Sunday, September 5th, 2010
Salon.com is running an interview by Kerry Lauerman with Hal Herzog on his new book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. The story is worth reading for an assessment of why the public can be outraged by women throwing cats into dumpsters or puppies into a river (last week’s tabloid news) while at the same time consuming more meat than ever.
A few excerpts:
Why is it so hard to think straight about animals?
I think it’s the human-meat relationship. The fact is, very few people are vegetarians; even most vegetarians eat meat. There have been several studies, including a very large one by the Department of Agriculture, where they asked people one day: Describe your diet. And 5 percent said they were vegetarians. Well, then they called the same people back a couple of days later and asked them about what they ate in the last 24 hours. And over 60 percent of these vegetarians had eaten meat. And so, the fact is, the campaign for moralized meat has been a failure. We actually kill three times as many animals for their flesh as we did when Peter Singer wrote “Animal Liberation” [in 1975]. We eat probably 20 percent more meat than we did when he wrote that book. Even though people are more concerned about animals, it seems like that’s been occurring. The question is, why?
And, by the way, I think that the argument against eating meat is very strong.
So is the solution just to come to terms with the disconnect between loving our cat and treating it like a family member and enjoying our fried chicken?
I think that’s the human condition. I think this humanization of pets is really fascinating. I developed a tongue-in-cheek scale that I called “feeding kittens or boa constrictors” scale. I asked people, “Would it be OK to feed snakes versus cats certain types of food?” One was mice: Would it be OK to feed a mouse to a boa constrictor? Is it OK to feed a mouse to a cat?
Almost everyone said it was not OK to feed a mouse to a cat. I interviewed a student who had cats. I said, “Would you ever feed a dead mouse to your cat? You can buy them at the pet store.” She said, “No!” She was horrified. And I asked why. She had this great quote. She said, “If my cat ate mice, it wouldn’t be like me.”
I love that. And that really gets it. When we admit cats and animals into our world, and we think of them like relatives and we think of them like us, it makes perfect sense for us to think that, yes, they’d rather have a gourmet natural duck entree out of a can than eat a mouse. No, my pet really enjoys dressing up for Halloween. And so we basically have drawn that moral circle so that we think of them more like us than like them. I don’t really see that as changing.
And that’s the lesson here. Our modern food system disconnects humans and the animals we eat all the way to the supermarket meat aisle. Ethicists like Singer argue that sentient animals should be given the same moral considerations as people, as many folks already do for their pets.
Would we be willing to eat meat if we raised our own cows, pigs, and chickens and treated them with the same respect and care we show our pets?
For some meat eaters, probably not. But for many others, probably yes…and that would be a good thing to the extent it generated a world with less animal suffering.
Photo courtesy of sandcastlematt.
Saturday, February 13th, 2010
In this week’s special issue devoted to food security, Science asks what it will take to feed 9 billion people by mid century.
Food insecurity—the inability of people to feed themselves—may rise if food supply cannot keep pace with population. This is a concern that goes back over 200 years to Thomas Malthus.
One theme shows up in a few articles: Can reducing meat consumption help in the battle to feed more people?
Erik Stokstad’s news feature (subscription required)1 provides a nice lead:
The United States, for instance, has just 4.5% of the world’s population but accounts for about 15% of global meat consumption. Americans consume about 330 grams of meat a day on average—the equivalent of three quarter-pound hamburgers. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that most people consume just 142 to 184 grams of meat and beans daily. In the developing world, daily meat consumption averages just 80 grams. Those numbers suggest that people living in the United States and other wealthy nations could increase world grain supplies simply by forgoing that extra burger or chop.
However, he interviews researchers and cites studies that raise a number of issues potentially complicating this story…
Tuesday, December 29th, 2009
MSNBC is giving front page coverage to a potentially serious problem that scientists identified years ago—microbes are becoming drug resistant because of antibiotic use in meat production.
Researchers say the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals has led to a plague of drug-resistant infections that killed more than 65,000 people in the U.S. last year — more than prostate and breast cancer combined. And in a nation that used about 35 million pounds of antibiotics last year, 70 percent of the drugs — 28 million pounds — went to pigs, chickens and cows. Worldwide, it’s 50 percent.
