My forthcoming book, The Modern Savage, is now available for pre-order (links are below). The book provides a sustained and deeply critical examination of small-scale nonindustrial animal agriculture, exposing this generally celebrated alternative to factory farming as riddled with inherent ethical, environmental, and economic problems. If you plan to buy the book, doing so now rather than after publication would be very helpful. I’m deeply appreciative.
Ironies abound in our treatment of animals. Melissa Cronin at The Dodo reported today that “The CEO of a catering giant will be stepping down after video footage revealed him kicking a doberman puppy in a Vancouver, Canada elevator. Des Hague was the CEO of Centerplate, a $6 million company with over 350 clients, many of them major sports stadiums.”
The public outrage dictating the resignation of a corporate giant–the guy’s full name is Desmond Hague– is a noteworthy display of justice for sentient creatures. One is inevitably put in the mind of Michael Vick and the remarkable public censure that enveloped him after he was busted for running a dog fighting ring in 2007. Although one should never underestimate the motivating power of simple self-righteous condemnation, I think it’s safe to say that the hammer of public opinion came down on this CEO-dog abuser for the basic reason that we know causing gratuitous suffering to an animal is whacked.
Recall, though, that this man was the CEO of a catering firm, one whose menu includes every kind of animal-based product you could ever want for your event. Here’s one of its menus. So, it seems only fair to ask: why wasn’t this man taken to the woodshed much earlier? He was, after all, profiting from the sale of animals who were not only abused, but slaughtered so his firm could rake in millions. What some nameless and faceless low-wage worker did to those animals in an abattoir doesn’t compare to this CEO’s crazed outburst against his poor dog.
The fact that the vast majority of people calling for the CEO’s head would have happily eaten from one of his catering menus confirms something disturbing. Not only is our moral consideration of animals arrestingly situational, but we lack the ability to disentangle context from principle. Place some salt and pepper besides a cloth napkin and fine silver, arrange the plates in a circle at a convention, bond with friends over the steak on your plate, and all is fine. Kick a dog in a lift and your a pile of shit.
As I continue the often uncomfortable process of subjecting my beliefs about eating animals to systematic scrutiny, I find myself seeing aspects of animal activism in a new, and not always flattering, light. Lately, for example, I have found myself getting frustrated with the overly simplistic claims that serve to justify the vegan way of life. Please note that I have zero moral tolerance for raising animals to consume them when other options are available. That said, I’m realizing that many vegan justifications are just as thoughtlessly reductive as are the carnivorous claims that vegans find so dimwitted: “we were meant to eat meat,” “we’re at the top of the food chain,” “it is the animals purpose to be food,” and so on. And we don’t want that.
So when I read something like (and I’m choosing a random example of late), “Our relationship with other animals should be one of awe and reverence, not one of use,” I think, well that’s nice. But then when I really think about it on a deeper level, I realize that this is an aphorism that obscures a far more complicated reality. First, on what grounds do I have an obligation to look at other creatures with awe and reverence? What if the animal does not behave in a way deserving of these reactions? Should I revere my awe-inspiring dog for rifling though my trash? To do so would actually be to objectify them by denying them any form of free will, to release them from any consequence of their actions, with automatic awe and reverence freezing these creatures into a romanticized category not unlike a classic painting or novel. Awe and respect too easily becomes mindless glorification.
Likewise, the question of use is far more complicated than the aphorism suggests. Of course, the intended meaning is to not use animals by yoking them to a plow or churning them into a burger—but that’s exploitation, a form of use. But use per se is unavoidable. We use each other—humans and humans, animals and animals, animals and humans—all the time. To remove ourselves from the matrix of use, for the evident purpose of experiencing disengaged awe and reverence, is to exonerate ourselves from the very hard work of developing genuine relationships with animals, ones that demand us to deal with a range of differences and similarities—a matrix of uses— to find common ground on a set of relationship “rules.” If you live with a companion animal, you know how hard this could be. I use my pets; they use me. To sever that bond is, once again, to objectify animals.
I’ll stop, but maybe you get my point. If you think it’s wrong to exploit animals, you have an obligation to make those thoughts known and appreciated. But when we do so through sloganeering rather than on the basis of common sense, moral clarity, and logical consistence, our chances of having an impact on broad cultural change is significantly reduced. We’re just firing very loud blanks in a war of words.
