Archive for the ‘Eating Plants’ Category
Noah Berlatsky writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
RECENTLY I WROTE a story about Star Wars and science fiction for The Atlantic. The comments section, as these things will, featured a large number of people telling me that I was unqualified to write about the topic because I hadn’t read enough sci-fi books, or hadn’t read enough recent sci-fi books, or hadn’t read the right sci-fi books, or hadn’t seen the right sci-fi movies.
I’m sure this is a familiar experience for anyone who’s published work on culture.
Culture? Try agriculture.
I’ve been writing about the topic for many years and perhaps the biggest blowback question I get is “are you a farmer”?
“No,” I respond, “which is why you should trust me.”
There is a paradox at the core of expertise: those who really know something well, be it sci-fi or growing corn, are often too wrapped up in it economically or emotionally to register opinions that are free of self-interest. Not always, but most of the time.
Critics can say what they will about my thoughts on agriculture but, at the end of the day, I’m a history professor who, although passionate about the topic, has no economic stake in the game one way or another. Zero. I get my paycheck from the state of Texas.
By contrast, take a close look at those who are delivering the most persistent pleas for various forms of agricultural reform, one way or another.
I’m too tired to name names, but when beef ranchers promote the beauties of grass-fed beef, or pig-farmers promote the beauties of pastured pigs, or egg-farmers promote the virtue of Humane Certified eggs, or food writers promote foods that happen to be central to the recipes they write in best-selling cookbooks, I balk.
To be fair, I also balk when—again, without naming names—animal advocates link their activism with their own entrepreneurial product development. I’m not begrudging anyone their quest to make some crumple, but I have no choice but to assume their expertise is compromised as well.
Odd as it may sound, expertise is enhanced with distance from the topic under consideration.
As promised, I will spend more time this year dedicating space to viewpoints that I deeply oppose. This is especially the case for the following excerpt, which comes from a review of my book, The Modern Savage. As will be evident to anyone familiar with basic animal ethics, the author’s reasoning would fail an Ethics 101 class. But it passes for intelligent commentary in the mainstream media. I’ll send your well-reasoned and polite comments to the author in a week.
The full review is here.
Plus, there are some problems with those statements [against eating animals].
Secondly, not everyone buys sustainable livestock primarily for animal rights reasons. In fact, people who choose to eat “sustainable” meat may put animal rights lower on the priority list than, say, antibiotic use, environmental concerns, taste and personal health than those who abstain altogether. Where is the hypocrisy in that?
Third, those who don’t like to cause animal deaths should not support the cultivation of any crop that encroaches on animal habitats. My point being that all agriculture — plant or livestock — predictably kills and displaces sentient animals, every time. So, in the end, we’re just talking degrees and numbers of deaths.
Fourth, McWilliams assumes that absolutely everyone in this world can both survive and thrive on a vegan diet [ACTUALLY I DON'T]. Anecdotally, I’ve known too many people who’ve tried to live a faithful vegan life based on deep conviction. But their health suffered and only returned when they incorporated some animal products back into their lives — often sustainably raised ones. That said, I’ve also known super healthy vegans.
Mark Bittman’s recent column on California’s overturn of the state’s foie gras ban is—for lack of a better term—weird. Really weird. The gist is that Bittman thinks we’re paying too much attention to the cruelty of foie gras—“the most overrated of luxury ingredients”—while ignoring the reality that the vast majority of animal agriculture is cruel. In and of itself, this claim seems sensible. But it’s the way that Bittman makes his case that ultimately turns his column into a (perhaps unintended) defense of foie gras. Read more here.
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Early last week the animal activist group Direct Action Everywhere released a harrowing video based on an undercover investigation of Petaluma Farms, a Northern California operation that supplies eggs to Whole Foods and Organic Valley. In it, hundreds of chickens are shown crammed into sheds and suffering several obvious ailments, including respiratory distress and being stuck in feces.
Read more here. And subscribe.
