As Americans watch Europeans condemn the discovery of horsemeat in their Ikea meatballs, we can take some solace in the fact that, for once, we’ve sidestepped an industrial food-related travesty. Our complacency, however, could be short-lived. Although less dramatic than horse DNA adulterating ground beef, another horse-related scandal is about to implicate U.S. citizens in a scheme that will send tainted horsemeat into foreign markets while enriching U.S. horse slaughterers with taxpayer dollars.
The last U.S.-based horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007. The phasing out of horse slaughter in the United States ended the exportation of U.S.-produced horsemeat to Canada, Europe, and Japan. This development, among other accomplishments, spelled the decline of a niche business that profited from a product that American taxpayers financially supported (through USDA inspection of horse slaughterhouses) but were loathe to consume (plus, it’s illegal to sell horsemeat in the U.S.).
Animal rights activists often oppose animal welfare reforms on the grounds that they make animal production more efficient. Rutgers professor Gary Francione argues this case convincingly, insisting that some “[w]elfare reforms make animal exploitation more profitable by eliminating practices that are economically vulnerable.” He adds, “For the most part, those changes would happen anyway and in the absence of animal welfare campaigns precisely because they do rectify inefficiencies in the production process.” The point is compelling and controversial: welfare reforms–which so many consumers support–can make it easier for industrial agriculture to turn animals into food.
Improbably enough, industrial producers of animal products agree. As a justification for what concerned consumers perceive to be inhumane practices, factory farmers routinely insist that if they treated their animals poorly, production would decline. Thus, they conclude that consumers need not worry: the animals are doing just fine. Scott Dewald, Vice-President of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, explains, “Our producers take care of their animals, and we know that an animal that isn’t treated well doesn’t produce.” Sherrie Niekamp, head of animal welfare for the National Pork Board, echoes this sentiment when she acknowledges that “Animal welfare is . . . a market driven issue.”
For a singularly grim, if fiercely literary, assessment of the earth’s environmental fate, the grizzled wisdom of Cormac McCarthy is always there to deliver the dark pronouncement that we’re flat-out doomed. “The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die,” explains the judge in McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian. “[B]ut in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.” Darkness, in essence, will fall at the very moment when we think we’re out-of-our-mind brilliant.
Brilliance in conventional environmentalism has thus far been embodied by the caricature of hybrid-driving solar evangelists with soft spots for local farms, grass-fed beef, and re-useable shopping bags adorned with inscriptions of ecological virtue. Such popular solutions to our environmental quandary come not only with the eager endorsement of a progressive political establishment, but with the added appeal of basic pragmatism. Drive a more fuel-efficient car, eat locally, seek energy-efficient light fixtures, and vote “yes!” for public transit initiatives — such ideas simply make sense. And thus they’ve become the nuts-and-bolts of modern environmentalism.
There’s not a single person who’s done more to fight climate change than Bill McKibben. Through thoughtful books, ubiquitous magazine contributions, and, most notably, the founding of 350.org (an international non-profit dedicated to fighting global warming), McKibben has committed his life to saving the planet. For all the passion fueling his efforts, though, there’s something weirdly amiss in his approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions: neither he nor 350.org will actively promote a vegan diet.
Given the nature of our current discourse on climate change, this omission might not seem a problem. Vegans are still considered as sort of “out there,” a fringe group of animal rights activists with pasty skin and protein issues. However, as a recent report from the World Preservation Foundation confirms, ignoring veganism in the fight against climate change is sort of like ignoring fast food in the fight against obesity.
There’s a relatively new category of conscientious consumer on the rise known as the “compassionate carnivore.” These are meat eaters who have chosen, with good reason, to remove themselves from the horrific practices of factory farming. In her thoughtful book, The Compassionate Carnivore, Catherine Friend puts it this way:
I believe it’s possible to show compassion for animals and still eat them. For me, this means paying attention. It means learning more about the animals I eat and taking some responsibility for their quality of life.
A significant number of meat consumers have taken this message seriously enough to become meat producers. Indeed, the urban homestead movement in particular has inspired untold numbers of urbanites to take compassion to the extreme and become part-time animal farmers themselves.
The rationale for this transition is multifaceted, and often quite convincing. “Those of us that raise our own animals,” one of my critics concisely points out, “are doing so because we don’t want to be part of the industrialized agricultural machine that routinely abuses animals for the sake of the almighty dollar.” An urban homesteader from Oakland went one further: “the level of appreciation for nature and life when you slaughter your own meat creates a kind of ethic that I think is what we need to save the world.”
