Rethinking Meat? Why We Need A Movement

There’s an excellent piece in the Sunday New York Times– “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler” by Mark Bittman.

A sea change in the consumption of a resource that Americans take for granted may be in store – something cheap, plentiful, widely enjoyed and a part of daily life. And it isn’t oil.

It’s meat.

The two commodities share a great deal: Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government. Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn, sends prices higher. Finally – like oil – meat is something people are encouraged to consume less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.

Bittman goes on to enumerate the environmental costs of the mass production of meat. He points out that meat consumption has vastly increased, both globally and domestically; meat consumption is on the rise in industrializing nations like India and China, while here in the US

Americans eat about the same amount of meat as we have for some time, about eight ounces a day, roughly twice the global average. At about 5 percent of the world’s population, we “process” (that is, grow and kill) nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.

That’s a huge rate of consumption, far more than is needed to meet the protein needs of the population. It’s rendered particularly obscene by the fact that feeding grain to cattle and poultry to produce meat is far less efficient, both in terms of calorie intake and labor and environmental costs, than simply using that grain to feed the hundreds of millions of people who are hungry. (Check out the graphics provided with the story for a useful illustration.) In addition, Bittman looks to the water pollution and carbon emissions produced by feedlots, pointing out that while producers have long been able to foist the environmental costs of meat production onto taxpayers, resources are now stretched to the point where such pollution may become increasingly difficult to sustain.

This is, of course, all old news. Frances Moore Lappe wrote about much of it in Diet for a Small Planet back in 1971; recent bestsellers like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma have similar analyses. But only very recently have such ideas left the pages of vegetarian cookbooks and ecological journals and entered the arena of mainstream debate; it’s interesting to see potential solutions being kicked around in what is, let’s face it, the country’s paper of record.

So what solutions does Bittman propose?

There’s no simple answer. Better waste management, for one. Eliminating subsidies would also help; the United Nations estimates that they account for 31 percent of global farm income. Improved farming practices would help, too. Mark W. Rosegrant, director of environment and production technology at the nonprofit International Food Policy Research Institute, says, “There should be investment in livestock breeding and management, to reduce the footprint needed to produce any given level of meat.”

Vague, certainly, but no argument here. What else you got?

Longer term, it no longer seems lunacy to believe in the possibility of “meat without feet” — meat produced in vitro, by growing animal cells in a super-rich nutrient environment before being further manipulated into burgers and steaks.

Seriously? Are we really looking to Frankenburgers as a solution? True, the FDA just declared meat from cloned animals safe to eat. (The logic behind this decision is rather frightening– if one study doesn’t find any immediate dangers, let’s declare this stuff totally safe and wait to see if time proves us wrong! After all, it’s not unusual to use the public as guinea pigs– the pharmaceutical industry has been doing it with birth control pills and diet drugs for decades.) But even the FDA realizes that it can’t simply start allowing cloned meat into the food supply without first lauching a massive PR campaign to convince the public that it’s safe. After all, even those who like the idea in theory tend to hesitate when it comes to personally eating the stuff. In his new book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan argues that this kind of food-science wizardry is the worst kind of reductionist science; we simply don’t know enough about the composition of food yet to know whether what we produce in the laboratory can nourish us as well as nature’s products can, an argument that seems evident when you consider that a century of nutrition research has yet to produce a fully functional substitute for breast milk.

But that’s another post. Back to Bittman’s solutions:

Another suggestion is a return to grazing beef, a very real alternative as long as you accept the psychologically difficult and politically unpopular notion of eating less of it. That’s because grazing could never produce as many cattle as feedlots do.

And:

If those trends continue, meat may become a treat rather than a routine. It won’t be uncommon, but just as surely as the S.U.V. will yield to the hybrid, the half-pound-a-day meat era will end.

Maybe that’s not such a big deal. “Who said people had to eat meat three times a day?” asked Mr. Pollan.

Now it’s getting interesting. I happen to agree with this line of reasoning– I argued something similar in my last post. But meat is a multi-billion-dollar industry, one that lines the pockets of just about everybody in Congress (except maybe Dennis Kucinich), and it seems unlikely that major meat producers are going to voluntarily revert their operations from gigantic feedlots to small, sustainably sized cattle ranches, deciding to forgo all those billions in the name of ecology and health. Nobody in the history of capitalism has done that– it generally takes a revolution or at least major social upheaval to convince billionaires to give up a lucrative gig. And governments that try to legislate these sorts of changes tend to find themselves targeted by the CIA, like Allende’s Chile or the failed coup against Chavez in Venezuela.

