Posts Tagged ‘Michael Pollan

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?



» April 24th, 2014

It has long been a source of frustration for the Pitchfork that so-called environmental leaders refuse to embrace eating an exclusively plant-based diet as an integral part of a larger environmental mission. I first wrote about the topic here and have since become so disillusioned with the sordid cant of conventional environmentalism that (with my tongue in my cheek a little) I recently wrote a piece arguing that it’s time for progressives to throw in the towel and forge a language of defeat. Throughout it all, my belief remains firm: we cannot eat animals and claim to care deeply enough about the environment to save it.

The reason old-school environmentalism won’t accommodate an animal-free diet might seem baffling, given the overwhelming evidence that eating plants would dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of food production, prevent rainforest destruction, reduce global water and fertilizer consumption, and eliminate aquatic dead zones.

But the cowardly tendency involves several identifiable factors. Perhaps the first is that the movement (as it were) is fragmented into organizations dependent on fundraising to keep the green flag flying. Competing as they do for a limited and diminishing piece of the progressive pie, these groups are understandably wary of getting between a big donor’s pork chop and check book. Get the people angry over pipelines and coal mines, but not cows and pigs—so the reasoning goes. Second, those with the most power to deliver a hard message to the masses are, to an extent, overly dependent on audiences—and, I imagine, mired in a culture—that would kick them to the curb if they impugned their pasture-raised, hormone-free, humanely-raised eggs. They not only know who butters their bread but they know their bread is buttered with butter. Finally, environmentalism and commercial culture have become so deeply entwined that few are left with either the ability or the guts to imagine an environmentalism that you couldn’t buy your way into. Behavioral change? Blah.

That’s my take on the issue, in the most general terms. But a new, feature-length documentary in the works has the potential to do much more than complain about the situation and make vague assessments. It’s called Cowspiracy and it explores the question of why mainstream environmentalism refuses to directly confront industrial agriculture. Producers Kip Anderson (Animals United Movement) and Keegan Kuhn (First Spark Media) have teamed up to do what Blackfish is currently doing to SeaWorld: radically changing public perception about our use of animals in an industry we have traditionally failed to identify as a source of profound ecological destruction. For better or worse, the film appears to focus on industrial animal agriculture alone but, given the alarming nature of the problem, that’s a start—one that I support.

If you’re interested in learning more and helping Kip and Keegan finish the film, visit their Indiegogo page here. (Warning: you will be greeted with Michael Pollan, who is identified as an environmental writer, and thus you might have a reason to be skeptical, given his fervid defense of eating animals, but I would encourage you to watch the whole trailer to get what I hope is a fuller picture of the film’s goal, not to mention the inclusion of more trustworthy voices such as Will Potter’s and Richard Oppenlander’s.)



» April 25th, 2013

According to his newly released book Cooked, Michael Pollan wants us back in the kitchen. I’ve yet to read the book but when I do (probably this summer) I’ll give it a proper review. For now, though, based on the book’s highly publicized premise (and some reviews and an interview), I’d like to note that, as with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan’s most loyal but ignored friend, given the argument he makes, once again appears to be veganism.  Indeed, every cultural and culinary shift he seeks to achieve is epitomized by the simplicity of a plant-based diet. But Pollan, for whatever reason, seems inclined to complicate that friendship.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is in many ways a brilliant book that exposed a dilemma we didn’t even know we had: our addiction to industrial corn.  Pollan, with his signature combination of hortatory populism and seductive prose, encouraged consumers to resist Big Agriculture by sourcing food from small farms, culinary artisans, and farmers’ markets. Although he stressed that the ideal diet consisted of “mostly plants,” he took a slaverously self-indulgent approach to eating animals, going to far as to hunt down and slay his own pig like a crazed backwoodsman prowling the frontier. It all made for good copy but, at the end of the day the meat message contradicted his rousing plea to oppose industrial agriculture.  Pollan’s blind spot became the blind spot of the movement he spawned: when you eat animals—be they ones you raised, hunted, or scraped off the highway—you do more for the cause of Big Agriculture than any other single consumer action.

This passive-aggressive pattern seems to be repeating itself in Cooked. Pollan wants us to reclaim the power of cooking. To this I raise my fist skyward. However, the strategy of re-engagement that Pollan advocates yet again grates against the popular gist of his hortation. He says “cook, people!” and then, in a way that only Pollan can, he situates the act out of reach, typically into some agrarian fantasyland populated with edgy Bobos in overalls. Never would Pollan suggest that we source our  ingredients from—gasp!—a grocery store. No, that’s far too pedestrian, commonplace, easy, and normal. It’s at the door of the grocery story where Pollan’s populism slips into farmer-chic elitism and his fetish for the farmers’ market is duly exposed. Look, folks. I’ve got no problem with farmers’ markets. It’s just that the food is more expensive, the availability is spotty, and I still have to go to the grocery store for utilitarian items, like canned beans. Cooking takes time. When the ingredients have to be preciously sourced, it takes more time.

