When You Support Eating Animals You Support Industrial Ag

» April 10th, 2014


The desire to eat meat often lands anti-industrial food crusaders in the sack with some strange bedfellows.

When a recent study—one that turned out to have severe problems—claimed that saturated fats didn’t correlate with heart disease, the foodie elite exalted the research as justification for eating “humane” animal products. Writing in the Times, Mark Bittman claimed “Butter is back, and when you’re looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew, you can resume searching for the best pieces — the ones with the most fat. Eventually, your friends will stop glaring at you as if you’re trying to kill them.” The general response by the sustainable food movement was very much in this celebratory vein.

That reaction was predictable. Less so was the way the saturated fat study became a cudgel to batter processed foods. Now, let me be perfectly clear: I’m not in favor of most processed foods. They’re the unhealthy result of an industrial food system that cranks out junk that makes us sick. Most of them, moreover, contain animal products. That said, I think it’s entirely misleading to use a study that makes specific claims about saturated fats (however imperfect) to make a sweeping condemnation of all processed foods. And so, in an article, I indicated as much.

The response to my piece, as I noted in yesterday’s post, was to label me a bona fide “defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional industry.” That claim, from a defender of the humane meat industry and a Mother Jones writer, not only led me to choke on my chickpeas. It inspired me to investigate whom the conventional defenders of industrialized meat would side with on this recent saturated fat report. Maybe I had it all wrong. Maybe Big Agriculture really loved my Pacific Standard critique of the saturated fat study.

So I wondered: would Big Ag agree with an ethical vegan who wrote a column condemning the rush to embrace a flawed study that suggested it was alright to eat more cheeseburgers? Or would they side with the defenders of “humane” meat products who praised the study as a green light for refined carnivorous inclinations? My assumption was that the supports of Big Ag would side with those writers whose message best supported the interests of Big Ag.

Well, guess who Bittman and Mother Jones and the like went to bed with?

The study that Bittman praised in the Times was similarly promoted by none other than Beef Magazine, an industry rag that claimed, “Obviously the theme for today’s blog is beef health news, and there has been an overwhelming amount of positive news lately. It’s hard not to share it all. Keeping with the theme that animal fats and proteins are good for your health, researchers at Cambridge University have found that giving up fatty meat, cream and butter is unlikely to improve your health.”

Equally thrilled was The Dairy Spot—a go-to source for industrial dairy farmers in the Mid Atlantic. Readers of Bittman’s column would experienced a sense of deja-vu had they heard the dairy folks write, “This latest study is a challenge to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which call for consuming mostly low-fat dairy products. And not everyone is convinced by the new studies that question the link between saturated fat and heart disease.”

Not to be left out was the poultry industry. Big Chicken weighed in on the foodies’ favorite study, writing, “Now, the meta-analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine gives further credence to the statement that current evidence suggests saturated fats have little to no effect on heart disease risk.”

So: our agri-intellectuals, those who swear that they are deeply anti-industrial food, happen to be in full agreement on the saturated fat study with the beef industry, the poultry industry, and the dairy industry. Oh, and Fox News and the Center for Consumer Freedom. As for my bedfellows, Big Ag left me alone, leaving me to go home with a bunch of tweeters and a few health websites.

So, you tell me: who is defending industrial agriculture here?





11 Responses to When You Support Eating Animals You Support Industrial Ag

  1. Sailesh Rao says:

    I just finished taking Prof. T. Colin Campbell’s Plant-based Nutrition course online at ECornell. It was one of the best courses that I’ve taken online, ever. And from what I’ve learned in the course, I can state that the cited study merely implies that a low fat diet and a high fat diet can make you equally sick, when such diets are filled with animal foods, regardless of whether the animals in question were lovingly raised on “humane farms” or tortured daily in factory farms.

