Tag Archives: animal rights

A Conversation on Meat-Eating

30 May

A few months ago, a reader of We*Meat*Again named Heather sent me the first email below — a proposition…

I think being vegan is the ideal diet, and you disagree. Therefore, I have a fun proposal if you are up for it.

I would like to discuss the ethics of eating meat with you over email. We can go back and forth for a little while. Then, I’ll post the debate on a blog that I haven’t created yet. You can do the same at your blog.

I loved the idea of letting our ethics play out in conversation form, as it was a long series of conversations I had several years ago that led me back towards meat-eating. It wasn’t an issue or singular decision, so I thought this would be a great way to represent the myriad perspectives on the ethics of eating meat. Enjoy!

Heather

I’ll start off with animals. After all, protecting animals is the main reason I am vegan.

I think it is very important to protect animals from harm. They are defenseless, and we have the power to do anything to them that we want. But might does not make right.

Animals raised for food are almost all kept in factory farms where they are confined in tiny cages. Egg laying hens can’t even flap their wings and they stay in those cages for up to two years. Breeding pigs are kept in stalls so small they can’t even turn around.

A lot of suffering goes into producing meat, and it’s not neven a necessary food.

Marissa

I have a tangential thought, based on what you mentioned below about animals being defenseless. Of course, I know you mean domesticated livestock animals, but I wonder how this view of our obligation to protect animals might impact your views on hunting? Wild animals are certainly not defenseless, and defend themselves against predators all the time. But back to your initial thoughts…

As you mention, almost all animals raised for food are kept in extremely inhumane conditions. I completely agree, and this was the primary reason I had for becoming a vegetarian myself many years ago. I can’t abide those conditions and do not want to be a part of them. However, there is a small, and growing movement of much more small-scale humane conditions for raising animals. I’ve met and befriended many farmers and ranchers who treat their animals with love and kindness, who raise them in healthy, free-roaming conditions and who ensure their deaths are as pain- and fear-free as possible.

My view is that I can affect more positive change in the current food system by choosing to invest my meat-dollars by supporting those new, emerging models of agriculture than I can by opting out or boycotting the existing system.

There’s a lot to explore in the idea that meat isn’t a necessary food, too, but I’ll stay on topic for now…

Heather

I don’t think many animals that are hunted are able to defend themselves against hunters. Doves come to mind, as do ducks, rabbits, etc. but that’s a different issue.

I think those farms that don’t use factory farm methods are an improvement, but they still kill the animals. There is still suffering. For example, male pigs are still castrated. I think it’s an improvement, and for people who refuse to go vegetarian it’s a good alternative. But for those willing to go all the way, isn’t it preferable to not have any animals killed for the dinner plate?

Why kill if we don’t need to?

Marissa

The question at stake for me here is: what system of eating is without suffering? I think a lot of vegans and vegetarians are mistaken in the assumption that by not eating the body of an animal, they are avoiding participating in death or suffering.

A few examples: Most mainstream meat substitute products, including boxed products like Boca burgers, or tofu, are subsidiary brands produced by major multinational corporations. Boca is owned by Kraft, which also owns Oscar Meyer. Yves and Tofutown are owned by Heinz, which also owns several frozen meal brands, made with chicken contracted through Tyson (one of the worst-of-the-worst when it comes to inhumane and pollutive CAFOs).

Even on the smaller scale (for organic, locavore vegans and vegetarians) the very act of growing food often results in death. Even the most low-till farming methods neccesarily kill worms. Even the most natural pest-avoidance will likely cause the deaths of insects. And these are not non-sentient beings (I’ve always hated when people accuse vegetarians of “killing plants” — that’s just not the same thing). These are living creatures, many of which can experience pain, and have an equal right to life as a human, or a chicken, or a pig.

And so, if death is unavoidable in the process of growing and consuming food, I believe it makes the most ethical sense to be honest about it. To acknowledge the suffering I cause (in my case, in the form of an animal’s death) so that I can most responsibly invest my food dollars with producers who I know seek to actively minimize suffering.

Heather

I don’t agree that worms are equal to intelligent species like pigs, just like I don’t agree that pigs are equal to humans. However, let’s take your argument at face value. Assume that raising 8lbs of soybeans causes X number of worms and other insects to die. We can eat that 8lbs of soybeans directly and the number of insects dead is X. Or, we can feed that soy to a pig and get 1lb of meat. A farmer feeds roughly 8lbs of feed to a pig to get a pound of pork. So if we ate the vegetarian food directly, it stands to reason there would be 8 times less insects killed than in a form of food production where those crops are filtered through a pig first.

I don’t think buying vegetarian foods from a company that also sells meat is anything like buying meat from a company that sells meat. If anything, buying the vegetarian food shows these companies that there is profit to be made in plant based foods. Those companies are not going away. But if they see there is profit to be made by producing more ethical foods, that is a good thing.

So, in closing, one kills less insects that would be harmed in crop production if they eat the crops directly. Also, showing multinational corporations there is profit to be made by producing more ethical foods is a good thing.

I think those points reinforce the argument for vegetarianism.

