Posts Tagged ‘Mark Bittman

Food Snobbery

» November 19th, 2014

Isn’t the fact that foodies feel compelled to write articles advising tribe members how not to sound snobby evidence that they are ipso facto snobs? I guess you could answer this question in the negative, suggesting that foodies get a bad rap, with their zeal for revitalized soil and apples picked by virgins being mistaken for elitism rather than plain old childlike enthusiasm.

But if the most recent investigation into how to “geek out over food without sounding like a snob” is any indication, I think there’s little doubt that foodies should dismiss all egalitarian pretenses and just own it: when it comes to the rarified pleasures of the palate, they’re better than us.

The author of this piece turned to her friends in the foodie trenches and asked them how to handle the ubiquitous snob label. Here are some samples of the answers (followed by a little commentary):

Kat Kinsman: “Why would you rob someone of their joy? Even if it’s not your bag, step outside of yourself for a second and ask them what it is that makes them love this particular ingredient, dish, restaurant, cuisine. You get to learn a little something about it and the person who loves it, and you get a chance to not make the world suck a little more for them.”

Commentary: I do step outside myself all the time, and I ask: why will this person eat broccoli that’s only locally grown and heirloom? And my answer is that, “she’s just engaging in the narcissism of small differences.” In other words, being a snob. And that doesn’t make the world suck for her. Hardly. Snobs LIKE being snobs.

Helen Rosner: “The only thing worse than actually writing or saying toothsome is being that jackass who points out that the word actually means “delicious,” not “al dente.”

Commentary: Isn’t this just an indirect way of being a snob while saying that you’re not? I mean, didn’t she just write “toothsome”?

Twilight Greenaway: “I eat a lot of mediocre homemade food when it’s served to me, because I believe that the intent behind sharing and cooking food comes first, and if people are made to feel comfortable doing it in the first place, then they might eventually seek out ways to use better ingredients/make it taste delicious.”

Commentary: Got it. So in fact there’s nothing snobby about nobly supping on mediocre food with the masses with the intention of curing them of their pedestrian palates in the long run. Culinary noblesse oblige? It lives.

Twilight Greenaway (again): “We might not all be able to eat at the next big restaurant, but most of us can learn to make a really amazing fritatta at home.” Commentary: Oh, super. Maybe we could even make that fritatta with leftovers from your latest big restaurant adventure? Pretty please?

Adam Roberts: “The key to not sounding like a food snob is acknowledging that food isn’t everyone’s thing; just like fashion isn’t everyone’s thing. If you don’t judge me for wearing old white socks with holes in them, I won’t judge you for eating that cheese sandwich from the gas station—even though it has mold on it and, really, who eats a cheese sandwich from the gas station?”

Commentary: none needed, really.

Cathy Erway: Whenever a food or ingredient that sounds esoteric comes up, I like to bring it back to my experience with handling it for the first time. Something like, yeah, and sunchokes are really sweet and less starchy than potatoes, so they make a really nice, golden crust when you roast them in no time!

Commentary: what am I, 5 years-old?

It’s pretty funny, all of this. But if these folks really want to purge the snobbery from their system they should have a conference at a Marriott and eat rubber chicken, lumpy potatoes, and canned vegetables. Oh wait, Bittman already squashed that idea. Last week, as he attended a tony foodie lovefest in up-the-Hudson-somewhere New York, he was asked by a reporter about the lavish accommodations and the $1400 ticket price to attend. Bittman answered:

“So what—we all meet in a Marriott?”

The Foodie’s Equivalent of Clean Coal

» November 13th, 2014

Next time you have a quorum of Food Movement reformers, try this: ask for a show of hands of those who want to see agriculture eliminate fossil fuel. I assure you that every hand will dart skyward.

The Food Movement’s defining mission, after all, is to farm without oil and gas. It embraces alternative fuel sources, most notably the sun, as essential to farming’s future. Notice how the movement never says it wants to pursue reduced fossil fuel consumption. To the contrary, our founding foodies want agriculture to make a total divestment before moving ahead. In the Food Movement’s idealized future there’s no room for Fossil Fuel Free Fridays.

