Is Vegetarianism Losing Ground?

Trendwatchers (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.


Scu said...

Before the editors started writing comments about vegetarians eating local meat, I'd noticed it in my own life. I was living in Ithaca NY, so two things were true. Large numbers of vegetarians, and easy access to locally grown animal flesh. It seemed every where I turned around I would say, "Well, I'm a vegan" and someone would say, "Oh, I use to be a vegetarian, but not anymore." Each time it was the same reason, they now eating locally produced animal flesh. Just last semester I was up at my university, and the student run co-op that use to be vegan only now sells animal flesh. And while I was there I ran into someone, a philosophy grad student, who use to be a vegetarian. He isn't anymore, and when we were talking about this, he said, "What's wrong with raising an animal just to kill and eat it?"
I don't have any data on the degree of this, but it is clearly some trend, and a bothersome one. It doesn't help that Pollan argues that vegetarians are morally lesser than the selective omnivore.

I know that factory farming still accounts for the vast vast majority of flesh in this country. And I have some hopes that even though we have different end games involved, they might add us in lobbying against the farm bill from Congress, about stopping the funding for CAFOs, etc. But I think we need to respond to the idea that animals have idyllic lives on places like Polyface farms. They still have the wrong genes, they still are killed in what we would consider their adolescence, or even childhood. Many of them are still forced to take horrifying rides to slaughterhouses that aren't any better than any other slaughterhouses.

Jean Kazez said...

My mother has a friend who's a longtime vegetarian, now a "humane meat" supporter, so yes, I'm bumping up against this too. It's as if Michael Pollan is the new Peter Singer. He's influencing what people see as "ethical food."

Polyface has got to have a long list of problems--

-shortened lives
-male chicks killed immediately (I assume)
-long rides to slaughterhouses (but that's because of USDA rules, not because of the nature of humane farming)
-lots of killing

However, if you spend time at an animal farm like that (I have) you will probably get a sense that life is not a curse for the animals but really a gift. Having grown up in farm country, that's my cumulative impression. Standing there, in situ, you get two intuitions that are hard to combine. Life is good for the animals, while killing is troubling. It's not completely crazy to go with "life is good." Maybe that's wrong, but it's not wildly wrong like believing factory farms are OK is wildly wrong.

Then you've got the fact that the image of these idyllic places inspires people to make things at least better for that billions of animals who are in much worse places. All in all, I'm not convinced that cumulatively the humane farm movement is harmful.

Right--then there's Michael Pollan portraying vegetarians as not being on good terms with their inner animal... well, that's silly. But all in all, I think he's been good for animals.

Scu said...

While I didn't grow up in farm country (and that may be a real difference between how each of us will process this sort of thing) I have been to local farms before. And I'm not the sort of crazy person who believes that local farms are the same as factory farms, or anything of the sort. But I also have trouble when someone like Pollan starts talking about how chickens can experience their chicken-ness at a place like Polyface farms. If they cannot naturally reproduce, if suffering is written into these animals at the genetic level (such as the poultry at polyface farms, and at almost all the local farms in the US), are we really talking about life as a gift? If animals are going to die in their adolescence, even childhood, can we really say they ever get a chance to experience their -ness? I'm certainly not willing to cede the ground to local farming. I've so far not really seen a farm that didn't just include killing, but also included suffering. It isn't just an idyllic life with a dirty end.
There is also a question about what more demand for humane and local flesh and animal products do. To give one example, look at what has happened to the label of cage-free eggs. Back 15 years ago or so cage-free eggs were almost impossible to find, but if you could there was a good chance that that term had some reality. Nowadays anyone can get cage-free eggs from any major supermarket. But the majority of those are meaningless terms. What I am trying to say is I am unsure if more demand for ethical products actually translates into more ethical products on the market (and thus better lives for other animals), or if like many capitalist adventures it translates into a marketing campaign that misleads consumers while the lives of animals remain unchanged.

I guess the last point is if things like selective omnivores has increased or decreased the number of people who are trying to act more ethically. Are we creating people who use to eat factory farm meat and now don't? Or are we creating people who use to eat no meat now eating factory farmed meat? Or, are we creating people who still eat factory farm meat, but try to occasionally not?
In short, is there a net increase in people moving away from both factory farming and family farming, or not? This is the sort of thing that would require data, and some social science type crunching of numbers. I was originally very excited about the localvore movement, the longer it goes on the more I am believing it is eating away at the vegetarian base faster than it is producing new people opposed to factory farming. But all of this is feelings at the level of the gut, I wish there was actual data to use.

amos said...

What's surprising and even revolutionary is that what one eats has become an ethical issue for so many people. Once where food comes from becomes an ethical problem, there is no going back to the days of being blissfully unaware of animal suffering and exploitation. People's eyes have been opened and that is good.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, Yes, the whole idea of "ethical food" is real progress.

Scu, Michael Pollan does romanticize and sweep various things under the rug--very true. But I don't want to do the opposite.

About suffering being built into genes--isn't part of humane farming a matter of selecting breeds that aren't doomed to live miserable lives? Jonathan Safran Foer's interviews with humane farmers make it seem that way.

As to what's going to happen as a result of the humane farming movement--I agree 100% that we need some data!

Bleak view: Humane farming only diverts vegans and vegetarians, so the trend is toward "the worse."

Positive view: Michael Pollan has shown a broad public two things--horrendous factory farms and Polyface farm. So Polyface farm is becoming the ideal by which the former are judged. Result: factory farms look especially bad and people are becoming more and more receptive to farm reform like in California and Michigan. (And there's no way I'm going to dismiss those reforms as trivial.)

Another Michael Pollan message is that Big Organic and Small Organic are two different things. He's the one who opened my eyes to the fact that cage free eggs aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Anyhow--yes, I'd love to see some data that clarifies what the humane farm/Pollan impact really is.

amos said...

The important thing is that an issue, in this case, what one eats, becomes an ethical dilemma.
Let's take feminism. Simone de Beauvoir is the Peter Singer of feminism: out of nowhere she writes an incredible book, The Second Sex. Maybe 20 years later, de Beauvoir's ideas begin to spread in university circles, as did Singers. Generally, intellectuals see things in logical terms and thus, the first 2nd wave feminists, like the early animal rights people, were very consistent and coherent in their practice. As a movement spreads, capitalism sees a chance to make a buck and you get "The Feminist Guide to a Tax-Free Divorce" or 5th avenue selling spike heels for feminists, but the ball is already in play and woman are not going to return to their role as born dish washers nor are people going to go back to seeing meat as something that magically appears in their supermarket.

Bea Elliott said...

There's an odd thing about "humane" meat that I've found... There are many who turn away from that option too - There's something incredibly wrong about taking a miserable factory farmed animals life, but it seems doubly disturbing for many to take a "happy" animals life away too! It becomes a situation where you're damned if you do, damned if you don't... I think that leads many people to discover the truth of it all: We don't "need" to kill any body in order to thrive.

In any case it's good that the focus is shifting to the choices we all have. And I agree totally that once you know... You can never approach a "meatcase" without the knowledge of the consequences you a responsible for.

rtk said...

This must get up a lot of gander:

Jean Kazez said...

I'm going to say it's "dander"--don't you think?

Joel Salatin is a guy I can't help but like--no way to avoid it. He's incredibly articulate and a billion times more appealing than the standard issue corporate farm tycoon.

rtk said...

Dander schmander. I was thinking goose gander.