Marissa

The flaw in the mathematical equations or soy, or corn, to meat production is that vegetarian food isn’t just soybeans. It, too, requires processing, and a balanced diet requires produce, which takes more land to grow, etc. So it’s difficult, if not impossible, to suggest that such a correlation between # of worms killed for one pound of vegetarian food is less than # of worms killed for one pound of pig. Especially because that equation still only takes into consideration animals fed a grown diet, as opposed to free-range animals.

But those small logistics aside, the more important thing is to note that we all — whether we eat meat or not — make a distinction between certain kinds of life. You acknowledge a worm > pig > human hierarchy, and the existence of such a hierarchy suggests that even vegans don’t necessarily have a problem with knowing some life died to create their food. That is much the same as my take. The real question is, why do we consider some life forms acceptable deaths and others unacceptable?

My issue with buying vegetarian foods from a company that also raises meat is that I don’t separate all those forms of suffering out. I accept that much destruction (of the earth), death and suffering (of animals, farmworkers, etc.) comes along with the process of any species attempting to feed itself. I try to minimize my participation in that suffering, because I look at the whole picture. I would rather buy a free-range, antibiotic-free, humanely-slaughtered side of beef from a local farmer who treats his workers with respect than a box of industrially-produced, long-distance, GMO-based meat substitute product from a parent corporation responsible for labor rights, clean air/water, and animals rights, violations.

If some people are vegan or vegetarian because they simply cannot stomach the idea of eating the flesh of a dead animal, I can wholeheartedly accept that. I just think it’s a personal choice, not one that, when judged in terms of the food system as a whole, is in and of itself morally superior.

Heather

Ok, I had not thought about produce requiring more to grow. But how could tree fruit affect worms in the ground? I don’t think it can.

Plus, there is no question people have lower rates of heart disease as vegetarians.

Marissa

It’s certainly true that people have lower rates of heart disease (and many other chronic health conditions) as vegetarians. But that’s because the only studies up to this point have compared a diet without meat to a diet of industrially-produced meat (even including processed meat like bologna or spam. ick.).

I’m all in favor of reducing our meat consumption as a nation dramatically. Americans far over-eat protein in general, and are especially fans of red meat, which is especially bad for the heart. But I think a diet that emphasizes fresh, whole foods and produce can include some meat and still be very healthy. In fact, the studies that have been done thus far suggest that many of the health issues associated with meat are a uniquely-industrial problem. So if we are supporting sustainable, chemical-free sources of meat, we can avoid many of those health problems.

Heather

Ok, that’s an interesting rebuttal.

We agree meat consumption should be reduced.

Basically I think there are 3 main reasons to be vegetarian, and they are:

1. There is no question that animals suffer greatly in factory farms. Anytime one buys a chicken sandwich, they are supporting that. Even when people say they eat free range meat, if they go to a restaurant or eat meat at a cookout, they are likely eating factory farmed meat. I don’t believe that people who say they exclusively eat free range meat really exclusively do. If they are telling the truth then they must eat vegetarian meals most of the time.

Even with free range meat, an animal is still killed for something unnecessary. Of course we are talking about animals like pigs, which are as intelligent as dogs. Chickens, turkeys, cows; they all are intelligent enough and aware enough to suffer and to be aware of their misery, pain and fear as they go down the slaughter line. I don’t think we can say that about worms. In fact, you can even cut a worm in half and it becomes two worms. Slice a chicken in half and she is dead.

Lastly, with grass fed cows, if we were to eat as much meat tomorrow as we do today, and all the cows are grass fed, we’d use half the country for grazing.

2. Clearly a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthier than eating meat. You did a good job of refuting my heart disease argument, but vegetarians do live longer than meat eaters on average. We have lower rates of stroke, lower obesity and all the problems that come with that, etc.

3. Meat production is an environmental catastrophe. So many more resources go into growing feed to feed to animals, and then raising, transporting and slaughtering the animals than if one just eats crops directly. There is also the issue of manure run off contaminating soil, water and air in rural communities. So much petro fertilizer has to be used to raise feed crops. It’s just a mess.

The three points together make a strong argument for being vegetarian.

Marissa

I have some responses to your three points individually, and then to the underlying assumption.

1. You’re absolutely right that choosing not to eat factory-farmed meat means absconding from meat in many situations (thought not at all restaurants), but I wouldn’t go so far as to say “most of the time.” Most of my meals are eaten at home, cooked by me. But to assume they are lying, or misinformed, isn’t necessary. You don’t have to believe they are always eating sustainable meat any more than they need to believe you are always reading ingredients list and never accidentally eating chicken fat or beef byproduct in your soup, crackers, etc.

The idea that the animal is being killed for something “unnecessary” is part of the problem I have. If an animal dies in any process of growing food (and somehow, somewhere along the line, I do believe that happens, whether worms and insects or animals slaughtered by parent companies of vegetarian products), then what kind of death is “unnecessary.” They are all, in some way, going towards a person’s eating. Couldn’t we take the next logical step and say it’s not “necessary” for humans to live any more than animals? Of course, such a position wouldn’t work. If death is inevitable, no death is unnecessary — but there is such a thing as an inhumane death or a death that happens in a way that isn’t necessary.

