Archive for the ‘Food Politics’ Category
The more I learn about contemporary agriculture of all forms the more I’m convinced that the decision to avoid eating animals is a limited response to the myriad problems of modern farming. I’m in no way suggesting that eating exclusively plants should be abandoned as a strategy of reform. But I am saying that, in and of itself, its promises are modest at best. We need a new perspective on the issue, one that thinks bigger about agriculture’s future.
Begin with the common vegan claim that a vegan diet does not harm animals. This claim, which typically means to say that vegans do not intentionally harm domesticated or hunted animals, overlooks the fact that untold numbers of sentient little creatures—I’m excluding insects here (more on them soon)—are sliced and diced and crushed to harvest our plant-based diet. It also overlooks the fact that vegetable farmers rarely suffer larger animals—say, deer—from cutting into their profits. Lead injections are par for the course on the happy veggie farm, as are insecticides (even organic) that harm more than insects.
As much as we would like to sidestep this issue, vegans cannot declare themselves free from harm and tuck into their tofu. In fact, there may be cases in which raising and killing and eating one large farm animal, instead of clearing the land to raise kale and kill vermin, is—at least in utilitarian terms—less harmful to the animal world. I’m not at all saying eating domesticated animals is a choice we should make, but I am noting that there are arguments to be made that it could reduce animal suffering. That’s tough medicine to take, but we need to at least swallow it.
Many of you have no doubt heard some version or other of this objection. I think it needs to be taken more seriously than we’ve taken it, if for no other reason than the fact that it nudges us towards a radically new way to conceptualize food and the human-animal relationship. Again—I’m not going to any way suggest eating domesticated of hunted creatures. Instead, I’m going to ask you to think in a more radical way about animals, food, and agriculture; more radical than just saying no to eating critters.
It’s comforting and relatively easy to give up animal products and declare our hands clean. But they’re only clean in the way that the person who fails to pull the switch to kill one person instead of five in the famous trolley experiment has clean hands. As it now stands, anyone who eats has animal blood on her hands. So if deciding to give up animal products is not enough, or only a symbolic gesture in light of the problem’s severity, what are we supposed to do? What are our options.
We must be advocates, of course. But we have to maximize our advocacy. I would argue that advocating a plant-based diet is meaningless if it’s not complemented by an equal, if not stronger, advocacy for climate controlled agriculture. That is, vegans who think they are helping animals by not eating them would be much more effective if they enjoined veganism with advocacy for a farming future that could realistically eliminate all animal harm. Growing food indoors, where condition are carefully monitored, is quite possible if we’re willing to give up row crops and eat a diversity of whole plants.
As agriculture now stands, we cannot assume that not eating animals alone would necessarily reduce animal suffering. Expanding acreage in kale would expand the acreage where squirrels and bunnies and mice and birds and deer are also killed. Move agriculture inside—that is, radically rethink and advocate and invest in a new form of agriculture—and the game really changes in a way that improves the lives of animals, not to mention that of humans who, having decided not to channel our resources into domesticated animals can start cultivating the thousands of nutrient dense crops we now neglect
I would even suggest—tentatively—that this agricultural future could include room for eating animals at the margins, where the ethics of killing sentient animals intentionally don’t apply. I’ve written extensively about roadkill as a viable dietary supplement and I’m as eager as ever to support that option. I’ve also written about eating insects and, although not as convinced, I feel fairly sure that this could be an acceptable dietary choice in a future agricultural system that did minimal harm to animals, humans, and the environment. We should, in essence, eat like bonobos.
These ideas are at the core of a book proposal I’m now writing on rethinking the meaning and form of agriculture for a sustainable future. Be assured: raising and hunting animals for the purposes of consumption are not part of that future. Eating animals might be. Vegan activism has a role, but not nearly as essential a role as a new way of advocating for farming, one that would be best for the animal world and the environment.
Humans have been practicing agriculture for less than a 10th of our contemporary existence. Who’s to say we got it right the first time? It’s time to start over. Not eating animals raised or killed for food should be a starting point. But it’s not the be all and end all of a future that’s based on just food. To advocate for veganism as a singular path to justice for animals in agriculture is misguided. There so much more involved.