This goal is appropriately righteous—eliminating fossil fuel from agriculture—and it’s one that I support. My reason for bringing it up here is not to critique the ambition per se but to use it as an essential backdrop to another position—a much more problematic one—that the Food Movement continues to endorse: meat consumption.

Despite overwhelming evidence that domesticated animals (cows most notably) are ecological disasters, the Food Movement refuses to banish them from the plate. In direct violation of its repeated call for sustainability, the movement avoids the radical but necessary stance (in contrast to its stance on fossil fuels) that there should be a total divestment from animal agriculture, beginning with cattle. In fact, it will often say something wishy-washy like “asking people to eat a plant-based diet seems unrealistic”—forgetting that farming without fossil fuel is a mountain to the vegan molehill.

Indeed, what makes this inconsistency so appalling is how much more realistic it is to achieve a plant-based diet than a full divestment from fossil fuel. One burden falls on the consumer—you and me—while the other falls on the producer—faceless and labyrinthian corporations that hold power levels we’ll never touch. Defenders of beef (and other forms of animal agriculture) will pontificate with rare grandiosity about the untapped promises of rotational grazing, waxing poetically about carbon sequestration, soil remineralization, and hoof action until your eyes roll back into your head. It’s a seductive story. But the alleged benefits are more rhetorical than practical. Making rotational grazing work consistently and as promised has proven to be as achievable as climbing Everest.

Look at it this way: rotational grazing is the moral equivalent of clean coal. The way that advocates of clean coal defend their product—namely, they say they are “sequestering carbon”—is really no different than the way advocates of rotational grazing defend beef—they say, alas, that they are “sequestering carbon.”  But of course, the advocates of rotational grazing would be loath to accept the clean coal narrative (how do you think Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan feel about clean coal?). So why do they swoon and drool over the narrative of a clean steak? Why, when it comes to fossil fuel, does the movement think big but, when it comes to the steak on their plate, they compromise?


Grow, Pick, Cook, Eat

» June 21st, 2014

Paul Greenberg’s piece on the global seafood trade in the Times underscores vividly the reality captured in the article’s headline: why are we importing our own fish? Although Greenberg never gets around to really answering his own question (the piece simply insists should localize and participate in local seafood–novel!), the answer is easy: we import our own seafood because it’s cheaper to do so. Boom.

Critics of our out-of-control food system don’t get this. They jump at any opportunity to grab a juicy headline* with some bizarre geographical distortion of global trade—such as why we export seafood and then buy it back—in an effort to urge consumers fight the powers that be by pitching their local food tents. What these utopians** fail to realize is that the bizarre manifestations that they so earnestly (and rightly) lambast are the result of the simplest economic logic—a logic that everyone other than the one percenters tends to follow. Again, it’s cheaper. And that’s bad news for locavores, who will have to pay more for local shrimp. Or oysters. Or salmon.

The good news here is that the food system’s global boomerang effect is easily fixed: stop producing food that requires processing. Processing. When you hear that term you think about all that corporate junk food that Mark Bittman and all the food purists lament as the downfall of modern culture. But it’s more than that. Or less. Processed food is basically food that has to be altered before it’s sold. And food that has to be altered before it’s sold is food that enters the churning matrix of the global food trade, a Smithian crucible wherein it’s radically less expensive to have subalterns shuck, smoke, and can your oysters than to pay a federally mandated minimum wage for U.S workers to do the deed. As far as I’m concerned, that’s much worse than a locally-sourced syrupy soda.

Once again, food reformers favor the predilections of their own precious palates—must have shrimp, must have oysters, must have lox on my bagel— over the simple solution that stares them in the face: eat plants. How often do we need to say it? Eat Plants. Plants grown for people to eat generally have the great benefit of not needing to be sent to one part of the world to be manipulated by pennies-per-hour employees before being sent back to “America” to be massively consumed and then lamented in the pages of the Times. When you grow plants for people to eat you box them up and put them on a plane, train, or automobile. People grow and pick it; people cook and eat it. Nobody needs to peel it or smoke it or filet or slaughter it or de-vein it into edibility. The Times’ agriculture writers would only publish good news.