2. My response to the argument that vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters is the same as my response for heart disease — only because the only available data matches vegetarian against modern-day, red-meat-heavy, industrially-produced-meat eater. Vegetarian versus low-consumption, sustainable-produced, chemical-free meat-eater would look different. They may well be equal.

My response to your third point, about the environmental consequences of meat production, is similar to my response to your note about grass-fed cattle. Along with agreeing meat consumption should be reduced, we both agree on all the negatives of the current factory farming system. But if you add reducing meat consumption to attempting to reverse, undo, or change the industrial system, you can create a small-scale, sustainable system that produces less meat on less land using integrative practices that feed and fertilize the land, without the massive pollutive consequences of a factory farm. I’ve chosen to invest in the creation of that system, rather than just boycott the existing one.

At this point in our exchange, Heather threw in the towel, and admitted I had successfully rebutted all of her reasons for strict vegetarianism. I’ll close with my final response to her, which is the most important take-away:

My intention is never to get people to stop being vegetarians — just to start being more conscientious of the fact that the line between ethical/unethical eating doesn’t necessarily fall along vegetarian/meat-eating lines.

We’re In This Together

11 May

The recent NYTimes contest calling for essays advocating for the ethics of eating meat produced some interesting responses. My take on it was similar in thought process to the winning entry. But for now, I’m interested in the reactions from around the world of food to the very idea of the contest.

In peoples’ responses, I saw evidence of the beginning of a splintering in the food movement, between those who advocate a vegetarian or vegan diet, and those of us becoming known as “selective omnivores”–who advocate a diet that includes meat but focuses on local and sustainable sourcing.

Here’s an example of the take that ethical vegetarians seemed to have to the contest:

Do ethical vegetarians…pose such a “threat” to the meat and dairy industries that the Times Magazine must now invite its millions of readers to shout them down? … We find it disturbing that the Magazine would organize such a one-sided contest, and moreover that Ariel Kaminer should introduce it with such frivolity. “Ethically speaking, vegetables get all the glory,” Kaminer writes, caricaturing vegans as members of a “hard-core inner circle” who have “dominated the discussion.” With her very breeziness (“Bon appetit!”), Kaminer seems intent on trivializing the warrant for ethical veganism.”

Michele Simon, a public health lawyer whose work I normally greatly admire had a similarly dismissive take on the notion that the ethics of meat eating are worth discussing:

Was this really a burning problem that needed solving, the lack of justifications to eat meat? What do you suppose has caused America’s love affair with meat in the first place? …  It saddens me that given all the pressing problems of our day, many of which caused by excessive meat eating (global warming, contaminated air and water, chronic disease, worker injury, and yes, animal suffering, just to name a few) the Times is promoting such a self-indulgent contest.

I’ve heard similar rumblings from some of the sustainable meat producers I know — those who raise grass-fed cattle or run small-scale slaughter operations — that the push for meatlessness is misdirected, and hurts those who are striving for a more sustainable, animal-friendly meat. One farmer friend suggested that “Meatless Mondays” should be renamed “Pasture-Raised Meat Mondays” to better support his business, and draw the line where it should be placed.

Ironically, after calling the contest self-indulent and accusing meat-eaters of being brainwashed by industry, Simon  finishes her entry by saying:

Moreover, we don’t need even more ways to polarize people over personal dietary choices. Let’s stop the infighting and focus on the core of the problem: corporate control of the food supply.

Overall, I find the notion of criticizing what the Ethicist column chooses to devote a contest to a bit frivolous in itself. But the end of Simon’s letter makes a good point, and is my point in this post: staying strong and united is in our best interests.

Ultimately, ethical vegetarians and ethical omnivores want the same things, and we need to spend more time thinking about what we have in common than on what divides us. Just as the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movements, and now, the LGBQT movement have all struggled with this kind of splintering, the new movement of food advocacy will likely occasionally butt heads over territory or priority.

Advocating for a decrease in overall meat consumption is good for all of us. Most ethical vegetarians believe that we should eat less meat overall, and while sustainable meat producers may bristle at this initially, it’s in their best interests, too. Aside from being better for our health to consume less meat than we currently do, and better for the land overall, a smaller national hankering for meat is one that can be met exclusively by small-scale, pasture-raised operations.

When I met with Bartlet Duran of Black Earth Meats a few years ago, he made an interesting point by saying that his operation isn’t interested in getting into the large chain grocery stores. To produce enough to meet the demands of a Wal-Mart, or Safeway, or Hy-Vee, they would have to scale up. And they like doing things on their scale, because it allows for ultimate control over the animals’ diets, living conditions, slaughterhouse conditions and worker pay. Direct marketing to consumers makes more sense, and that requires being a smaller operation. So if ethical vegetarians get their way, and can convince Americans to eat less meat overall, small-scale producers will be uniquely suited to meet those demands at the most competitive price point.

On the other hand, supporting sustainable meat operations is in the best interest of veg*ns, too. In every conversation I’ve ever had with a vegetarian (including with myself) about her reasons for being one — be they environmental, economic, labor-rights, or ethical — those reasons can be nearly universally addressed by the sustainable meat industry. Every problem a vegan or vegetarian has with meat is actually one they have with the industrial meat complex.

