Tag Archives: ethics

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.

Artist as Activist

25 May

A recent interview in The New York Times with world-known chefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Aduriz has caused a bit of a ruckus in the good food movement. For within this article, the two chefs suggest that for them, perfecting their craft of foodsmanship comes before any efforts towards improved sourcing or sustainability of that food. An example:

“Is global food policy truly our responsibility, or in our control?” [Keller] asked. “I don’t think so.”

“I agree completely, and it is a brave answer,” came immediately from Mr. Aduriz. “Of course I buy as many things as I can nearby,” he said. “But to align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.”

Paula Crossfield has a strong rebuttal to that notion over at Civil Eats, wherein she argues that “the locavore movement is not a trend easily dismissed, but part of a greater paradigm shift around how we view and value resources.”

But here in this post, I would like to look at Aduriz’ accusation that locavorism limits chefs. By aligning “complacent” with “limited,” it sounds to me as if these chefs believe that the constraints of sourcing locally, or with a small carbon footprint (and, we could presumably add, with an eye towards the humane treatment of animals), places constraints on the chef-as-artist. Limited, as in, it limits our creativity. Our ability to achieve wondrous and spectacular things on the plate.

I absolutely think that great chefs are artists. I come from a family with three daughters — I am a writer, and my sisters are a photographer and a pastry chef. We are, all three of us, artists. Caitlin, the chef, (who works at this awesome farm-to-table restaurant in San Diego’s little Italy neighborhood!) can create shapes with fondant that I cannot with words.

And any good artist will tell you that often, our best work is done within constraints.

This is why poets experiment in sijo and ghazals and sonnets. This is why I try lyric and collage style essays, why I limit myself to writing nonfiction.

Anyone can create when you have all of the world’s resources at your fingertips, an endless amount of money, and a blank canvas — because anything you put on that canvas will be art. True artists thrive within boundaries, adhering to prompts. Because that is when creating art becomes a challenge, which is the only reason any of us make art.

The absolute best meals I’ve ever eaten were at locally-sourced restaurants (although, to be fair, Keller’s French Laundry is way above my pay-grade, so this isn’t a direct comparison). Of course, the food was delicious — I almost wept when I took the first bite of my lamb bolognese at Minneapolis’ Craftsman restaurant. But the meal was more wonderful because of the fact that it was locally sourced and sustainable. They made rabbit delicious! There were pickled ramps in the slaw! The salted caramel ice cream had been made right there in house!

This was food as art made more impressive by the limitations and constraints, the boundaries the chefs had been forced to challenge, the ways in which they had stretched themselves, and improved their craft by virtue of working within those limitations.

Nothing complacent about it.

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.

Working the Food Chain

9 May

Today’s post is inspired by my mounting excitement over the final stages of funding and post-production on a new food documentary that I can’t wait to see: Sanjay Rawal’s FOOD CHAIN, which explores the state of labor within the agriculture sector in the US and the immoral practices that affect the lives of countless thousands of farm workers.

Check out the trailer.

Yes, actual — not sort-of – slavery.

You can find more information on supporting the documentary, which has met its initial Kickstarter goal,  but has a secondary goal to fully fund the film’s graphics, here.

I’ve summarized some of the labor rights issues in the agricultural industry here before, but thought it was worth revisiting, to put faces, and some specific numbers, to the abstraction that is so often associated with the hands who pick our food — even the food we buy at Whole Foods, or Trader Joes.

According to the California Institute for Rural Studies, the typical farmworker in the U.S. is a young man who has left his family to work in the field.  He ususally spends between 12 and 14 hours a day in the field, six days a week, and made between $7,000-10,000 a year for an individual, or up to $13,000 a year for a family. The farmworker has no health insurance. No sick days, no vacation days, and certainly no union. More than 50% have never been to a dentist—about 1/3 have never seen a doctor. Typically, farms provide housing for their workers during the growing and harvesting season, to maximize the picking hours in a day. Workers can expect to pay about $50 a week to live in run-down shacks or trailers, sometimes with as many as 15 other people.

