Archive for the ‘Food Politics’ Category
Perdue, the fourth-largest chicken company in the United States, is a giant among giants in the agribusiness world. Recently, it purchased Natural Food Holdings, which owns Niman Ranch, a niche meat producer known for its comparatively impressive welfare and sustainability standards.
News of Niman’s acquisition was generally greeted with the big media equivalent of a shrug, but I think it warrants a stronger, more appropriate reaction: Panic.
Niman was never perfect—its founder, Bill Niman, left the company when it outgrew his small-farm vision. But still, its 700-plus farmers working in 28 states maintain relatively close ties to the landscape, the animals they raise, and even the company that continues to set and enforce its standards of production.
To think that Niman farmers will be able to maintain these meaningful connections under Perdue stretches plausibility to the breaking point. Yet theNew York Times’ brief report on the Niman purchase does just this. It suggests that the Perdue acquisition is evidence that Big Ag is finally embracing the gentler logic of small-scale, alternative agriculture. On the topic of animal welfare, it quoted (without offering a counterpoint) Jim Perdue as saying, “I think [Niman] can bring us a lot of new ideas.”
Please. Perdue’s entire corporate history is one of rejecting Niman’s new ideas. . . . . Read more.
Every diet is an aspiration to an ideal. Consequently, every diet is easy to criticize. Vegans aspire to avoid harming animals, but critics note that plant crops require the mass extermination of innumerable wild critters. Weight Watchers aspires to reduce body mass index with a calories-in/calories-out approach, but critics note that not all calories are equal. The macrobiotic diet aspires to balance the yin with the yang; critics note that they have absolutely no earthly idea what this might mean.
If every diet is open to criticism, the paleo diet—also called the “caveman diet”—is in a league of its own. The dietary practices of the Paleolithic period centered on hunted-and-gathered meat, seafood, fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. It excluded grains, legumes, dairy, and refined sugar. Paleo advocates argue that cavemen thrived on these foods, growing tall and avoiding the lifestyle diseases that plague “the moderns,” as some paleos prefer to call the rest of us. But critics deem the quest to replicate the pre-agrarian diet not only delusional—primarily because equivalent foods no longer exist—but also ignorant of human evolution. Recently, as a sort of nail in the coffin of the diet’s besieged reputation, a much-anticipated book on raising paleo babies was pulled at the last minute for lack of scientific evidence.
I’ve been critical of the paleo diet in the past, primarily because of its heavy reliance on meat consumption. But recently I wondered: What would happen if I examined the diet differently? That is, what if I examined its aspirations rather than its failure to achieve an ideal? What if I watched the diet at work in the hands of a master, a true believer, a genuine beneficiary of what’s too easy to dismiss as a fad?
To explore these questions I shelved my presuppositions and went to central Maine to visit Arthur Haines. Haines is an ethno-botanist and paleo advocate who runs the Delta Institute of Natural History, a program that organizes workshops on “neoaboriginal lifeways.” In an attempt to reach “everyone seeking an alternative to the current paradigm of living,” he instructs students on how eat an aboriginal diet, focusing on trapping, foraging, and hunting skills, as well as wild medicinal cures and the finer points of ancestral child rearing. For what it’s worth, Haines, who has developed a loyal YouTube following, is as sturdy as an ox, healthy as a horse, and has a gentle, understated presence.
But there’s nothing gentle or understated about what he eats for lunch. On the occasion of my visit, it’s a heap of pre-agrarian grub. Haines piles his plate with wild rice he recently harvested, gravy made from reduced bone broth, and venison shot and processed last autumn (before being canned for preservation). He leans over the table and eats with urgency. He scoops out seconds while his partner, Nicole Leavitt, and their 18-month-old daughter, Samara, work more deliberately through their first servings. Samara eats exactly what her parents eat—she always has (her parents chewed her meat for her before she teethed). Just as I was wondering to myself how Arthur and Nicole made it through Maine winters, in relative isolation, without so much as a warming drop of alcohol, Nicole plunked down a bottle of homemade mead on the table. Mead is a fermented honey drink that tastes something like Riesling. It was thus with a stomach full of wild rice and a head buzzing with mead that I finally saw what I came to see: Haines in action.