Want to really help make the world a better place for animals? Go to Wall Street. Get rich. Give back. What the real animal rights movement needs, and what it lacks, is real wealth. Donated wealth. Super-rich wealth.
Everyday I’m hit up to contribute to one great organization or another. I give when I can—and it’s always the Wall Street equivalent of pocket change—but when I do give I always think that it’s really too bad there’s not a person with five million bucks lying around to endow this organization, free it from fundraising, and allow it to fight the fight it wants to fight, rather than spending enormous resources or exploiting interns to hit me up for chump change. And don’t fool yourselves: there are plenty of people with an extra five million bucks lying around. And the change I can give really is chump-ish.
One obvious objection to this idea is that you’d have to invest in various forms of animal exploitation–directly or indirectly–to make your fortune. I imagine collusion with the animal-industrial complex would indeed be unavoidable. But, if your intention is to make millions and give back, I say do it anyway—make your fortune fast, keep your lifestyle simple, live your values as best you can, and rob Peter to pay Paul. What’s that phrase about being effective or being right? Plus, if enough people do it, the investment profile might change over time.
For now, though, it might be more consistent ethically speaking for a young person concerned with animals to do an unpaid internship at an underfunded animal rights group, or to start a sanctuary and rescue a few birds and rabbits, but it’d be much more effective if that young person put off the internship, set aside the idea of a little sanctuary, started a hedge fund, became a billionaire, and founded the world’s largest animal sanctuary. Activism is not divorced from economics. Scale matters.
There are so many amazing activists doing amazing work to make the world a safer place for sentient animals. But we are all hampered financially. So, young and compassionate person: go to Wall Street, get rich, and give back. (Oh, and when you make your fortune, remember that The Pitchfork is happy to accept your pledge.)
Reality can be a bitch. Especially when you’re committed to propaganda. There’s no more common form of agrarian propagandizing than the insistence that pastured cows can save the earth. If that assessment sounds hyperbolic, check in with Allan Savory, who says that pastured cows can save the earth.
While the media, which knows precious little about the dark side of grassfed cattle, is generally happy to reiterate the self-serving and unverified claims of the “grass farmers,” every now and then a conflict of interest emerges to force the adoring media to cough up some truth about the ecological realities on the happy farm.
In this case, the inconvenient conflict came when pastured Vermont dairy cows pooping in pristine Lake Champlain pitted native grass farmers against clean water lovers. Suddenly, with enraged enviros at each other’s throats, the truth emerged from all the shouting: all those cows supposedly primed to save the earth were turning the lake into a cesspool. Find the story here.
The fact that Grist put this story out makes the news even more interesting. Grist’s vision of a happy planet seems to be one with farm animals frolicking across endlessly verdant pastures. It has been one of the loudest cheerleaders for the pastured-based revolution. One would more likely expect blood from a stone than an anti-grassfed story from Grist‘s mill. But there it is.
But what encourages me the most about this kind of story making the rounds—and maybe I’m engaging in my own form of fantasy here—is that the inescapably messy logistics of raising animals on pasture, and the pregnant consequences therein, will inevitably present themselves so blatantly that the media, and the general public, will no longer be able to ignore a reality that we have spent so long convincing ourselves to be otherwise.
At some point reality has no choice but to bite back, right?
Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), an organization that provides a humane label for meat and dairy products, hit my inbox today with a downright giddy press release celebrating a Seattle-based barista for “her award-winning cappuccinos [with milk] from cows raised in accordance with the highest animal welfare standards.” That would be, of course, AWA cows.
I quickly found myself percolating over a single question. Should I really get excited that AWA is glowing with press-release pride because five varieties of milk made by a Washington dairy have consumers frothing with culinary excitement? Something about the celebration of a supposedly delicious animal product—milk!— by an organization that cares for animals smelled rotten to me.
The triumphant barista’s emphasis on dairy quality over animal welfare only intensified my skepticism. She explained, ”Milk is a big part of my score. It just didn’t make sense for me to invest a lot of time in the right espresso, and not the right milk.” Indeed, bring in some happy udders! With a sort of sinister pride, AWA explained that the barista “tasted over 10 different milks while she was getting ready for the competition, but noted ‘Pure Eire Dairy just stood out.’”