All this, all this our farm workers get in exchange for picking the food we need, for working the third most dangerous job in the country. The odds of dying on the farm are 39 out of 100,000. Farmworkers suffer the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries and skin disorders of any workers in the country, and are more than 25% more likely than the average American to develop asthma, birth defects, tuberculosis and cancer. Children of migrant farm workers have higher rates of pesticide exposure, dental disease and malnutrition.

Because, oh yes, the agricultural industry is exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s child labor regulations. In every other industry, the minimum age to work legally in this country is 16. On the farm, it’s 12.

So why would anyone want to do farm work—if it’s so back-breaking, hot, exhausting, dangerous and underpaid, why would you sign up for it? Because you don’t have any other option, of course. It’s probably not a surprise that the vast majority of California’s farmworkers—and, in fact, a majority of farmworkers across the country—are undocumented immigrants. Close to 90% of farmworkers in the U.S. are Spanish-speaking, and most of those born in Mexico. Over 50% of immigrant farmworkers nationwide are not protected by legal documents, and so, in this country, they have no legal rights. This lack of documentation contributes, along with a tight bottom line and a slim margin of economic error on the farm, to the horrible working conditions of the modern American farm.

*

When sociologists discuss patterns of migration, they have two terms to explain what makes a person move from one place to the next—they call them push factors and pull factors. The pull factors for farm work in the United States are that agriculture is a dangerous industry. Because the jobs are so life-threatening, and the pay is so low, the agriculture industry would either have to raise pay and improve conditions—or recruit workers from abroad, where there are more laborers, fewer jobs and much, much lower wages. The U.S. agriculture industry is primarily located in California, where a cheap and willing supply of labor is close at hand. Why provide healthcare and housing when you can just import undocumented immigrants instead?

The push factors are the things that make a person’s home country worth leaving behind. Let’s put it this way: the push factors are the things that make working 80 hour weeks hunched over in a field under the blazing sun for seven grand a year look like the American Dream come true.

Before you begin to think that the solution here is to close the borders and take those jobs back, I should make it clear that this is a pretty good deal for the U.S. too. Paying migrant farm workers next to nothing and having a constant stream of people willing to work cheap is what keeps us all in fresh produce, all year round, for pennies. It’s the reason why I can walk into a grocery store in the middle of February and buy a head of romaine for 99 cents. And if the cheap food itself weren’t benefit enough, the U.S. Social Security Administration has recently estimated that three out of every four undocumented immigrants pay payroll taxes (in addition to paying the same sales and consumer taxes the rest of us pay), and that undocumented workers contribute six to seven billion dollars in Social Security funds that they are not eligible to claim.

Plus, show me the pools of American citizens out there just dying for a job picking lettuce in Oxnard.

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Next time you consider all the standards to which you currently hold your food, or next time you wonder whether your standards aren’t unreasonably high, take a moment to remember the very real human face of that food. The price tag might look a little different.

The Kashi Controversy, Or, Know ALL Your Farmers

27 Apr

A weird new trend is springing up on the internet,  a trend I think of as “viral images.” Not videos. Just single photos that twelve or seventeen of my Facebook friends will post in a 24-hour window. Yesterday’s was the image below, of some Rhode Island grocery store’s sign explaining their decision to stop stocking Kashi.

I promise I’m going to work very hard to make sure the rest of this post doesn’t come off as a lecture. I know a lot of people — you, me, us, the average consumer — may genuinely not be aware of the Kashi-GMO connection, or any of the others that I will detail here. But an organic grocery store just now finding out? Ok, nevermind that.

So I take this as a teachable moment, and the teach is this (in case you don’t feel like reading the rest of the post): All processed food should be treated as suspect.

This doesn’t mean all processed food is bad. But it does mean we need to start changing our definition of “processed.” Most people tend to think that if a food is labeled as organic, natural, containing all-natural ingredients, containing no artificial ingredients, containing whole grains, etc etc etc. then that’s good enough.