Read more here.
When the media first started covering the California drought it did so from the perspective of the specific foods we eat. Given that 80 percent of the state’s water is used for agriculture, this would seem to make sense. Mother Jones crusaded against the water-hogging impact of nuts, especially almonds. Michael Pollan, seizing on an illuminating Los Angeles Times infographic, took to Twitter and declared California lentils verboten. I highlighted the disproportionate share of the state’s water consumed by beef and dairy, specifically the alfalfa crop that helps sustain these industries.
The obvious benefit of this approach is that it empowers consumers. As a consumer, I feel good about not eating beef and a little guilty about the almond milk in my fridge. I feel compelled to purchase lentils from France but comforted by the fact that beer has a relatively low water footprint. I agree that much of the produce grown in the Central and Imperial Valleys should be grown in the Midwest, but until that happens (don’t hold your breath), I’m motivated to make concrete choices that address California’s water crisis. Hard data about specific foods helps me do this.
In her book Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman absolves the act of eating meat from moral inquiry on the grounds that humans have always eaten animals. She explains that a “food web” in which animals and plants routinely consume each other (yes, plants eat animals) places all life in “an endless cycle of regeneration.” As a result, she concludes: “something so fundamental to the functioning of nature cannot be regarded as morally problematic.” Please re-read that quote to make sure it sinks in.
This logic is sloppy, commonplace, and dangerous. Critics of vegetarianism or veganism routinely chant the mantra that humans “were meant to eat animals.” This comment has a “no further questions asked” tone to it. It seems intuitively true and, unfortunately, for consumers otherwise inclined to question the moral implications of eating animals, it serves as a convenient escape hatch from a question many meat eaters are eager to avoid: is it wrong to slaughter a sentient animal for food when it’s unnecessary to do so?
By relying on the “humans were meant to eat meat” logic, Niman fails to examine the assumption upon which it rests. At its foundation, the claim implies that any adaptive quality that humans might have evolved to survive is, to quote Niman, “so fundamental to the functioning of nature” that it “cannot be regarded as morally problematic.”
The problem here is that evolutionary adaptation—the essence of the “functioning of nature”—includes untold morally disgusting behaviors that, while perfectly natural in the same way that eating animals is considered natural, are rightly deemed abhorrent by decent people living in a civil society.
Take infanticide. The adaptive advantage of infanticide for many vertebrates is well-supported. This is true for humans as well as primates. Among the !Kung hunter gatherers of Kalahari, about one in a hundred births end in infanticide. In regions of New Guinea, according to anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, infanticide is “off the charts,” as mothers who wanted sons (or whose partners wanted sons) will often kill their daughters.
Rather than accept this behavior as beyond moral scrutiny due to its proven “natural” or adaptive quality, civil society rightly rejects infanticide as a totally barbaric practice. The human corrective, according to many evolutionary biologists, has been monogamy—a civilized arrangement often deemed “unnatural,” but certainly morally superior to the alternative.
Another (admittedly more controversial) example to consider is rape. In 2000, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer argued in A Natural History of Rape that the urge to rape is the legacy of an evolutionary adaptive trait (or the by-product of an adaptive trait, such as aggression in men). Their theory (not surprisingly) encountered a firestorm of objection, much of it concerned that evolutionary psychology was being used as “excuse” for inexcusably horrific behavior.
Whether or not Thornhill and Palmer are right (their hypothesis is still debated), the regrettable fact remains that rape has existed throughout recorded human history, across human cultures, as well as throughout the non-human animal world. Evolutionary psychology, moreover, remains a powerful heuristic tool with which to understand the once (potentially) adaptive, if repulsive, mechanism underscoring rape.