Modern consumers enjoy something that humans throughout history never have: we can walk into a grocery store and, if we choose wisely, leave with food that maximizes our health. Much maligned as the industrial food system has been, it’s made accessible a broad diversity of beneficial foods that, consumed regularly, prevent disease and enhance the quality of life. The fact that one is able to eat a cornucopia of “superfoods”–blueberries, bananas, kale, lentils, quinoa, and avocados–on a daily basis is an under-appreciated wonder of globalization and world trade.
But the vast majority of the developing world lacks access to this abundance. In fact, billions of people living in developing countries are dependent on a single staple crop for their sustenance. In sub-Saharan Africa, 250 million people eat cassava as their primary food source; over half the world depends on rice for 80% of their calories; wheat accounts for 20% of the world’s food energy intake. This narrow dependence might meet baseline caloric needs, but it’s a nutritional disaster.
How to bridge the gap between the nutritional haves and have-nots is a hotly contested issue. Some support the development of small-scale but modernized organic systems serving regional markets. Others promote replacing traditional peasant agriculture with the industrialized approach of agribusiness. Yet others would like to see local farmers empowered to practice indigenous methods. Whichever schemes ultimately prevail (hopefully a combination of all), there’s one solution that must be included irrespective of agricultural scale or scope: crops must be biofortified. That is, we need to plant seeds that have been bred to enhance nutritional value.
The infamous egg recall of 2010–which identified over 500,000 eggs infected with salmonella–inspired not only widespread condemnation of industrial egg production, but a reactionary upsurge in the trend of keeping backyard hens. For reasons that seem intuitively straightforward (but lack concrete substantiation), a critical mass of do-it-yourselfers determined that it was, among other benefits, safer and more humane to raise their “own” birds and eat their “own” eggs. As this movement continues to take shape, it’s worth asking if these evaluations are all they’re cracked up to be.
As for safety, we’ve really no way of knowing at this point. To the best of my knowledge (and please, if I am wrong, show me), nobody has calculated comparative rates of infection between backyard and industrialized birds. What we do know is that backyard chickens aren’t immune to disease outbreaks. Just last month Food Safety News reported that the CDC had identified 71 cases of salmonella (more than half under the age of 5) linked to backyard chickens. Eighteen people were hospitalized.
The news that In.Gredients, a “package free, zero-waste” grocery store, will debut in Austin, Texas is certainly cause for optimism. The store, which will be located on the rapidly gentrifying east side of town, is bound to find an eager market of young, progressive consumers raised on a steady diet of environmental ethics, especially the unmitigated horrors of plastic. In addition to its quest to eliminate waste, the store, according to its press release, also promises to promote local and organic food, thereby achieving a trifecta of green grocer bona fides. It should do well.
That said, I think the brains behind In.Gredients vastly underestimate the environmental implications of their bold idea. The tawdry rhetorical appeal to reduced packing, local production, and organic food might resonate with an audience accustomed to associating these traits with eco-correctness. But the carbon-footprint complex isn’t so simple. Fortunately, in this case (and somewhat coincidentally), it happens to be far more consistent with the store’s purported mission.
Billions upon billions of animals are used every year for the purposes of scientific experimentation. It’s actually hard to think of another practice that’s as commonplace as it is controversial (biotechnology, perhaps?). It goes without saying that many of these experiments are a waste of time and resources. The NIH, for example, recently spent about $4 million exploring how the menstrual cycles of monkeys were influenced by cocaine, meth, and heroin. Other animal-based experiments, however, appear to have genuine utilitarian value, contributing useful information to our knowledge of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and several cancers. Delve into this issue and you’ll find that only one thing is certain: clear answers aren’t forthcoming.
I generally believe that animal experimentation is a morally flawed way to accumulate scientific knowledge. That said, I plead agnosticism when it comes to rare cases of direct benefit to human life. I’m sure that if one of my children were afflicted with a life threatening disease and experimentation on monkeys had a plausible chance of finding a cure, I’d reluctantly support that research. As much as I’d like to be consistent on this issue–as I’m able to be with, say, my diet–I’m afraid I must take convenient refuge in Emerson’s saying about foolish consistency and little minds. As I said, nothing about the morality of animal experimentation is easy.