So how will this sort of change happen? How will meat consumption in the US move from environmentally devastating megafarms to rolling pastures? Will a spike in prices turn meat into a luxury commodity?

Real prices of beef, pork and poultry have held steady, perhaps even decreased, for 40 years or more (in part because of grain subsidies), though we’re beginning to see them increase now. But many experts, including Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, say they don’t believe meat prices will rise high enough to affect demand in the United States.

“I just don’t think we can count on market prices to reduce our meat consumption,” he said. “There may be a temporary spike in food prices, but it will almost certainly be reversed and then some. But if all the burden is put on eaters, that’s not a tragic state of affairs.”

Well, Cowen’s right– meat prices will no doubt continue to be artificially depressed by government subsidies unless the pressure of a major social movement forces that to change. Rising oil prices and the fall of the dollar are now contributing to a general rise in food prices, but that’s not entirely specific to meat and unlikely to continue unabated.

But wait, what was that last bit? “But if all the burden is put on eaters, that’s not a tragic state of affairs.” Oh, Professor Cowen, that’s just cold. We’re entering a major recession, after all. Real wages continue to decline, and home foreclosures are projected to spike in the coming months. People are struggling, and it’s going to get worse–a lot worse– before it gets better. “Eaters,” after all, aren’t just the Whole Foods crowd– it’s also the millions of people who eat at McDonald’s because they can’t afford and don’t have access to a healthier, more ecologically friendly alternative. Squeezing the poor might cause poor people to buy less meat, certainly, and to economize on what meat we do buy, just like poor people all over the world do. But it’s unlikely to change middle-class buying patterns significantly and it’s hardly the answer to reforming the meat industry.

Bittman quotes a UN report which states:

There are reasons for optimism that the conflicting demands for animal products and environmental services can be reconciled. Both demands are exerted by the same group of people … the relatively affluent, middle- to high-income class, which is no longer confined to industrialized countries. … This group of consumers is probably ready to use its growing voice to exert pressure for change and may be willing to absorb the inevitable price increases.

True, this is a useful way of looking at things in industrializing countries, but not in the US, where the fast food industry, which services the working class, is the biggest buyer of meat and meat products. Here, low-quality meat products are a cheaper source of calories than vegetarian food, which is often difficult for poorer people to obtain and provides fewer calories for the price. That’s the group hardest hit by price increases, and also the group with the least political clout. What the voice of the affluent is getting us, currently, is an increase in the availability of high-quality, organic meat at high prices– but that’s simply in addition to the low-quality meat supply, not a replacement for it, because it’s being produced for a different market.

Anything else?

If price spikes don’t change eating habits, perhaps the combination of deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease and animal cruelty will gradually encourage the simple daily act of eating more plants and fewer animals.

Mr. Rosegrant of the food policy research institute says he foresees “a stronger public relations campaign in the reduction of meat consumption — one like that around cigarettes — emphasizing personal health, compassion for animals, and doing good for the poor and the planet.”

Ah, a moral campaign. (Where exactly does Mr. Rosegrant expect such a campaign’s funding to come from, anyway?) Well-meaning vegetarian college students have been trying this for many, many years. Make people feel bad about eating meat, and they’ll stop. If this worked, the problem would have been solved a long time ago. The problem with making a strictly moral argument for people to change their lives or habits in a major way is that it just doesn’t work. Sure, a few people will take the message to heart and devote themselves to veganism (or any number of other campaigns) but history tells us that people really have to be affected materially before they’re willing to make changes on a grand scale. People don’t act out of pity or sympathy. They act out of anger, and they act out of self-defense. ‘Doing good for the poor’ rarely amounts to more than random acts of charity. Mass movements of the poor, on the other hand, can be quite effective– look at the impact of the 2006 ‘Day Without An Immigrant‘ boycott on the meat-packing industry. The food industry is more likely to be changed by another Cesar Chavez or Arundhati Roy than by any public relations campaign. Bread riots, for that matter, have changed history far more often than leafleting campaigns.