As recently as 2013, a major peer-reviewed study has argued that, “forced sex is the outcome of an innate conditional strategy which enables men to circumvent parental and female choice when they experience a competitive disadvantage, or when the costs of doing so are low.” Other scholars are seeking to reconcile a feminist and an evolutionary psychological understanding of rape, negating the “men can’t help it” suggestion while preserving the evolutionary perspective that Thornhill and Palmer promote.
To clarify any misunderstanding on this point, the takeaway is not to equate the immorality of rape with the immorality of eating animals. Instead, it is to note that both behvaiors (one, of course, being far more common than the other) may have served adaptive functions that qualify them as “natural” and, according to Niman’s logic, beyond moral assessment.
Finally, take something much more common and less controversial: lying. From the perspective of natural adaptation, lying has likely been even more essential to human evolution than eating animals (for, as we know, some societies subsisted on plants, but lying has no plant-based counterpart!).
In Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith situates lying in our evolutionary past, one in which strategic deception had clear adaptive benefits. Lying is thus perfectly natural in the same way eating animals is perfectly natural–it’s an act humans have always done to foster evolutionary adaption. But that hardly makes it morally inert in contemporary life. We don’t like it when people lie.
Which brings me back to Niman. Today, of course, we consider all of these behaviors, in varying degrees, to be morally significant. Nobody in her right mind would contemplate infanticide, lying, or rape and declare, as Niman does of killing animals, that, “something so fundamental to the functioning of nature cannot be regarded as morally problematic.” To the contrary, she would condemn these acts as wrong. It is on the basis of such condemnation that human civil society exists and, on good days, thrives.
Why killing animals for food we do not need gets an “it’s natural” pass is a question that Niman has yet to answer. Until she does, I see no reason to accept the naturalistic fallacy at the core of her justification for eating animals.
Chipotle is a fast food company that talks a big game about sourcing animal products from responsible farms. The company’s “food with integrity” slogan assures customers that, “when sourcing meat, we work hard to find farmers and ranchers who are doing things the right way.”
But a careful examination of Chipotle’s animal welfare rhetoric quickly confirms the lack of any hard commitment to the welfare ideals it so breezily espouses. Without going into a systematic analysis of Chipotle’s marketing verbiage, it’s quickly apparent that the most common qualifier anchoring Chipotle to factory farming is this: “whenever possible.” Yes, Chipotle will “work hard” to support welfare standards “whenever possible.”
But these qualifiers have proven meaningless for the once McDonald’s-owned company. In 2013, when the supply of antibiotic-free beef dropped, the company allowed factory-farmed antibiotic-laden beef into the supply chain. As this was happening, the company’ co-founder was telling the media—who acted as scribes—things such as “The more consumers understand the benefits of eating food from more sustainable sources, the more they’re going to expect it from everyone.”
A sinister calculation is at work for Chipotle. On the one hand, it waxes rhetorically about its high welfare standards and this rhetoric serves to improve the company’s popularity. On the other, this intensified popularity means that Chipotle’s demand for meat and dairy will outstrip the supply of meat and dairy available from the farmers it earnestly claims to support.
Read more here.
Temple Grandin is perhaps the world’s most-recognized authority on farm-animal welfare. As the subject of an admiring HBO film, she has a lot of fans. Foremost among them are journalists on the agriculture beat. Whenever an animal-welfare perspective is required, it seems the first person tapped for a quote is Temple Grandin.
But Grandin is a paid industry consultant. She profits financially by designing industrial slaughterhouses. She supplements her income by writing books and delivering speeches about those designs. Whatever animal welfare advice she offers should always be framed in the context of her monetary connection to industrial agriculture.
It should also be noted that big agriculture—big beef in particular—adores Grandin. She approaches agricultural “reform” from a compellingly safe perspective, one as much informed by her Ph.D. in animal science as her autism.