What I’m saying here is that, once again, Pollan’s best friend—really, his role model for the food-system-snubbing self-sufficient home cook—is The Vegan. Vegans typically make their way around a kitchen with rare aplomb because most of us, in our allegiance to plants, have already dropped out of the food system that Pollan so despises. We have done this because we have done the most important and effective and rebellious thing that can be done to undermine Big Ag: we’ve quit eating animals. Instead of retreating to some epicurean idyll, however, we’ve simply stuck to the veggie section while ducking periodically into the canned food aisle, bulk food section, and wherever it is you can get some whole wheat tortillas, quinoa, and almond milk. And we take these ingredients home. To the kitchen.

And we cook.


Don’t Have a Cow

» February 7th, 2013

Management intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) is a big deal these days, especially with so called sustainable farmers trying to capture emerging “conscientious carnivore” markets. Those who write about the art of rotating small herds of animals (usually cows) from one pasture to another portray the practice as an ecologically beneficial and more natural alternative to the cold input/output logic of industrial farming. But here’s what I’m learning: those who practice the art of moving small herds of cows from one pasture to another portray it to each other as an endeavor that can be worthwhile economically but, in reality, is beset with problems that the rhetorical champions of rotational grazing always fail to mention.  This difference is worth exploring a bit.

Inspired as I so often am by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, I’ve been seeking to expose the flaws of my target (in this case MIRGers) with evidence generated by the target itself. Singer perfected this technique when it came to exposing factory farms. I want to do it with small farms. This approach strikes me as much better than relying on, say, research done by HSUS (which, don’t get me wrong, is accurate and often done in tremendous depth), Humane Myth (ditto), or any organization with a clear (and noble) interest in promoting a skeptical view of animal agriculture. It just seems that one’s argument is made more powerful when evidence comes from the targeted party itself. Of course, this cannot be done in all cases, but we should turn the industry’s words back on itself whenever the opportunity presents itself.

It was in this spirit that I began, many months ago, trolling several “homesteader” websites (this research is for my book The Modern Savage). After digesting several hundred entries from rotational grazers themselves, I’ve reached the conclusion that what people such as Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin have to say about MIRG is in fact a carefully sanitized version of a much messier reality.

Perhaps what stands out the most is how small farmers, just like factory farmers, view their operation, and their animals, as existing first and foremost for profit. This point, I realize, may seem obvious. So often, though, MIRG is presented as an altruistic endeavor designed to show love for animals and the environment we share with them. One farmer, for example, explained to another:   “I am confident that I can net more profit from the large tract with the large herd than you are now realizing with the 3 herds. We can cull and get the “right size” cows. We can get the pastures in top condition and carry more cows than you are carrying in the largest herd.” (emphasis added)  Another agreed, adding, “We’re open to culling out some of our bigger breeds to head in the rotational direction.”

In addition to culling (read:killing) cows when they aren’t the “right” size for achieving maximum stocking density on available pasture, farmers who know that consumers are demanding exclusively grass-fed cows are keeping animals on grass to their detriment. One wrote, “Some of the animals are passing loose manure due to the richness of the forage even this late into the non growing season. Breeding stock of both sexes that are accustomed to grain feed will not hold the bloom exhibited when placed on grass alone nor will heavy milkers.”  Moderate milk production is what MIRG people seek in their cattle. One wrote of the ideal cow,  ”You do not want her to give a lot of milk. She only needs to give enough milk to provide for the calf adequately until it can start grazing.” And in case you think these farmers are any less vigilant than factory farmers about controlling reproduction, note this:  ”The brood cow needs to maintain her condition so that she will breed back within 60 days of giving birth. We want heifers that will heat cycle early and produce a calf on her 2nd birthday.” Is this instrumental take on cows any different that that of a factory farmer?

