Advocacy of synthetic fungicides is typically not a position one finds coexisting with diehard vegan activism. The desire to eat a plant-based diet evokes, however illogically, an image of agricultural purity that stands in sharp contrast to the destructive connotations surrounding agricultural chemistry. It is for this reason, in part, that many people have questioned, somewhat aggressively, my motivations in both my recent Atlantic piece and the interview I did with the BBC’s Marco Werman (of The World) yesterday based on the article. Listen here. (It’s short–4-5 minutes)
So, a brief explanation. Let’s get a few preliminary facts out of the way.
First, organic agriculture is authorized to use pesticides—scores of them. They simply have to be considered “natural.” Natural chemicals, however, can be just as toxic and ecologically damaging as synthetic pesticides. In fact, in many cases (as with coffee), they are more dangerous.
Second, even the most conservative estimates predict that, without pesticides, we would lose at least 40 of the world’s plant crops. There are 7 billion people that need to eat and that number will hit 9.5 billion in a couple of decades. Even granting all the resources wasted on growing corn and soy for animal feed, this is a loss that we cannot tolerate. It’s also a loss that would hit the world’s most vulnerable the hardest.
Third, there’s a big difference between the indiscriminate application of pesticides (think of airplanes dropping DDT) and the judicious use of pesticides (think of precision farming).It is for this reason that there are many instances in which a non-organic farm using minimal amounts of synthetic chemicals is more environmentally responsible than an organic farm spraying natural pesticides with abandon (something they have to do because rain washes them away more easily).
Finally, if we want small farmers in developing countries growing specialty crops (like coffee) to have a foothold in regional and global markets, they will need access to agricultural chemicals, at least in the short term.
That last fact brings me to an important distinction: long/short term. In the long term I am seeking and promoting and cheerleading and rooting with all my heart for veganic agriculture, the kind that is chemical free and supportive of fostering global biodiversity. These qualities can be accomplished through a variety of strategies, including genetic improvements in crops, a better understanding of the relationship between crop diversity and insect control, technologies such as slow-drip irrigation systems, and all an all around better understanding of the complicated relationship between regional soil quality and crop choice. But here’s the reality: we are very far from growing enough food to feed large populations through such methods. The learning curve here is steep. I think we’ll get there, but not in the short term. Not by a long shot.
Hence the importance of facing the short term, one in which we will have to use some measure of agricultural chemicals. To accept this reality is not to promote the use of agricultural chemicals. Likewise, to deny this reality is to retire to fantasyland. It is for this reason that, even as I support veganic agriculture, I’m on a small campaign to encourage organic standards to make exceptions for the judicious use of synthetic chemicals. Judicious.
This is why I take the time to write about struggling organic farmers in Central America whose crops would be saved by a low level application of Trialozine, a chemical that’s much less toxic than the ineffective copper sulfates that organic farmers are allowed to use. It’s not because I love chemical companies. It’s because I’m grounded enough in the immediate realities of commercial agriculture to understand that to deny this access would be the height of elitist irresponsibility.
Mark Bittman’s new book, Vegan Before 6:00, deserves considerable credit for advocating a substantial reduction in the consumption of animal products. That’s good. It also earns praise for its trenchant condemnation of the standard American diet. Although this is a target fatter than the average American, enough darts cannot impale its expanding bullseye. That’s good, too. In terms of accolades, though, that’s about all the good I got for this ultimately disappointing book.
The primary flaw in Bittman’s advocacy of part-time veganism is that (you know exactly what I’m going to say) there’s no such thing as part-time veganism. The book could just as easily and more accurately have been called “Eating Animals in the Evening.” The problem with my suggested title is that Bittman would, albeit in a noble nod to accuracy, have lost his catchy (and sort of goofy) little slogan (VB6) to hang his part-time plant-eater hat on. He would also have lost the cultural power inhering in the word “vegan,” a power many true vegans, through the cultivation of authentic compassion, have helped embolden. All of which serves to remind us that the kingpins of foodie literature are as much about marketing as they are about making changes in the food system. I guess that’s why they’re kingpins.
