Archive for the ‘Food Politics’ Category
In the November 11 issue of The New Yorker, Michael Specter (one of my favorite staff writers) has a superb piece on crop insurance. I know, it sounds dull but, trust me, this piece is a thrill. My intention here is not to summarize the piece, but only to highlight the critical thoughts presented by the piece’s leading character, a man named David Friedberg.
Friedberg began a company called climate.com. It uses high tech algorithms and information technology to predict climatic factors that bear on crop yields. He builds insurance policies on this information. Friedberg is a man obsessed with numbers and seems deeply knowledgable about the intersection between farming and the environment. It thus caught my eye when Specter wrote, “He would like to open a restaurant that serves only quinoa.”
Listen to Friedberg:
The ratio of protein to energy used to produce quinoa is the highest of any food source . . . The net energy utilization of the protein production of beef in fifty to one; for fish it’s ten to one; and for chicken it’s four to one. Soybeans are two to one—they’re pretty efficient, but quinoa is less than one and a half to one, and quinoa grows in all these drought-hardy conditions. There is all this land that’s undeveloped—in Saskatchewan, in Colorado, in large swaths of Peru—and the yield that you can start to get on quinoa if you start to invest in production would be substantial.
Specter writes that China ate half the world’s pigs last year–500 million of them. In response to this fact, Freidberg says,
We need to change that or we are not going to get the eight hundred million people out of starvation that are starving right now. Think of it: we are sending millions of tons of protein to China to feed hogs. we should really just skip the hogs and grow the quinoa.
So, sensible words from a sensible guy who was raised by vegetarians. But, before you get carried away and think the food world has a new voice of agricultural wisdom, do note: Friedberg just sold his company to Monsanto for a cool billion.
I’d like to think it was my incessant carpet bombing of the Austin City Council with emails that did the trick. However, with over 456 citizens registering to comment on the legitimacy of backyard chicken slaughter in front of the council, something tells me that larger forces were at work behind the council’s commendable decision to prohibit the insidious practice of backyard slaughter, one that, as I watched the debate unfold, some residents seemed all too eager to execute.
Reasons cited for the decision included noise and smells, as well as traffic, which becomes a problem when urban farms hold events celebrating the unnecessary killing of birds. Nothing was noted on how this practice might very well not be appreciated by the birds, but oh well. Reality is reality. Whatever the justification, animal loving Austinites can rest easy that their neighbor’s backyard won’t be turned into a bloody hellscape.
Things didn’t go as well in Gainesville, Florida. A Pitchfork reader from there tells me that the city commission voted to increase the number of chickens allowed to be kept in urban neighborhoods from 2 to 10. That’s a big jump. But it came with clear articulations of what are bound to be inevitable consequences. For example, the commission ordered that chicken feed be stored in “rodent proof” containers, that manure be regularly removed, and odors not be detectable by neighbors. Good luck with all that. Commissioners noted that they reserve the right to revisit their decision if these stipulations are not met. I hope they keep their word on this promise.
It was something of a coincidence—or maybe just evidence of how ubiquitous this concern is becoming—that yesterday was also the day I posted my Forbes piece on why it’s a bad idea to keep backyard birds. One comment caught my eye, so much so that I did something I rarely do: I responded. Here’s the exchange:
Completely disagree with all of their five reasons. 1. We got our chickens over four years ago and they are still laying. If we didn’t have our chickens we would have purchased dozens of dozens of eggs from commercial egg laying operations where chickens are not treated kindly or humanely. Our chickens are treated VERY well and have excellent lives. We have only bought 2 dozen eggs in over four years (when we were on vacation and out of town) 2. Lame reason, I have saved my chickens from being eaten or from being mistreated in a battery cage. I can’t be expected to save the world, but my chickens are a start. 3. Predation: also completely false in my experience. In over four year exactly ZERO OF MY HENS HAVE BEEN EATEN BY ANY PREDATOR. 4. None of our hens were miss “sexed” as roosters. So much for that reason. 5. Cost is minimal and we get fresh local healthy eggs, our chickens get cared for very well, we give them lots of our scraps to eat and it provides great fertilizer for our garden. Too bad this article tries to focus on fallacies and exaggerations. Shame on Forbes.