  2. Karen Harris says:

    It is upsetting that you were mischaracterized as a defender of industrial food, but not especially surprising, given the trend of all major animal rights organizations to applaud the efforts of fast food chains like McDonalds, and the medieval torture devices designed by Temple Grandin, as humane. It is very disconcerting that writers and thinkers like Bittman and Pollan, who have such large audiences, are so eager to embrace studies and rationales that encourage eating animals.
    I cannot understand why so many individuals and organizations, who have spent so much heart and will making things better for animals, are so willing to give away so much for so little. Why have they been so easily co-opted? These days those who refuse to buy into the humane meat philosophy are more and more marginalized. All the more reason to not waffle, in my opinion. Kudos to you!

  3. Becky A. says:

    Dear James,

    Being bedfellows may explain some of their writing, but I just don’t get how you’re cast with food industry. Crazy!

    Have they not read any of your blogs?

    Maybe some momentary blindness.
    Keep up the good work. You speak for those that cannot.


  4. Sharky says:

    The alacrity with which Bittman leapt on that one study to raise the flag for butter was truly impressive. The New York Times regularly gives space to Bittman, Pollan, Taubes and their ilk. I guess they’re aiming to reach the high-end meat-eating demographic, the thoughtful foodies, so-called. Reading these guys is really exasperating.

  5. Mountain says:


    You attack small local farms regularly, you dismiss locavores and localism, and you call for more centralized farms, further removed from major cities. How does more centralized Ag not equal Big(ger) Ag?

    That said, Philpott’s description of you is misleading, since you don’t support animal Ag, whether big or small. So it’s wrong to suggest that you support the status quo of Big Ag. But your vision of the future of agriculture appears to be a one that is still Big Ag, just a different kind of Big Ag.

    • James says:

      I have no problem per se with industrial organization, even of farms. It’s when they involve animals–as they now do– that I object. Want to have an industrialized carrot farm? Go for it. Want to do it with the most advanced technology? Amen. I do not and never have dismissed locavores or localism. I just aim for a fair context of analysis. Please, I can only take so much misconstruing of my ideas in a single week. Now, I’m off to the farmers’ market. . .

      • Mountain says:

        “It’s when they involve animals…”

        Farms always involve animals. As a fan of Fukuoka, you should know that and have it ever-present in your mind. And industrial farms, even if they only cultivate carrots, tend to harm more animals than smaller farms do. Combines kill more animals than tractors do, which kill more animals than hand tools do.

        You’re absolutely right to distinguish industrial plant Ag from industrial animal Ag, because industrial animal Ag does far more harm. But the primary reason animal Ag does more harm is because it concentrates and amplifies the harm done by plant Ag.

        I’m all in favor of modern technology in farming (carrot or otherwise), if it causes less suffering and death, but the very strong tendency has been for it to cause more harm, rather than less. An industrial will kill at least 2-3 animals for every million calories it produces, while a smaller carrot farm will tend to kill fewer. On a small, local, diversified farm (or backyard garden), it is possible to kill none.

        • Rebecca Allen says:

          I agree the smaller garden or farms can try to kill none.

          Veganic farms are becoming more well know. I understand some farmland was hand dug to avoid killing any animals. My front yard garden is intentionally veganic now. I do have a row where cow manure was placed before I had heard about veganic gardening. There are large scale gardens/farms in Europe. And, yes, animals are involved, as is worms, various bird dropping as they fly overhead.

      • Mountain says:

        As for dismissing localism and locavores, I’ve been reading your blog for years now (and consider myself a fan), and am under the strong impression that you frequently dismiss locavores. Maybe I’m at fault and have misconstrued your writing; maybe you’re at fault, and have expressed an unconscious bias over the years. I don’t know.

  6. Hoping everyone opens the “problems” link in James’ first sentence: “Thus, the conclusions of Chowdhury et al. regarding the type of fat being unimportant are seriously misleading and should be disregarded.”

  7. [...] to promote were the meat and dairy industries themselves. I urge you to see what Big Ag had to say here, and thus whom the foodie-enviros got in bed with in order to back [...]

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