When we demand food that only needs to be grown, and not processed, we’ll not only put an end to the kind of articles that Greenberg (and I) write but, in favoring plants over animals, we’ll radically improve the environment, our health, and the welfare of critters. It’s that god damn*** simple.


*To be fair, this writer grabbed his own juicy headline last March doing the same sort of stunt.

**Yes, I know, calling for a global plant based diet is, well, a bit utopian, but work with me on this one. . .

***The Pitchfork usually eschews profanity, but I’m in a mood.

Butter’s Bitter Lesson

» April 26th, 2014

Environmental advocates who promote eating “real” food (a deeply problematic concept for anyone who knows the history of food) as a necessary part of an ecologically responsible diet miss the point. In doing so, they render their larger message of eating in an environmentally responsible matter irrelevant. And not just a little irrelevant. Totally so. To understand why, it helps to take a closer look at the recent enviro-foodie reaction to butter.

Foodie environmentalists love butter. In part, they love it because it’s food that their grandmother would have eaten—this prerequisite being one of the more arbitrary elements of this somewhat precious culinary ideology. But they also love it because they are foodies and, tautology aside, are reluctant to allow anything as inconvenient as ecological reality or animal welfare to come between external justice and the internal pleasures of the palate. These are people who are all for “An Inconvenient Truth” but not so much for inconvenient truths.

It’s easy to overlook this reality. Foodie-enviros spin bucolic narratives that highlight the benefits of pasture-raised this and grass-fed that as “evidence” that one can now, if she can afford it, viably eat animal products and remain dedicated to environmental causes (this is, in many ways, why such issues as pipelines and dirty coal are so appealing—the connection between the personal and the political is less obvious). The reason they get away with these stories is that our collective base of knowledge on these matters remains lamentably thin. People such as Allan Savory, who bill themselves as planetary saviors, have thus excelled at a TED-ish foodie brand of duplicity, promoting ideas that, at the end of the day, might be just as damaging as those promoted by Monsanto and Cargill. (Eat beef, reverse global warming?! You can anything at a TED talk.)

But every now and then the gentlemanly facade is lifted and a whiff of truth wafts out. Which brings us back to butter and the foodie-enviros who support it. Last month butter got some temporary good news on the health front. The prospect that butter could be healthy sent foodie-enviros into a froth of excitement. Mark Bittman, foodie-enviro extraordinaire, led the celebration, declaring in both a headline and the text of his Times column that “butter is back.” He then explicitly advised with oracular confidence: “You can go back to eating butter, if you haven’t already.”

But then the other shoe dropped. Turns out the study had flaws. Serious flaws. Flaws serious enough for important people at fancy places such as Harvard to call for a retraction. And then everyone got sheepishly silent. When critics (myself included) harped on Bittman (who has written hundreds of recipes that call for butter) for his rush-to-judgment, suggesting that it contradicted his purported green mission, not to mention that it ignored animal welfare issues that he has long claimed to care about, something strange happened. I don’t use this word lightly, but what happened was Orwellian. 

Suddenly, all discussions of health were tossed to the curb. Indeed, as criticisms of the study swirled, the foodie-enviros now switched the media focus to industrial agriculture in general. Tom Philpott blogged that, in criticizing Bittman for his premature embrace of butter, I was somehow advocating butter substitutes—a non grandma food—and, in so doing, was acting as the handmaiden of industrial agriculture. Wha? (Bittman, for his part, thanked Tom with a tweet.)

This all left me baffled, in part because I’ve never advocated a butter substitute in my life. But more so because the biggest supporters of the study that these foodie-enviros were so enthralled 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 butter.

I’m still wondering by what logic Philpott thinks that supporting butter is not supporting industrial agriculture. Last I checked butter was as industrialized as any product on the face of the earth. To call a vegan a defender of industrial agriculture strikes me as a case of the Philpott calling the kettle black, or at least a complete lack of understanding that a plant-based diet does more to deter industrial agriculture as we know it than any other single measure.