If you haven’t headed over to The Daily Pitchfork (dailypitchfork.org) here’s what you’re missing out on:
This new Whole Foods ad appeals to the increasingly popular dictum to know where your food comes from. It reads: “Know What Kind Of Life Your Dinner Lived.” On the face of it, the movement to better understand the inner-workings of the food system is a noble endeavor. But when the means of achieving that ideal are reduced to a morally illogical slogan, and clouded in a bogus certification label, the larger effort itself is deeply compromised.
When it comes to chickens raised outside of factory-like conditions, we often have very little idea about what their lives were like before they (or their eggs) graduated to the dinner plate. Chickens who are raised on pasture might appear to be happy chickens. But experts on chicken behavior repeatedly note that chickens are most at ease in forested environs. It is there where they have access to low-hanging branches that they fly into when threatened by predators. It is there where their ancestors, Asian jungle fowl, lived.
Factor in poultry genetics and matters become increasingly ambiguous. Most chickens are bred for commercial purposes. As a result, breeders have favored traits that lead to greater productivity, the most notable of which is larger breast size. Larger breast size, however, can often spell foot and knee trouble for chickens who were genetically shaped to be enclosed for a few months before being slaughtered. There’s every reason, as a result, to think that commercial birds on pasture are walking around in pain. The vast majority of consumers, even Whole Foods consumers, have no clue about the genetic history of the birds they buy. So how can we know how they lived?
In a more concrete vein, when it comes to knowing our dinner, what to make about today’s release of video footage taken undercover by Direct Action Everywhere on a “Humane Certified” Northern California farm that supplies Whole Foods? In it, birds are crammed into sheds, obviously distressed, suffering respiratory disorders, and stuck in their own feces.
This is hardly what Whole Foods has in mind when it insists that we know how our “dinner” lived. But as Direct Action Everywhere reveals–in perhaps the most strategically incisive undercover strike ever in the age of “humane” animal products–the shameful reality behind the bogus ad is that our dinner lived in squalor and suffered immensely.
Needless to say, the ad leaves no hint of this reality.
I’ve been alluding to this project for a while now and, finally, it has come to fruition. I introduce you to The Daily Pitchfork. The site is dedicated to evaluating and exploring the intersection of animals and the media. To keep up with my posts, you should head to the site and subscribe (it’s free) and stay tuned to this site for upcoming interviews and guest posts. Thanks, and I look forward to your feedback. I also thank you in advance for spreading the word.
Happy New Year friends. The upcoming year will see some changes here at The Pitchfork. Much of the critical commentary on eating animals and animal rights will take place on a new site, which will be launched in the next few days, called The Daily Pitchfork. TDP will focus specifically on the media’s coverage of animal issues, but it will also serve as an editorial outlet for the site’s editors–Vickery Eckhoff and I–and others to develop ideas regarding the role in animals in contemporary life, much as I have long done here. When the site launches I’ll let you know so you can subscribe.
Of course this site still lives. On it I’ll be indulging one of my New Year’s resolutions: I want to listen more. Specifically, I want to listen to those with whom I disagree. I want to air the opinions of those I’d normally dismiss. Why? Many reasons. But I think the biggest is that animal rights activists–for all the power of their arguments–are less successful at trying to see the issues we engage from other angles. None of this is to necessary lend legitimacy to these opposing ideas so much as it is to lay them bare. In that I see value.
I will also be posting more on The Fumarole section of this blog. Lately I’ve been excited by the idea of identifying a beautiful sentence I’ve come across in my fiction reading, quoting it, and matching it with an image. I’m not sure why but I find doing this gratifying but I do. As always, I look forward to your ceaselessly intelligent feedback.
The following quote is from George Monbiot’s most recent Guardian column. It’s worth reading in full, but for now:
“[W]hile researching my book Feral, I came to see that our perception of free-range meat has also been sanitised. The hills of Britain have been sheepwrecked – stripped of their vegetation, emptied of wildlife, shorn of their capacity to hold water and carbon – all in the cause of minuscule productivity. It is hard to think of any other industry, except scallop dredging, with a higher ratio of destruction to production. As wasteful and destructive as feeding grain to livestock is, ranching could be even worse. Meat is bad news, in almost all circumstances.”