I’m genuinely happy to hear that you are able to avoid some of the problems that I discuss regarding keeping hens. I’m curious: where do you live? (not, as in, your address, but what kind of environment), where were your birds hatched?, and would you be willing to allow a curious writer (me) come visit and observe your hens being happy? (I’m quite serious, as I have thousands of examples from hen farmers supporting my claims and I’d be eager to see what makes you operation work, perhaps with the intention of writing a piece to that effect.)
Stay tuned. . . . (and feel free to join the convo at Forbes).
Do we have a right to know how our food was made? Seems like a fairly self-evident question. But in fact it’s one that the more I think about the more complicated it gets, especially in the context of the ongoing effort to label foods made with GMOs. I’m writing about this issue now for publication, so I don’t want to tip my hand too much, but I do want to explore this deceptively simple idea of having a right to know about the food we eat.
Adam Merberg, a Ph.D student in mathematics at Berkeley and a very thoughtful blogger on food issues, recently expressed skepticism about the “right to know” argument as it applies to the GMO labeling debate. Building on the work of ethicist Chris MacDonald, he writes, ”it’s not hard to think of bits of information that almost nobody would claim to have a right to.” Do we, for example, “have the right to know the exact temperature at which a loaf of bread was baked?,” he asks.
Of course, a knee-jerk objection to such a question might be that GMOs carry risks that baking temperature does not and, as a result, consumers have a right to know about GMOs because they have a right to know about the risks they are taking when they choose to consume a food product.
This objection is complicated by at least two factors. First, contrary to common anti-GMO thought, there is no hard evidence that GMOs are any more or less dangerous for consumers than the conventional hybrids that make food food. The world’s leading health organizations have all come out and declared GMOs safe.
Second, let’s say there were scientifically documented questions regarding the safety of GMOs. This factor alone would not necessarily justify a label. The food supply chain is riddled with danger points. There are innumerable risk-oriented aspects of food production that, if GMOs made the cut, would also qualify for a label. In time, food labels would carry dissertations of information that, like dissertations, nobody would read or even pay attention to.
Do we have a right to know, for example, if the farm that grew the food was located hear a petrochemical plant? Do we have a right to know if the manure that was used on an organic farm came from a factory farm? Do we have the right to know if the conventional fertilizer used on a conventional farm contained industrial waste? Do we have a right to know, a la Portlandia, if our chicken (“Colin”) ever had a cough? All of these aspects are common in agriculture. But there’s no way we could reasonably expect this level of detail on a label.
I’ll end with two thoughts. Advocates of GMO labels might very well have a case to make for labeling. But thus far, because it has been a case rooted in ideology rather than science or consumer interest, it has not been in the least convincing. Second, when it comes to a right to know what’s in our food, the hard reality is that we sacrificed at least some of those rights the moment we left the land and entrusted others to bring food to our plates. And even when we were in charge, we didn’t know what we didn’t know, much less did we have a right to comprehensive knowledge about the infinite steps required to turn the natural world into food.
Eating is an inherently risky act. Good luck to you.
A couple of weeks ago we had a heated discussion here at The Pitchfork about killing poachers. A group of readers were eager to support a policy that allowed a “shoot-to-kill” approach to managing elephant poachers. Others, well, mainly me, suggested that we might take a deep breath and consider the poacher. Not popular, this choice.
Interestingly, we never talked about the possibility of poacher redemption as a possible factor influencing our choice. This omission is, in retrospect, kind of surprising given that, in general, those who cross the line from illegal activity to legal enforcement are in a position to offer invaluable advice about how the illicit activity operates.
It was thus with some sense of vindication that I read this piece. Titled “Former poachers help in fight against elephant poaching,” the article reminds us that it sometimes pays when our anger-fueled sense of justice yields to a more thoughtful version.Consider the poacher because, someday, he might reconsider the elephant.
Eating plants certainly seems to be the most obvious way to reduce the animal suffering linked to dietary choice. Sometimes, though, the matter isn’t so simple.
You may have heard the argument that more animals suffer through the production of row crops than they do on feedlots. The combines that scour the landscape at harvest time almost certainly kill more rodents than the livestock industry is able to kill when operating at full capacity. As I said: not so simple.