But it’s back on the environmental front where the hypocrisy of the foodie-enviro position really hits home. Conservation magazine (for whom I write) recently declared that “Butter is Toast.” Why? It’s simple: “The carbon footprint of butter is over four times that of margarine.” The article is here; it’s short, it has not been called for a retraction, and you should read it. (emphasis emphatically added)

But for now, let the bitter lesson be clear: it’s time to stop trusting environmentalists who are led by their palates. These folks are perfectly happy to fiddle while Rome burns. But they forget that there are still people out there who believe in the power of personal choice to create genuine change for ourselves, animals, and the planet. Let’s not allow ourselves to be forsaken.


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?





Eating Animals in the Evening

» May 23rd, 2013

Mark Bittman’s new book, Vegan Before 6:00, deserves considerable credit for advocating a substantial reduction in the consumption of animal products. That’s good. It also earns praise for its trenchant condemnation of the standard American diet. Although this is a target fatter than the average American, enough darts cannot impale its expanding bullseye. That’s good, too. In terms of accolades, though, that’s about all the good I got for this ultimately disappointing book.

The primary flaw in Bittman’s advocacy of part-time veganism is that (you know exactly what I’m going to say) there’s no such thing as part-time veganism. The book could just as easily and more accurately have been called “Eating Animals in the Evening.” The problem with my suggested title is that Bittman would, albeit in a noble nod to accuracy, have lost his catchy (and sort of goofy) little slogan (VB6) to hang his part-time plant-eater hat on. He would also have lost the cultural power inhering in the word “vegan,” a power many true vegans, through the cultivation of authentic compassion, have helped embolden. All of which serves to remind us that the kingpins of foodie literature are as much about marketing as they are about making changes in the food system. I guess that’s why they’re kingpins.

Bittman’s bold highjacking of veganism is especially insidious not only because being vegan before 6 is like being pregnant before 6, but because VB6 is essentially more about the timing than the content of our diet. This is ultimately a book about what to eat when. And most of that advice is arbitrary. If you took that slice of bacon the VB6-er guiltlessly ate after six and crumbled it over her afternoon spinach salad, you suddenly  have a person who is now eating the same food as a VB6-er but, due to when rather than what she ate, can no longer qualify as a member of the VB6 club. Which is just plain silliness.

Bittman’s defense of half-assed veganism is some seriously tepid swill.  And I’m tempted to say he knows better. He’s got to know better. What really gets me about it is that Bittman is usually so freaking good. Here, though, he generally reduces his vast and highly informed culinary scope–one educated over the years through the construction of dozens of often brilliant columns— to focus narrowly on human health. To which I say: yawn.

Sure, eating fewer animals is better for us. We’ve know this for decades. But what’s especially disappointing about this constricted emphasis is that it fails to explore in a meaningful and systematic way the issues of animal welfare and rights, topics that Bittman has covered with growing poignancy in his columns.  As for an explanation of why he would cheat his otherwise generous vision in such a way, one might go backwards three paragraphs, count down five lines, and note my sentiments about marketing.

As with most analyses that dip a bit too often in the well of gimmickry, Bittman’s explanation for why he is not a real vegan eventually train wrecks into a contradiction. Now look, as readers know, I’m okay with contradiction if the contradictor can explain, or at least attempt to explain, his contradiction. Bittman, however, not only fails to do this, but I’m fairly certain he’s unaware of the telling inconsistency, one that hinges on the distinction between atomistic and holistic thought.

On the hand, when it comes to how we should think about diet, Bittman is rabidly holistic. He urges us to think not in terms of specific quantifiable nutrients and calories—that is, atomistically—but in terms of a holistic approach that cosmically balances and blends an array of healthy and whole real foods into a cohesive and indivisible way of life. He hints at this liberating mindset, one that I support, in his last column (linked above) when he writes, “you’re better off eating a carrot than the beta-cartene that was once thought to be its most beneficial ‘ingredient.’” Note the q-marks around “ingredient,” thereby designating its implicit and self-defeating suggestion of atomism.

But, on the other hand, when it comes to his conceptualization of veganism, Bittman chops and dices it into a million little pieces. To wit, he writes (in the same defense), “A vegan meal has no implications about what your next meal may be; you can be vegan for the better part of a day, or for a number of days of your life.” This logic is atomistic hair-splitting that puts the most inveterate calorie and nutrient counter to shame. Where did the indivisibility go? The cosmic balance and blend? Naturally, a true vegan knows that veganism is much more about a holistic mindset rooted in compassion than it is about the precise content of plant-based food on our plates at certain time of day.  If you are a vegan and not a little insulted by Bittman’s trivialization of the ethical choice upon which you structure your life, you are more patient than I am.  If nutrients should not be atomized, neither should ethics.