The notion that Grandin’s autism provides unique insight into animal perspectives curries considerable favor with the general public, thereby further enhancing her credibility and reputation as a person who cares deeply about animals. Big Ag plays on this association brilliantly. Journalists help them do it.
Grandin’s allegedly unique connection to animal lives is routinely reified through visually arresting images. Here’s Grandin hugging a horse. Here she is surrounded by a brace of cows. Here she is petting a pig. Never do we see Grandin with an animal being slaughtered. That would sully the image.
Obviously, one would think, Grandin’s empathy for these animals runs deep, deep enough at least for us to trust her as a viable source of information on their welfare.
But her real job is to help agribusiness kill them.
The Daily Pitchfork, which I hope you will consider subscribing to, is off to a fantastic start. Our most recent piece is an excellent article by Vickery Eckhoff on the sloppy reporting on wild horses in the American west. It is a careful and somewhat jaw dropping revelation of how extensively journalists twist messages to avoid upsetting the status quo. Enjoy. Subscribe!
Michael Moss’ powerful New York Times’ investigation into the United States Department of Agriculture’s Meat Animal Research Center (“U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer In Quest For Profit”) predictably outraged readers. The collective angst came not just because of the center’s ghoulish and inept experimentation; not just because the research animals suffered to boost profits in the livestock industry; but because the public learned that taxpayers had footed the bill — and had been doing so — for fifty years.
Compare that discovery to the recent media attention given to a very similar program, one involving even more animals, conducted to boost livestock industry profits, costing even more taxpayer dollars, and degrading millions of acres of public rangelands in the American West: The Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burros Program (WHB).
Read more here.
Humans,” Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has written, “seem to take a perverse pleasure in attributing stupidity to animals when it is almost entirely a question of human ignorance.” This dictum seems especially apt with Thanksgiving arriving tomorrow. No animal, after all, has been more actively dismissed for its purported stupidity than the turkey.
The old legend about turkeys turning their gullets upward and drowning during rainstorms is reliably rehashed every November, almost as if to assuage some repressed collective doubt we have over killing 45 million maligned fowl in order to honor a tradition that, at its inception, had nothing to do with turkey.
Turkeys are neither moronic nor prone to chronic downpour suicides. In their undomesticated state they are, as the naturalist Joe Hutto has written, remarkably attentive and intelligent creatures. Hutto carefully observed a flock of wild turkeys for many months, recounting his experiences in Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey. He became particularly attached to a bird he named Turkey Boy.
“Each time I joined him,” Hutto wrote, “he greeted me with his happy dance, a brief joyful display of ducking and dodging, with wings outstretched and a frisky shake of the head like a dog with water in his ears.” Hutto, a longtime turkey hunter, was charmed, even reformed. The bird, he explained, “would jump at me and touch me lightly with his feet.”
I’m well aware that most readers will deem Hutto’s account as shamelessly anthropomorphized, if not just plain silly. I’m frequently reminded of our reluctance to fundamentally rethink the way we eat and consider the possibility that animals deserve better. I recently sat at a communal table at a vegan restaurant and listened to a jovial conversation about killing chickens and deer.At a vegan restaurant (granted, in Texas). You learn, after a time, to develop a measure of perspective on such things.
But our perspective should never omit the fact that animal scientists have documented complex patterns of turkey behavior. This is especially true when it comes to memory and geography. Wild turkeys return to the exact location of a baiting station an entire year after feeding. They scratch and sniff and circle the exact spot for that unforgettable free lunch even though the trough has been moved. Animal behaviorists agree that this return is notable. The Humane Society rightly characterizes it as “evidence of hitherto unappreciated intelligence.”
Should you relegate this impressive example of turkey recollection to mere instinct, should you convincingly reduce it to a habitual “skill” that’s pre-programmed into the birds’ mindless genetic repertoire, think again. The emotional and social lives of turkeys (wild and domesticated) speak to an active and adaptive cognition.