AWA Program Director Andrew Gunther, for his part, was thrilled. After all, yet another gentle exploiter of animals had “achieved success through their [AWA's] product.” He added, ”It’s no coincidence. High-welfare, sustainable farming equals great food. Knowing that Laila sources her milk from an AWA farm underpins that assumption.” Maybe the farmers will now get as rich as their cream. It’d be no coincidence.
Consider the logic here. By treating cows relatively well, you get better tasting milk and win awards. When you get better tasting milk and win awards, you encourage consumers to drink more milk, or at least not give it up. If you encourage milk consumption, specifically from cows raised according to specific welfare standards, you ensure that your label will last at least as long as a brand seared into a cow’s ass.
Forgive me if I’m not frothing with excitement over AWA’s dubious accomplishment. Adding insult to injury, milk isn’t even necessary for coffee. Purists eschew, if not abhor, it. So not only is AWA helping to make milk taste better, it’s encouraging an expansion of the product’s application. Good for the labeling business, I guess.
In any case, I can do AWA one better and insist on the simplest and most humane solution: drink it black.
A version of this piece ran in Pacific Standard last November. Given the vocal response to my last post, I thought it made sense to run it here at The Pitchfork.
The push is on to require foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to have a label. Last year, California missed passing a labeling proposition by a hair. A similar initiative failed again this year by just a fraction of a hair in Washington. In June, Connecticut became the first state to pass a GMO labeling law(although it remains ineffective until four other eastern states, one of them bordering Connecticut, pass similar laws). Nine days after Connecticut’s bill passed, Maine followed suit. Other states are clamoring.
Despite considerable push-back from the predictable corporate interests, including Monsanto and Dow, there’s every reason to believe that some form of GMO labeling is on the horizon. This development, for all of the controversy it generates, is probably a good thing for both producers and consumers. But not for the reasons one might assume.
The most common justification offered for labeling GMO ingredients is that consumers “have a right to know” what’s in our food. So pervasive is this explanation that the most conspicuous lobbying initiative for GMO labeling is called “Right to Know GMO.” The claim has become a catchphrase in the movement’s promotional rhetoric. The GMO Awareness organization explains how “it’s your right to know if it’s GMO.” Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield—of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream fame—condemn the corporate effort to prevent our “right to know.” Food Democracy Now! touts our “fundamental right to know” whether or not GMOs are in our food.
But do we have a fundamental right to know what’s in our food? The ring of empowerment behind the right to know justification is undeniable. But, on closer inspection, this is rights talk run amok. Counterintuitive as it sounds, we don’t necessarily have an inherent right to know what’s in our food, or how our food was made. This is the case for many reasons.
Embracing a right is premised to some extent on the reasonable ability to achieve its fulfillment. Pragmatically speaking, the steps required to produce food today are too numerous, too complex, and too elusive to realistically satisfy the consumer’s right to know. This claim holds equally true for all methods and forms of agricultural production—local or global, organic or conventional, factory farm or Old MacDonald’s.
In a way, we sacrificed our right to know when we left the land. And even when we were on it, we still may not have had a right to know what was in our food for the practical reason that, again, knowing wasn’t remotely possible. In many cases, whatever right we may have to know is undermined by the fact that we often don’t even know what we might have a right to know.
Consider: Do we have a right to know how close a farm was to a pollution-spewing petrochemical plant? Do we have a right to know if the composted manure used to grow organic kale came from a factory farm? Do we have a right to know if growers used conventional fertilizer that contained industrial waste? Do we have a right to know how many pounds of legal herbicides were sprayed on our lettuce? Do we have a right to know how often food handlers washed their hands? Closer to the GMO mark, do we have a right to know what kind of hybrid corn was used to make our non-GMO tortillas?
All of these conditions directly influence the food we eat—some of them in ways that might impact health. And, yes, it’s conceivable that this level of detail might someday be included in a bar code that consumers could scan and read. But even so, as matters now stand, it would be impractical, not to mention prohibitively expensive, to justify our access to this information, much less reduce it to a label, on the basis of a rhetorical appeal to rights.
