Typically, vegans don’t care much for locavores. The gist of their discontent is a largely correct sense that locavores—who, you gotta agree, have invested themselves in what’s become little more than a marketing slogan—use food miles to obscure animal and environmental ethics. It’s as if “the local” launders taste onto selfish palates to spite the ecosystem, much less basic ethics.
I was reminded of this relationship after a reporter called (well, technically, I called him so he could record me) to discuss the pros and, more so, cons of making a fetish of the local. As I spoke, it occurred to me that, nine years after writing a book challenging the “go local” food ethic, I was never more vehement in my opposition to the local food movement. For a while, I’ll admit, I thought maybe I’d overreached with my initial argument. Now I wish I’d hit harder.
What fuels my fire is all the “I’m eating the head of a local pig so all is cool and awesome” attitude that pervades this remarkably thoughtless movement. Ink yourself into oblivion, grow your beard to a caveman chic density, rent in a gentrifying area, spout some Pollanesque anti-industrial bromide, move to Austin, and you, carnivore, are exonerated from taking the time to consider the severe ethical implications of killing an animal who, in Tom Regan’s terms, “is a subject of a life.” Probably more so than you are aware of your own subjectivity, you jerk.
So, yeah. I got fired up after the interview, recognizing as I did how casually we dismiss the interests of sentient creatures under the guise of our own self-declared noble choice. What needs to be acknowledged in this moral delusion is this: it does not matter where your animal’s ethically unjustified death happened. Your ethically unjustified animal death remains ethically unjustified if it happened half a world away or in your own backyard. It’s still unjustified. An animal does not care where it’s slaughtered. It cares about not being slaughtered.
So, to demand what I’ve been demanding of meat eaters for almost a decade: justify it.
As conscientious carnivores go about the noble business of supporting local, small, nonindustrial, and humane animal farms, the international exchange of animal products proceeds with nary a pause. Exploring the underworld of global meat exchange tends to quash any hope for responsible alternatives to industrial animal production. At the intersection of Neoliberalism and meatonomics is a vivid reminder that our trendy support of boutique animal farms has no bearing on the problem at large. The problem at large, really, could care less about your locally raised pork cheeks.
More often than not, Chinese demand drives the quest for flesh and all that its production requires. To wit, representatives from the English livestock industry are currently invading China to assess market potential for English sheep. The Chinese have more sheep than any nation in the world. Still, they can’t come close to meeting growing consumer demand. The English are happy to halt the reforestation of British uplands to help the Chinese meet their meat. In China, meat consumption has spiked from 4 kg per person in 1961 to 57 kg per person in 2011. You can count on it: the English will do anything, including degrading their own landscape, to ensure that the Chinese don’t want for righteous lamb chops.
Another global commodity has brought together the Irish and the Vietnamese: pork. The precipitating event came when Vietnamese veterinary authorities opened the door for frozen pork from Ireland. Vietnam has long been identified by Irish officials as a “priority target”—I love how industry uses such verbiage– and the announcement of this deal led to the immediate opening of five Irish pig processing plants dedicated exclusively to supplying Vietnam. Jobs! Currently 80-90 percent of Vietnamese pork comes from backyard herds. That’s about to change. You’ll see it happen as Ireland gets greener.
Yet another example that killing sentient animals and destroying the environment fosters international bonds involves Denmark and Russia. The unifying ingredient here is salmon. Russia, which has banned salmon imports from much of the west, has turned to the Faroe Islands for its salmon stash. The Faroese, who were formerly banned from importing to Russia, are as happy as a fish in water: “We’re in the opposite situation from before Christmas,” said a Faroe Island official. “Before, everyone could sell to Russia except us [due to Russian bans on certain Faroese trawlers]. Now, only we can.” The Russians have also asked the Faroese to exploit their waters for mackerel and herring while they’re at it.
Meanwhile, the Amazon is getting more excited about this international group hug. Driven in particular by European and Chinese demand for cheap soy feed for their livestock, Brazil’s state of Mato Grosso is dedicating more and more forest land–and thus carbon, water, and nutrients–to animals confined in Europe and China. Such “resource flows”—yet another one of those whacked industry terms—come with costs. Said one team of researchers: ”Our estimated environmental footprints suggest potential regional impacts on climate, biodiversity, ecosystem services, and a possible incremental soil phosphorous saturation that could increase the risk of eutrophication in the long term.” Translation: bad.
