Former Wall Street banker pursues a better future for farming (Q&A)

Sonia Faruqi investigates cruel practices on farms

For most of her life, Sonia Faruqi didn’t give much thought to what she ate, or where it came from. But after losing her Wall Street investment banking job in the 2008 global financial meltdown, Faruqi moved to Toronto, and embarked on a quest to get to know her dinner. Her new book, Project Animal Farm: An Accidental Journey into the Secret World of Farming and the Truth About Our Food charts her global voyage of discovery. It provides some shocking insights of how animals are treated on small and large farms alike.

Q: After university you went to work for a Wall Street investment bank. You write that you were a total city girl who couldn’t even drive. What made you want to start visiting farms?

A: I was looking for a vacation. I thought: I like travelling, I’ve never been to rural areas much, I’d never visited a farm before, so why not try something new? I was expecting something like a picnic in a way, and it ended up being like getting caught in a thunderstorm. My vision was very naive and pastoral. I didn’t realize how very outdated it was.

Q: You do mention in the book, however, that you became a vegetarian in college because of your concerns about factory farms. Were you really that naive about what you might find on a farm?

A: These videos that you watch online are very brief. In a way that’s good because you don’t really want to watch two hours of that. But the videos are very disjointed, and I didn’t really think too much about it. was working for my health and I liked it. But it wasn’t really as deep a decision as it later became, once I started investigating farms.

Q: So at what point did this transform from a personal journey into a book?

A: It happened when I realized that I was learning so many things that most other people didn’t know. I had my foot in the door and I was meeting all these people and going to all these farms that were in many ways disturbing and surprising. I wanted others to know that as well. So it grew very organically for me. But I only found a publisher long after I had done all the research.

Q: You started your investigations in Canada, visiting dairy, egg, poultry, pork and veal farms. Which one of those disturbed you the most?

A: The egg-laying hens, I would say, in their tiny cages. It’s just such a stark sight. You go in and you’re seeing rows upon rows of cages, stacked up to the ceiling. Even if you’ve seen photos before, it’s very different—an overwhelming sensory experience. You’re hearing the sounds and smelling the smells. And the pigs, too. That was even more emotional. Hens aren’t that expressive, but with the pigs you can seen how unhappy they are; slamming their heads against crates. It was quite jarring. The smells are unimaginable. A regular person might throw up before they even got inside. In Canada, I visited a factory farm with 13,000 chickens, but I’ve seen 50,000 in other places, all under one roof. The smell that builds up from all the manure—it’s ammonia and it gets to the back of your throat. You cough, your eyes start tearing. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life.

Q: Do you think all factory farm animals suffer equally? Or is there a hierarchy of cruelty?

A: There’s very much a hierarchy. There’s a term that I use in the book—confinement agriculture. Egg-laying hens in cages, sows in small enclosures, veal calves in crates where they can’t move at all. We wouldn’t allow our cats and dogs to be kept in tiny enclosures hardly bigger than their bodies. But farm animals live in those conditions; thousands of them all packed under one roof.

Q: A lot of people welcomed you onto their farms and into their homes. But you weren’t up front about why you were there. Why was it necessary for you to dissemble?

A: I didn’t have a sense of what might come out of it. I just wanted to follow my curiosity. I got lucky and met one farmer—Brick. If I hadn’t gotten to know him the project would have ended at the beginning. But it grew from there. I changed the names of the people in the book because their privacy is important to me. These are people that I really like, I admire most of them, and I came to view them as friends. It all happened because Brick and I got along so well, but it wasn’t as planned out as people might think.

Q: In the book, you do talk about it being a “secretive world.” But that’s not the way it comes across. You call people up and they say, “Sure, come on by.” Where is the secrecy?

A: It’s pretty good in Canada, because this topic hasn’t been discussed as much as in the U.S. The factory farms there are much bigger and with the “ag-gag” laws , there’s a much greater level of secrecy. Here it’s not to that extent and it’s not as corporate either. In Canada, I stumbled into a farming community, and I met a lot of people in social settings. It wasn’t like I was approaching people with a cold call or email. I was already a part of things, so it was okay.

Q: Many of the farmers you write about are contractors, producing solely for major food companies. How does that affect the system?

A: They don’t do the marketing. Brick, for example, produces eggs. A truck comes in the morning and picks them up and they are packaged and sold. So his connection ends there, he’s completely cut off from the retail, the distribution and promotion.

Q: But does that relationship limit how they are able to farm?

A: It can be very limiting, especially with the larger companies. There’s less of an ability to do your own thing. And more so in the U.S. than in Canada. With broiler chickens, or turkeys, for instance, they get the chicks when they are a day old, and house them in a facility that has been built to very precise specifications. The temperature is within a set range. It’s not that they can say, “It’s hot in here, let me open a window.” They fill out forms and let the company know how many chicks lived or died, but the company is telling them what to do. They’re not supposed to vary from those instructions.

Q: After Canada, you went abroad looking for best practices, visiting Southeast Asia, Mexico, Belize and the United States. Which country has the most to answer for?

A: The U.S., I would say, because that’s the model everyone else is following. Malaysia was fascinating because there’s so much fast food, and all the suppliers are working for KFC or McDonald’s. These U.S. factory farm companies like Tyson, are being imitated with turnkey-type projects that use the same breeds, the same feed, the same antibiotics as you would find in the States. It’s often viewed as a form of development. Like, we have more cars and cellphones, and now we need factory farms too.

Q: You also visited a slaughterhouse in Ontario. That’s clearly a dirty and violent business. Why should we expect it to be anything else?