Bittman’s bold highjacking of veganism is especially insidious not only because being vegan before 6 is like being pregnant before 6, but because VB6 is essentially more about the timing than the content of our diet. This is ultimately a book about what to eat when. And most of that advice is arbitrary. If you took that slice of bacon the VB6-er guiltlessly ate after six and crumbled it over her afternoon spinach salad, you suddenly have a person who is now eating the same food as a VB6-er but, due to when rather than what she ate, can no longer qualify as a member of the VB6 club. Which is just plain silliness.
Bittman’s defense of half-assed veganism is some seriously tepid swill. And I’m tempted to say he knows better. He’s got to know better. What really gets me about it is that Bittman is usually so freaking good. Here, though, he generally reduces his vast and highly informed culinary scope–one educated over the years through the construction of dozens of often brilliant columns— to focus narrowly on human health. To which I say: yawn.
Sure, eating fewer animals is better for us. We’ve know this for decades. But what’s especially disappointing about this constricted emphasis is that it fails to explore in a meaningful and systematic way the issues of animal welfare and rights, topics that Bittman has covered with growing poignancy in his columns. As for an explanation of why he would cheat his otherwise generous vision in such a way, one might go backwards three paragraphs, count down five lines, and note my sentiments about marketing.
As with most analyses that dip a bit too often in the well of gimmickry, Bittman’s explanation for why he is not a real vegan eventually train wrecks into a contradiction. Now look, as readers know, I’m okay with contradiction if the contradictor can explain, or at least attempt to explain, his contradiction. Bittman, however, not only fails to do this, but I’m fairly certain he’s unaware of the telling inconsistency, one that hinges on the distinction between atomistic and holistic thought.
On the hand, when it comes to how we should think about diet, Bittman is rabidly holistic. He urges us to think not in terms of specific quantifiable nutrients and calories—that is, atomistically—but in terms of a holistic approach that cosmically balances and blends an array of healthy and whole real foods into a cohesive and indivisible way of life. He hints at this liberating mindset, one that I support, in his last column (linked above) when he writes, “you’re better off eating a carrot than the beta-cartene that was once thought to be its most beneficial ‘ingredient.’” Note the q-marks around “ingredient,” thereby designating its implicit and self-defeating suggestion of atomism.
But, on the other hand, when it comes to his conceptualization of veganism, Bittman chops and dices it into a million little pieces. To wit, he writes (in the same defense), “A vegan meal has no implications about what your next meal may be; you can be vegan for the better part of a day, or for a number of days of your life.” This logic is atomistic hair-splitting that puts the most inveterate calorie and nutrient counter to shame. Where did the indivisibility go? The cosmic balance and blend? Naturally, a true vegan knows that veganism is much more about a holistic mindset rooted in compassion than it is about the precise content of plant-based food on our plates at certain time of day. If you are a vegan and not a little insulted by Bittman’s trivialization of the ethical choice upon which you structure your life, you are more patient than I am. If nutrients should not be atomized, neither should ethics.
The greatest shame of this book is that Bittman, who claims to seek radical changes in the standard American diet, marginalizes the very voices that offer the most effective means to achieving that change. Activism before 6, anyone?
You hear defenders of pastured beef say it all the time: cows were meant to eat grass. They typically make this claim to justify their choice of pastured beef over industrial, grain-fed beef—the stuff that hogs all the media attention for causing grave ecological damage with total disregard for animal welfare.
These claims might indeed be true. Cows probably are meant to eat grass and there is little doubt that growing grain to feed cows in feedlots is one of the most flagrantly dumb things humans do. Likewise, a feedlot is the antithesis of welfare. So, sure, cows were meant to eat grass.