Finally, and in many ways, most surprising to me, farmers are generally grazing their cattle on grass called fescue. Fescue, it turns out, isn’t so great for cows. But it grows easily and prevalently and it’s good for quick fattening and thus the bottom line. The reason for this is that most fescue is infected with a fungus called endophyte. Endophyte infested fescue is fine for the grass but not for the cow. Here is what one team of agronomists has to say about endophyte infected fescue, the most popular grass that MIRG cows munch:

Studies with animals consuming endophyte-infected fescue have shown the following responses in comparison to animals grazing non-infected fescue: (1) lower feed intake; (2) lower weight gains; (3) lower milk production; (4) higher respiration rates; (5) higher body temperatures; (6) rough hair coats; (7) more time spent in water; (8) more time spent in the shade; (9) less time spent grazing; (10) excessive salvation; (11) reduced blood serum prolactin levels; and (12) reduced reproductive performance. Some or all of these responses have been observed in numerous studies in dairy cattle, beef cattle, and sheep consuming endophyte-infected pasture, green chop, hay and/or seed.

Scientists recommend that MIRGers switch over to fescue free of endophytes. According my farmers, though, this would be a terrible idea. One explained,  ”To date, the fescues that I know of that are endophyte free are not hardy.” My sense is that the endophyte infected fescue is like junk food for cows. They eat it eagerly, gobble it up, and then suffer the detrimental consequences listed above. All of which leaves me to wonder: how does any of this reality jibe with all the MIRG rhetoric about cows thriving on grass, reveling in their cowness, and regenerating tired ecosystems? I don’t get it. Why not just not have a cow?




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.

Extremely Disappointing, Incredibly Predictable

» June 16th, 2012


Yesterday I posted a video of Jonathan Safran Foer, author of a book (Eating Animals) that inspired countless people to go vegan. He was plugging an app that tells consumers where they should buy chicken. The initial impact was as if Martin Luther King, after writing Letter from a Birmingham Jail, had renounced non-violence and taken up arms.

My first reaction, along with many other vegans, was a sort of stupefaction. I’d read Eating Animals. I’d sat on a panel with Foer in Texas and, with him, denounced animal products. I’d listened to friends tell me that he was the bedrock of their veganism. I’d written a glowing review of his book. I thought about all of this as I drove from Louisville to Pittsburg yesterday, passing the time in a state of low-grade agitation.

As the miles clicked by, though, my agitation shifted. It shifted from Foer to myself. Why did I ever imagine Foer to be a vegan representative? Why did I find myself speechless? Why am I overwhelmed with the impulse to call Foer a hypocrite? Why did I go all weak-kneed over this guy? Why did I ignore the fact that Foer was at home on the fence?

Foer never advocated veganism. He rarely engaged the philosophical issues endemic to animal rights. He’s friends with, and sympathetic toward, the “humane” producers of animal products. He has studiously dodged hard questions such as “what should people eat?” (a remarkable accomplishment given that he wrote a book about it). In essence, Foer has never, ever passed himself off as something he’s not. He’s a brilliantly literary guy who wrote a compelling book more or less riffing in fascinating ways about the habit of eating animals. He never decreed squat.

Still, many vegans–myself included–conveniently overlooked these facts about Foer. We came to respect him as some sort of unspoken spokesperson for ethical veganism. But why? That’s the real question at the center of this whole Foer dust-up.

I think our admiration for this talented novelist speaks volumes about our desperation for moral leadership. Perhaps more to the point, it speaks volumes about why the vegan movement lacks its identifiable representatives. I’m well aware that many vegans want a movement without leaders, but my sense is that with Foer many vegans were investing him with genuine vegan-leadership qualities because, well, we otherwise lack a high-profiled and charismatic figure who embodies the values central to our cause.

Again, I know that hierarchy is something many vegans seek to avoid, and for good reasons. That said, the sustainable food movement has its Michael Pollan, and look what he’s done for it. He’s provided vision and clarity. Acolytes rally around him like a guru and charge like a laser into a murky future. The result has been nothing short of profound: the movement has gone from a vague set of ideas to a cohesive and sharply defined ideology with the all the power of a bullet aimed to humanely kill lunch.

But vegans? No such luck. Lacking our Pollan, we seem to prefer fights. And not against the animal exploiters, but with each other. The narcissism of small differences too often wins out over the sensibility of unified beliefs, leaving us rudderless.

Don’t get me wrong—I deeply value our internal debates (hell, I initiate many of them).  But, fragmented as we are, it’s no wonder that we cannot agree on a small set of figures who genuinely embody vegan ideals. It’s no wonder so many of us invested so heavily in Foer. And it’s no wonder that Foer has (temporarily?) fallen off the fence and landed on the side of the happy meat/sustainable agriculture fence. Our side of the fence is jagged and full of mines. Where he now sits there’s green pastures, cool people, sunny skies, and rose-colored glasses to hide the suffering that we refuse to ignore.

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.

