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Temple Grandin on Organic Food: I Know the Mind of a Happy Cow

By Madeline Ostrander, via Yes! Magazine

Autistic scientist Temple Grandin thinks like an animal—in pictures—and she’s using it to get more humane treatment for cattle. Dr. Temple Grandin says she knows the mind of a cow.

Grandin brought sweeping change to the meat industry 10 years ago, when McDonald’s and Wendy’s—under pressure from animal rights activists—hired her to improve how their beef suppliers treat animals. Now half of U.S. cattle end up in slaughterhouses designed by Grandin. Even PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk has blogged about her admiration for Grandin’s work. Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of 2010. And the HBO movie about her early life won five Emmys last August.

Through research, Grandin has learned what makes cattle frightened, agreeable, or curious. There are tangible measures of cattle happiness, she says, such as how often they moo or whether they have parasites.

So I asked her whether sustainable agriculture makes cattle happy.

Labels like “free-range” guarantee little about ranches—federal law doesn’t require an on-site audit of them. Grandin said some farms that claim to be sustainable still treat their animals poorly—often because of poorly defined standards.

She is an expert on writing standards that work. “People want to write fake stuff like ‘handle them properly,’ ‘give them enough space.’ So what does that mean?” she said. “What is a pasture? I know that sounds like a silly question, but when you’re developing an auditing system you’ve got to define what a pasture is. It’s certainly not a dirt lot. If you lock animals up in a pen and they just chew the grass all down to the ground until it’s dirt, at what point does that go from being a pasture to a feedlot?”

“The organic standards are a whole lot better about pasture,” Grandin told me at an event for Food Alliance, an organization that certifies sustainable farms and ranches. “That’s going to make it more humane.”

Grandin has praise for sustainable farms and especially for farmers who still raise heritage breeds. We’ll need the genetic diversity that these farmers have preserved, she wrote in her book, Animals Make Us Human. Many old breeds do better on pasture and need fewer antibiotics.

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