here and here) keep saying that vegetarians and vegans are getting lured by the growing "humane meat" movement. I don't know if I believe this. Trendwatchers also say that New York brides throw botox parties to get their bridesmaids ready for the big event (oh come on--how many, how often?) and that men in Tokyo go around with pillows they consider their girlfriends (same questions). So--it could be that editors just love the vegetarian-turns-carnivore story line.
Then again, maybe there's something to it. Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have lately been shaping the discussion of "ethical food" and they've greatly expanded what that means to people. Their books (The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation--both available in kids' versions too) are superb. Then there's Food Inc, the documentary based on their work, which I just saw last weekend.
Food Inc shows that an ethical eater should worry about the treatment of animals, but also about other matters. If you imagine the USDA putting ethics labels on food alongside nutrition labels (that'll be the day), they would cover impact on animals, but also impact on humans and the environment.
Even on its own the animal portion of a label on "humane meat" would be puzzling. Small humane farms kill animals but give them high well being throughout a big part of their lives. How do you add together those incommensurables? So: problematic. But Food Inc shows that plant foods raise ethical issues too. There are human and environmental problems even with eating a seemingly innocent soyburger.
Food Inc profiles a very interesting assortment of heroes and villains. The villain, throughout the movie, is the giant corporation. The most articulate of the good guys is Joel Salatin, owner of a little idyllic farm in the Shenendoahs. Every other sentence that comes out of his month is a gem. (Granted, in one segment he kills chickens while he utters the gems--definitely food for thought).
Among the many smart things Salatin says: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."Polyface farm isn't perfectly good for animals, but it's pretty good, and it's very good for humans and the environment. No wonder consumers who want to eat ethically are looking for their own local Polyface farm.
The bad guys in the movie are the giant corporations that own factory farms and meat-packing plants. For example, Eldon Roth, master mind of the ammoniated meat-scraps scheme that was recently covered in the New York Times, makes a chilling appearance.
But another bad guy is Monsanto, the corporation that owns the genetically modified seed that yields 90% of the soybeans in this country. They are portrayed as bad for small farmers, bad for the environment, and bad for us.
At the end of the movie, there's a lovely poem-like series of imperatives (with Bruce Springstein singing "This Land is Your Land" in the background). First screen-
Good advice. But what exactly does it mean? All things considered, I think we are most respectful, all around, if we eat locally grown plants. I'm afraid it's very hard to believe that killing an animal and eating it is respectful, no matter how much happy grazing precedes that moment.
Still, bearing in mind that we shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, I can't be gravely concerned about the humane meat crowd. And I think there's some hope for "trickle down." It may very well be that the Food Inc message is making the larger population receptive to farm reforms like this recent one in Michigan. (With Michael Pollan's latest book now #1 on a The New York Times best-seller list, he's surely having a very broad impact.)
My own diet is a compromise between vegan and omnivorous--no meat, only "more humane" eggs and milk. So I'm disposed to embrace compromisers. Still, it's good to bear in mind what "perfect" would be and try to keep oneself moving (maybe just step by step) in that direction. Perfect surely would mean no killing and we all (in our heart of hearts) know that.