Regrettably, the conversation usually ends here. That’s too bad. Any acknowledgment of grass-fed beef vis-a-vis grain-fed is, or at least should be, a starting point for a far more complicated discussion, one we tend to avoid, in part because it’s complicated and in part because it undermines the rationale for switching to pastured beef and claiming everything is just so very cool.
The popular media only scratches the surface of the grass-fed issue, typically failing to reveal those complications that are endemic to pastured beef production and, when probed closely, highlight fatal flaws to the alternative that we’re so eager to deem viable and grillable.
What if you learned that the vast majority of the grass that cows in the United States graze is infected with a fungus that systematically compromises their health? Insane, right? How could this be? One word: fescue. Fescue is the most commonly grazed grass in the United States, covering 35 million acres and, without doubt, pleasing cattle (compared to other forage) because, for whatever reason, they prefer the taste of it to other grasses. Because cows take to it so quickly, ranchers promote it.
The problem is that fescue is virtually all (90 percent) infected with an endophyte fungus that causes considerable problems for cows. Problems such as: difficulty gaining weight, reproductive issues, excessive salivation, less time spent grazing, reduced blood serum prolactin levels, a greater need for water, lower milk production. And so on. Some of these problems might have welfare implications.
More obviously, though, they reveal a fundamental malfunction with the grand environmental claims about the animal-land relationship at the core of intensively managed grazing systems. What’s often presented as an elegant model of efficiency—cows eating grass— is, when you properly consider the fescue issue, undermined by a grave mismatch between animal and forage, one that requires more grazing and more water to generate less milk and less flesh.
Let’s face a fact and make it a mantra: natural conditions are virtually impossible to recreate. To think we can do so and then consume the product of that “natural” relationship is folly. In any case, add fescue to the growing list of why pastured beef is no answer to the industrial production of beef. Cows may have been meant to eat grass. But that hardly means that we were meant to eat them.
Speaking of fungus, here is my latest piece in The Atlantic.com.
Some philosophers argue that the evolution of language grants humans exclusive rights above and beyond non-human animals. This controversial position has been effectively debunked, but the claim provides a nice opportunity to examine precisely how we use formal language to convey meaning about eating animals that some philosophers think, on the basis of this self-serving grammar, we have every right to eat.
A recent study reveals how several European languages have adapted to accommodate specific culinary habits—such as eating ham. Turns out that Norwegians have fewer words than the Spanish to describe ham. It also turns out that they eat about 400 grams of ham a year, compared to 3.3 kilos for the Spanish (the Italians eat 4.4 kilos year).
So let me get this straight. We have language. Animals don’t. We use that language to create a lexicon to describe how animals taste. Animals, lacking a language, cannot provide a verbal rebuttal. This ham is succulent we say. The animal sits there, dead, on the plate. And, based on the one-sided conversation, we claim ourselves in the right. Seems like a lot of verbal sausage to me. (I know that animals do have language, but you know what I mean . . . )
In any case, that verbal sausage is being churned out faster than a carnival barker selling salvation at a hoedown. There’s a great deal of ballyhoo about declining rates of meat consumption in the United States. Great. Maybe more and more of us are becoming vegan before six or eating food, not too much, mostly plants. Whatever catchy little slogan we may have grasped onto, the decline does nothing to counter the emerging tsunami of additional animal exploitation in places like China and India.
Oh, and don’t forget Russia. Russia is now building a pig feed mill capable of churning out 500 tonnes of feed per day in order to supply a 300,000 head pig farm moving nearby from Ireland. In a textbook case of “spread effects,” a processing plant will complete the trifecta, churning out 27 different kinds of pig product. Plan to see a lot more of this kind of expansion in the years to come. If you know how to slow it down, let me know.