Even vegetarians who are not personally comfortable with a reversal of their diet surely can admit that if some Americans want or need to eat meat, they would rather they come from family-owned, biodynamic operations than anywhere else. In advocating for those operations, no one is suggesting that we force anyone to eat meat — just that we all work to make sure the meat that is available comes from the best possible source.

So rather than fighting with each other, let’s turn our joint attention outward to our common enemy, the industrial food complex. Let’s focus on our common ground, and we can get some real work done.

Readers Respond: Why It’s (Un)Ethical to Eat Meat

18 Apr

Last week, I posted some of my thoughts on Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat. I got some really interesting comments on that post that I wanted to respond to, and thought I would share my responses in a new post, to keep the conversation going.

Michael writes:

Indeed suffering is an inevitable part of simply being a living organism, but you’re rationalizing unnecessary suffering on the grounds that it’s impossible to eliminate it completely. This is simply not cogent. We can’t eliminate crime completely, but this is no argument for doing away with law enforcement altogether.

My response: The first part of this I have to object to is the idea of unnecessary suffering. While most of us in the developed world have the luxury of choosing our diet, if suffering is inevitable for any species to feed itself, how can we define any suffering as “unnecessary?” I simply don’t think it’s fair for any single person to make a determination of necessity for any other eater.

But I believe that by participating in the models of meat production I do, that I’m working towards reducing suffering — not just throwing up my hands and giving up. To extend the law enforcement metaphor, my thought process is akin to an argument to change law enforcement policy. Admitting that our current system of raising animals is inhumane, and therefore participating in an alternative system to support it’s growth is like saying “the war on drugs isn’t working so let’s try legalization.”

You refer to “humane” meat. Human means to have compassion or benevolence. How is unnecessary termination of life compassionate? It’s simply not.

My response: Well, “humane” meat is just my term for the standards I ask my livestock producers to adhere to — it’s not any kind of universal standard. But by your own definition, humane can also mean benevolent, a term that usually applies to those who demonstrate respect for the power they wield over others. Given that humans domesticated livestock animals, I think we can all agree we are in a position of power over them. To be benevolent is to treat them with respect, and to care for them in a way that honors what they truly are and have to offer us. I believe my methods for supporting animal agriculture do so.

You cite environmental reasons for low impact animal ag. Eliminating animal ag would eliminate all of the environmental impacts altogether. It also would allow for much more efficient use of land for ag and for other purposes.

My response: Actually, there are several flaws in evidence there. First, any kind of agriculture has an environmental impacts. Growing produce impacts the land by tilling it, and inorganic produce growth involves spraying it with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. So eliminating animal ag would not eliminate all environmental impacts — it would just reduce them, or change them. In addition, biodynamic, integrative models for animal ag can actually have a positive environmental impact by producing greater natural fertilizers and pesticides, reducing the need for synthetics.

The argument that a diet without meat is “more efficient” is also only true based on our current system of agriculture. Since most of the land impact of animal ag comes from the corn grown to feed cattle, yes, of course that land could be put to better use. But in some regions, grazing cattle or other animals is a more efficient substitute for that corn than growing produce for vegetarian diets. In the Northeastern United States, for example, most soil is too rocky and uneven for planting, so there are limited small amounts of produce that can be grown there. Combining those small-scale models with grazing cattle allows for more food to be produced on the same land, and keeps food production fully local, creating a negative carbon footprint.

I’m afraid your arguments are rationalizations for morally unjustifiable normative practices.

My response: In a larger sense, I think it’s important for us all to realize that what is “morally just,” unless aligned with a legal system, is an individual decision (much as many of us would like it not to be). I hope to help people grapple with these ideas, and certainly have my own sense of morality — but I also understand and appreciate that we all have our own moral compass. I’m not a moral relativist, but I have made my decisions based on morality. It’s unfair for anyone to assume that my ulterior motives are to rationalize normative behavior — it’s not that I just wanted a cheeseburger.

Mijnheer writes:

You also claim that “the basic ethical defense of vegetarianism is utilitarian in nature.” Many vegetarians/vegans abstain from meat for a deontological reason — i.e., respect for the right of the individual animal to lead its own life, which is violated when it is used simply as a means for the ends of others. There are also ethical reasons of a feminist or ecological nature for abstaining from meat. For example: http://www.caroljadams.com/spom.html

My response: You’re absolutely right that there are other ethical defenses for vegetarianism, though feminist and ecological perspectives are gender-based and ecological arguments which have responses in those realms, not in the realm of philosophical ethics.

But my understanding of deontologics is Kantian in nature, wherein an action is morally permissible if the harm caused is less than the greater good, and if the action is driven by motivations towards a duty to do good. One of the weaknesses of deontologics is the idea of the “conflict of two goods.” Imagining that the question of debate between vegetarianism and support of sustainable meat production is a conflict of two goods. The former avoids direct contribution to animal death but may include indirect support of those deaths by financial investment, as well as in the suffering of workers whose consumer pesticides and other chemicals in slave-labor conditions on produce farms, and in the ecological impacts of large-scale agriculture, even when organic. The latter involves direct support of a smaller number of animal deaths in exchange for the elimination of the latter — and that is why I believe the latter is the choice that does more good than the harm is causes.