If you read my work you are well aware that I believe that eating animals, in the vast majority of circumstances, is morally wrong. This position, which I can defend historically and philosophically—after nearly a decade of thinking and reading about the matter—is one I have centered my life around because so much verifiable (if invisible) suffering is at stake. My adherence to this position is not a “personal lifestyle choice” any more than a decision to walk outside and start hitting dogs with a tire iron is a personal lifestyle choice. It’s a choice based on thoughtful moral inquiry and grounded in an objective sense of right and wrong.
For this reason, I find exhibitionist displays of gluttonous meat eating to be objectionable. I live in the world. I live among and deeply love many meat eaters. And I could even justify eating meat in some circumstances—but almost never in terms of animal domestication. I think it’s fair to expect that anyone with even a remote awareness of what must happen to bring meat to the table has an obligation to treat eating animals with at least a perfunctory sense of gravitas. After all, killing animals that are emotional, self-aware beings, even if you have come to terms with that killing, should never confer bragging rights. Remember when George Bush (43) used to discuss the death of American soldiers in Iraq with that quirked smile on his face? That’s kind of how I see celebratory and gleeful writing about eating meat. Call me a crank, but I have my reasons.
This is a long way of introducing an article in Texas Monthly that made me sad. Not angry, not wanting to engage in ad hominem attacks, but just sad. I should note that I have written for Texas Monthly (about chicken fried steak, no less!), that it’s a first rate magazine, and that I know and look up to many writers there. But I should also note that the magazine used to do a lot of great capsule music reviews, got rid of them, and hired a full time BBQ editor, a decision that earned the magazine considerable national attention. It was an article by that very editor, which ran yesterday, that led me to respond. The piece is here.
I must confess to being put off by the fact that the author, Daniel Vaughn, invited readers to share concerns with his cholesterol level as an occupational hazard. I found this to be a particularly strange request given that his occupation requires the slaughter of sentient animals for food we do not need. That said, my initial response was a bit unfair. I tweeted:
“What marks life as full time BBQ editor? Blissful ignorance to animal suffering, evidently.”
This tweet implied that Vaughn was indeed ignorant of what his celebrated diet represented—that is, that he had not justified his decision to support unnecessary animal slaughter. Perhaps he has. Perhaps he could illuminate the matter for me (and I’m being serious here). He responded:
“why the comment about my ignorance? It’s as silly and myopic as me suggesting you’re ignorant to the tastiness of meat.”
Fine. So, I’m now wondering: what is that justification?
“Fair enough. So if you’ve justified your choice to eat animals raised for meat, where I can read/hear about it? I’m eager to learn.”
And, I’m happy to say, we have exchanged emails and plan to meet in the near future, a meeting during which we’ll discuss my recent American Scholar piece. I genuinely look forward to the discussion. Stay tuned.
“Cultured meat”—edible animal flesh that’s grown through “tissue engineering techniques”—may not be the most appetizing prospect on the culinary horizon. But it has entered the heady lexicon of sustainability for good reason.
As a recent Oxford University/University of Amsterdam study revealed, lab-grown meat could slake our inveterate craving for burgers while consuming 82-96 percent less water, producing 78-96 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and occupying 99 percent less land. “We are catering to beef eaters who want to eat beef in a sustainable way,” Mark Post, the Maastricht University physiologist who spent years developing lab meat with the financial support of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, told Bloomberg.
Equally relevant for many consumers is the fact that lab meat appears to be more humane than current methods of production. While it’s true that production now requires stem cells to be extracted from living cattle and marinated in the blood of cow fetuses, Post is hopeful that fetal bovine serum (as the extraction is called) might someday be replaced with blue algae, thus obviating this phase of exploitation. Whatever method is eventually used, if lab meat catches on there’s much evidence to suggest that we might substantially reduce the assembly line of cattle pouring into the abattoir.
Lab meat, even by today’s industrialized standards, is a relatively outlandish proposition. But that hasn’t kept media assessments from being surprisingly upbeat about its potential. In 2011, a normally skeptical Michael Specter warmed to the idea, writing in the New Yorker that, in terms of technology, a lab burger could viably approximate the taste and texture of a real burger and, in turn, offer a viable substitute for it. Costs were prohibitive, he noted, but then what successful technology wasn’t unduly expensive at the outset?In USA Today, Farm Sanctuary’s advocacy director, Bruce Friedrich, pounced on the Oxford study to deem lab meat clean, green, and lean—not to mention a product that had him eager to “fire up the grill” and end the meat industry “as we know it.”