If we agree that all the mundane details of agriculture do not belong on a label—even if only on practical grounds—why are we so insistent that GMOs are the one thing that absolutely must be called out on labels? (Other than the fact that they’ve been somewhat arbitrarily politicized?)
The rights justification also bumps against legitimate trade secrets. Let’s say a pastry chef warms his butter to a specific temperature before making his world famous tarte au citron. Consumers obviously do not have a right to know that temperature. Likewise, Coca-Cola, for it part, is under no obligation to reveal its secret formula to rights-obsessed soft drink aficionados. Brewers work with alchemistic creativity to blend hop varieties and achieve sublime flavor in their concoctions. Good luck trying to get your hands of their formulas. Advocates of that culinary philosophy known as terroir would recoil at the idea of Texas dairy farmers replicating the complex ecological matrix of conditions required for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or even Californians doing so for Champagne, on the basis of rights. In these cases, one might say that producer privilege supersedes that of consumers.
Critics of this anti-rights argument might counter that GMOs are bad for our health and, as a result, aren’t comparable to such arbitrary factors as butter temperature, Coke ingredients, hop ratios, or soil composition. There are two points to consider regarding this objection. First, and we’ve been over this before, there’s no concrete evidence that GMOs pose a unique risk to human health. The American Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—among many other authorities—have all said as much.
Opponents of GMOs routinely note that not enough time has passed to deem GMOs safe for human consumption. This is a fair concern, one worth discussing, as are all cases involving the precautionary principle. But to get a sense of where it might lead we should begin by asking at what exact point in time corn hybrids, pioneered in the 1930s, were deemed safe for human consumption. GMOs have been a staple of our food supply for 20 years. They are in the majority of the processed food we eat. And they are fed to most of animals we eat. How much more time is required before we admit that they are, as far as food goes, relatively safe?
Second, the vagaries of human digestion and ecological conditions are such that virtually any aspect of food production—cooking temperature, ingredient blends, and trademarked formulas—can make certain consumers, or groups of consumers, sick, while, at the same time, leaving others unaffected or even healthier. Welcome to the confused reality of eating: Threading the needle between the land and the digestive tract is an unavoidably risky endeavor and, given the scientific evidence, unaffected by the presence or absence of GMOs in our food supply.
Considering all of these factors, a rights-based rationale for GMO labeling fails.
But this does not mean there shouldn’t be a GMO label. Although consumers might lack the right to know what’s in our food, or how our food was made, a stronger case can be made that we have a right not to be misled by a food label. This is where things get more interesting. The federal government began to implicitly recognize this possible right in 1906, with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. By 1938, with the passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, this concern was made explicit and, over time, passively embraced by consumers as a legitimate right.
And it is here that we inch closer to a viable justification for GMO labeling. About a decade ago, some food companies, capitalizing on the public vilification (and misunderstanding) of GMOs, began to add value to their products by voluntarily labeling their goods as “GMO free” (the USDA approved this label in 2013). While this initiative inspired some companies to voluntarily label foods with GMOs in them—namely Chipotle Mexican Grill, Whole Foods, and Ben and Jerry’s—the non-GMO label, in the name of clarity, ultimately fostered consumer confusion. It planted a question mark on the vast majority of the food supply—a majority that may or may not have had GMOs in them and, as a result, became (by virtue of the non-GMO label alone) indirectly misleading. It is this situation that a GMO label would help rectify, reducing the possibility of consumers being misled.
Yes, this is an odd hook upon which to hang the GMO label. (It’s a justification that, for one, questions the wisdom of allowing a product to declare on a label what’s not in it.) But, while a label shouldn’t be approved solely for its ability to shape consumer acceptance, proponents of GMO labeling who believe this technology will have concrete humanitarian and ecological benefits should take solace in what strikes me as sounder justification than a presumed right to know.
Every major food-related technology throughout history—refrigeration and canning come to mind for the past century—was roundly condemned before it was accepted as the norm. As GMOs become associated with products designed to have a clear human health benefit—oil without trans fat, yeast for wine that won’t cause a hangover, biofortified foods—they might have something to gain by no longer hiding in plain sight. If not now, then eventually.