I have to say I’m rather bemused by your argument, which seems to amount to: Let’s actively participate in causing suffering so that we can help minimize it.

My response: In fact, my argument is that we all already participate in causing suffering. I try to keep We Meat Again food-focused, but the truth is, this goes outside the bounds of simply our diets in that we all make moral trade-off decisions every day. Most of us drive cars, even if we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most of us buy clothes whose origins we can’t always trace, but still object to child labor in factories. Most of us consume chemicals, fossil fuels, and the results of the suffering of others — people and animals — on a daily basis.

Because of this, I have made the decision to take active steps towards acknowledging the existence of my participation in suffering, so that I might try to minimize it. The first step for me is facing the deaths of the animals for my food. Somehow, animals die for us all to eat, whether we consume their flesh or not. I am going to give those animals the honor of looking at them, head-on.

I’d love to hear what you all think (whether an original commenter on the post or not!) Above all, I hope we can keep things civil, but I think this question is at the underpinning of what I’m trying to do here on We Meat Again, and I want to hear as many voices as I can. Leave a comment, drop me an email, tweet at me — and let’s keep the conversation going.

Why It Is Ethical To Eat Meat

11 Apr

The New York Times’ Ethicist, an ethics-advice column, recently put out a call for submissions for short essays from carnivores explaining why we believe it is ethical to eat meat.

Of course, I had much to say. I even managed to get my thoughts down to the 600-word limit. Since I have no reason to believe this will ever actually make it into the Times, I thought sharing my thoughts here would be a great way to re-introduce We Meat Again, as a sort of manifesto for this blog.

*

Eating meat is ethical because it allows the eater to face the reality of suffering head-on, so that we can choose how and where to invest our food dollars to do the most good. Suffering is an inevitable part of our food system, the unavoidable byproduct of any species trying to feed itself. The ethical dilemma of the eater, then, is not to avoid suffering altogether because that avoidance is impossible.

Attempts to circumvent suffering often lead to dietary choices that are willfully ignorant of the part they play. For example, vegetarians who purchase boxed meat substitute products like soy burgers or chik’n nuggets are simply purchasing subsidiary brands of the same multinational corporations, such as Smithfield or Tyson, that own and operate inhumane and environmentally destructive concentrated animal feeding operations. Recent exposes such as Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland have demonstrated that even produce sold at alternative grocery chains is picked by underpaid workers in near-slave labor conditions. Even the small-scale, organic, family-owned vegetable farm where I worked used fertilizer that was a chicken waste byproduct, a nearly-invisible part of an innovative and sustainable food production chain that would connect the most locavore of vegans to a system responsible for raising livestock animals.

The basic ethical defense of vegetarianism is utilitarian in nature, the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. Vegetarianism is considered ethically superior by some because the pleasure of a non-starving human is not justification enough for the widespread death and suffering of animals. Vegans or vegetarians who cannot abide the death of an animal for their meal certainly do their part in affecting positive change by investing in locally-sourced, chemical-free whole foods. But eating meat offers eaters a unique opportunity to positively impact the entire web of their food system.

While factory farm systems for raising food animals are still the primary source of meat in the United States, new models exist and are thriving across the country to provide consumers with sources of local, biodynamic and humane meat. By investing in these sources of meat production, we can attempt to offset the suffering implicit in any act of eating.

What I’ve seen of living animals on small-scale, locally-owned farms, and what I’ve learned about corporate connections, environmental degradation, and human suffering in the food system suggests that the way an animal is raised and killed for food affects much more than an individual’s eating pleasure. How the animal is raised impacts the ground on which it lives. The quality of that land impacts the farm and the farmer, and their larger community, environmentally and economically. The practices on a farm and the pricing of food affects whether a community has enough jobs, which affects whether or not members of that community will be able to afford to eat. Whether or not someone will buy an animal to eat impacts the labor conditions and pay scale of farm workers.

The question of whether or not to eat meat is not simply an animal-rights issue. It’s an environmental issue, a labor rights issue, a fair trade issue, an issue of our global community’s economic, environmental, and human progress. If our ethical goal is to live in harmony with our world, eating a hamburger doesn’t have to run counter to those ideals. It can be a way to invest in them, to practice them with every bite we take. Only by being honest about our participation in the suffering of animals can we seek to minimize it.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment, tweet at me, or drop me an email to share your thoughts, ask questions, or request future post topics!

Hope & Fear in the New Food World

14 Mar

The weather’s turning warm here, warm enough that it’s actually freaking me out a little. Kansan temperatures will get into the 80s this week, and for a child of New England, with its April snow days, a girl of the mountains with snow caps all year round — I can’t help but feel the warmth as a harbinger of the new world, the post-climate change world, in which the havoc we have wrecked is upon us.

But still, there is so much joy in warm weather, in windows open, rolled down, sleeves up, legs bare. As I walked home from school this afternoon, sweating lightly in my short-sleeved dress, I thought about holding on to this dual sense of hope and doom, the equal promise of spring and the fear of global warming. And I thought about food.