Nature, Animals, and Holistic Farming: Some Raw Thoughts

» May 19th, 2012




I’ll start with two related thoughts, and then run with them. First, I’m thrilled by technology. It’s not I that I think technology will solve all our problems–I’m no determinist–but it’s just that I see technology as a vast arena of innovation, a place where humans can pour an abundance of natural creativity and, at times, reap substantial humanitarian and environmental rewards. In many ways, what makes life meaningful–what gives us pleasure and allows us to reach our potential as engaged human beings–is linked in one way or another to technological advancement. I’m well aware that technology is also the cause of immense suffering and ecological degradation. Nevertheless, there’s no disentangling humanity from technology. Systematically meddling with natural resources is, for better or worse, an important part of what defines us as a species.

Second, I’m impatient with the idea that technological advance is somehow a deviation from what’s “natural.” This is a common rhetorical strategy used by the spokespeople in the sustainable food movement to deride many agricultural technologies as artificial and destructive. It’s also a questionable pretext for insisting that we must grow plants and fatten animals according to more “natural” or–big buzzword here–”holistic” methods, drawing upon processes that occur in nature without human intervention. It’s also an intellectually lazy understanding of nature. In this formulation, nature becomes something not only falsely segregated from technology (and thus from humanity), but it becomes something that we’re supposed to think of as inherently superior to “artificial”–i.e., processes designed with human participation. Yes, the buffalo once fertilized the land that produced the grasses that fed buffalo when there were very few people around North America. That was natural, we’re told. But more people are now here. Billions more. And agriculture has to feed them. So it’s time for a new natural.

I’ll concede that my heart pulls toward the romanticized preference for natural methods. And the fact is this preference would be fine if there weren’t 7 billion people living on earth, with about two billion more on the way, and billions more on the verge of entering the middle class. But, as it now stands, to allow nature to be our farmer–which is what the sustainable food people say should happen–is to promote two of the more dangerous aspects of agriculture: systematic animal exploitation and gross inefficiency in plant production. Indeed, it’s a central tenet of the sustainable food movement that responsible and “natural” agricultural systems require the incorporation of domesticated (and thus genetically exploited) animals to enhance soil quality. Similarly, it’s a central tenet that plants should be grown without any synthetic fertilizer or fossil fuel. These flawed tenets are directly related to each other. In other words, reliance on exploiting animals is precisely what allows advocates of “natural” farming to justify avoiding synthetic fertilizer or the natural gas used to produce food. Take animals out of the agrarian equation and you have to acquire soil fertility in other ways. So, how does the ethical vegan respond to this quandary?

I’m becoming well aware of veganic agriculture. And I have hope for veganic agriculture. I imagine that–though technological progress–we may one day be able to create a global plant-based agricultural system using green manure and other non-synthetic enhancements. For now, though, my response cannot be so idealistic: if we want to take animals out of agriculture, we’re going to need to use fossil fuel and synthetic fertilizers–and even some level of pesticides and fungicides–to feed billions of people a plant-based diet devoid of intentional animal exploitation. I realize that this assessment might not sit well with many vegan advocates–who tend to be environmental advocates as well as animal advocates–but keep two things in mind: a) manipulating the environment to make it feed billions of people will always come at some cost (people who talk about a “free lunch” in agriculture–ahem, Pollan–are dreaming), and b) there are, with technology, remarkably encouraging ways to minimize the impact of these necessary synthetic inputs.

So here are a few reasons why I think it’s possible–and desirable–to remove animals from agriculture, produce enough food to feed 9 billion people, use fossil fuels and other synthetic inputs, and still have an environmentally responsible agricultural system.

–The overwhelming source of fossil fuel consumption in agriculture today is animal based agriculture. All that corn and soy is mainly the problem. Switching to a diverse agricultural system that produces plants for people to eat would dramatically reduce the need for fertilizer and fossil fuel, to the point that the environmental impact would be greatly minimized. Again, to think that any system of agricultural production in the modern world can break even in terms of energy costs is crazy talk. Holistic/sustainable advocates fail to calculate the energy wasted and required to remove an animal from a holistic system prematurely, not to mention killing, commodifying, and replacing her. As the World Preservation Institute reported late last year: a global vegan diet would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture by 94 percent. What more needs to be said?