The greatest shame of this book is that Bittman, who claims to seek radical changes in the standard American diet, marginalizes the very voices that offer the most effective means to achieving that change. Activism before 6, anyone?


The Manure Worshippers

» October 21st, 2012

Mark Bittman has a pretty good piece in today’s New York Times. His vision, with one exception (to be elaborated upon shortly), is liberating. Drawing on a single study, he argues that we need to look beyond the organic/conventional divide to explore hybrid solutions conducive to sustainable agriculture. Use chemicals, he explains, but use them wisely, use them minimally, and use them as part of a more holistic and high-yielding approach to agriculture. What’s refreshing about this perspective is that it avoids the black and white framework that seems endemic to so many discussions of agricultural reform. It’s one of the many things I like about Bittman.

But there’s a fly in Bittman’s ointment: he can’t even contemplate leaving animals out of the picture. Although open to a range of ideas that sustainable advocates typically reject, Bittman continues to promote rotational grazing systems as the ideal way to improve soil health. Although he’s able to envision a sustainable system that uses synthetic chemicals (in part) to fight insect pests and fungal diseases, he cannot stretch his imagination far enough to allow for the equally judicious use of high-end synthetic fertilizers. For some reason, like so many advocates of sustainable agriculture, he worships almighty manure.

He calls this approach simple. But it’s not. For one, animals don’t spread their manure evenly and efficiently. Nor are the nutrient ratios in manure anywhere near as precise as growing plants needs them to be. These details are never mentioned (despite an enormous literature dedicated to them). More importantly, and what Bittman conspicuously fails to note, is that the animals in a rotational grazing system are removed from the cycle very early in their manure-generating careers. They’re removed not in the interest of sustainability but in the interests of bottom line. They’re removed when their flesh is deemed more profitable than their poop. They’re removed because they are slaughtered and commodified.

Not only is this instrumental vision of a sentient being environmentally costly, it’s morally wrong. Bittman seems to be aware of this. Previous columns of his have shown a remarkable sensitivity to animal sentience. But there’s something about even the most enlightened agricultural discussions that refuse to honestly confront the ethical dilemma at the core of the model Bittman is promoting. Instead of exploring the ethics of animal instrumentalism with complete intellectual integrity, apologists simply say “don’t impose your values on me.” Which always leads me to ask: what kind of value system praises unnecessary suffering?

Bittman is complicit in this studied evasion of the ethical problem central to what he advocates. He’s complicit in the perpetuation of a value system that supports unnecessary violence against sentient animals. Again, I suspect he knows what he’s doing; he knows the steps to the dance he dances. He knows his readers don’t want to hear that they should go vegan. So, here’s the machination he perpetuates, one that had me choking on my breakfast taco: “But seeing organic as the only alternative to industrial agriculture, or veganism as the only alternative to supersize me, is a bit like saying that the only alternative to the ravages of capitalism is Stalinism.”

Please, Mark, please. There’s a simple problem here: innocent animal lives are not explicitly at stake on the organic-industrial continuum. Between veganism and “supersize me,” by contrast, there is no continuum. There is no middle ground. This decision is black and white: you either advocate unnecessary suffering or you do not.

And that, I submit, is about the only choice in agriculture that is simple.

Writer’s Block

» July 1st, 2012

Why won’t prominent food writers promote veganism? Why do advocates for reforming the food system such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Jonathan Safran Foer–some of my favorite writers–eschew an unqualified endorsement of a plant-based diet like they eschew the drive-thru lane at McDonald’s?  Why do writers with the power to fundamentally change the way Americans eat continually advocate the reduced consumption of animals rather than an outright ban on eating them altogether?