I thought of how food offers us both the same reasons to be both hopeful and afraid. Nearly every day, stories pass in front of my eyes that give me cause to shake my head with indignation. Stories about pink slime (demystified well here) and locust-like plagues of corn rootworm from GE seeds. This is the stuff of apocalypse — and that statement grows less hyperbolic each day, in a world where whole countries are relocating to avoid the effects of climate change.

But there is cause for hope, too. There are myriad stories of good news, like the slow and long-overdue phasing-out of the pork gestation crate. But more than tangible, hard news, I see mounting evidence of a sea change in the way people think of food.

I see hope in Seattle, where the city plans to construct a seven-acre public-access food forest.

I see hope in central Iowa, where customers at my old co-op can now buy locally-grown aquaponic tilapia, and the greens fertilized with their waste.

I even see hope in the Twitter debate over banning pink slime from school lunches — where even those from the beef industry are forced to refer to the substance as pink slime, which they would prefer we call “lean finely-texture beef.” Just as with the — in my view — failure of the corn industry’s rebranding campaign of high fructose corn syrup as corn sugar, people are no longer fooled.

We are no longer fooled and we no longer want to be. We know there is much to be afraid of in the world of food – or in this unseasonably warm March weather. But we refuse any longer to turn away from what those dangerous signs are telling us. That is cause for hope — but soon, we must turn it into action.

Iowa Outlaws Undercover Factory Farm Investigation

7 Mar

This past weekend, Iowa’s Governor Terry Branstad signed into law the nation’s very first bill making undercover factory farm investigations illegal.This is a major loss for food safety, farmer’s protection and animal rights, so let’s break it down.

The law actually makes lying on a job application to get access to a farm facility a serious misdemeanor, punishable with up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,500. A second conviction carries harsher penalties.

I’ve already covered why these laws are problematic. Let’s today work to un-do the spin on these undercover videos. They aren’t problematic — they are valuable artifacts of one of our society’s greatest fights, to protect the source of our food.

Proponents of the bill claim that this strikes a balance between protecting farmers from fraudulent job-seekers while continuing to encourage current employees to report animal abuse. The flaw in that logic isn’t something getting a lot of attention, however, because it means acknowledging the differences between who those employees are.

Current employees of farms and slaughterhouses–especially ones contracted with major meat producers–will tend to be lower-income minorities or other marginalized populations, including undocumented immigrants. They are much less likely to endanger their job status by reporting abuse than an activist working for the Humane Society who can afford to take–and then lose–the job to uncover the abuse.

And uncover the abuse they do. Some supporters of the law would have us believe that these videos are only flukes, carefully edited together portraits of rare and occasional abuse that doesn’t need reporting.

Let’s look back just a few months ago to the Humane Society’s release of this video, which documented legal practices of the pork industry, and led pretty directly to McDonald’s announcing it would phase out those exact practices.

The videos lead to change, just as other acts of undercover investigation have in the past.They are an important tool in an ongoing struggle to change the laws and practices of the industrial agriculture industry, and Iowa, which raises more hogs and laying hens than any other state in the nation, has become the center of the problem.

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week

3 Feb

Quite a variety of happenings in the world of food this week.

The Good

An illuminating new report out by the cooking & nutrition charity Share Our Strength provides concrete evidence that low-income families do cook at home more often than they eat fast food, and would like to be able to do so even more. I like Marion Nestle’s coverage, as she’s not afraid to nod towards some of the corporate influence the report contains. Good news, nonetheless.

Colorado is considering a state-wide ban on trans-fats in school lunch programs. Colorado is also, interestingly, the least-obese state in the nation (you can’t really say “thinnest” in a country where obesity is over 30% across the board). Coincidence?

In more school lunch reform news, the USDA announced this week its new rules (yes, actual rules here) that will increase the amounts of fruits and vegetables, and eliminate some meat requirements in its school lunch program. As Mark Bittman says, imperfect as the new rules may be, 32 million kids are about to start eating better.

Jane Black has a nice piece in The Washington Post discussing the rise in flexible CSA options. While I think her editorial brushes off the consumer benefits of a regular CSA too dismissively, I’ve loved my past flexible CSAs for the access they provided someone who couldn’t afford a full share.

The Bad

This article isn’t bad so much as slightly annoying. A new study out of the Washington State University purports to help reform the beef industry’s image by claiming cattle ranches are significantly more environmentally-friendly than thirty years ago. File under — yes, and…?

I mentioned one lawsuit Monsanto is currently facing. Here is another! A class-action case that claims the company spread toxic substances all over a town in West Virginia in the course of producing a chemical component of Agent Orange. The toxic substances listed are mainly dioxins, which have been linked to cancer.

and the (very) Ugly

The Humane Society of the United States (which has, in the last few years, done a really impressive job ramping up its advocacy of livestock animals along with homeless pets) released a new undercover video documenting standard pork industry practice for raising pigs.

Graphic images included.

Tom Philpott’s analysis cuts to the core:

The remarkable thing…is how banal it is. What we have here is the everyday reality of pigs’ lives on a factory farm, without regulations flouted or spectacular violence committed. It is abuse routinized and regimented, honed into a profitable business model.