And there’s nothing that your happy meat can do about it. All meat must be stigmatized. Not just industrial.
Imagine living in the 18th century. Almost everything about your physical existence would make immediate and intuitive sense. Your food, your shoes, your clothes, your transportation, your garden, the mill that churned your flour, your house—these would hold few mysteries in terms of how they came to be and how they operated. Spiritual conundrums might haunt you. But not the logistics of the physical world. It was all levers and pulleys and other manifestations of forces visible.
Now imagine the physicality of your existence today. Can you really explain how your iphone works? Email? Do I have any idea how this post will appear in hundreds of inboxes of people I don’t know? How does an elevator operate? A car engine? The cloud? The bomb? My toilet? The gun that killed Mike Brown?
It’s safe to say that at some point in the twentieth century modern humans went from engaging with the physical world from a position of understanding to a position of trust. Blind trust. The first books I ever read were called Tell Me Why, but I remain essentially clueless about the inner mechanisms of the objects that surround me. Every day I ask “why,” shrug my shoulders, send my emails, grab the wheel, and view the details of my physical life as comprehensible as Chinese algebra. I just stand back and marvel at it. Or I just hit send.
I wonder if this habit of blind acceptance of technological miracle-making results in a way of thinking that blunts our ability to appreciate the significance of animal cognition? We routinely hear stories about the amazing feats accomplished by sentient animals—feats that clearly involve substantial cognition and emotional awareness—but we fail to reflect on the deeper implications of those findings, much less alter our behavior accordingly. If you learned that a pig could play a video game and kept eating bacon, you’d be typical in your response to new information about the hidden lives of animals. Wrong, but typical.
To situate this moral failure to act in the context of our alienation from the material world’s more complex but utilitarian objects might seem arbitrary. But my thought is that it’s not. After all, it does not seem altogether unreasonable to hypothesize that a gradual acceptance of magic as the basis of our material existence—and that’s what my iphone is to me: magic—would predispose one to conclude that any feat of cognition or emotional expression by an animal would be similarly magical. And thus not worth trying to understand, much less act upon.
As you may have heard, Whole Foods is establishing a pilot program to sell rabbit meat. Take a moment and read the company’s welfare standards here and you’ll quickly realize that the rabbits can be produced under conditions very close to industrial circumstances. For example, “Although outdoor access is not required . . . .” And so on.
Interestingly, the welfare regulations outlined in the link above abruptly end when it comes to slaughter methods. Transport is covered: “Transport must not exceed 8 hours.” But nothing about the killing itself. This omission should raise a red flag. Surely, the “harvesting” is regulated, right?
Nope. Rabbit meat falls under state inspection. In Texas you can apply for an inspection exemption. For example, here’s this from the Texas Department of Health Services: “Anyone that raises poultry or rabbits, and slaughters 10,000 birds or rabbits (or combination thereof) per year or less may opt to apply for a Grant of Poultry Exemption instead of a Grant of Inspection. These products may be sold on the farm or through locations other than the farm.” Other states allow the same (how many I’ve not yet researched).
Whole Foods in general relies on Temple Grandin’s regulations to ensure the following:
- Healthy condition of animals upon arrival
- Calm, efficient unloading procedures
- Animals handled with patience, skill and respect
- Clean, well-designed facility ensuring quiet movement of the animals
- Appropriate flooring to ensure the animals’ stability
- Stringent stunning efficacy requirements
Again, though, note that there’s nothing on process of slaughter itself. To discover if there were any regulations regarding how rabbits were dispatched, I searched around the extension agency literature. Here’s advice from an undated Texas A&M report:
“The preferred method of slaughtering a rabbit is by dislocating its neck. With the left hand hold the animal by its hind legs. Place the thumb of the right hand on the neck just behind the ears, with the fingers extended under the chin. Push down on the neck with the right hand, stretching the animal. Press down with the thumb. Then with a quick movement, raise the animal’s head and dislocate the neck.”