Others have been less sanguine. David Steele, a molecular biologist and head of Earthsave Canada, tells me that lab meat “is extraordinarily unlikely to work.” Tens of thousands of calves, he notes, “will have their hearts punctured … to collect the liter or so of serum that can be taken from them.” The claim that lab meat might be propagated with blue algae, he says, “is patently absurd” as “no one has accomplished anything close.” He also notes something so obvious I wish I had recalled it on my own: Cultured cells lack an immune system. As a result, according to Steele, “there will be a need for at least large doses of penicillin/streptomycin.” Preventing the spread of viruses within these cultures “would be a huge additional problem.” And as far as allergies go, who knows?
Daniel Engber, a science writer and editor at Slate, is equally downbeat about the future of cultured meat. He posted a piece earlier this month with a headline declaring lab meat to be “a waste of time.” Acknowledging the ecological and welfare implications of the technology, he highlights what strikes me as a critical point: Lab meat only seems to be “real” when it’s adulterated with food-like substances designed to “improve color, flavor, and mouthfeel.”
In this respect, there’s nothing novel to ponder about the slab of lab meat. It’s a heavily processed, fabricated food that’s essentially no different than the plant-based substitutes that are becoming increasingly popular. So, Engber justifiably wonders: “What’s the point?” After all, do cultured cow cells dressed up to look like real meat “really get us any closer to a perfect substitute for flesh than soy or wheat or mushroom?” Not a bad question, given that the market for lab meat would likely be the same market that currently eats Tofurky (myself included).
As Engber suggests, the discussion of cultured cells has overlooked, well, culture. Eating meat for many consumers is about more than just eating meat. Lab meat is about more than technological feasibility. As much as I would love to see cultured meat replace its conventional counterpart, I’m fairly certain that the culinary tastemakers, not to mention the vast majority of consumers, will never go for it. It’s heavily processed (not pure, not authentic, not “all natural”); it’s divorced from tradition (can you imagine grandma’s chicken fried steak made with a cut of lab meat?); and, in the simplest terms, it’s not meat (at least as we know meat).
Culinary change happens all the time, and there’s no doubt radical changes are required if we ever hope to achieve a just food system. But, at this stage, I think we’re better off encouraging consumers not to eat the stuff at all rather than asking them to fake it with a redundant substitute.
This piece originally ran in Pacific Standard in 2013.
First: take any product on earth and imagine producing a better—but inherently more expensive—version of it. Now imagine marketing it. You don’t have to be a whiz in economics to conclude that your target market will be a relative minority who values that product enough to pay more for a higher quality version. As a savvy producer, you will never lose sight of the fact that the core value of your product derives as much from the higher costs of production as the virtuous connotations your loyal followers confer on the commodity. As a sober producer, you will also never lose sight of the fact that your market will always be a small one compared to the millions upon millions of consumers who will remain perfectly happy with the cheaper mainstream version of the same commodity.
Second: take animal products made from animals raised on pasture and think about their place in the global meat market. These goods are inherently more expensive to produce: nothing you do as a producer to reduce costs will compete with the mainstream version. This fact is due to an inescapable reality: consolidating animals into CAFOs—even when the externalities are considered—is cost effective. The product is cheaper. The reasons confinement is more efficient are numerous: you need less land, you are less reliant on independent variables such as weather, the animals reach slaughter weight faster, you can benefit from mechanization, you can capitalize on scale economies, and so on. Given the costs of production, the price of grass-fed anything will, on balance, always be higher. Whether we’re talking about houses or cows, density pays.
Finally: ask yourself how the second option will ever compete in a mass market with the first. I’m not saying millions and millions of consumers won’t vote with their forks and, recognizing the many benefits (in addition to the product’s quality) of the pastured version, choose to buy it. Good for them. But what I am saying is that the benefit will only be to their consciences, and nothing beyond. After all, with billions of consumers in the meat market, it would defy not only basic economics, but the history of basic human behavior for a majority of those consumers to choose the inherently more expensive version of the same product. That would be the definition of irrational.
