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Nov. 29 2009 - 5:23 pm | 14 views | 2 recommendations | 13 comments

Vote with your plate: On the politics of meat

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With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.

via The Safety Net – Across U.S., Food Stamp Use Soars and Stigma Fades – Series – NYTimes.com.

People are hungry in America. Our economic collapse hits children and working families right in the stomach. Lost jobs, lost over-time, higher expenses, like healthcare, all mean less food. And children are most effected:

A recent study by Mark R. Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, startled some policy makers in finding that half of Americans receive food stamps, at least briefly, by the time they turn 20. Among black children, the figure was 90 percent.

via The Safety Net – Across U.S., Food Stamp Use Soars and Stigma Fades – Series – NYTimes.com.

Half of all children, hungry neighbors!

As much as one might forget them gathered around tables groaning with holiday food and cheer, they are the context for the choices made by the privileged and lucky, a group in which I am privileged and lucky enough to belong. Instead of lining up at a food pantry or counting food stamps while the end of the month approaches, I’m spending a weekend celebrating both a traditional Thanksgiving and a simply joyous nontraditional NS-Day where my biggest problem is creatively finding ways to use leftovers.

But the problem may not just be that more people have less money, although the recession and poverty–especially among people with jobs–clearly drives much new hunger. Nor are the 40% of calories that America simply throws out alone responsible, although waste is also important. In fact, that waste may just be a symptom of a problem sometimes seen as the solution: the industrialized, global food system…no, change that…the industrialized, global calorie-delivery system that floats to our tables on unsustainable oceans of oil and gas. Like Michael Pollan, and others, have been showing, our food system is badly broken.

While you often hear, starting with Earl Butz who was Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, that without petrochemical-based large-scale monoculture farming people will go hungry, the fact is that the system he helped put in place does not work and people do go hungry–of course, large agra-businesses make tons of money and some people get fat while remaining hungry, but that’s a different story. And the need for the current system is not so clear, despite the supposed wisdom of Butz. For example, Bill McKibben points out in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007), that monoculture farming does indeed maximize nutritional yield per individual farmer. But sustainable polycultures (what used to be called a “family farm”) maximizes nutritional yield per acreage. In other words, we probably don’t need Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland controlling so much of what we eat.

And that gets me, finally to the point of this post: we (you) don’t have to take part in a systems that helps create hunger–as well as causing diabetes and heart disease while diminishing quality of life and destroying the planet, but that’s another different story.  If you are privileged and lucky enough to have discretionary income after basic needs are met then you can vote with your plate. Our choices can help change a food system still sensitive to consumer demand. How you use your nutritional vote, if you are privileged and lucky enough to have one, is up to you.

Here’s one of the votes I cast with my plate this past holiday weekend:

Eat meat from the 1%

The story of meat production in America is an environmental, moral, and health disgrace. 99%, of the meat we consume gets raised in environmentally destructive, antibiotic-infused large feedlots and factory farms; ruminants who should eat grass are fattened with grains, poultry are kept in cages too small for them to even turn around, pigs create lagoons of destructive waste product. These animals are then treated like the commodity products they’ve become and inhumanely slaughtered.

The latest popular retelling of this story comes from Jonathan Safran Foer narrating the horrors of factory farming in his recent book  Eating Animals. But he makes the mistake of advising people to become a vegetarian, even a vegan, two mistakes actually.

First, his advice lumps together local, humane farmers with the truly awful factories. These farmers already have to battle regulations designed to support large agri-business. Sometimes even finding a slaughterhouse so they can bring an animal to market is impossible. They don’t need–nor does the long-term development of a sustainable food system–erudite, well-intentioned novelists driving customers away. The greatest good for the greatest number would be served by voting with your food choices for local, sustainable farmers.

Second, Foer ignores the social harm and environmental devastation that a vegetarian or vegan diet can cause. For example, the monoculture production of soybeans requires tremendous investments of global-warming petrochemicals. Farm-workers are often treated with the same sensitivity as are factory-farm animals. Vegetarians or vegans are totally entitled to their preferences and their choices; they are not entitled to any assumption of moral superiority.

In fact, in the politics of eating–how to vote with one’s plate–the conflict is not meat vs. no-meat, evil carnivores vs. angelic vegetarians. Rather, the conflict about which the privileged and lucky inevitably take sides is the conflict between local, sustainably produced food and large agribusiness catering to the expectation of always available cheap food, a 365-day a year simulation of peak-harvest.