–High end synthetic fertilizers can be extremely efficient when it comes to plant nutrient uptake–often more efficient than manure. In fact, customized fertilizers deliver more nutrients more efficiently than manure, which–not being in any way designed for the specific nutrient needs of the crop–has high rates of nutrient run off. Plant biologists have made great strides in matching crop nutrient needs with specific fertilizer profiles–but, they’ve only done this with corn and soy. What if we did it for 500 edible plant crops and grew them all in the United States? “That’s not natural,” the sustainable agrarians would say. To which I would respond: “Agriculture is not natural by your definition. Get over it.” Subsidizing the judicious use of these fertilizers makes more sense than subsidizing corn and soy production. The use of efficient, high grade, low run-off fertilizer could–calorie per calorie–be more environmentally sound than using loads and loads of composted manure or relying on rotational grazing.

–A plant-based system that eliminated animals would require much less agricultural space, an acute factor given the press on limited arable land globally. Rotational grazing gets people excited because it’s so “natural,” but there’s nothing terribly natural about chopping down rainforests to clear land so we can fatten animals and grow crops “holistically.” The only viable objection I ever get to this claim suggests that, under holistic systems, we would not need as much land because people would eat less meat. But this objections fails on at least two grounds. First, it’s naive to think that consumers are going to switch to more expensive animal product options so long as cheaper ones are available–and cheapness comes from industrialization. Two, and relatedly, eating limited animal products produced in holistic systems will become the domain of the elite. I see no reason to reform a food system so that wealthy people are the only ones able to eat in a way that supposedly respects the environment and the welfare of animals.

–Finally, advocates of sustainable agriculture support the holistic model because it theoretically eliminates dependence on fossil fuels. While I’ve already mentioned many problems with this goal, there is one that I haven’t mentioned that’s more important than all put together: the worth of an animal’s life should never be measured in barrels of oil.




» May 3rd, 2012


Here’s the winning essay from the New York Times Magazine‘s contest to ethically justify eating animals. Hard to believe that Andrew Light, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Peter Singer approved this entry, as it would not have survived the Philosophy 101 class I took in high school. Nothing on animal sentience–this in an essay on the ethics of eating animals. Pathetic. Plain pathetic. I promise you that this contest was driven more by concern for advertising revenue than ethics. Pathetic. Pathetic. Pathetic.  -jm

By Jay Bost

As a vegetarian who returned to meat-eating, I find the question “Is meat-eating ethical?” one that is in my head and heart constantly. The reasons I became a vegetarian, then a vegan and then again a conscientious meat-eater were all ethical. The ethical reasons of why NOT to eat meat are obvious: animals are raised and killed in cruel conditions; grain that could feed hungry people is fed to animals; the need for pasture fuels deforestation; and by eating meat, one is implicated in the killing of a sentient being. Except for the last reason, however, none of these aspects of eating meat are implicit in eating meat, yet they are exactly what make eating some meat unethical. Which leads to my main argument: eating meat raised in specific circumstances is ethical; eating meat raised in other circumstances is unethical. Just as eating vegetables, tofu or grain raised in certain circumstances is ethical and those produced in other ways is unethical.

What are these “right” and “wrong” ways of producing both meat and plant foods? For me, they are most succinctly summed up in Aldo Leopold’s land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” While studying agroecology at Prescott College in Arizona, I was convinced that if what you are trying to achieve with an “ethical” diet is the least destructive impact on life as a whole on this planet, then in some circumstances, like living among dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona, eating meat, is, in fact, the most ethical thing you can do other than subsist on wild game, tepary beans and pinyon nuts. A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human. This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human.

While most present-day meat production is an ecologically foolish and ethically wrong endeavor, happily this is changing, and there are abundant examples of ecologically beneficial, pasture-based systems. The fact is that most agroecologists agree that animals are integral parts of truly sustainable agricultural systems. They are able to cycle nutrients, aid in land management and convert sun to food in ways that are nearly impossible for us to do without fossil fuel. If “ethical” is defined as living in the most ecologically benign way, then in fairly specific circumstances, of which each eater must educate himself, eating meat is ethical; in fact NOT eating meat may be arguably unethical.

The issue of killing of a sentient being, however, lingers. To which each individual human being must react by asking: Am I willing to divide the world into that which I have deemed is worthy of being spared the inevitable and that which is not worthy? Or is such a division hopelessly artificial? A poem of Wislawa Szymborska’s, “In Praise of Self-Deprecation,” comes to mind. It ends:

There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.

For me, eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really justsolar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.

Jay Bost, who says he has been “a farmworker, plant geek, agroecologist and foodie for the past 20 years,” teaches at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., and plans to head to Hawaii next year for a Ph.D. in tropical plant and soil science. His deepest interest is in agrobiodiversity, a field he will be better able to explain once he and his partner, Nora Rodli, get their 5-month-old son, Kailu Sassafras, to sleep.

“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.