A: It can be better. I visited other slaughterhouses abroad and they were noticeably better. Like with farms, there are degrees of standards. If there is little oversight, and the inspections are meaningless, then they won’t be good. Death is obviously dark, but it doesn’t have to be violent and cruel.

Q: In the book, a dairy farmer admonishes you for calling a calf “cute.” And you point out that we lavish affection on cats and dogs, while we heap abuse on farm animals. But isn’t it natural for us to want to keep some emotional distance from what we eat?

A: That can be the case, but I’ve also met some farmers who do want to have a connection with these animals that are going to be slaughtered. That the quality of their life matters even if they are going to end up on the dinner plate. I saw it in Belize, where there was respect for the animals, with the farmer giving them names and caring how their lives were.

Q: There’s a point in the book where you talk about the disconnect between how we portray farm animals in children’s literature, and their reality. You’ve recently married. If you end up having kids, what are you going to tell them about pigs and chickens and cows?

A: I was looking for books to take to the veal farm with me, because the couple who owned it were about to have a baby. I think you have to tell the truth and that’s very important. The truth doesn’t have to be graphic. But, at least the basic facts do need to be conveyed. We shouldn’t give kids fairy-tale versions of things that are important. I wouldn’t lie to them. I wouldn’t say, “These animals are living awesome lives, let’s eat them.”

Q: What did your parents tell you?

A: Nothing. I think many parents don’t talk about it. Maybe they don’t know anything. If I hadn’t done this book, I wouldn’t know much about this either.

Q: You also write about the problems with terms like “organic” and “local” and “free range” when it comes to our food. Why do you think labels are misleading consumers?

A: A lot of people, including myself, viewed the organic label as being better than it is. On things like fertilizers and pesticides it does a good job, but when it comes to animal welfare, it could be a lot better. For instance, the organic standard in the U.S. and Canada is a minimum of 120 outdoor access days a year. But that’s often treated as the maximum. It could be higher than that; it should be higher than that. Even if the animal is indoors, it should never be chained down. Organic definitely has a way to go.

Local is a term that gets a lot of traction; it’s popular. But sometimes it can be appropriated. I saw a factory egg farm in the U.S. that was having trouble, and then rebranded itself as “local” and is now doing really well. All they are saying is that the factory farm is in the neighbourhood, but consumers assume that local also means humane and sustainable, and really it doesn’t. Free range is also ill-defined. How often? In how much space? It’s completely at the discretion of the contractor or the farmer.

Q: So there’s no one policing this?

A: There’s very little policing, and that’s a huge problem. More inspections and more regulations are needed. It would be relatively simple to fix. There are no technological barriers. We just need basic standards about how farm animals can and should be treated.

Q: Who should be filling that role then? Government? Independent third parties?

A: Government is the natural choice. Because the way things work now, farmers are often paying for their own audits—so they’re the subject and the clients. It’s a conflict. But that being said, slaughterhouses are overseen by the government, and those inspections aren’t being done well, or sometimes at all.

Q: At the end of the book, you propose eight solutions for agriculture. One of them is having more women in farming. How do you think that would change things?

A: I looked at lots of data and studies and surveys about the biological and psychological differences between men and women. On one level, it’s like any other industry—gender diversity is a good thing in and of itself. But if you look at it in more depth, like the difference in attitudes between male and female farmers, you find that women have more compassion and more empathy. It’s a different mindset. There’s less distancing. It’s a noticeable difference.

Q: Your main conclusion is that agriculture needs to shift to a more humane, pastoral model. Which kind of sounds like going back to the future. Do you really believe there was a time when we treated farm animals better?

A: Yes, I do think so. I’ve seen that time, as well. One thing I say in Project Animal Farm is that the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. Different countries are at very different stages, in transition, or deciding whether to copy U.S. factory farms. But animals are treated well in some places. I’ve seen it in Indonesian villages and on farms in Belize. Those type of small, village farms were the norm in North America and everywhere else until a century ago. So there was a time when animals were treated better, when there was more of a relationship and they were given more respect. Now it’s objectification, watching the numbers and cutting costs. It’s a very different mindset than husbandry.

Q: You say that the change you are talking about would also require a dramatic reduction in the amount of meat we consume. Why?

A: In Canada, according to the government, we’re now eating 255 lb. of meat, eggs and fish a year, per person. And that doesn’t include dairy—milk, ice cream, cheese—which would bring it up closer to 300 lb. a year. It’s a huge number, like six pounds a week. And that takes a toll on the earth and human health as well. Large-scale pastoral farms can produce large volumes, and they do have economies of scale, but they can’t match the extreme volume of factory farms, with tens of thousands of animals in the same location. So we would have to reduce meat consumption as we changed the production practices.

Q: You also advocate a shift to vegetarianism, the option that you’ve embraced. But there’s a lot that goes into supplying people with fresh vegetables all year round, from water use to transport to the treatment of foreign farm workers. Isn’t that an ethical minefield too?

A: We’ll always have an environmental footprint. But with vegetarianism, it’s smaller. The amount of water and land needed for beef cattle is much greater than is needed to grow vegetables. The California governor has told people to eat veggie burgers during the drought. There are ethical issues, but certainly the footprint is less than if you’re eating 300 lb. of meat products each year.

Q: Some of the farmers you visited are portrayed rather unflatteringly. Have any of them read the book?

A: No, I don’t think so.

Q: Are you worried about how they might react if they do?

A: That’s a tough question. I have been as honest as possible. There are so many people that I really liked. But whether I liked their factory farm is different. I can’t do anything about that.

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