Turkeys need each other, and in more than just a safety-in-numbers sort of way. Researchers have found that when an individual turkey is removed from his flock, even in domesticity, he’ll squawk in obvious protest until reunited with his posse. Turkeys have a refined “language” of yelps and cackles. They mourn the death of a flock member and so acutely anticipate pain that domestic breeds have had epidemical heart attacks after watching their feathered mates take that fatal step towards Thanksgiving dinner. They clearly feel and appear to understand pain.
There’s been a heated back-and-forth on this site lately over how to categorize animals with respect to our supposed right to eat them. Is a pig objectively smarter than a dog? Well then don’t kill it. Is a pig less acculturated to human companionship than a dog? Well then kill it. These exchanges have been more than a little thought-provoking. But ultimately they get bogged down in nuanced shades of distinction while missing the transcendent question: Are animals worthy enough creatures to deserve our ultimate respect, a respect that requires that we choose not to kill them for food we don’t need?
I’m the first to admit that I have no hard scientific evidence as to why I think the answer is yes. But as a historian I at least recognize that history is marked by a discordant combination of radical change and ceaseless continuity. Acculturated practices—practices that seem as normalized as breathing—eventually change. Not only do they change, but contemporary human societies look back on these once entrenched behaviors and wonder how we ever allowed them to happen. But what never changes, what will always be, is that humans are, no matter how hard we try to conquer the world’s complexities, ultimately humbled by its mysteries.
Turkeys, for those who have taken the time to look, are mysteries. All animals are. Do they anticipate and feel pain? Do they enjoy social relationships and feel the loss of companions? Do they think, remember, and conceptualize the future? We can debate these questions forever. But the fact that there’s even room for debate suggests that we should err on the side of humility. And we might begin by giving some thought to our unthinking decision to eat turkey on Thanksgiving.
Isn’t the fact that foodies feel compelled to write articles advising tribe members how not to sound snobby evidence that they are ipso facto snobs? I guess you could answer this question in the negative, suggesting that foodies get a bad rap, with their zeal for revitalized soil and apples picked by virgins being mistaken for elitism rather than plain old childlike enthusiasm.
But if the most recent investigation into how to “geek out over food without sounding like a snob” is any indication, I think there’s little doubt that foodies should dismiss all egalitarian pretenses and just own it: when it comes to the rarified pleasures of the palate, they’re better than us.
The author of this piece turned to her friends in the foodie trenches and asked them how to handle the ubiquitous snob label. Here are some samples of the answers (followed by a little commentary):
Kat Kinsman: “Why would you rob someone of their joy? Even if it’s not your bag, step outside of yourself for a second and ask them what it is that makes them love this particular ingredient, dish, restaurant, cuisine. You get to learn a little something about it and the person who loves it, and you get a chance to not make the world suck a little more for them.”
Commentary: I do step outside myself all the time, and I ask: why will this person eat broccoli that’s only locally grown and heirloom? And my answer is that, “she’s just engaging in the narcissism of small differences.” In other words, being a snob. And that doesn’t make the world suck for her. Hardly. Snobs LIKE being snobs.
Helen Rosner: “The only thing worse than actually writing or saying toothsome is being that jackass who points out that the word actually means “delicious,” not “al dente.”
Commentary: Isn’t this just an indirect way of being a snob while saying that you’re not? I mean, didn’t she just write “toothsome”?
Twilight Greenaway: “I eat a lot of mediocre homemade food when it’s served to me, because I believe that the intent behind sharing and cooking food comes first, and if people are made to feel comfortable doing it in the first place, then they might eventually seek out ways to use better ingredients/make it taste delicious.”
Commentary: Got it. So in fact there’s nothing snobby about nobly supping on mediocre food with the masses with the intention of curing them of their pedestrian palates in the long run. Culinary noblesse oblige? It lives.