Conclusion: those who want to reform the horrors of industrial animal agriculture by substituting the more expensive pastured version of meat and dairy with the cheaper and more efficient industrial version are irrational. There’s no other way to say it. The foodie media that writes glowing articles about pastured this or that under the assumption that this version of beef or pork or cheese is the wave of the future (in addition to animal welfare organizations that promote “humane” animal agriculture as a step in the “right direction”) need to wake up and realize that their fantasy—given what industrial agriculture is doing to animals and the environment—is one we really cannot afford.
Does this mean the end of eating animals? Not necessarily (more on this later). But, for now, we can only conclude that it would make so much more sense to promote the real benefits of saying no to all animals raised for the purposes of selling and eating them, rather than trying to clear an impossible hurdle.
There’s something about eating animals that we raise for food—perhaps the intuitive sense that we know it’s wrong to raise them for food—that leads meat eaters to engage in some far-fetched and ill-advised stunts. The most recent example involves a municipal proposal in Omaha, Nebraska that will allow consumers to walk into a feedlot, choose the animal they will see die, and witness the beast’s slaughter before eating the tortured creature’s flesh. The program is called “open meat market.”
There are several possible ways to interpret this proposal, which now sits before Omaha’s city council. One: it’s barbaric, doing little more than indulging our basest tendency to get off on absolute dominance over another sentient animal’s body. Two: it’s honest, bringing the carnivorous consumer closer to the bone of violence endemic to all animal products. Three: it’s logical, merely an extension of choosing our fish from a Chinese restaurant tank. Four: it’s a cheap shot, yet another slow food exhibitionist gambit engineered to nurture a blood-stained sense of “community.” I could go on.
Whatever the reason, none of them could possibly justify this flagrant, municipally sponsored, act of stupidity. Oppose it here. And take perverse solace in these sort of events as they emerge. To me, it means advocates of raising and killing animals are running scared, struggling to make what we’re increasingly realizing is sick seem normal, worthy of being treated like a game.
Like all games, this will end. It must.
Beginning tomorrow, and lasting through August 20, the city of Denver will promote the gratuitous slaughter of animals who were raised with love. On Sunday you can get bison; Monday “sheep is the star”; Tuesday is pig night; Wednesday it’s cow. Every meal will be served at a restaurant that prides itself on morally commmodfying sentient animals who farmers respected while they lived, before selling their bodies for cash. The event is called “Hoofin It” and “farm to table” is the mantra. As The Denver Post reports, “a different hooved animal will be showcased every evening.” Cost of the showcase: $60.
Now, critics of animal agriculture, as well as animal advocates, have become all too familiar with these sort of Orwellian stunts. Essentially, what these events do is obscure systematic suffering under the false guise of humanity in order to serve a range of financial interests and a popular taste for animal flesh. It’s insulting, really. We’re especially accustomed to the oxymoronic–not to mention moronic—sponsorships of these moral carnivals: ethical butchers, humane animal farmers, compassionate carnivores, and the like. It thus may come as a surprise that the sponsor of “Hoofin It” is . . . . The Humane Society of the United States.
As you might imagine, there’s been outrage over this. Why would an organization that works so diligently to reduce the consumption of meat promote the consummation of meat? One letter I received from a Colorado critic of the event explained, “Needless to say, the vegan community in Colorado is quite upset with HSUS’ sponsorship of this event and has notified HSUS of their concern.” Here is what HSUS wrote by way of an explanation:
My thoughts on this response too are many to articulate, and none of them are in sympathy. But in a nutshell it’s safe to say that there’s a fundamental difference between encouraging more humane methods of animal agriculture and throwing a party to celebrate animal slaughter. There’s simply no hoofin it around HSUS’s craven capitulation to compromise on this event. Shame.
(HSUS’s response came from Sarah Barnett. You can reach her here: Sarah Barnett <firstname.lastname@example.org>)
I attended The Seed—”two days of vegan exploration”—in New York City last weekend (I was there not as a speaker but as a talking head in a documentary filmed on the premises). There was a lot a to celebrate.
The line for the event stretched far down Mercer St., in Soho; the crowd was nominally more diverse than most Veg Fests I’ve been to, at least in the conventional measure of diversity; inside, the event had doubled in size from when I’d gone two years earlier; and the structure had improved as well: no more speakers trying to talk in the same room with all the vendors, a distraction for everyone as I recall. Finally, the mood was upbeat and a sense in a better future pervaded the event. All good.