I’ve addressed this argument before, and have done so on the grounds of intention. Our intention when growing wheat isn’t to kill rodents. Our intention when managing a feedlot it to kill cattle. This distinction matters in terms of how we shape and direct the future of agriculture.
But , as is frequently the case when we’re dealing with animal ethics, just when you start to feel that you’ve sort of resolved one issue, another arises. Here’s what I learned in my reading this morning: “We have a feedlot industry in the Northwest because we have a potato industry,” Males told the group. “Twenty percent of the rations of all the feedlot cattle in Washington, Oregon and Idaho are potato waste,” he said. The article is here.
As I write this post, I sit at my kitchen counter, upon which rests a bag of “sunrise medley” potatoes grown in Bakersfield, CA. And now I’m wondering: how far do I want to carry my inquisition into these seemingly innocuous spuds? The quote above reminds even seasoned vegans that any sense of righteousness will be checked daily if you keep your eyes and ears open to the vulnerabilities of your belief system.
If the farm I buy from sends potato compost to feedlots, do I stop buying those potatoes. What would you do? How many questions will you ask?
I listened to a fascinating podcast yesterday about blame. This is a topic that we all know something about and likely deal with daily. We blame ourselves for our weaknesses and we seek to blame others when they act in a way that we deem blameworthy. Some are quick to blame; others slow. There are probably few emotions quite as powerful as feeling that you have been unfairly blamed. It is, of course, very hard to admit to blame when we feel we should do exactly that.
So what does blame have to do with animals? A lot, actually. A philosopher interviewed for the podcast explored the implications of historical blame. Do we blame slaveowners for slavery if they lived at a time when very few were questioning the morality of owning slaves? This dilemma applies nicely to animal exploitation, manifestations of which are codified by custom and law to be perfectly normative, that is, beyond blame. So do those of us on the periphery of this custom blame those who eat animals today?
Perhaps not at this point in time. But the purpose of activism, whether it seems to be momentarily effective or not, is to push the idea of animal liberation like a lazy elephant into the room so we can, alas, start pointing to it. So we can begin to resort to blame as a kind of shaming technique. Obviously (well, come to think of it, it’s not so obvious to many of the smartest people I know), morality is to a large extent historically contingent. We are yet at a point where blame will “work” as a shaming or enforcing strategy. But that doesn’t mean we won’t arrive at that point soon—after all, think of how many people you know who say “don’t tell me about how animals are treated!; I don’t want to know!” Denial can only last so long before it runs aground. Then the game really changes. The elephant shows up.
A question that did not come up in the podcast but seems really interesting to me is that of reparation. When we do turn the corner and make blame a legitimate social and legal response to the cruelty of animal eating, and when we reach a point in time in which we look back and decare “can you believe we did that?,” what will we owe animals? Of course, they won’t ask for reparations. But do we owe them them nonetheless? And in what form? After all, all of us will have ancestors who benefitted in one way or another from producing and consuming animals. Or will we simply say, “they know not what they did?”
Could it be, I wonder, that in the deep collective unconscious of humanity, there is this monstrous apprehension of being blamed that keeps us from progressing to a point at which blame for harming animals has real power to evoke real fear in what we really have done wrong?
I typically don’t stick to a single topic this long, especially one so trivial (oops! sorry, it’s not that trivial) as a Starbucks drink, but this discussion has been fascinating and my sense is that there’s still more to milk out of it. I’m posting the following comment because it is especially interesting and, because it came late in the game, you may have missed it. It’s from Taylor:
Speciesism (i.e., a prejudice, or irrational bias, in favour of one’s own species) is wrong by definition. But if there are good, morally relevant reasons to prefer A over B (e.g., adults but not children should be allowed to vote because children cannot make informed decisions about voting), then there is no prejudice involved. Both Peter Singer and Tom Regan would say that, in most cases, there are good reasons why we ought to save the human rather than the cow, so this decision is NOT speciesist. My question is, do most vegans who insist that preferring to save the human IS speciesist have a good reason for making this claim, or is it just a principle memorized from the Official Vegan Creed? If the “reason” is that every animal values its life just as much as you or I do, I am tempted to say, in the immortal words of John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious!”
Here we go . . .
