Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Meat, Meat, Meat
Last night at SMU I was part of a panel discussion following a screening of the new movie American Meat. What a meaty movie! You see meat cooking, meat sitting in grocery stores, meat being eaten, live animals being turned into meat, meat on the hoof... Lots and lots of meat. Not really enjoyable viewing, I have to say, for a vegetarian.
The movie's message is that the US should transform animal agriculture, replacing all the factory farming with sustainable, compassionate, grass-based farming on the model of Joel Salatin's Polyface farm (already famous due to its starring role in Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma). Good message? From an animal rights point of view, certainly not. But set that aside. The movie is also problematic from an environmental standpoint. It conveys the impression that American demand for meat is a given, and perfectly fine.
The narrator observes that Americans eat 190 pounds of meat per year (1/2 pound a day) ... without a trace of horror. But there should be horror. Even if you set aside concerns about animal welfare and animal rights, that level of consumption is environmentally unacceptable. The immense amount of land involved in meat production crowds out wild animals. The ruminants produce greenhouse gases. It takes a huge amount of water and gasoline to produce meat. Plant farming is far more environmentally benign, in every respect.
It's all gonna be okay, the movie suggests, if we shift to a different style of farming. But wait! Grass-fed ruminants will still produce greenhouse gases. Animal farming will still use an immense amount of land. In fact, it stands to reason that it will take more land, if hogs and chickens aren't squeezed into containment facilities, and cattle aren't "finished" in feedlots. Joel Salatin and his adherents want us to think that's not so, because they're going to rotate more than one species on a given chunk of land. There are statistics in American Meat saying it will take far less land to produce all US meat in the Polyface fashion (286 million acres) than the amount of land currently used for animal grazing (600 million acres, which doesn't include the land used to grow feedcrops--the figure is from USDA statistics, not the movie). So we're going to liberate the factory farmed hogs and chickens, the feedlot cattle, and use half as much land for meat production.
Maybe .... not. If you liberate the confinement animals, it's awfully hard to believe you're going to squeeze them all onto existing grazing land, but completely strains credulity to say you could cut the amount of grazing land in half. And if you somehow did achieve that (repeat after me: it's not gonna happen), wouldn't the grazing land be used much more intensively, with more soil erosion, more damage to ecosystems, more interference with wildlife and biodiversity?
I don't believe that Polyface style farming is ever going to make it "green" for Americans to continue being voracious 1/2 pound per day meat eaters. Michael Pollan has a much more credible message when he talks about Polyface farm in The Omnivore's Dilemma. The message is that we must both change our style of animal farming and reduce meat consumption. If you set aside animal welfare and rights problems (no, Polyface farm does not solve all of the problems), that's the right message.
Granted, we all do things that are not environmentally responsible. My car is too big (though it's a hybrid). Perhaps what especially annoys me about the Polyface meat-loving crowd is their tone of moral rectitude. (I'm not self-righteous about my car!) They think they've got it all figured out, environmentally. But they don't--not if they're still eating half a pound of meat per day.
As for their strategies for dismissing moral issues about killing animals for food, I must merely smile. They resort to the silliest justifications. God made animals for us to eat (even the bible says no such thing). Death comes from life. Well, very nice. Next time a cannibal wants to eat you for dinner, tell yourself death comes from life. I'm afraid we just can't justify killing animals for food with such platitudes!
Maybe I'm being too negative. Anyone spending more money to buy Polyface-type meat has to have their heart at least somewhat in the right place. They'd certainly doing better than the totally indifferent carnivore.
FYI--I will be out of computer contact for the next couple of days. Comments appreciated as always, but I won't be able to respond to any of them. Apologies for non-responsiveness in the last couple of weeks. I have been dealing with a family emergency and time has been in very short supply.