One critical remark I’d make was that (with a couple of exceptions) The Seed did not offer enough for the thinking vegan—that is, the kind of person interested in the philosophical and ethical implications of eating—to sink her teeth into. I make this remark having attended the event for only one day (huge caveat), but my overall impression was that the dominant themes (from the speakers) were about personal health and physical fitness. Cooking demos—which can be great (just witness JL Fields) and are critical for the vegan curious—were ubiquitous alongside talks about how vegans can have muscles. Really big muscles.
Again, I make this observation well-aware that there’s nothing inherently wrong with this choice, especially as the event is geared as an “exploration.” But it’s important to have balance, primarily because people explore for a variety of reasons, many of them headier than we know. If the curious are only exploring to discover new recipes and hopes for a better body and nicer skin, and all you give them are new recipes and a vegan prescription for a better body and nicer skin, then you have not established any sort of baseline for a life-long and permanent decision. At some point, you need to drive home the larger message with something deeper than salad recipes and rippled biceps in order for that to happen.
As I see it, our relationship with the animal world should come first—in fact, animals should come first, or at least ahead of our concerns over our LDL cholesterol levels—while all other factors should play necessary but supporting roles.
But what do I know? As I had a late-afternoon coffee (why is there so much great coffee in New York?!) with a friend who is a vegan academic and teaches classes on animals and activism, I learned that his veganism may not have happened without the help of all the meat replacements and junk food that I had complained about as weighing down the vendors’ tables at the event. (Although I did eat a delicious grilled kale salad and some seed bread with guacamole.) So, as usual, I make my comments well aware that there are many ways for this seed to sprout.
Thing is, speaking for myself, I just left The Seed with my stomach fuller than my head.
I’m not sure where I’ve heard it but I know I heard it because it won’t leave my head: vegans are saying things such as “I don’t care what you eat so long as it’s not an animal product” or “being vegan means not having to say I’m sorry to what’s on your plate.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s the gist of what seems to be all over the vegan social media. Probably has been for a while, but I’m often slow on the uptake.
I do know this, though: vegans should avoid these kind of slogans. It wrongly indicates that because you, virtuous vegan, have made one ethical choice about how to eat—avoiding animals— that all other ethical matters bearing on food are irrelevant. Needless to say, eating animals is just one of many ethical concerns that accompany the production and consumption of food. Many consumers who eat animals approach their diets with as much ethical deliberation as vegans do (maybe more), but they do so by focusing on other concerns–very real concerns such as labor treatment, ecological impact, and public health.
In general—as the aforementioned slogans indicate—ethical vegans do a mediocre job at best integrating their concerns about animal rights into these (equally?) critical moral issues (to be fair, those focused on other concerns aren’t so cooperative either when it comes to animal rights). One reason for this reticence may be that incorporating other ethical concerns into our choice-making matrix blurs the ethical clarity that so many vegans take for granted. As much as we might like to think that eating ethically is simply about not eating animals, that’s only the start of things. In fact, by making the noble decision to bother about animals at all, you open up many other cans of worms—and things can get sort of messy real quick. From this perspective, you can see why so many intelligent people put their hands over their ears and say, “I don’t want to know!”
Consider this scenario: you have a choice between eating roadkill and eating a plate of vegetables harvested by child slaves. If the slogan “I don’t care what you eat so long as it’s not an animal product” holds, then you are forced by an overly rigid conceptualization of veganism to exploit child slaves rather than eat an animal that in no way was intentionally harmed for your consumption. You are, in other words, forced by your belief system to make an arguably immoral choice. That’s an extreme case, but one could easily see how, as you leave the margins, the decisions become veritable toss-ups. For example, what if the choice was between eating oysters (questionably sentient critters) or a bowl of rice grown with water diverted from a subsistence village suffering a drought? Anyway, you get the idea.
I’ve often criticized carnivorously-inclined sustainable food people for putting “soil ahead of sentience.” But I’m coming to realize that there can also be ethical problems with placing sentience ahead of soil. More to the point, I’m coming the difficult realization that eating ethically is not about drawing a line in the sand (soil?) between plants and animals and mouthing a bunch of slogans about your superior choice. It is, for sure, about not eating animals raised to be food, but it’s also about merging that choice with so many others that deserve our ethical attention.
If you’ve made the choice to go vegan, well done. But now the real work begins.