A few days before Christmas, a Houston woman placed her 3-month old girl in a baby swing and momentarily left the room. In her absence, one of the family’s nine dogs – a 150-lb Rottweiler – broke through the back door of the house and attacked the infant. Out of precaution, the mother had barricaded the back door with a “washing machine and slab of marble.” It was of no use. EMS reported that the girl’s chest was covered with deep lacerations. She died an hour later.
Is it likely that we’ll follow the perfectly rational incentives designed by benevolent governmental guardians to reduce obesity? Fat chance.
When it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), one criticism stands above the others: it’s unnatural. The idea that (unlike conventional genetic exchange within a species) genes from one species can be transferred to another fuels this perception of unnaturalness.
Pesticides freak us out – and understandably so. The idea of otherwise healthy fruits and vegetables marred by residual poison unnerves us because, generally speaking, we’re clueless. We’re totally removed from the process of production. We don’t know what was sprayed, we can’t see the trace pesticides, we can’t measure them on our own, and, let’s face it, the vast majority of us don’t remotely understand how these agents work. The upshot is that we’re left to trust outside interpreters to assess the risk for us.
If there’s a winner in the recent recall of 550 million eggs potentially infected with salmonella enteritidis, it’s your local egg farmer. Under the assumption that eggs sourced from small, organic, free-range farms are less likely to be contaminated with salmonella, consumers are flocking to farmers’ markets and backyard coops in a panicked quest to avoid industrially produced eggs. According to one newspaper account, shoppers are increasingly willing to pay up to $3.50 for a dozen eggs in order to have “a direct link to their food.” But I wonder: does this make any sense?
Until 1985, the word “biodiversity” didn’t exist. Today, it’s fundamental to the grammar of environmentalism. Lamentations about “declining biodiversity,” the “threat to biodiversity,” or the “the biodiversity crisis” comprise the lingua franca of ecological discourse. But it’s worth asking: what are we really talking about when we talk about biodiversity?
Calculating organic’s footprint isn’t as simple as it seems.
Pesticides aren’t necessarily to blame.
What good does green building do when our cities are, by design, ecological train wrecks?
Americans are currently embracing a strange sort of primitivism. Bicycles are losing gears, runners are afoot in shoes designed to create a barefoot sensation (some are even running barefoot), and men are growing bushy Will Oldham-like beards. It’s all very curious and entertaining.
Should publishing requirements for tenure go up for scholars in the humanities and social sciences?
It may be the most emotionally powerful photograph to come out of the Great Depression: the well-dressed, unemployed business man hawking apples for a nickel on a city street corner. It’s a poignant image-the stoic gentleman attempting to preserve a vestige of dignity for himself and his family. But is it an accurate reflection of the era?
Food packaging seems like a straightforward problem with a straightforward solution: there’s too much of it; it piles up in landfill; we should reduce it. These opinions are standard among environmentalists, many of whom have undertaken impassioned campaigns to shroud consumer goods-including food-in less and less plastic, cardboard, and aluminum.
Food is fiction, after all, and there are many advantages to keep telling beautiful stories that brighten our day by enriching our palette. Plus, the moment we might start thinking about the culinary implications of a riot, things can become pretty tasteless.
If you ever find yourself in a room full of pig farmers and want to start a fight, just ask about farrowing crates. A farrowing crate is a cage that confines a lactating sow. Its dimensions are tight — a typical crate enables a mother pig to move a few inches in any direction.
A crated pig can do little more than lie on her side, position her nipples in the right direction, and provide mother’s milk to her piglets on the other end of prison-like bars. Some farmers deem this confined arrangement the cruelest manifestation of factory farming.
It’s not hard to see why.
Sustainably produced local food is not accessible by all. In general, only the elite few with the time and material resources to capitalize on such environmental munificence have the time and money to benefit from transparently sustainable farms. As a result, the preconditions are inadvertently established for something that generally tends not to bind diverse communities into a cozy whole, but to fragment them: exclusivity.
Most of us must admit that in many cases we really haven’t a clue if the local farmers we support run sustainable systems.
You want to listen to Freakonomics Radio? That’s great! Most people use a podcast app on their smartphone. It’s free (with the purchase of a phone, of course). Looking for more guidance? We’ve got you covered.
Stay up-to-date on all our shows. We promise no spam.