Temple Grandin is perhaps the world’s most-recognized authority on farm-animal welfare. As the subject of an admiring HBO film, she has a lot of fans. Foremost among them are journalists on the agriculture beat. Whenever an animal-welfare perspective is required, it seems the first person tapped for a quote is Temple Grandin.
But Grandin is a paid industry consultant. She profits financially by designing industrial slaughterhouses. She supplements her income by writing books and delivering speeches about those designs. Whatever animal welfare advice she offers should always be framed in the context of her monetary connection to industrial agriculture.
It should also be noted that big agriculture—big beef in particular—adores Grandin. She approaches agricultural “reform” from a compellingly safe perspective, one as much informed by her Ph.D. in animal science as her autism.
The notion that Grandin’s autism provides unique insight into animal perspectives curries considerable favor with the general public, thereby further enhancing her credibility and reputation as a person who cares deeply about animals. Big Ag plays on this association brilliantly. Journalists help them do it.
Grandin’s allegedly unique connection to animal lives is routinely reified through visually arresting images. Here’s Grandin hugging a horse. Here she is surrounded by a brace of cows. Here she is petting a pig. Never do we see Grandin with an animal being slaughtered. That would sully the image.
Obviously, one would think, Grandin’s empathy for these animals runs deep, deep enough at least for us to trust her as a viable source of information on their welfare.
But her real job is to help agribusiness kill them. Grandin argues that industrial slaughter should be as peaceful for animals as possible. But it turns out that cattle rendered calm by Grandin’s architectural designs turn the grimmest work of agribusiness—slaughter—into a more efficient and emotionally palatable process.
Calm cows are more likely to go gently. And cows who go gently—say, by not thrashing around inconveniently before being shot in the head with a steel bolt—enhance productivity. When Grandin’s relationship to industrial agriculture is placed in this context, the welfare benefits her slaughterhouses offer are significantly diminished.
On one side of the scale, cows raised under horrible feedlot conditions are spared a few moments of anxiety before their throats are slit. On the other, industrial agriculture per se is not only reified as a legitimate (and more productive) practice, but it becomes in the eyes of consumers a welfare-oriented endeavor.
Thus agribusiness, which benefits from momentarily Grandin-pacified cows, wins. In an age of welfare concerns, Grandin serves as industrial agriculture’s angelic handmaiden. Consumers, who get a little conscious balm when they learn that meat came from a Grandin-designed slaughter facility, also take something positive from the arrangement.
Even worse, a closer look at Grandin’s work shows that it’s not always what it’s cracked up to be. Her designs can be terribly flawed. This point was made vividly by Vickery Eckhoff in a revealing Forbes article. In it, Eckhoff and Grandin watch a video together of a horse slaughterhouse designed by Grandin. Grandin’s excuses for the abuse horses experience speak volumes.
When it comes to the Grandin-agribusiness relationship, the fiction of genuine welfare is carefully managed—again, with journalistic support. Earlier this month, Grandin spoke at the American Farm Bureau Federation. The event was like a Kabuki ritual. Every move and message was deliberately calculated and strategized.
Big Agriculture earned kudos from welfare watchers for honoring Grandin—the HBO-honored poster woman for animal welfare—with a Distinguished Service Award. Grandin replied with a speech that breezily called on big agriculture to be more transparent. “We need to look at what is optimal not what is maximum,” she said.
What a terrific deal for all involved—sort of like being audited by your grandma. Agribusiness, advised to be “optimal,” gets the Grandin-welfare-bump. Grandin, another award to hang on her wall, gets paid. More cows than ever continue to die.
This strikes me as an arrangement that, at the least, would make a smart journalist skeptical.