A recent Mississippi extension agent recommends this:
“The rabbit is held firmly by the rear legs and head; it is stretched full length. Then with a hard, sharp pull, the head is bent backward to dislo- cate the neck. The rabbit can also be struck a hard, quick blow to the skull behind the ears. A blunt stick or side of the hand is commonly used to incapacitate the rabbit. Both methods quickly render the rabbit unconscious.”
To be sure, there are rabbit slaughterers out there who really want the slaughter to be done properly, because if you screw up, you know, the meat won’t taste very good. Raising-rabbits.com warns:
“Any stress during the butchering process can result in the release of adrenaline and other endocrine hormones associated with the animal’s flight response. These hormones negatively affect the flavor of the rabbit meat, and will toughen the meat.”
It then instructs you how to kill a rabbit with a broomstick.
Last month I was fortunate be on Our Hen House’s TV program in Brooklyn (that’s not me above, but I appear about 21 minutes in). Mariann and Jasmin asked terrific questions, gave me ample time to answer, and allowed me to present many of the ideas that I develop in The Modern Savage. I think you will be impressed both by the content and quality of production.
My forthcoming book, The Modern Savage, is now available for pre-order (links are below). The book provides a sustained and deeply critical examination of small-scale nonindustrial animal agriculture, exposing this generally celebrated alternative to factory farming as riddled with inherent ethical, environmental, and economic problems. If you plan to buy the book, doing so now rather than after publication would be very helpful. I’m deeply appreciative.
Ironies abound in our treatment of animals. Melissa Cronin at The Dodo reported today that “The CEO of a catering giant will be stepping down after video footage revealed him kicking a doberman puppy in a Vancouver, Canada elevator. Des Hague was the CEO of Centerplate, a $6 million company with over 350 clients, many of them major sports stadiums.”
The public outrage dictating the resignation of a corporate giant–the guy’s full name is Desmond Hague– is a noteworthy display of justice for sentient creatures. One is inevitably put in the mind of Michael Vick and the remarkable public censure that enveloped him after he was busted for running a dog fighting ring in 2007. Although one should never underestimate the motivating power of simple self-righteous condemnation, I think it’s safe to say that the hammer of public opinion came down on this CEO-dog abuser for the basic reason that we know causing gratuitous suffering to an animal is whacked.
Recall, though, that this man was the CEO of a catering firm, one whose menu includes every kind of animal-based product you could ever want for your event. Here’s one of its menus. So, it seems only fair to ask: why wasn’t this man taken to the woodshed much earlier? He was, after all, profiting from the sale of animals who were not only abused, but slaughtered so his firm could rake in millions. What some nameless and faceless low-wage worker did to those animals in an abattoir doesn’t compare to this CEO’s crazed outburst against his poor dog.
The fact that the vast majority of people calling for the CEO’s head would have happily eaten from one of his catering menus confirms something disturbing. Not only is our moral consideration of animals arrestingly situational, but we lack the ability to disentangle context from principle. Place some salt and pepper besides a cloth napkin and fine silver, arrange the plates in a circle at a convention, bond with friends over the steak on your plate, and all is fine. Kick a dog in a lift and your a pile of shit.
As I continue the often uncomfortable process of subjecting my beliefs about eating animals to systematic scrutiny, I find myself seeing aspects of animal activism in a new, and not always flattering, light. Lately, for example, I have found myself getting frustrated with the overly simplistic claims that serve to justify the vegan way of life. Please note that I have zero moral tolerance for raising animals to consume them when other options are available. That said, I’m realizing that many vegan justifications are just as thoughtlessly reductive as are the carnivorous claims that vegans find so dimwitted: “we were meant to eat meat,” “we’re at the top of the food chain,” “it is the animals purpose to be food,” and so on. And we don’t want that.
