Archive for the ‘Food Politics’ Category

Scientific Credibility and the Veggie Agenda

» May 1st, 2014

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.


The Craven Cliven Hoedown

» April 18th, 2014

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.


Major Tom Foolery

» April 9th, 2014

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.

Watered Down Logic and A Lot of Hot Air

» March 1st, 2014

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.


A Drought Of Common Sense

» February 27th, 2014

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

Mayor de Blasio Vows To End Horse Carriages In NYC

» February 18th, 2014

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that NPR’s coverage of this story was a mess. It begins by immediately belittling the issue of horse welfare, noting that one might reasonably expect the mayor to deal with “big picture problems” instead of . . . .horses. This choice of an opener raises a question. Why would a journalist begin an article on any topic by suggesting that, compared to “big” issues, the one she was covering didn’t really matter? If nothing else, this is a strange way to draw attention to a topic that is somehow important enough to warrant national coverage.

But Janet Babin’s dismissive attitude infects the entire piece. Babin explains that “horse carriage rides are a staple in cities around the country.” Really? In so far as a “staple” is a “main item of trade or production,” horse carriage rides are decidedly not a staple of the urban experience. The reporter furthers her opinion—and, in a way, what she has put together is an opinion piece–that the Mayor’s proposal is just plain weird by reporting that the mayor “raised some collective eyebrows” with his choice.

This phrase is another interesting choice. It implies that everyday folks—the collective–were similarly thrown for a loop by the fact that the mayor cares more than a whit about horse welfare. But again, there’s no evidence offered of a collective anything. And if there was, how about the possibility that a collective of New Yorkers might find the carriage trade problematic? Might it have been more accurate to note that “a collective cheer” went up when New Yorkers heard the news?

And then there’s the problem of context. The carriage horses are largely a political and horse welfare issue whose underlying motivator is economic. The money is on the side of the drivers who allegedly exploit horses. But the politics aren’t—they are more complex, including as they do, interest groups who are concerned with the welfare of horses. Babin again takes the easy way out by ignoring this context and offering only opinions (her own, the industry’s, a horse advocacy group’s) while calling it “news coverage” — which it isn’t.

The segment goes downhill quickly. Before explaining why the horse carriage industry might be a welfare problem, Babin rushes to quote a joke from the Daily Show with John Stewart. Stewart had remarked, ”Should we even be living here? ‘Cause  . . . sometimes I look at their stable and I go like, what do you think that’d go for, $1,600 a month? What do you think?” Well, sorry to be a grump, but I think humor does not have a place in this story. Unless you find the prospect of horse abuse funny.

When Babin finally does get around to exploring the issue from a welfare angle she quotes Allie Feldman, the executive director of New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets. Feldman gives a great quote, but her organization is identified as an “animal rights group.” Now, maybe Feldman described her organization this way but, judging from the organization’s website, I would doubt it.  It does not in any way address the issue of animal rights per se. More to the point, it allows Babin to use loaded language—yikes!, an animal rights group!—to skew the issue as one that only a bunch of crazies, oh and the mayor, cares about.

She then quotes the Horse and Carriage Association, which predictably says, ”A lot of these horses come from very, very bad backgrounds and are rescued from very abusive situations. This is not an abusive situation . . .” And then some tourists from North Carolina who are crushed that they’ll never be able to ride through Central Park behind horses that, according to a great deal of evidence that Babin ignores, suffer immensely.

Not only is the Horse and Carriage Association given the last word in this piece, but its message of sanctuary is never countered by credible and widely available information that would, if given attention, have resonance to more than the “animal rights activists” who Babin identifies as the only nuts who care about this issue in the first place.

NPR’s Grade: D.

Note to readers: I’m in the process of beginning an on-line project with the journalist Vickery Eckhoff that evaluates the media’s coverage of animal issues. A more thorough statement of purpose, as well as a web address will be forthcoming. For now, though, please note that the kind of piece published here is the sort of work that Eckhoff and I (and an assemblage of writers) will be doing. Needless to say, when we launch, I hope to count on readers to spread the word.  –jm