Twilight Greenaway (again): “We might not all be able to eat at the next big restaurant, but most of us can learn to make a really amazing fritatta at home.” Commentary: Oh, super. Maybe we could even make that fritatta with leftovers from your latest big restaurant adventure? Pretty please?
Adam Roberts: “The key to not sounding like a food snob is acknowledging that food isn’t everyone’s thing; just like fashion isn’t everyone’s thing. If you don’t judge me for wearing old white socks with holes in them, I won’t judge you for eating that cheese sandwich from the gas station—even though it has mold on it and, really, who eats a cheese sandwich from the gas station?”
Commentary: none needed, really.
Cathy Erway: Whenever a food or ingredient that sounds esoteric comes up, I like to bring it back to my experience with handling it for the first time. Something like, yeah, and sunchokes are really sweet and less starchy than potatoes, so they make a really nice, golden crust when you roast them in no time!
Commentary: what am I, 5 years-old?
It’s pretty funny, all of this. But if these folks really want to purge the snobbery from their system they should have a conference at a Marriott and eat rubber chicken, lumpy potatoes, and canned vegetables. Oh wait, Bittman already squashed that idea. Last week, as he attended a tony foodie lovefest in up-the-Hudson-somewhere New York, he was asked by a reporter about the lavish accommodations and the $1400 ticket price to attend. Bittman answered:
“So what—we all meet in a Marriott?”
Next time you have a quorum of Food Movement reformers, try this: ask for a show of hands of those who want to see agriculture eliminate fossil fuel. I assure you that every hand will dart skyward.
The Food Movement’s defining mission, after all, is to farm without oil and gas. It embraces alternative fuel sources, most notably the sun, as essential to farming’s future. Notice how the movement never says it wants to pursue reduced fossil fuel consumption. To the contrary, our founding foodies want agriculture to make a total divestment before moving ahead. In the Food Movement’s idealized future there’s no room for Fossil Fuel Free Fridays.
This goal is appropriately righteous—eliminating fossil fuel from agriculture—and it’s one that I support. My reason for bringing it up here is not to critique the ambition per se but to use it as an essential backdrop to another position—a much more problematic one—that the Food Movement continues to endorse: meat consumption.
Despite overwhelming evidence that domesticated animals (cows most notably) are ecological disasters, the Food Movement refuses to banish them from the plate. In direct violation of its repeated call for sustainability, the movement avoids the radical but necessary stance (in contrast to its stance on fossil fuels) that there should be a total divestment from animal agriculture, beginning with cattle. In fact, it will often say something wishy-washy like “asking people to eat a plant-based diet seems unrealistic”—forgetting that farming without fossil fuel is a mountain to the vegan molehill.
Indeed, what makes this inconsistency so appalling is how much more realistic it is to achieve a plant-based diet than a full divestment from fossil fuel. One burden falls on the consumer—you and me—while the other falls on the producer—faceless and labyrinthian corporations that hold power levels we’ll never touch. Defenders of beef (and other forms of animal agriculture) will pontificate with rare grandiosity about the untapped promises of rotational grazing, waxing poetically about carbon sequestration, soil remineralization, and hoof action until your eyes roll back into your head. It’s a seductive story. But the alleged benefits are more rhetorical than practical. Making rotational grazing work consistently and as promised has proven to be as achievable as climbing Everest.
Look at it this way: rotational grazing is the moral equivalent of clean coal. The way that advocates of clean coal defend their product—namely, they say they are “sequestering carbon”—is really no different than the way advocates of rotational grazing defend beef—they say, alas, that they are “sequestering carbon.” But of course, the advocates of rotational grazing would be loath to accept the clean coal narrative (how do you think Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan feel about clean coal?). So why do they swoon and drool over the narrative of a clean steak? Why, when it comes to fossil fuel, does the movement think big but, when it comes to the steak on their plate, they compromise?