Do I complain too much? Perhaps I do. I should add that I’m heartened to see this piece in the Times. I’m glad it’s there– I’m glad this issue is suddenly out in the mainstream. I’m glad that my voice is part of a growing chorus demanding changes in the way we produce, distribute and eat our food. This is a step in the right direction.

But we have a long way to go, and while there are lots of people exposing the problems, there are very few answers. There’s a lot of ‘vote with your fork,’ which is great as far as it goes– but how can you vote with your fork if the options aren’t there? If your town has a McDonald’s and a supermarket but no farmer’s market, or if you can’t afford to buy organic and double your grocery bill, consumer power only goes so far. We need more options on the production side. We need more worker-owned farms, school programs that teach gardening and nutrition, community programs to spread farmers’ markets far and wide and government subsidies to make them affordable. We need, in other words, a movement.

I for one will be saving my money for a ticket to San Francisco for the first annual Slow Food Nation conference this Labor Day weekend, and I urge anyone else who’s thinking about these issues to do the same. The meeting schedule hasn’t been announced yet, but it looks like the organizers want to build a real movement for a better food system, and I expect some exciting debates about what that can look like and how to move it forward. (Real Potato meetup, anyone?) We need serious thought and political organization if we want to effect real change, and I’m looking forward to meeting other folks who feel the same way.

A final note: Mark Bittman is the author of a vegetarian cookbook, but he’s not a vegetarian and neither am I. The next recipe I post will be about pot roast, in fact. I grew up on a meat-and-potatoes diet, and I know it’s going to be difficult for me to change the way I think about meat. But I want to start being more conscious of the meat I eat, and to try to stick to sustainably raised meat as much as possible. It won’t happen overnight, but I’m going to give it a shot, because I think this is worth doing.

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2 Responses to “Rethinking Meat? Why We Need A Movement”

  1. Amit Says:

    Good one, Sarah, and it’s enlightening for me to get your (a meat-eater’s) perspective. You are correct about the fast-food industry and the poor people, but the long-term costs of eating meat/fast-food also manifest as chronic diseases including heart-attack and diabetes, as countless research studies have shown. So somehow, that connection has to be made by people – and more so because such diseases affect them in a disproportional way, and they are less likely to be able to pay the health-care costs.
    I’m also not sure that vegetarian food costs more – some staple foods like rice, grains, beans, lentils etc. can be bought in bulk and are quite cheap. I do agree that fresh produce costs more, but another statistic I’ve come across is that Americans are spending a lot less of their income on food today than they used to few decades ago. So, spending a little more on healthy food is a possibility. From what I know, the foods allowed under food stamps are very limited and unhealthy – that program could be expanded to include healthier food items.
    I’d also add that the friends and community I know, is not a rich, yuppie community (though they’re also not dirt-poor), and they are well-aware of food issues too, which is not to deny that the latest food-awareness phenomenon is possibly driven by affluent people who are better placed to absorb the costs of change. 🙂

  2. Jonathan Says:

    Very, very well thought-out, interesting and well written post. My husband and I have made it our mission (and New Year’s Resolution) to eat less meat per week. We’re victims of it (and we, as you know, LOVE to eat/create food)… we really do love meat, but we also know how cheap it is. It’s amazing to me (an American) that even still, my British husband gasps at the prices of meat in our country. Beef astonishes him. If he wants a nice steak in England, he needs to be prepared to spend quite a bit. I will not lie here – there is no way I’ll ever become a veggie. I believe in activism and awareness, but I also believe that there’s a smart way to eat it. I work in a poor school in Brooklyn and, to me, one of the solutions you mentioned is RIGHT ON: (school programs that teach gardening and nutrition). I wrote about how unfortunate it is that many of my kids just do not understand where food comes from or how amazing cooking new things can be. Not to mention, if you show them a picture of an eggplant, they’d have no idea what it is. ALSO, if you show them a picture of a cow, they wouldn’t even be able to tell you what food they eat comes from that animal. We’ve lost touch and reality of it all. The fact that the FDA (which, I really don’t trust) is telling us eating cloned meat is ok, well, that’s just f*ing wrong. It’s going to get worse if we all allow this to be ok! I’m rambling now, but thanks for a thought-provoking read at 10AM. amy @ http://www.weareneverfull.com


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