When I paid a little extra for the local, farm-raised turkey through Pete Taliaferro who runs my local CSA and the bacon (ok, so we added some to the stuffing) from Paul and Stephanie who own Veritas Farms, I was eating meat from the 1%, casting a vote with my plate for a more sustainable food system while having a great meal.

With privilege and luck comes an opportunity to do good while living good; why not eat from the 1%?


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  1. collapse expand

    Thoughtful post, Todd. I might add that those of us among the privileged and lucky wouldn’t even have to pay more…if we ate a little less.

  2. collapse expand

    Certainly, humans consume soy in massive amounts – but you can’t really think vegans and vegetarians are drinking that much soy milk.

    85 percent of the world’s soy production goes toward animal feed.

    And of that other 15 percent: very little of soy produced for human consumption goes into typical “vegan” foods – usually, it can be found in packaged foods, like cereal or bread, as an additive (soy lecithin, soy oil, etc).

    I’m not saying that soy production is not an eco-disaster. It is. But it isn’t a compelling example of the toll vegan diets supposedly take on the environment.

  3. collapse expand

    I’m with Susan. The 9-inch plate diet, and the drink-a-glass-of-water-first diet could reduce the privileged & lucky on the planet by half, without any of us noticing.

    • collapse expand

      The 9-inch plate diet fits with a really fun book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think by Brian Wansink. He’s a pretty prolific food researcher. Did things like have people eat out of a constantly re-filling soup bowl to see if they’d stop if they never got to the bottom (people did but only after LOTS of soup!). Also, looked at things like tall, thin glasses vs. short, wide glasses to see which would lead people to drink more. Wansink summarizes all his research and its an enjoyable quick read.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I think about Wansink’s book every time I go to the movies – should I eat this popcorn? Does it really taste good or is this mindless eating?

        Growing up I vacillated between vegan, vegetarian and meat eater, unable to decide which held the most moral water. With the option of buying sustainable meat – which is almost everywhere now – I can eat meat without feeling the weight of moral absolutism on my shoulders. Demanding that everyone become vegan to save the planet will never work, we need realistic options, ones like sustainable meat. Thanks for the post.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Meat that has been fed grains and soybeans, however raised, is a luxury choice at best because of the huge amounts of fuel concentrated in American ag and because it takes a waste of at least 4 calories of grain/soybeans to produce 1 calorie of animal product–milk, egg, meat.
    Imo, sustainable meat is meat that has grazed on pasture that is unsuitable for farming, usually too arid, too hilly or too cold. Even then we are stealing from the natural communities we displace. Vegans DO occupy the high moral ground. (And how often they remind us of it, eh, Todd?).
    The best strategy is simply to refuse animal products. In fact, Susan Havala has studied “vegetarians” and found that 95% “cheat.” But being a meat-restricter is a good solution and should be the first course of action.
    But the best intrinsic reason: when you go off animal products a banana begins to taste like a banana split. The occasional bite of sushi becomes a carnival.

    • collapse expand

      Only unsuitabe land? What about a sustainable farm, one where animal waste gets used to fertilize all the veg. In a purely vegan world only 1/3 of useable can be put into production at any one time, the other 2/3 set aside part of a “green manure” rotation (I learned that from a vegan csa I was part of for a year). The other alternative to animals are petrochemicals. So, imho, *some* vegans do occupy that high ground (hey Katie, factory-vegan is not necessary, just likely should more go that way), but so too do some carnivores. I think the issue is local, sustainable vs. factory/multi-national agribusiness.

      And they don’t grow bananas in the Hudson Valley, so for me a banana split taste like a blueberry-apple crisp with fresh-made vanilla ice-cream on top!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    I’m not sure about the agronomics of your example, but I was reading my favorite agronomist, David Pimentel of Cornell, and I found a study of 12 villages in India. One would assume that they are putting their land to the most efficient use possible and yet they only produce a half a cup of milk (and critical dung for fuel) a day per person to go with their 1500 calories of grain, pulses and vegetables.
    My point being that meat requires much more land than grain/beans to produce the same amount of calories. If grazing beef somehow overall increases production or reduces needs for inputs that would be news to me.
    I’ve always thought the optimum amount of animal products on your plate is very nearly zero. Meat is a sub-issue of local, sustainable.
    There’s an heirloom banana plantation near Santa Barbara, CA. And though CA doesn’t grow much if any wheat or soy, they still make up a good portion of my diet. It still costs only a few cents a pound to transport them from the Midwest. I doubt I could live in NY in the winter, root vegetables being the only local food stuffs from Oct. to April.

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