The video even got NYTimes sustainability blogger Andrew Revkin interested. He’s got a response from the Oklahoma Pork Council (which suggests that images were “taken out of context,” leaving me to ask — is there a context in which these practices are acceptable?) and takes the opportunity to wonder if this might continue to make the case for test-tube meat. Not if the omnivores here on We*Meat*Again have anything to say about it, right?

Happy Weekend, All!

 

How I Became a Foodie

14 Nov

In continuation of the “Introduction to Marissaseries of Q&A posts I’ve been writing over the last few weeks, today we have a question from Cristina from An Organic Wife:

I know you don’t like the term, but what made you become a “foodie”? Lots of people like to eat, but what makes you care about the state of food.

This is a great question because it taps into one of the fundamental questions that really drove me to write The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.

I began caring about what I ate when I became a vegetarian. As I’ve covered in one of the earliest posts ever on this blog — for better or for worse — that decision came as a result of watching a PETA video in college.

I grew up in the suburbs in the 80s and 90s, which means that I truly did not know what a farm looked like. As far as I was concerned, food came from the grocery store. So when I first understood the reality of a concentrated animal feeding operation, I was so horrified that this was the normative standard that I quit, cold turkey.

But even as a vegetarian, I didn’t spend enough time thinking about the larger issues of food. I barely even spent time thinking about how well I was eating. So while being a vegetarian was designed to help me become a ‘better’ eater, I wasn’t concerned with the state of food until seven years later…

I began caring about the state of food when I began thinking about eating meat again. Or rather, thinking about the state of food is what made me consider eating meat again.

In the summer of 2009, I bought and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. And while much of that book was a revelation to me (as it was to the country), the aspect of the book I found most illuminating was Pollan’s discussion of the corn monoculture industry.

In tracking a fast food meal backs to its origins, Pollan ends up in a corn field in Ames, Iowa. At the time I read the book, I happened to live in Ames, Iowa, so I had some sense of how much of the land of the Midwest was taken up with growing corn. What I didn’t know was how much of that went to cattle feedlots, or how much damage was being done to the land in the industrial growth methods being used. What I really didn’t know was how much the federal government was invested in corn growth — so much so that corporations were practically being paid to come up with non-cattle uses for all the excess corn.

I went home and started checking the ingredients lists on all my vegetarian foods, and found either corn or soy byproducts in nearly everything — yogurt, salad dressing, whole wheat bread, lemonade, and certainly in my fake meat substitute products — and I was pretty horrified.

The realization I had standing in my pantry on that day in mid-August was that being a vegetarian didn’t necessarily mean that I was opting out of the larger, flawed system of industrial agriculture. Sure, perhaps I wasn’t eating animal meat (though this is often also cleverly hidden in seemingly-innocuous foods) but I was still spending my money within the same system. Corn and meat were part of the same agricultural behemoth.

I spent a few weeks feeling very angry and very disillusioned. But then I kept reading the book, and discovered, along with Pollan, that there was such a thing as a farmer who actually worked with, rather than against the land. And while I read along while Pollan toured one particular farm for his book, I began to wonder whether there may not be some of those farms around me.

As it turned out, there were many. Perhaps because of the overwhelming presence of industrialized agriculture in Iowa, it also seems like a hotbed of sustainable innovation. I met biodyanmic cattle farmers, toured family-run organic vegetable operations, and bought wild, sustainably-harvested Alaskan salmon from Inuit fishermen through an affordable, no-membership-fee buying club right there in Ames, in the middle of the cornfields.

As a result of all this, I was forced to re-examine my initial way of thinking about food. Clearly, being a vegetarian and “opting out” of the system had not solved all the problems, or absolved me of input into the industrial system. And on the other hand, it appeared as if I could buy meat that did side-step that system, and instead supported

At any rate, what I began to learn that summer and fall was that the whole question of what to eat, and from where, was much more complex than I had initially thought. My interest was piqued, but more importantly, so was my conscience. I knew that if I wanted to eat meat again, I was going to have to establish some standards and hold myself to them.

And as I began to do research, to meet more farmers and read more books, I found so much information, so many great inspiring ideas, and so many horrifying, disgusting realities, that I couldn’t turn away. I was sure that many people were in the dark, like I had been, and may  be inadvertently supporting things they disagree with.

So I decided to write a book about my realizations. And two years later, here we are.

What moments in your life have made you care about food — the state of food, your dietary choices, or just how to cook a particular ingredient in a new, illuminating way? Leave a comment or drop me an email at marissa@wemeatagain.com and share your “becoming a foodie” story, and you may end up in a future blog post!

Seven We*Meat*Again Memories

16 Aug

A few weeks ago, my friend Ashley over at (never home)maker tagged me for this challenge making the blog-rounds to identify seven links from within our own blogs worth a second read. While I haven’t been at this blog-thing for too long, it seemed like a good opportunity to spread the love around We*Meat*Again a little bit (and, to be honest, to get a post in without too much brain power, as I’m deep in last-week-before-semester-starts planning/website building/mind-numbing orientation/training/paperwork.)