And if you’re sitting there all smug and satisfied with your locally-sourced, cave-cured, pig-pampered bacon approved by, who knows, Temple Grandin, it’s time to choke on your little strip of porcine death. Grandin is now working directly with . . . . . Tyson Foods. She’s now expanding her brand of humane exploitation to the company’s Animal Welfare Panel. Behold. She is joined by Ryan Best, former President of Future Farmers of America, and Miyun Park, head of the Global Animal Partnership Label, which I profiled in Harper’s last August.
It would take a very special pair of glasses to see the formation of this board a hopeful development. Also, from a political perspective, I don’t get it. Why would people who purport to care so much about animals place themselves in such a vulnerable position? I mean, the next time Tyson inevitably gets busted for some horrific animal welfare disaster or other, the blood will be on their hands, too.
I could go on. And on.
(Thanks to Jamie Newlin for the tips . . .)
The outpouring of intelligent thoughtfulness in response to yesterday’s oyster post has my wheels spinning more than ever, even if I’m not yet convinced that, from any animal rights perspective, it’s wrong to eat an oyster. But here’s something to chew on: maybe being convinced is overrated.
Creatively speaking, I found myself wandering into some strange new territory as a result of the collective commentary. Some background: the responses that I found most insightful were the ones that sought to reconcile a concern for animal rights with an imminently rational lever of action. In other words, I appear to be instinctively drawn to arguments that blend morality and rationality as a foundation for change. I doubt that I’m alone here. These explanations, although in this case not fully convincing on the oyster question, were consistent with how my mind attempts to justify human behavior.
The creative part comes in my (less instinctual) contemplation of the power of irrationality. I think it’s safe to say that the human approach to eating is more irrational than rational. The vast majority of what we place into our mouths, unless it’s done with utter thoughtlessness, is justified on grounds that do not hold up to reason. The inherent irrationality of eating is, in part, a legacy of commercial choice and the marketing culture that purposely confuses it. It’s also the result of culture in general, religions, and traditions—much of which makes little sense as well. We are convinced to eat the way we eat by forces we hardly understand and most assuredly cannot fully explain. In this case, eating is very much like sex.
That said, rather than seeking to imbue our eating habits with pure rationality—probably a fool’s errand that goes against the grain of human nature—I wonder if it makes more strategic sense to promote the abstinence of eating animals even if that abstinence does not always qualify as rational. What I mean to say here is that there might be great value—at least when it comes to reducing animal suffering— in attempting to stigmatize the consumption of animals on logically flimsy grounds, especially when we find ourselves dealing with the marginal cases, such as the invasive wild boars or lionfish mentioned by John T. Maher.
Or oysters. I wrote yesterday that I choose to err on the side of caution when it comes to oysters. The implication was that this was perfectly rational, a personal expression of the precautionary principle. Maybe it is. But in another sense, as I explore my deeper motivation for keeping oysters on the “no eat list,” I’m realizing that, on some level, my aim is simply to stigmatize the act of eating animals. What matters to me first and foremost is the cultural process of stigmatization. Justifications can follow. And whether they follow convincingly is really not of much concern to me. And that’s not rational.
In any case, I appreciate the thought-provoking comments. Whether you are aware of it or not, this blog has come in for a bit of criticism by some activists for being over intellectualized and under actualized. In other words: too much thinking and not enough doing. All I can say is that every movement in history that has mattered has successfully braided thought and action into a coherent whole. Beyond that, commentary like yesterday’s obviates any need for a defense of what we do. Onwards.
I’ll admit that oysters give me a case of the fits. When I ate them, I liked them. A lot. I don’t eat them anymore, but when people ask me why I forgo the oyster I have a harder time justifying my choice than I do for pigs, cows, chickens, and other obviously sentient animals. The literature on oyster sentience—in so far as I’ve broached it—seems ambiguous at best on the question of oyster sentience and, given that I rely so heavily on the clear non-sentience of plants as my justification for eating plants, I do find the oyster dilemma to be a real one. The best I can say right now is that I prefer to err on the side of caution, awaiting evidence that definitively proved oyster non-sentience, evidence that I doubt will ever come. That said, “fruit of the sea” does not have a totally implausible ring to me.