So when I read something like (and I’m choosing a random example of late), “Our relationship with other animals should be one of awe and reverence, not one of use,” I think, well that’s nice. But then when I really think about it on a deeper level, I realize that this is an aphorism that obscures a far more complicated reality. First, on what grounds do I have an obligation to look at other creatures with awe and reverence? What if the animal does not behave in a way deserving of these reactions? Should I revere my awe-inspiring dog for rifling though my trash? To do so would actually be to objectify them by denying them any form of free will, to release them from any consequence of their actions, with automatic awe and reverence freezing these creatures into a romanticized category not unlike a classic painting or novel. Awe and respect too easily becomes mindless glorification.
Likewise, the question of use is far more complicated than the aphorism suggests. Of course, the intended meaning is to not use animals by yoking them to a plow or churning them into a burger—but that’s exploitation, a form of use. But use per se is unavoidable. We use each other—humans and humans, animals and animals, animals and humans—all the time. To remove ourselves from the matrix of use, for the evident purpose of experiencing disengaged awe and reverence, is to exonerate ourselves from the very hard work of developing genuine relationships with animals, ones that demand us to deal with a range of differences and similarities—a matrix of uses— to find common ground on a set of relationship “rules.” If you live with a companion animal, you know how hard this could be. I use my pets; they use me. To sever that bond is, once again, to objectify animals.
I’ll stop, but maybe you get my point. If you think it’s wrong to exploit animals, you have an obligation to make those thoughts known and appreciated. But when we do so through sloganeering rather than on the basis of common sense, moral clarity, and logical consistence, our chances of having an impact on broad cultural change is significantly reduced. We’re just firing very loud blanks in a war of words.
If you read my work you are well aware that I believe that eating animals, in the vast majority of circumstances, is morally wrong. This position, which I can defend historically and philosophically—after nearly a decade of thinking and reading about the matter—is one I have centered my life around because so much verifiable (if invisible) suffering is at stake. My adherence to this position is not a “personal lifestyle choice” any more than a decision to walk outside and start hitting dogs with a tire iron is a personal lifestyle choice. It’s a choice based on thoughtful moral inquiry and grounded in an objective sense of right and wrong.
For this reason, I find exhibitionist displays of gluttonous meat eating to be objectionable. I live in the world. I live among and deeply love many meat eaters. And I could even justify eating meat in some circumstances—but almost never in terms of animal domestication. I think it’s fair to expect that anyone with even a remote awareness of what must happen to bring meat to the table has an obligation to treat eating animals with at least a perfunctory sense of gravitas. After all, killing animals that are emotional, self-aware beings, even if you have come to terms with that killing, should never confer bragging rights. Remember when George Bush (43) used to discuss the death of American soldiers in Iraq with that quirked smile on his face? That’s kind of how I see celebratory and gleeful writing about eating meat. Call me a crank, but I have my reasons.
This is a long way of introducing an article in Texas Monthly that made me sad. Not angry, not wanting to engage in ad hominem attacks, but just sad. I should note that I have written for Texas Monthly (about chicken fried steak, no less!), that it’s a first rate magazine, and that I know and look up to many writers there. But I should also note that the magazine used to do a lot of great capsule music reviews, got rid of them, and hired a full time BBQ editor, a decision that earned the magazine considerable national attention. It was an article by that very editor, which ran yesterday, that led me to respond. The piece is here.
I must confess to being put off by the fact that the author, Daniel Vaughn, invited readers to share concerns with his cholesterol level as an occupational hazard. I found this to be a particularly strange request given that his occupation requires the slaughter of sentient animals for food we do not need. That said, my initial response was a bit unfair. I tweeted:
“What marks life as full time BBQ editor? Blissful ignorance to animal suffering, evidently.”
This tweet implied that Vaughn was indeed ignorant of what his celebrated diet represented—that is, that he had not justified his decision to support unnecessary animal slaughter. Perhaps he has. Perhaps he could illuminate the matter for me (and I’m being serious here). He responded:
“why the comment about my ignorance? It’s as silly and myopic as me suggesting you’re ignorant to the tastiness of meat.”
Fine. So, I’m now wondering: what is that justification?
“Fair enough. So if you’ve justified your choice to eat animals raised for meat, where I can read/hear about it? I’m eager to learn.”
And, I’m happy to say, we have exchanged emails and plan to meet in the near future, a meeting during which we’ll discuss my recent American Scholar piece. I genuinely look forward to the discussion. Stay tuned.