NOTE: I’ve been contacted by a speaker at Veg Expo and notified that not every invited speaker will be talking about GMOs. This information, which was not included in Folta’s post, and is belied by the Veg Expo’s ads (see here), is nonetheless critical to note. Still, the guy above is speaking about GMOs.
Kevin M. Folta, who describes himself as “a scientist in a scientifically illiterate nation at a time when we need science the most,” has a blog post up that’s pretty snarky but makes an important point: vegans/vegetarians should ground themselves in scientific reality.
The bee in Folta’s bonnet is the anti-GMO focus dominating this year’s VegExpo in Vancouver (scheduled for June 8). Now, before I proceed, let it be said that there are serious problems with GMOs, many of them involving their ownership and application. But, for all their drawbacks, there’s no credible evidence that they are any more or less harmful to human health (or the environment) than conventional hybrids. Even the fear-mongering Mother Jones! agrees with me on this one (not to mention the National Academies of Science, World Health Organization, etc.).
It’s thus a shame that the Vancouver veg folks invited nine people (only one with a scientific background) who seem poised to spread misleading if not erroneous messages about the supposed negative health impacts of GMOs. Naturally, I don’t know exactly what these speakers will say in June, but they will all arrive with histories of opposing GMOs on health grounds, thereby illuminating the question of why anyone would (presumably) pay nine people to say the same wrong thing about the same topic at the same event.
Worse, not a single speaker has the proper qualifications to make authoritative claims about GMOs. What does it say about the Veg outlook on scientific credibility when, in an attempt to explain how Canadians are affected by GMOs, the organizers have invited a Joga instructor (yes, that’s Joga, not yoga), the owner of Hippie Foods (who has a financial interest in castigating GMOs), an entertainment reporter, a snack mix purveyor, a 14-year old, a vegan fitness expert, and, Jeffrey Smith, a former practitioner of “flying yoga” who now poses under the guise of the Institute for Responsible Technology (and who has been called out by real scientists as an imposter)?
Every vegan and vegetarian is poorly represented by this agenda. Folta writes, “I think the veg/vegans do deserve better. I applaud their efforts and choices, I’m just sad that they are destroying their scientific persuasion and credibility by sponsoring people that know nothing about science and farming.”
I think he’s right.
Cliven Bundy is either the smartest or dumbest gaucho on the range. Here’s his claim to fame: he mooched 20 years’ worth of grazing fees from the Bureau of Land Management and, when the BLM moved in to settle up, he tapped a populist-prone and hardware-wielding posse to protect his clean $1 million in unpaid dues.
The smart Bundy was brilliantly manipulating a uniquely American script dating back to the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion: refuse to pay up, wait for the feds to pounce, muster a bunch of Big Guvmint rhetoric to whip the “don’t-tread-on-me” crowd into an anarchy-tinged froth. The dumb Bundy, by contrast, is just some Nevada nutbag who doesn’t know the difference between public and private property, insouciantly allowing taxpayers to subsidize his little cowboy fantasy.
As FOX News transforms Bundy into a latter-day Thomas Jefferson, a few points should be reiterated. First, the cattle that graze the 18,00o BLM leases destroy western ecosystems already made fragile by drought (Jefferson the farmer would have objected). Second, the animals most capable of restoring those grasslands to health—species arranged in a complex web of predator/prey relationships—have been wiped clean from the western slate so cattle can treat the West as a literal stomping ground. Third, the most threatening invasive species in this drama are two-legged Bundy-types who think their personal rights include treating the American West as their birthright.
But even more than the landscape, the species, and the cowboys, there are the millions upon millions of individual animals who suffer as Bundy, the BLM, and meat-loving Americans indulge in this tired protest. Don’t expect the news outlets to treat animals as interested parties. But they have the most to lose.
This is no American Revolution. There are no more Sons of Liberty. It’s an unchecked power grab that the BLM, should it concede, would place every American critter—no how many legged—on the wrong side of some lunatic’s ego, not to mention his firearm.