This topic comes up a lot, I know. In one of the more intriguing cases, it came up a few years ago on Rhys Southan’s incisive blog Let Them Eat Meat. Check it out here. You will be annoyed by it, I imagine, and for good reason—Southan is extremely thoughtful and methodical in his argument that oysters pose a challenge to veganism. Notably, the responses that came into his post to counter his position did little to unravel his points, a failure that Southan himself summarizes with aplomb.
Sadly, it’s not enough in the instance of oysters to simply say that “I’m a vegan and therefore I don’t eat animals.” We need more a more qualitative justification than that. Nor is it really enough to say, as I do, that oysters might be sentient and therefore should be avoided. Insects might be sentient, too, but all vegans kill them on a daily basis in ways that, in many cases, could be avoided. In any case, I’m not trying to be a pain in the ass by granting some legitimacy to the oyster dilemma. I’m only writing out of sheer curiosity and intellectual honesty.
It goes without saying that I’m looking to readers for answers—ones that I will send to Southan to see if he’d like to respond. Rest assured, there will be no oyster slurping for me. But I’d like to have a better justification for my abstinence.
If you are a committed vegan you have likely thought to yourself that you cannot believe you ate how you once ate, much less lived how you once lived. In a way, this is an excellent emotion to experience. It provides honest affirmation of your new, healthier, and more compassionate way of life. It validates your choice of the road less traveled. In another way, though, it can be a dangerous feeling to nurture because, if not treated with due respect, or if understood as a source of shame, it can lead to the sort of alienating smugness that too often gets vegans sent to the office for having a bad attitude.
What I mean here is that, while we may very well see our former selves as reflections of a fundamentally different being, existential continuity dictates that, lo and behold, your old meat-eating, gluttonous, sybaritic self was still you—the same person you are now— and, truth be told, there is great value in not only owning up to that former aspect of your identity, but also to embrace it and recall what that mindset and former identity was like. The benefit of making this self-empathic leap into the past is that it makes us better able to relate to people who have not, and could not even consider, making the leap we have since made. It brings us back to a past that, for most people around us, remains the present.
George Orwell, who I’m gradually coming to appreciate as the last century’s greatest essayist, fully understood the ideological power inherent in keeping emotional ties to former selves. In 1940, he wrote an essay called “My Country Right or Left,” in which he explored his own transitional experience to liberalism in the face of the horrific aftermath of World War One. Undoubtedly pleased with his evolution toward enlightenment, he nevertheless rued those who acted as if that they were born into it, virgin-like in their liberalism, requiring no such transition and thus having no past to disown.
He wrote, “To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during ‘God Save the King.’ That is childish, of course, but I would soon have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions. It is exactly the people who hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes.”
I love this. What Orwell is saying is that the power of an enlightened ideology derives from the power of transition, and that transitions lose their source of strength if we pretend our less enlightened former selves never existed. How else to understand the “most ordinary emotions”—such as a desire to eat animals? Orwell was not writing about veganism, of course, but his message could not be more relevant. He goes on to praise “the power of one kind of loyalty to transmute itself into another” as an element for positive change for which “no substitute has yet been found.”
If true, Orwell’s observation, as well as my interpretation of it, raises future issues for vegan activism as more and more vegans raise children to be vegans from the start. What impact will the lack of transition have on those who never knew what it was once like to sing war songs in honor of the Union Jack? Or, lacking such perspective, will vegans from birth, seeking the power of transition, be more prone to make the change in the other direction, toward eating animals? This is a question for which I have no answer (although lots of thoughts).
You have to give the Humane Society of the United States credit for scaring the snot out of Big Agriculture. For those who persist in thinking that HSUS and other welfare organizations are in some sort of dark conspiratorial cahoots with our nation’s most powerful producers of animal products, I would urge you to look closely at the current Farm Bill.