Governments are starting to realize the urgency of this issue:
The rise in the use of antibiotics is part of a growing problem of soaring drug resistance worldwide, The Associated Press found in a six-month look at the issue. As a result, killer diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and staph are resurging in new and more deadly forms.
In response, the pressure against the use of antibiotics in agriculture is rising. The World Health Organization concluded this year that surging antibiotic resistance is one of the leading threats to human health, and the White House last month said the problem is “urgent.”
….[T]hree federal agencies tasked with protecting public health — the Food and Drug Administration, CDC and U.S. Department of Agriculture — declared drug-resistant diseases stemming from antibiotic use in animals a “serious emerging concern.” And FDA deputy commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein told Congress this summer that farmers need to stop feeding antibiotics to healthy farm animals.
However, entrenched special interests continue to be as resistant as the germs our food system is producing:
Farm groups and pharmaceutical companies argue that drugs keep animals healthy and meat costs low, and have defeated a series of proposed limits on their use.
As Michael Pollan, Peter Singer, Wendell Berry, and others have noted, this is what results from the treadmill of production and the Walmartization of our food system. When the only thing that matters is producing the most food for the least cost, our modern industrialized food system—and antibiotic resistance—is what we get.
One farmer who buys into antibiotic use echoes this conventional wisdom—that the most fundamental principle of food production is about lowering cost:
“Now the public doesn’t see that,” he said. “They’re only concerned about resistance, and they don’t care about economics because, ‘As long as I can buy a pork chop for a buck 69 a pound, I really don’t care.’ But we live in a world where you have to consider economics in the decision-making process of what we do.”
Another farmer, who eschewed antibiotic use, is one of many who are bucking conventional wisdom:
Kremer sells about 1,200 pigs annually. And a year after “kicking the habit,” he says he saved about $16,000 in vet bills, vaccinations and antibiotics.
“I don’t know why it took me that long to wake up to the fact that what we were doing, it was not the right thing to do and that there were alternatives,” says Kremer, stooping to scratch a pig behind the ear. “We were just basically killing ourselves and society by doing this.”
Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009
In a NY Times column yesterday, Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too, Natalie Angier pushes the boundaries of what we consider to be ethical eating.
She works through a series of biochemical and physiological examples of how plants are amazing—almost animal-like. With one of my undergraduate majors in botany, I agree: Plants are amazing and animal-like.
Attacked by an herbivove? Plants can emit volatile chemicals to warn other individuals of the same species (analogous to a warning call). They can turn on chemical defenses that make themselves less palatable (an immune response). And in an amazing display of evolution, some plants can even send signals to the predators of the herbivore to come get a free meal (analogous to getting your big brother to beat up the bully picking on you). For example, some corn varieties when being eaten by insect larva emit a chemical signal to attract wasps that lay eggs in the herbivorous pests, turning the pest into a tasty meal.
But being animal-like doesn’t mean we ought to give plants the same ethical considerations as animals. Sure, plants are amazing, but that’s not a particularly effective ethical argument for diet choices for a couple of reasons:
It’s hard to tell whether Angier is being serious or satirical (and whether the rest of the blogosphere and I are being punked by developing an elaborate rebuttal). The following passage suggests the former:
But before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way.
Nevertheless, her argument is flawed because it asks us to equate the moral consideration of sentient animals (like pigs) and plants. I don’t know of a single ethicist who would make this argument given what we know about intelligence and sentience.
Furthermore, by equating plants and animals ethically, she implicitly uses this to justify eating meat because plants are objects of moral consideration too. As the title of her article insinuates, if we are no longer able to eat Brussels sprouts, we must not be able to eat anything because of ethical equivalency. We are led to conclude that this is absurd, so, therefore, we should just chill out and eat anything we want.
What Angier’s argument lacks in ethical rigor, it makes up in one important way: It asks people to be thoughtful about what it means to eat other organisms. Humanity should recognize and marvel at these amazing plant evolutionary adaptations—even be thankful for them—and do what we can to preserve them over the long haul.