But I tend to judge food based on the package it comes in. If you can pick up the ingredient by itself (like a vegetable or piece of fruit) you’re golden. If it’s in a box, a bag, or the freezer section, you should start checking ingredients lists. Sometimes you will find just one or two things — still golden! Frozen fruits and veggies, a bag of plain pita chips, etc.

The real lesson to me, of the Kashi controversy though, is not the length of the ingredients list. The presence of GMO ingredients, as of right now, is not a labelling requirement, so you wouldn’t see those by reading the package. The reason I wasn’t surprised by this revelation from Kashi (aside from knowing about it for some time) is that I know Kashi is owned by Kellogg’s.

Click to view image larger

Yes. Kellogg’s, the 12th largest food processing company in the world. Producer of many fine sugary cereals, currently lobbying against the FDA’s voluntary regulatory guidelines for marketing those same cereal to children Kellogg’s. Kellogg’s, who also, by the way, owns MorningStar and Gardenburger brands.

Like I said, I’m not here to lecture, or to wag my finger and say you should’ve known better.

Because I didn’t used to know either.

Here’s how I wrote about my moment of discovery in The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat:

Boca burger, according to their website, was founded in the 1970s by a chef determined to make the vegetarian hamburger taste good. What the website doesn’t mention is that Boca was acquired in 2000 by Kraft Foods, the largest food processing company in North America. Up until 2007, Kraft was owned by Altria Group—the new and improved name of the public-relations challenged Phillip Morris, USA.

When I started picking away at the corporate connections in the food industry, I began to feel like an internet crazy. The more I dug, the more I convinced myself maybe I was just making mountains out of molehills—maybe I was looking too hard for something not really there. Maybe it didn’t have to be so hard. Maybe I could just turn away, go back to my old, easy vegetarian diet.

Until I read that in 2001, a U.S. jury ordered Philip Morris to pay three billion dollars in damages to a smoker suffering terminal cancer, a landmark legal victory for the anti-tobacco movement. Phillip Morris appealed the decision, but the next week they went out and raised nine billion dollars, by selling just 16 percent of Kraft Foods. Suddenly, my purchase of a Boca Burger, supposedly free from the stains of corporate greed, just went to helping an evil tobacco corporation from sinking into bankruptcy.

The point is: if the all natural brand is owned by the same multinational corporation that makes the mainstream product you are avoiding, you have reason to distrust their ingredients list, their treatment of workers and animals, and their environmental record.

When I said something like this on Facebook yesterday,  my friend Lindsey made a good point in asking what this all actually means. How can we tell which brands are “good” and which are “evil”? Or at least, which to actually buy.

My short answer there, was, half-jokingly: Organic/natural foods are not all made on communal love-farms.

But the good, well-developed answer isn’t that you must simply avoid any and all corporate products. I still buy mayonnaise and pasta that have been industrially-produced. But being aware of the corporate connections and therefore, potential health, safety, and environmental issues for even our “natural” food products is important if for no other reason than it reinforces an emphasis on whole foods, and on foods made with our own hands, as much as possible.

What are your thoughts on the Kashi controversy? Did any of the connections on the chart above surprise you? Do you remember your moment of realization? Leave a comment and share your story with us!

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.

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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!

Don’t Call Us Foodies

22 Feb

I know I’ve dangled this subject multiple times, and thought it was time to finally tackle it: why I (and many, many others) so strongly dislike the term “foodie.”

My good friend Steve wrote me, as a post-script to his “How I Became a Food Advocate” story, this explanation:

I cringe at that term.  It seems so contrived and pretentious.  People who care deeply about music are not called “Musicies” and people who love theatre are not called “theatreies.” I am not a foodie in the sense that I go to restaurants all the time and ooh and aah over the food of this chef or that.  I am a foodie in the sense that I am OBSESSED with food.  I think about food, and my next meal, and the next thing I can cook, and the last thing I cooked, and the next thing I want to eat… ALL THE TIME.  Does that make me a foodie?  I don’t think so because food is not a hobby for me.  Food is life.

I couldn’t agree more.