That’s good stuff. He continues:
“So why don’t we stop? Because we don’t know the facts, and because we find it difficult even if we do. A survey by the US Humane Research Council discovered that only 2% of Americans are vegetarians or vegans, and more than half give up within a year. Eventually, 84% lapse. One of the main reasons, the survey found, is that people want to fit in. We might know it’s wrong, but we block our ears and carry on.”
And he concludes:
“Rather than mindlessly consuming meat at every meal, we should think of it as an extraordinary gift: a privilege, not a right. We could reserve meat for a few special occasions, such as Christmas, and otherwise eat it no more than once a month.”
So here’s the question I’m left with: is it more achievable to attain complete abstinence or, as Monbiot suggests, to treat meat as a rare luxury, a once a month kind of indulgence? I realize the ethics of this choice are clear. But what about the pragmatics? I mean, that 84 percent number is fairly daunting.
In her recent op-ed salvo, this one in the Wall Street Journal, Nicolette Hahn Niman, a vegetarian rancher (which, really, strikes me as kind of like an “Amish carpet bomber”) tells us that, in fact, a global consensus of environmental science has it all backwards and that she, again, a rancher, wants us to know that raising beef—and not just on grass (but especially so)—has environmental consequences that have not only been overstated by this global cabal of science people, but, hold up your steak knives in solidarity, “is an environmental gain for the planet.”
Read all about it here.
Let’s all catch our breath before proceeding to the main point I’d like to make about this op-ed. We know things, right? Like, empirically. We’ve known since the 1960s, empirically speaking, that beef production wreaks substantial ecological havoc on our limited natural resources and we know that, since then, since the population of humans has doubled, that, viz empirically, it’s not only factory farms that cause the trouble, but even small grass-fed operations run by good-looking environmentally conscious “stewards of the land,” and we know this because very serious research has shown that not only is grass-fed beef ecologically damaging but it can be worse so. To repeat, we know things. Even if not a rancher or a scientist or lawyer, we know them.
Ms. Niman sort of—it’s there, read the tone—mocks those who know things. She draws our attention to critics who worry about “ bovine burps, flatulence and even breath for climate change.” That, folks, is pure-grade, first-order-Fox News industry-strategizing for spinning the science to make its followers seem like ditto-head nitwits who believe anything you tell them to confirm a bias.
But what’s really real here? Those farts and burps and deep bovine exhalations might sound silly—but, unless I’ve been led by the nose into a hall of mirrors by four decades of good science—they matter. Live animals are resource intensive beings. They breath and burp and pass gas. Methane, anyone? Niman eventually gets there, assuring us that there are ways to mitigate methane’s impact and that, rest assured, how to do so is “now under vigorous study by agricultural colleges around the world.” Well.
One thing that I’ve learned over a decade of writing about this stuff is that it’s important to be charitable. Of course, deep down I want to be as right as anyone. I want the evidence to fit my bias as much as the next op-ed scribbler. But I now work more than ever before to be charitable, fair minded. That said, I simply cannot find a way to reconcile Hahn’s—again and again, a rancher’s— opening plea for us to thumb our nose at deep conventional scientific wisdom and then spend the rest of the article asking us to trust the science she has spelunked from netherworld caves of research, science that serves her financial bottom line.
Which takes me to my big point. If you study the way Hahn arranges her evidence, and examine the way she dresses it up rhetorically, it may ring a bell. You may discern a familiar pattern at work and, especially if you are a liberal-enviro-type who knows stuff but would love to have an excuse/justification/WSJ verification for eating beef, you may eventually find yourself slightly queasy by the creeping (and, actually, creepy) realization that the pattern at work is one that has been brilliantly honed by none other than: global warming deniers.
Yeah, those people. And this is my big problem with Hahn’s op-ed. It is, in its rejection of science such as that summarized here and reified by thousands of other studies, it engages in the populist politics of distrust, a weird and very American sort of suspicion-mongering that has caused immense damage to public discourse and the enlightened policies it can, in moments of clarity, engender.