In particular, consider the recent addendum snuck into the bill by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) during the latest House Agriculture Committee session. An excellent overview of this sordid episode came yesterday from Mariann Sullivan, of Our Hen House. Read it here.
The King addendum stipulates that any state requiring minimal welfare standards in animal agriculture—think Prop 2 in California—cannot ban the importation of animal products from states that lack those standards. This unctuous loophole effectively negates any and all local initiatives to seek better conditions for farm animals. In so doing, it leads to what Sullivan rightly calls “a race to the regulatory bottom.” Hard to imagine that we could get much lower.
Concrete if hypothetical example: If you’re an egg producer in California, the motivation will be, under the King amendment, to move to Nevada (or Idaho or Montana . . .), abandon the costly welfare standards imposed by Prop 2, but still maintain access to lucrative California markets. Frankly (and maybe they did), the political advocates for animal welfare improvement should have seen this one coming all the way from Iowa. King’s dream cannot be that much of a surprise.
Still, this is the cynical politics of fear, a politics inspired in part by the HSUS’s successful efforts to push “minimal” (that’s Wayne Pacelle’s own description) improvements onto animal agriculture on the state level. It is, however, also the politics of politics, something more sinister, and something that one enters at his peril, or at least armed with low expectations and a regiment of lobbyists.
It’s hard to get much of anything done in a top-down sort of way in our Federalist system of government, much less the imposition costly welfare reforms for the voiceless. The horse-trading, as it were, began in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention and has since only intensified to make centralized change more costly and difficult than it need be. Sadly, frustratingly, the King amendment is just another loophole in the Swiss cheese of political reform for farm animals.
This ease with which the King hole was punched suggests very strongly that organizations such as HSUS are better off spending their time seeking change on the corporate rather than the political level. I don’t mean to overstate the dichotomy here between corporations and government, nor do I think political pressure is useless. However, I think that a successful melding of documented consumer interest in welfare standards with persistent corporate advocacy has the potential to render efforts by madmen such as King moot, or at least limit their effectiveness to serving as desperate cries for help under the immense pressure of compassion that’s still struggling to find its loudest bullhorn.
What to do? Here’s this, from Gene Baur at Farm Sanctuary:
I need your help. Right now, please call your Representative in the U.S. Congress and ask that she or he work to remove the King Amendment from the House Farm Bill, which passed by a voice vote on Wednesday night.
The King Amendment could negate most state and local farm animal protection laws, including those regarding factory farm confinement, horse slaughter, and foie gras (along with other laws related to environmental protection, worker safety, and more).
Please make a brief, polite phone call to your U.S. Representativeurging opposition to the King Amendment. You can say simply, “Hi. I live in CITY, I’m calling to ask that Representative NAME oppose the King Amendment to the Farm Bill, which could slash protections for animals and violates state’s rights.” If the person you speak with doesn’t know your representative’s position, please leave your name and phone number, and ask for a call back.
After calling, please submit this form to automatically send a follow-up message.
I did the following interview with my daughter, Cecile.
JM: Why did you become a vegetarian?
CM: Because I love animals and I don’t like how they kill them for food.
JM: What do your friends think about you being vegetarian?
CM: Sometimes they ask why I became a vegetarian, but one of my friends is a vegan so . . . she gets it. But some of my other friends don’t really get it.
JM: When they don’t get it what do you say to them?
CM: I say that they hurt animals for food and they kill them and, like you, I don’t think they should kill animals if they don’t have to.
JM: What are the biggest challenges you face as a vegetarian? Or, are there big challenges you face?
CM: Not really.
JM: What’s a typical lunch look like for you?
CM: A chocolate almond butter sandwich, orange slices, blackberries, and mango; sometimes Tofurky slices.
JM: If you were stranded on an island and could have only one thing to eat . . .
Fruit. Because that’s what they would have on an island.