To my mind, foodie is the way that people who want to dismiss food’s importance use to dismiss the new food consciousness as elitist. These are the people who don’t understand the real and meaningful connection between defending local food markets, supporting artisanal producers and experimental chefs, and food as an issue of labor rights and social justice.

Foodie implies a gourmand, a snob, a high-brow eater who dines only at five-star restaurants and turns up her nose at anything cheap. What that distinction fails to recognize is that there are a great many of us in between, people like Steve and I, who I know grew up eating a lot of that cheap food–Kraft macaroni and cheese and cans of sloppy joe mix, among other delicacies–who ate it for a great portion of our lives, and who have begun to realize that the evils of that food are not limited to a low price tag.

In fact, the evils and dangers of processed food, industrially-produced, premade, water-packed food, lies in what the corporation who made it will do to sell it to you at such a low price tag. What it takes to make food that cheaply is not pretty. It is disgusting.

But foodies don’t turn up our noses at it because we think we’re better than that–we think all human beings are better than that.

And this is the core of why I dislike the term “foodie.” Aside from being intentionally dismissive, from making us sound like elitists, it limits our passions about food to its taste or quality. While I certainly do believe there is a significant difference in taste and quality between fresh, healthy, local food and processed food, my tastebuds are not my only — or even my primary — reason for wanting that fresh food.

My body is my reason: keeping it fit and healthy and fueled. My planet is my reason: supporting its ability to support us, keeping its rivers clean and soil invigorated with nutrients.

My concern for social equality is my reason: supporting everyone’s ability to access organic, healthy, whole foods, and supporting everyone’s ability to cook it. My concern for labor rights and fair trade are my reasons: ensuring that this whole, healthy food comes from a long line of whole, healthy people, who feel respected and are well-paid for the hard, crucial work they are doing.

My imaginary future children are my reason: protecting their future bodies and the future air they will breathe from poisons.

This is why I’m trying out the term “food advocate” (make it happen, people). Because I advocate for food in every way — its growth, production, taste and uses. Food is in every aspect of our life. As Steve said, food is life.

What do you think of the term “foodie”? Love it, hate it, never cared this much to think about it? Leave a comment and share your thoughts with your fellow food advocates!

How Far Should Food Industry Regulation Go?

7 Feb

For this week’s dialogue post, I’ve found a recent and particularly controversy-inspiring editorial from Raj Patel, writing in this case for The Atlantic. Patel makes the case we’ve heard before paralleling the food industry with the alcohol and tobacco industries to argue for the regulation of junk foods, but he goes one step further and wonders whether there isn’t a case for fully abolishing the food industry as we know it. If you can make the argument for tobacco, Patel says, food is close behind.

First up for conversation of course, is the validity of a parallel between tobacco and big food, which Patel supports with mounting evidence of the neurological addictive properties of sugar. A study released last week in the journal Nature provides the strongest case yet for significant and severe health consequences from sugar. The authors of the study advocate alcohol-like regulations as a result of their findings.

Second comes the matter for debate of whether tobacco and sugar are marketed in parallel ways. That is, do we have more of a choice when it comes to junk food than tobacco? I’ve discussed in a previous post the resemblances between old-school tobacco marketing towards children, and the food industry’s strategies, and Patel elaborates on this in the editorial. Recent evidence has demonstrated the overly-sugary properties of the foods marketed most heavily towards children.

Third, and finally, we have to ask ourselves whether moderate regulations are not sufficient to counter any of those dangers. We’ve explored here before individual municipal initiatives like the San Francisco Happy Meal toy ban, and cities across the country have tried similar sin-tax approaches to restricting the sale of soda, for example.

Of course, small government proponents aren’t fan of that idea, and economic research suggests the tax might best be targeted towards the producer, rather than the consumer, of the problem product.

For Patel, all of this points in one direction:

The breadth of products controlled by the food industry — amply toxic and less so — is itself a symptom of a deeper problem that has public health symptoms, but a political economic cause. The food industry is an oligopoly that has transformed not only what we eat but how we eat it, and what we think of food.

and thus, we could make a case for completely upending the system as we know it.