We all can’t stand industrial agriculture as we know it. So we try to make consumer choices to avoid its abuses. There are many ways to resist the machine, but—as I have repeatedly argued—the absolute most effective way to challenge agribusiness is to stop eating animal products and start eating an exclusive diet of whole plant-based foods. Although my crusade as a writer has been to improve the world for animals, I have always taken solace in the fact that we can eat in a way that helps animals while sticking it to industrial agriculture at the same time. I like that overlap.
The above remarks are exactly what I would have explained to Mother Jones‘ food/ag writer Tom Philpott had he contacted me before characterizing me as defender of the food industry in his most recent MJ piece. For those keeping score, when I wrote about Philpott for a Pacific Standard article, I took the time to correspond with him. But anyway, I’m sure readers of this blog will be surprised to learn that, according to TP, “McWilliams is playing his usual role: reasonable-sounding defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional industry.”
The analysis certainly thrilled Mark Bittman, who tweeted it and thanked Philpott for his hard work. Interestingly, neither of these defenders of eating animal products—and thus defenders of eating the goods upon which industrial agriculture thrives—have taken the time to respond to my American Scholar essay, one that scares industrial food much more than all the support these writers offer to “humane” animal products from small farms that are doing little more than supporting the status quo at a higher price per pound.
In any case, consider me baffled.
The environmental case against raising animals for food becomes increasingly stronger as more and more research emerges. A closer look at the finer points on the comparative water usage between livestock and plants highlights this correlation quite clearly.
According to researchers recently cited in a Mother Jones article, beef has a water footprint of 15,415 cubic meters/ton. The water footprint for “sugar crops” is 197 cubic meters/ton; for vegetables it’s 240 cubic meters/ton. This dramatic disparity alone raises serious questions as to why anyone seeking to analyze the current California drought would highlight the water footprint of nuts—admittedly, a relatively high 9,063 cubic meters/ton—when cattle consume so much of California’s scarce water supply, most of it in the form of alfalfa. Doing so strikes me as a case of distraction journalism.
A related issue when it comes to comparing the ecological impact of the food is methane–which has 72 times the global warming potential as carbon. Last year was a big year for methane research. Scientists discovered that U.S. methane output is 50 percent more than the EPA was estimating and 70 percent more than the figure cited by th European Environmental Agency’s Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). Especially revealing was the fact that livestock related emissions were twice the current estimates, accounting for up to 33 percent of global methane emissions. Cows burp and defecate, methane escapes, it harms the environment. This claim holds true for factory farmed and pastured animals.
Given these kinds of figures, in addition to the urgency with which environmentalists rightfully urge humans to adjust their behavior to prevent planetary implosion, it strikes me as a little ridiculous that we’re actually having serious arguments over whether or not veganism is a good move for the environment. Of course it is.
Let’s close that case and start talking about why the eco-foodies who wring their hands so earnestly about ecological destruction are not taking the obvious and in many ways the most accessible step of exclusively eating plants.
I’ve been stewing about this article for days. Courtesy of Mother Jones (an increasingly reliable source of gratuitous fear-mongering) the piece prods readers to go into high-anxiety mode over the ecological impact of almonds. Yep. Almonds. Turns out these crunchy little nuts are hogging California’s water, which is dangerously scarce. “It takes how much water to grow an almond?,” screams the headline.
When it comes to water almonds don’t matter. What matters is livestock. Here are some facts: growing alfalfa to feed cattle consumes more water than any other crop in California; most of the federal support that goes to struggling California farmers goes to ranchers; it takes 2000-2500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. It takes about 11o gallons to produce a pound of almonds. One clogs your arteries and demands the intentional slaughter of a sentient animal. The other packs of wallop of nutrients and requires no visit to the slaughterhouse.
What Marc Reisner wrote in Cadillac Desert still holds true today: “The West’s water crisis — and many of its environmental problems as well — can be summed up, implausible as this may seem, in a single word: livestock.” But, not to worry: the National Cattleman’s Association has asked its members to pray for rain. Meanwhile, I’ll be praying that somebody in the crazy world of food writing comes to his senses