Generously, one might say that these writers believe that they are moving consumers in the right direction; and for them, that’s enough. Less is better. A nudge is good. As readers of this blog know, this idea, in my very strong if humble opinion, is bunk. Total bunk. Sort of like a slaveowner arguing that he’s moving away from slavery by owning 5 slaves instead of 10. It’s nothing but symbolic change intended to assuage the guilt of consumers. Nothing useful or productive will ever result from it. But still, one might reasonably argue that these writers are genuinely bound up in this naive faith in the pragmatism of their gradual approach. As I said, generously.

Thing is, though, these writers are fiercely smart, too smart to have ignored the contradiction they avoid by not promoting veganism. On the  one hand, they routinely tell us that animals matter. They matter a lot. They matter so much that we should be morally appalled at the suffering they endure on factory farms. On the other hand, it’s perfect okay–so long as they were raised on a small farm–to treat them like objects, ignore their capacity to suffer, and slaughter them when you’re hungry. This is the carnist’s contradiction. (Yes, I just used Melanie Joy’s term!) These writers are well aware of it (Bittman has said as much) and yet they tip-toe around it, writing recipes, promoting apps, and hitting the lecture circuit to urge us to fight the evils of animal agriculture by . . . eating animals. Oy.

These writers are the tastemakers. Where they lead, the foodie universe follows. This is all the more reason to try to get to the bottom of this question: why do these writers continually fail, through beautifully written books, columns, and magazine pieces, to advocate the very idea that’s most consistent with their own discoveries about animal agriculture and animal sentience? Because I have such respect for these writers, I’m trying to avoid the conclusion that they do it because it’s easy to do so, because it confirms the status quo, because it’s exactly what their privileged readers want to hear, and because it serves their professional interests. I’m trying to avoid this conclusion because this is not what real writers do.

“If you can’t annoy somebody,” Kingsley Amis once said, “there’s little point in writing.” I’m waiting for these giants to start annoying people. Because it is only by annoying people that we start to seek real change. As my favorite musician Bill Callahan sings, “you’ve got to bust up a sidewalk sometimes, to get people to gather around.”  (line comes about 2:20 into the performance.) Time for these writers to turn their pens into sledgehammers.

The Arrogance of Agroecology

» June 5th, 2012


If there’s one agricultural concept that I find particularly indicative of human environmental arrogance it’s the concept of “agroecology.”  Defined as the application of ecological concepts to food production, it’s almost always portrayed as an environmentally sound, and thus more humble, approach to agricultural production. Agroecology is central to holistic farming schemes that insist farm animals are required for the sustainable production of food. It tactfully situates itself in direct opposition to industrial agriculture and, in so doing, assumes the virtuous high ground in discussions of agrarian reform. But I think the whole scheme is based on a fundamentally flawed (arrogant) premise.

My objection to the virtuous portrayal of agroecology begins with a pervasive misunderstanding of agriculture: the idea that it can be seamlessly integrated into naturally biodiverse environments. It cannot. Contrary to popular belief, agriculture by its very nature is an invasive intrusion into preexisting systems. Its inherent aggression is intensified by the inescapably selfish and primal nature of the quest: human nourishment (tragically, often diverted through animals). Although this assessment grates against the agrarian romanticism so many reformers fall prey to, the fact remains: agriculture is harsh. In this respect, writers such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman–and their followers– for all the good they’ve done, have been less than fully forthcoming about the deeper nature of altering a landscape to make it grow food for billions of people. Or maybe their agricultural lenses are simply too rosy.

In any case, it is within this less than forthcoming–or maybe rosy– vein that the blood of agroecology flows. Conventional agriculture, for all its serious problems, at least acknowledges the gritty reality of agriculture. Read Blake Hurst, an actual farmer, and you’ll get this point.  Richard Manning and Victor Davis Hanson aren’t so bad on the topic either (in fact Fields without Dreams is a masterful book). Or you could go back to Aristotle. He wasn’t so shabby himself.  Anyway, we can, by drawing on these more sober assessments of the nature of agriculture, confront the inherently invasive nature of agriculture and, in turn, work to minimize that invasiveness. The most obvious way of minimizing inevitable invasiveness, of course, is eliminating animals from agriculture. This approach to agriculture is both forthright and humble.