What do you think? Do we need complete, from-the-ground up reform, or should we try moderate regulation first (or at all)? Which, if any, of these individual claims would you dispute, or provide an alternate answer for? Leave a comment and join in our conversation!

Are Corn Syrup and Corn Sugar Really the Same?

26 Jan

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite bloggers, Andrew Revkin of the New York Times did a year-end post called “Notes from a Blogging Discomfort Zone.” Here’s what he meant:

Many blogs try to create a comfort zone where the like-minded — whether liberal or libertarian — can bond and bolster each others’ spirits.

Dot Earth will always be more a discomfort zone.

Learning should not always be comfortable, particularly when the issues at hand — like figuring out the mix of innovation and regulation that can best limit environmental risks — are complex and contain no simple answers.

Reading his post, I realized how much I truly want We*Meat*Again to be a place of learning, and how often I am guilty of falling into the “preaching to the choir” tone here. I’d like to try and change this. Now, I’m a pretty opinionated person, and when I have an opinion, I’ve worked hard to figure it out and support it with the best available information. So the opinions aren’t going away, that’s for sure. But there’s no reason people here should feel afraid about asking questions, needing clarification, or challenging anything I’ve said.

I thought I would inaugurate this new mode (or try to) with a post explaining something I’ve let go unstated here too long: the issue of corn syrup. I know I’ve railed against the corn industry, and high fructose corn syrup, but I don’t know that I’ve taken the time to explain why I believe it to be problematic.

I’ll let links and information do most of the talking, but feel free to ask if you’d like anything explained rather than reading the detailed study.

You may have seen the Corn Refiner’s Association’s new national ad campaign trying to rebrand high fructose corn syrup as corn sugar. If not, check out a sample spot below, or their websites cornsugar.com and sweetsurprise.com

 

First off, it’s important to realize that corn syrup is, chemically, not corn sugar. Sugar is a result of direct extraction, whereas syrup is produced as a result of refining. The FDA has actually asked the Corn Refiner’s Association to stop using the term as intentionally misleading, but has no direct power to regulate the false advertising.

One of the claims the commercial makes is that “whether it’s corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can’t tell the difference.” Only beginning research exists on this, and it’s controversial, but the earliest studies on rats suggest that there may be a correlation between corn syrup in particular, and weight gain. However, the commercials are actually relying on the findings of this lit review study, which conclude that almost no data exist on the subject. So the truth is we don’t have a significant biological understanding of whether or not a difference exists. This is sort of like the distinction between being found not guilty in a court of law and being innocent.

Setting aside then, the reality that we can’t make a claim about different physiological impacts, let’s move on to the real issue. No one who objects to high fructose corn syrup is simply suggesting that if we just replaced all our corn syrup with cane sugar, we’d be just fine. The real issue here is that we consume too much corn syrup. The process by which corn syrup is refined (and the amount of federal subsidies spent on corn production) make this sweetener unbelievably inexpensive. So inexpensive we’ve been adding it to things that don’t need sweetening, simply to use it up.

The impact of this has been a sharp increase in the total amount of sweetener consumed by Americans, even as the amount of table sugar consumed decreases. Myriad studies exist to support the connection between an increase in sweeteners and an increase in obesity, Type II diabetes, etc.

The commentary on that last study? Note that one of the authors is Dr. Barry Popkin, of the University of North Carolina. He’s quoted as an expert on cornsugar.com — a quote taken from that commentary. I think if you look at the quote on the website and the title of the linked essay here, you can see that the Corn Refiner’s Association has taken his remark out of context to make their point.

Do those sound like the actions of an industry being open and honest with their consumers?

What questions do you have about high fructose corn syrup, the corn industry in general or  about the connections between diet and obesity issues?  What other issues would you like to see challenged, clarified, or opened for discussion here on We*Meat*Again? Leave a comment or drop me an email and let me know!

And stay tuned for tomorrow’s link roundup post, when I will announce the winner of We*Meat*Again’s first giveaway!

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