“Cultured meat”—edible animal flesh that’s grown through “tissue engineering techniques”—may not be the most appetizing prospect on the culinary horizon. But it has entered the heady lexicon of sustainability for good reason.
As a recent Oxford University/University of Amsterdam study revealed, lab-grown meat could slake our inveterate craving for burgers while consuming 82-96 percent less water, producing 78-96 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and occupying 99 percent less land. “We are catering to beef eaters who want to eat beef in a sustainable way,” Mark Post, the Maastricht University physiologist who spent years developing lab meat with the financial support of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, told Bloomberg.
Equally relevant for many consumers is the fact that lab meat appears to be more humane than current methods of production. While it’s true that production now requires stem cells to be extracted from living cattle and marinated in the blood of cow fetuses, Post is hopeful that fetal bovine serum (as the extraction is called) might someday be replaced with blue algae, thus obviating this phase of exploitation. Whatever method is eventually used, if lab meat catches on there’s much evidence to suggest that we might substantially reduce the assembly line of cattle pouring into the abattoir.
Lab meat, even by today’s industrialized standards, is a relatively outlandish proposition. But that hasn’t kept media assessments from being surprisingly upbeat about its potential. In 2011, a normally skeptical Michael Specter warmed to the idea, writing in the New Yorker that, in terms of technology, a lab burger could viably approximate the taste and texture of a real burger and, in turn, offer a viable substitute for it. Costs were prohibitive, he noted, but then what successful technology wasn’t unduly expensive at the outset?In USA Today, Farm Sanctuary’s advocacy director, Bruce Friedrich, pounced on the Oxford study to deem lab meat clean, green, and lean—not to mention a product that had him eager to “fire up the grill” and end the meat industry “as we know it.”
Others have been less sanguine. David Steele, a molecular biologist and head of Earthsave Canada, tells me that lab meat “is extraordinarily unlikely to work.” Tens of thousands of calves, he notes, “will have their hearts punctured … to collect the liter or so of serum that can be taken from them.” The claim that lab meat might be propagated with blue algae, he says, “is patently absurd” as “no one has accomplished anything close.” He also notes something so obvious I wish I had recalled it on my own: Cultured cells lack an immune system. As a result, according to Steele, “there will be a need for at least large doses of penicillin/streptomycin.” Preventing the spread of viruses within these cultures “would be a huge additional problem.” And as far as allergies go, who knows?
Daniel Engber, a science writer and editor at Slate, is equally downbeat about the future of cultured meat. He posted a piece earlier this month with a headline declaring lab meat to be “a waste of time.” Acknowledging the ecological and welfare implications of the technology, he highlights what strikes me as a critical point: Lab meat only seems to be “real” when it’s adulterated with food-like substances designed to “improve color, flavor, and mouthfeel.”
In this respect, there’s nothing novel to ponder about the slab of lab meat. It’s a heavily processed, fabricated food that’s essentially no different than the plant-based substitutes that are becoming increasingly popular. So, Engber justifiably wonders: “What’s the point?” After all, do cultured cow cells dressed up to look like real meat “really get us any closer to a perfect substitute for flesh than soy or wheat or mushroom?” Not a bad question, given that the market for lab meat would likely be the same market that currently eats Tofurky (myself included).
As Engber suggests, the discussion of cultured cells has overlooked, well, culture. Eating meat for many consumers is about more than just eating meat. Lab meat is about more than technological feasibility. As much as I would love to see cultured meat replace its conventional counterpart, I’m fairly certain that the culinary tastemakers, not to mention the vast majority of consumers, will never go for it. It’s heavily processed (not pure, not authentic, not “all natural”); it’s divorced from tradition (can you imagine grandma’s chicken fried steak made with a cut of lab meat?); and, in the simplest terms, it’s not meat (at least as we know meat).
Culinary change happens all the time, and there’s no doubt radical changes are required if we ever hope to achieve a just food system. But, at this stage, I think we’re better off encouraging consumers not to eat the stuff at all rather than asking them to fake it with a redundant substitute.
This piece originally ran in Pacific Standard in 2013.