim to any kind of moral, ethical superiority from that choice. I often think of my grandparents who were frugal to an extreme, farmed and ate most of their own food – (lots of mutton) and think how small their carbon footprint would have been compared to mine. We are all compromised in some way and we’re all using more resources than we should. I don’t know what the answer is but abusing people from a place of moral, sanctimonious superiority is not the answer.

  4. Julian, could you perhaps articulate a little further what you mean by “vegan by default”, particularly in relation to moral decision making.

  5. In poor countries where people are starving, many can only afford plant-based food because it is cheaper. “Plant-based diet by default” would have been a better way to put it, because if cost is the reason, it’s not really an ethically based stance (which the word “vegan” would imply). Plant-based diets are a much more efficient way to feed the world’s population as well. This independent and reliable source tells us that a kg of beef requires 15,000 litres of water to produce, but a kg of grain only requires 1,500 litres of water, as an example: http://www.unwater.org/statistics_sec.html

    If we go back to your comment: “veganism requires a level of wealth and prosperity that isn’t afforded to the underprivileged”, I find it very difficult to figure out what you’re referring to, unless you’re assuming that all vegans buy specialty items like tofutti and seitan. I’ve saved lots of money by going vegan. Perhaps instead of talking about other countries, I should post some photos of the pricetags at my local fruit and veg store. These stores are located all around Australia, in affluent areas and poor areas. Of course there are some places like Alaska where extreme climate means that crops won’t grow well there, and the argument in favour of fishing may be strengthened for people in those regions, but that really doesn’t provide any excuses for people in this country.

    If anything, being able to afford free-range pig flesh basically epitomises wealth, prosperity and privilege, and would be out of reach of many Australians. Flesh products would be even more expensive if farmers were made to pay for the bore water they continually suck from the ground to feed both their animals and the grass/grain their animals eat.

  6. “If you want transparency, you’ll have to put up with reality”

    The whole point of transparency is to allow people to decide whether or not the reality is acceptable or tolerable. Upon discovering the reality of a practice or industry, someone may decide that reality should be abolished and take steps to try to promote abolition of the practice.

    If you are not willing to deal with the disgust, horror and anger that some will people express when discovering something that they did not previously know about because they intuitively find it abhorrent, then you are obviously not actually committed to transparency.

  7. OK, as an almost life long vegetarian myself, I don’t see the debate as meat eaters vs vegetarians, or farmers vs animal rights. There are, and there should be, many places where the two should meet.
    The most unethical aspect of the pig castration poll is the poll itself. Surely if you are passionate about animal welfare you should be making all the important decisions yourself, not based on a somewhat arbitrary poll result, which being radio show based feels almost like entertainment to me.
    I am a casual Animals Australia supporter myself, but I do believe it’s reasonable to accept humans will eat meat. Where we all got off the track is making meat the number one ingredient, rather than it’s historical place, as in the Asian and Mediterranean diet, as a luxury item, surrounded by wholesome vegetables, grains and pulses.
    We have a couple of grass eaters, male Jersey cattle we rescued from the local dairy, and we did have them castrated so they were safer to handle, and will be having them dehorned (under anaesthetic) later this winter.
    I live in a deep rural location and i do see a lot of unnecessary animal cruelty around here on a weekly basis, almost all of it money driven. There are very, very few ethical farmers in my region, I can’t think of any actually. So I applaud what you are doing. But I disagree that most vegetarians are ignorant urbanites, anti rural communities. You seem to be more pro-meat than pro-choice. I hope I’m wrong on that.
    In short, I think meat should be more ethically produced, and should probably be a little more expensive as a result. My partner is a fully fledged carnivore, and we live in a small rural community, so i do think I understand the ins and outs of modern farming.

  8. Liz – I think you’ll find that we are very willing to put up with the ‘disgust, horror and anger’ that has come from people opposed to eating meat, even though we’re pretty familiar with your position already. And we remain committed to transparency – the educational project with Bush Telegraph continues all year. And I’m not aware of anyone who has responded to us suggesting abolition except those who were already abolitionists.

  9. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the comment. I don’t remotely believe the debate needs to be omnivores v vegetarians nor farmers v animals rights either, especially as I have been all of those things and continue to be three of them (though I prefer to think of it in terms of ‘animal welfare’ rather than ‘animal rights’ for discursive and philosophical reasons).

    I’m sorry you think the poll is unethical, or that you were led to believe that we would be bound by the decisions of non-farming voters – we stated very clearly that we would make all the final decisions based on what’s best for the animals, the herd, and the farm (as well as the planet…). Hence we over-rode the first poll after it was bombarded with so-called ‘animal rights’ activists instead of those who have a broader perspective than just abolition. As I’ve written, the poll was intended as a technique of engagement – we hoped that by giving people the information they needed and a chance to cast a vote, it would help them think more deeply about how their food is raised. Perhaps this hasn’t been received in quite the spirit it was intended.

    Not sure where I suggested ‘most vegetarians are ignorant urbanites, anti rural communities’? I don’t think that at all – and as I said, I was a vegetarian for seven years myself. I will say that my knowledge is much deeper and more complex now that I’ve been farming for a year and a half, but that doesn’t mean I think I (or others) was ‘ignorant’ previously. I’m also not sure where the ‘pro-meat’ comment comes from – even our farm website encourages consuming less meat from animals raised in ethical conditions. And I think it’s great that people can choose what they eat, even when I don’t agree with some of those choices (such as meat from CAFOs), but I haven’t been accorded that same respect from a number of abolitionists (unsurprisingly, though wearyingly).

    Thanks for your support for our attempts at full transparency. They’re genuine – and we’re gaining experience in dealing with those who will use our transparency as grounds on which to attack us.

  10. Points taken.
    I possibly over reacted because 1) I think the poll was a bad idea, maybe a radio producer’s idea, unnecessary to the story you are telling, and 2) I discovered your blog and was drawn to your piece on milk production, something I have a passing interest in.
    I’ve lived in a farming community for over 6 years. My personal experience has been that the ethically minded modernisers are almost all recent imports from the cities and suburbs. As such it somewhat smarts to see the farming lobby label city dwellers as naive and out of touch. I agree with all your points about ‘the market’ farmers operate in – such as controlled by Coles and Woolies. I despair. However, the new farmer’s market in my country town withered away because few local producers grasped the opportunity, at the same time the local community voted with their wallets and overwhelmingly shopped at the local major supermarket.
    I’m surrounded by family owned, small dairy farms handed down through several generations. I see cruel animal treatment regularly, and sometimes arguably illegal animal treatment. It’s the way their fathers treated the animals, and their grand fathers before that.
    Several of the locals have brand new tractors and drive luxury SUV’s, but tell me artificial insemination is a waste of money. Much cheaper and easier to chuck a bull in the field with the herd.
    It’s the way they’ve always done it, and quite honestly quite a bit of carnage goes on over the calving period when ‘worthless’ male calves are born in equal amounts, often more, to female calves.

  11. I know I’m a bit off subject, Chris, dehorn sooner rather than later as leaving it too long can be bad for the animals. By the way, graziers in dingo country often leave cows horned; a Santa Gertrudis cow with new calf and a set of horns is a formidable opponent! Not sure of your comment re AI vs. Bull, I wouldn’t have thought it would make any difference to % of male calves, but then I wasn’t a dairy farmer.

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