Thanks for the excellent responses to the pumpkin spice post. Reminds me of the good old days. I’m swayed by many of your remarks that, indeed, I should not have referred to the incident as trivial. But I want to push back on the speciesism claim—that is, the idea that we should look at the issue without (in the slightest) favoring humans over cows. I would like to agree that I think this way. On some days, in some cases, I do. But, in other cases, I must confess that I don’t. To test myself, I presented myself with this hypothetical. Try it:
You stand before two impending atrocities. One is an innocent cow who is about to be milked so her milk can be processed into powder for a pumpkin spice mix. The other is a ruthless dictator about to gas an entire village of innocent civilians. You have the power to prevent only one atrocity. Which would you choose?
Try not to critique the hypothetical (I know it’s not perfect). As John McEnroe once screamed at a chair ump: Just Answer the QUESTION!!” I’m genuinely curious to hear your thoughts.
One of the goals of “The Pitchfork” is to expand the framework around ethical veganism. In a sense, this expansion of the periphery is an acknowledgement that, not only have certain issues been hashed out to excess, but the message that many of us are promoting in one form or another—don’t eat animal products—is sinking into mainstream thought. It is therefore time to back up and think about the place of veganism in the larger world of food and agriculture. I mention this point because, although what follows isn’t directly related to veganism, it does touch directly on issues that, as we gain traction, may very well be critically important to reforming the broken global food system.
With the possible exception of sugar, coffee has historically created more suffering per acre than any other global commodity. Even with the gradual end of slavery and the colonial contracts that underwrote plantation brutality, the quest to grow enough coffee to keep the world caffeinated remained an agricultural endeavor marked by economic marginalization and chronic exploitation. Today, the legacy endures.
Few grasp this reality as well as Kenneth Lander. In 2005, Lander quit his job as an attorney and land developer in Monroe, Georgia, and moved with his wife and five (now seven) kids to San Rafael de Abangares, Costa Rica. The family settled in a cozy house on a 12-acre coffee farm, a bucolic patch of land where Lander cultivated coffee as a hobby. His lucrative real estate investments sustained the dream, one he compares to the Swiss Family Robinson.
Three years later, the dream turned into a nightmare. The wheels came off the U.S. real estate market and Lander’s investments shriveled. “All my assets were gone,” he told me recently. Not long after uprooting his family and moving to Costa Rica, Lander’s coffee hobby had morphed into his livelihood.
The learning curve for growing commercial coffee turned out to be treacherous. It was, for starters, personally demoralizing—not to mention economically devastating—for Lander to work himself ragged growing a high-quality and heavily demanded product only to collect about 10 cents on the dollar. As matters then stood, he explained, “being a small coffee farmer was no way to make a living.” He reached this conclusion despite having sold his beans through a Fair Trade coffee co-op. Lander quickly acknowledges that the Fair Trade program “set the tone for socially sustainable coffee.” Still, he decided that there had to be a better way to put farmers first. Fair Trade was fair. But, evidently, not fair enough.
Lander’s solution—a company called Thrive Farmers—is a for-profit experiment that suggests a radically more hopeful future for small-scale growers of specialty coffee. The idea behind Thrive germinated when Lander met a fifth-generation Costa Rican coffee farmer named Alejandro Garcia. With his own farm on the brink of collapse in the early 2000s, Garcia had moved to Pennsylvania to work in a buffet-style restaurant. He saved $40,000, stored it in a shoebox, and returned to Costa Rica determined to rescue his farm. It was then that he had a chance meeting with Lander, who was witnessing the demise of his own operation. The two men shared their frustration, combined their expertise, and brought in Atlanta entrepreneur (and friend of Lander’s) Michael Jones, who had recently revolutionized the distribution of medical implants. Together, the men forged a business model that would return 50 percent of coffee sales to the growers (75 percent if the beans are sold green) while giving them control over the supply chain. They began with 400 coffee farmers in 2011. Today they have over 800. “We’re about to explode,” said Lander, seemingly unaware that he already has.
The company’s signature innovation centers on what Lander calls “value chain modification.” Whereas the Fair Trade model is more like an insurance policy—farmers sell raw beans through a co-op and are promised a floor price per pound in return—the Thrive model takes the farmer’s beans on consignment and provides growers a platform to track the commodity as it moves upstream. In this arrangement (unlike with Fair Trade), farmers are invested in the substantial value that’s added after harvesting, because, as the commodity travels to the end user, they retain ownership.