But the agroecologists don’t want that. And this finally brings me to my big bad charge of arrogance. The conventional guys make no pretenses of achieving some sort of mystical balance with nature because they know that ecological systems exceed human comprehension. In this way, as I noted, they’re humble in the face of nature. When I wrote my book on insect control (American Pests–see “Books”), I became acutely aware of the infinite and mind-numbing complexity of the relationship among insects, soil, fungi, enzymes, and plants. We don’t know jack! But agroecologists do not see this. They tend to think in terms of the biological agents they can see, and what they see are plants and animals, and what they conclude is that animal poop is necessary for crop growth.  Get microscopic in perspective and anyone who thinks he can meddle and manage the endlessly entangled nature of an ecosystem is, well, arrogant.

Vegans rarely talk about agriculture. But they should, because there’s a trap that awaits us. And that is the trap of agrocecology, a greenwashed, media-stained idea that insists that we must exploit animals to eat sustainably produced plants.

“Perhaps the Only Ethical Meat”?: The “Ethicist’s” Finalists

» April 22nd, 2012

The finalists are in for the New York Times Magazine’s “Ethicist” contest seeking an essay justifying the choice to eat animals.  While there’s little doubt in my mind that two of the judges– Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan–will (based on their previous work) find most of the chosen answers adequate, I’d be shocked if the others– Peter Singer, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light–allowed these often thoughtful, but consistently speciesist, accounts to see the light of day. The exception, of course, may be the call for in-vitro meat, which I’ve included below.

The other finalists can be found here:

 From “The Ethicist”:

I’m About to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years

My father was an ethical man. He had integrity, was honest and loathed needless cruelty. He was also a meat-eater’s meat-eater. He loved sitting at the elevated gourmet table (“gourmet” actually meant something back then) at the fanciest hotel in Sydney to take his evening meal.

He hung up game until it “ponged” to high heaven and enjoyed local meat dishes: wild boar in Switzerland, giant crabs on Easter Island and, in the Persian Gulf, sea turtles whose shells he pierced so that he could stake them at the water’s edge, keeping them fresh until they were popped into the pot.

His habit killed him in the end: the first sign of trouble came with gout, then colon cancer, heart problems and strokes, but he enjoyed meat for decades before all that “wretched bother” in a time when ethical issues were raised only by “a handful of Hindus and Grahamists.”

He taught me, the animal lover, to enjoy meat, too. It did not occur to me that while I would never dream of using a firearm to dispatch a deer or a duck, the specialty butcher’s package, with blood seeping through the paper, came from animals who knew what hit them, who saw and smelled it coming, their hearts thumping in their chests, their eyes wide with fear.

I busily ate my way through the animal kingdom. My father and I hunted for mollusks — mussels and winkles — on the rocks around the Cornish coast. We relished organ meats like liver and kidney and even tripe, which my mother cooked reluctantly for us, a hankie covering her nose. We picnicked on raw triple-ground steak, smashing it messily into the palms of our hands, and mixing in, with our fingers, a raw egg, capers and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. If peckish, I would make a sandwich from the roast beef drippings congealed in a pan left in the larder.

Is it ethical to eat meat? Some 40 years ago, I took a long break from eating any animals, but soon I will be able to eat meat again without any qualms, without worrying about my health, cruelty to animals, or environmental degradation. That’s because this autumn, 14 years after it was just a gleam in the eye of the Dutch scientist Willem van Eelen, the very first laboratory-grown hamburger is to make its debut.

Dr. Van Eelen, while a prisoner during World War II, had been badly treated, but what bothered him more was the abuse he saw meted out to animals destined for the guards’ tables. He was determined to find a way to reduce animals’ suffering, and eventually, he and the scientists he inspired all over the world succeeded. It is thanks to him that I can return to the table with my lobster bib tucked into my shirt front, my conscience clear.

In vitro meat is real meat, grown from real cow, chicken, pig and fish cells, all grown in culture without the mess and misery, without pigs frozen to the sides of metal transport trucks in winter and without intensive water use, massive manure lagoons that leach into streams or antibiotics that are sprayed onto and ingested by live animals and which can no longer fight ever-stronger, drug-resistant bacteria. It comes without E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella or other health problems that are unavoidable when meat comes from animals who defecate. It comes without the need for excuses. It is ethical meat. Aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, it is perhaps the only ethical meat.