Bernie Sanders, Animal Agribusiness Stooge?

This article was co-authored with Zachary Groff, an economics researcher, effective altruist, and animal rights activist with Direct Action Everywhere.

Every year, a single industry destroys billions of lives. Despite public disapproval, the industry makes every attempt possible to hide from scrutiny. With massive donations to political campaigns and corporate lobbyists, the industry has captured our government. If this were the fossil fuel industry, activists could count on presidential contender Bernie Sanders's support. If it were the financial industry, activists could count on Bernie's support. But the industry is animal agriculture, and based on a conversation relayed by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons on Saturday, Bernie Sanders's anti-corporate politics come to an end when it comes to agribusiness.

Friday evening Russell Simmons shocked Bernie Sanders fans, including us, by revoking his January endorsement of Bernie Sanders and endorsing Hillary Clinton instead. Jane Sanders, Bernie's wife, recounted the conversation Simmons had about the endorsement, in which Simmons made clear that the endorsement depended on Bernie rejecting animal agriculture. The response? Americans like pork, beef, and bacon, so Bernie stands with farmers.

Now, it may be true that many Americans like pork, beef, and bacon, but that's like criticizing an energy bill because Americans like incandescent light bulbs or rejecting health care equality because people just like their Cadillac health care plans too much. Those are arguments, sure, but they're not progressive ones.

Why? Progressives are generally on the same page that our liberty ends where another's body begins. I can't go around spewing carbon into the air or discriminating against gay people or manipulating the financial system however much I like because it hurts others. And make no mistake -- the industry that produces "pork, beef, and bacon" hurts others, badly. It tortures and it kills them.

The fact that most Americans like bacon is irrelevant, just as it would be irrelevant if most Americans liked abusing animals. Fundamental rights are not subject to a simple majority vote. And even if they were, there could be no democratic legitimacy in a process where the victims -- in this case, animals -- have no say.

Nevertheless, we know that, in fact, Americans don't like hurting animals. Indeed, 32 percent of Americans -- and no doubt far more of Bernie's voters -- support equal rights for animals.

It also shouldn't be hard for Bernie to figure out how people can hold these views, and how these views can make so much sense, when they still eat animals. Bernie's well aware that what we do depends on the world we live in. He's well aware, for instance, that Americans act like socialism is a big boogeyman when in fact, if they actually experienced the policies of somewhere like Denmark or Sweden they would feel quite differently. Similarly, he should realize that we eat animals because that's what we've been trained to do. It's not a reason to stand with the farmers.

Yet Bernie stands with the farmers, and he stands with them aggressively. He stood with dairy farmers on Capitol Hill when subsidies to the dairy industry were in threat -- subsidies that hurt animals, run roughshod over consumers, and are one of the most conspicuous examples of corporate welfare.

As a Representative, Bernie raised no objection when Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a 2006 law that broadly criminalizes activism "for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise" and that has the ridiculous goal of labeling the act of freeing mink from farms as terrorism.

This is all in addition to, of course, his acceptance of a business lobby -- for agriculture -- in spite of his loud criticisms of the way our political system has been captured by corporate lobbies.

Bernie seems to take a fairly common -- and deceptive -- route these days when it comes to animal agriculture: he criticizes the boogeyman of "factory farming" while leaving his favorite "family farms" untouched. It's the same line touted by corporations like Chipotle.

This line is deceptive for several reasons. Firstly, in America (as in Europe), family farms are factory farms. For example, in 2006, even though vast majority of chicken farms were family-owned, the median American farm raised over 400,000 birds! So any time you hear the phrase "family farm," just remember that Perdue is "family-owned" too.

Two, even the "good" farms are violent. One of us, Zach, stepped inside a genuinely family-owned farm with the highest possible rating on Whole Foods Market's widely-touted animal welfare rating scheme, Diestel Turkey Ranch. It's a farm that was marketed with a sign reading "Happy Turkeys Ahead." The farm, despite being one of the best in the country, was gruesome.

There were turkeys letting out piercing shrieks as they were loaded into a truck for the slaughterhouse. The loading process left many of them bloodied, mangled, or abandoned to die of starvation. From one end of the facility you could not see the other end of it. Ammonia filled the air. Yet by the most respected standards in the business, this was a small, "humane" operation.

Even many "humane" farmers themselves recognize the inherent cruelty involved in their businesses. For example, I interviewed a small dairy producer who admitted to cutting his cows' horns off without providing any pain relief whatsoever. With a sigh of regret, the farmer gravely stated that he couldn't make enough profit to pay for painkillers. This is the violent reality of animal agriculture -- even on the "humane family-farm."

When it comes to justifying this violent system, "we love bacon" is an argument that we expect from the comments section on our articles -- not from a leading progressive statesman.

As advocates for both human and animal rights, we have been extremely excited about the Sanders campaign. But for now, every time someone tells us that they #feelthebern, we think of the animals feeling the burn of hot irons searing their property status into their skin. We think of the millions of chickens burned alive in boiling water at the slaughterhouse each year. And we think of the mother cows with the burning desire to protect their calves from being kidnapped by the dairy industry.

To be clear, we certainly don't expect Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to take animals' lives more seriously than Sanders. But it is precisely because of his willingness to do the right thing -- regardless of what special interests, or even the majority of Americans think -- that we are so disappointed by Sanders's capitulation to the industry.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton rejected same-sex marriage, going with the times. As our friend and former political prisoner Lauren Gazzola noted on Twitter after Simmons' announcement, if Bernie does not want to look like that one day, it's time for him to change his position on animal agriculture.

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