Rather than release raw beans into a moving commodity market, where other interests will add value and reap the rewards, Thrive hangs onto the beans for the growers while overseeing the roasting, packaging, exporting, marketing, distribution, and sale of the consigned product through a vertically integrated and relatively short supply chain. At the point of sale, if roasted coffee is sold for, say, $7.50/lb. the grower will get $3.75. “That’s huge,” says Lander. By any standard, he’s right.
There’s another, less obvious, factor that distinguishes Thrive from the Fair Trade approach. Because Fair Trade promises farmers a floor price, the appeal of price support spikes when the commodity price of coffee drops, thus luring more and more growers into Fair Trade co-ops as the conventional market sinks. As a result, the supply of Fair Trade coffee, which is marked by an inflated price (because of the imposed floor), rises and, because it won’t sell, has to be dumped back into the commodity market. This big bean dump drives down the price of conventional coffee even further, thereby harming poor farmers who are growing for the conventional market. Thrive escapes this downward cycle altogether because its supply chain bypasses the shifting commodity market, prices are negotiated directly with consumers, and farmers are left with higher returns rather than those provided by a market getting worse as a result (in part) of the Fair Trade floor.
What’s perhaps most interesting about the Thrive venture is that it brings the ethics of localism to the heady world of global commerce. In this respect it joins a select but growing trend of streamlining long-distance trade with the intention of enjoining access to specialty goods with equitable and personal relationships. Whether it’s the vegetable trade connecting Chinatown with Honduras or the cocoa trade connecting London and Ghana, producers and consumers, through companies such as Thrive, are realizing that it’s possible to localize the global, and to do so while sipping a cup of virtuous brew that honors those who worked the hardest to make it possible.
The Associated Press ran a story yesterday with this lede: “There’s extensive evidence that pigs are as smart and sociable as dogs. Yet one species is afforded affection and respect; the other faces mass slaughter en route to becoming bacon, ham and pork chops.” Pretty amazing, huh? Not that pigs are as intelligent as dogs but that this basic truth is making its way into the mainstream press without snark or snide remarks. I’m aware that recognition of animal intelligence is hardly a barometer for how we treat animals, but it’s not irrelevant either, and thus I was pleased to see this piece. A snippet of hope, this.
At the core of the story is something called The Someone Project. Good title. According to the AP article, The Someone Project, led by psychologist Lori Marino, “aims to highlight research depicting pigs, chickens, cows and other farm animals as more intelligent and emotionally complex than commonly believed. The hope is that more people might view these animals with the same empathy that they view dogs, cats, elephants, great apes and dolphins.” Of course, we abuse the daylights out of these animals, but at least we don’t raise them by the billions to kill and eat them, so this approach strikes me as useful. Or at least not useless.
Farm Sanctuary is coordinating the project. Bruce Friedrich, of Farm Sanctuary, was quoted in the piece as saying, “When you ask people why they eat chickens but not cats, the only thing they can come up with is that they sense cats and dogs are more cognitively sophisticated that then species we eat—and we know this isn’t true.” And: “What it boils down to is people don’t know farm animals the way they know dogs or cats . . . We’re a nation of animal lovers, and yet the animals we encounter most frequently are the animals we pay people to kill so we can eat them.” Wise words from Bruce.
Perhaps the best part of the piece was watching the pork council veritably squeal in discomfort. David Warner of the National Pork Council said, “While animals raised for food do have a certain degree of intelligence, Farm Sanctuary is seeking to humanize them to advance its vegan agenda—an end to meat consumption” . . . While vegans have a right to express their opinion—and we respect that right—they should not force their lifestyle on others.” Yes, vegan. Don’t you dare instruct others not to kill sentient beings that are smarter than your pre-schooler. And how dare we meddle with someone’s “lifestyle” or make them squirm with our arbitrary “opinion.” The nerve!
Gwen Venable of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association was even more ludicrous in her logic: “Consumers should be able choose their food based on their own dietary preferences and nutritional needs and without being unduly influenced by any one group’s personal agenda,” she wrote. “We do not feel that Farm Sanctuary’s campaign is reasonable, as the campaign’s ultimate goal would be to eradicate poultry and pork from consumers’ diets.” Well, duh!
Even the pig would get that.