So scope out the posts below and check ‘em out if you haven’t yet. Later this week, I promise a return to We*Meat*Again roundup posts with one on food deserts, and, if  you’re lucky — another rant!

1.) My Most Beautiful Post: All The Young Foodies

Me and the lovely Marytza (who inspired this psot) where we met in the mountains of Vermont. I have a vodka tonic in my hand, so this picture counts as food-related.

Something about writing this post, about why eating and cooking sustainable, healthy food is seeing such an upsurge in passion in my generation, really felt cathartic to write. I often get my emotions deeply entangled with the issues I care passionately about, and it felt great to tease out why that it, why food matters so much to me, and, in doing so, to connect to so many other people. Lots of friends were mentioned in this post, and many more expressed feeling a connection to it and, well, that’s why I write.

2.) My Most Popular Post: Summer Dinner Party

The carnage from said dinner party

I was actually surprised to discover this post had the highest ratings, but I think it’s so popular because I get a lot of search engine hits for people looking for an easy, low-cook entertaining menu. I pulled together a lot of different recipes here, too, including my new favorite Vodka White Tea Cocktail — with honey & egg white.

That or, people just like reading posts about passing-out-from-food-and-cocktail comas.

3.) My Most Controversial Post: How Cow Farts Cause Global Warming

Grass-fed cattle on Wallace Farms in Iowa

We don’t have nearly enough controversy here on We*Meat*Again for my tastes (let’s start some flame wars, people!) but I was very excited to see the first inklings of a real debate spark up in this recent post on the ways in which industrial meat production contributes to global warming — and why grass-fed cattle are such a different beast.

4.) My Most Helpful Post: Scary Shit: On E. coli & Antibiotic Agriculture

Image courstesy of Marler Blog

I know it’s a little morbid to say that a post about deadly super-bacteria is “helpful” but the response I got to this post on Twitter, in comments and in re-posting really illuminated how much the dangerous, disgusting realities of an industrial food system are hidden from the general public. I was really happy to open up some eyes with the details of this one, both because the issue is worth being made aware of, but also because it helped me practice in breaking complex issues down bit by bit, in detail, rather than in 30-second soundbites like we normally get from mass mainstream media.

5.) A Post Whose Success Surprised Me: What’s Going to Happen to Jamie Oliver?

Image courtesy of Roving Gastronome

I use “surprise” loosely here, as I knew that Jamie Oliver would get me some search engine hits. But this post was one of my very earliest food “news” pieces (with a bit of commentary thrown in, of course) and its success helped me see just how much readers were looking for information and insight into the larger dialogue of food issues. Connecting the issues I write about here to an ongoing conversation or controversy has since become an important feature for this blog. 

6.) A Post I Didn’t Think Got the Attention It Deserved: Food Cuts, and Other Short-Sighted Economics

Paul Krugman and his cat want to know why you don't read about economics!

Ok, I know why this one didn’t get as much attention as some of its cohorts. Anytime you put the word ‘economics’ in a title, you’re just asking to be ignored. But one of the things that I find most compelling delving into sustainable food issues is how interconnected it is with so many other political and social issues, foreign and domestic. John Muir once wrote tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe. I tried to explore that in this post, and wish it had tickled more nerd-brains besides mine.

7.) The Post I’m Most Proud Of: Who Are These People Raising Colin?

Similarly to my most “beautiful” post, I felt really good writing this post. This is the kind of exploratory writing that I prefer, which the argumentative writing tends to be a … default setting… for someone like me. I strive to pick apart issues in the way this post does, through a gathering of experiences about food sourcing, and its challenges and questions, in a non-judgmental way.

I hope you enjoyed this walk down We*Meat*Again memory lane! Maybe you discovered some old posts to catch up on, or, if not, let this serve as a reminder to you all to check out the archives. As always, feel free to leave a comment here or on Facebook, or drop me an email, if there’s a topic you’d like to see covered on We*Meat*Again!

Egg Debate Critique

16 Jul

Earlier this week, I wrote about the agreement between the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers to improve living conditions for hens in battery cages. As you may remember, I was decidedly optimistic about the potential in the deal.

But not everyone feels that way. Here are a view valid critiques of the deal, which I thought I’d share with you all in the spirit of presenting multiple viewpoints. Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved takes issue with the fact that the agreement maintains battery cages at all, rather than moving hens towards a cage-free existence. And public health lawyer and vegetarian author Michelle Simon has a solid, in-depth critique of the specifics of the agreement here. I’m most compelled by her assertion that perhaps, this was a national deal brokered to stave off more stringent regulations at the state level.

I think both of these authors have good points, though I stand by my original position on the deal. I don’t buy my eggs from national producers, period,  because I don’t want to support battery cages at all, and because I believe the eggs produced by free-ranging, bug-eating hens are better in quality and safety. But millions of hens in this country live in battery cages right now, so in my mind, anything that moves in the direction of improving conditions for them is a win, even if incremental, even if not everything we could have hoped for.

What is your take on the egg industry? Do you consider their practices as bad/worse than other factory farm practices? What are your egg standards? And what do you think of this deal? Leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Lots of new stuff up around here this week, so click around and catch up. Spread the word about my food-writing class. And have a great weekend!

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