2006/09/22

Meat is murder - of humans, too

This is interesting: apparently the E. coli outbreak in spinach was actually caused by groundwater pollution from factory farms that raise cows. Cows aren't built to handle the grain diet forced on them in the factory farms, leading to the proliferation of this particularly harmful form of E. coli, which gets into the water and contaminates everything.

Of course, an even more serious and similarly indirect way that factory farming hurts people is from pesticide runoff in our drinking water. It takes about 10 times more grain to feed animals and eat them than if we just ate the crops directly. So to produce enough grain for all the animals we eat, we have to use pesticide-fumigated monoculture agriculture rather than relying on the lower yields of organic farming. All the chemicals that get in our water are one of the main reasons most of us will probably end up with cancer.

For me, all this is academic next to the horrific killing and torture of the animals. But for those people who are more concerned about the less severe - but neverthelss very real - suffering of humans caused by the meat industry, these can be very compelling arguments.

8 comments:

ariel said...

well, there isn’t going to be a viable alternative to monocultural agriculture if people like you don’t start buying local, organic produce.

Jake said...

that's a good point.

to defend myself from the implication, i have a small jar of organic peanut butter ($5), an even smaller jar of organic jam ($4), organic tofu ($2.70), organic chickpeas ($2.30), a bag of organic pasta ($2), &c.

these prices are generally about twice as high as their conventional counterparts. i don't have a problem with higher food prices, because the market prices we pay are completely divorced from the actual social and environmental costs of production.

but at the same time, while "people like me" should be buying organic, most people can't afford to pay double for their food. that demonstrates how closely environmental sustainability is tied up with making radical redistributive changes to the economy.

eating vegetarian, on the other hand, is less expensive than eating meat. and even if there were no organic agriculture, a nation of vegetarians would be far better for the environment.

ariel said...

of course. but in terms of changing consumer buying habits, a move from one kind of tomatoes (grown on over-farmed land 2000 miles away, doused in pesticides, genetically altered to withstand the transcontinental voyage, etc) to another (locally produced, organically grown) is much easier than radically changing dietary content. for the latter, i feel that there would need to be some kind of environmental/health crisis before most americans significantly alter their diet. but walmart’s foray into organic food, however flawed, demonstrates the possibilities of overcoming the class connotations and faddishness of organic food. i think that a growing market will allow for lower-cost options. hopefully, these low-cost options will not compromise the standards for establishing a product as organic or sustainable (unlike walmart & wholefoods).

Patrick said...

Having grown up on top of the bottom boundary of "middle class" (whose conventional definition is arguably too low anyway), I disagree with your proposal, Ariel, that it's more realistic to expect people to pay twice as much (or even, say. 1.5x as much) for basically the same type of groceries than to reduce or eliminate their meat consumption. Both are extremely challenging.

The reason Lamar Alexander (iirc) took flak for not knowing the price of milk isn't just because his insulation from such petty plebeian details betrayed his patrician status; it's because grocery prices are a MAJOR preoccupation for probably half of the country, perhaps much more. Never mind those in poverty; even lower-middle-class Americans save coupons and only shop on Double or Triple Coupon Days. Their weekly consumption is significantly determined by the prices obtained during that week.

Based entirely on my personal experience in that end of the income bracket, I think that price is the single most salient concern for many grocery buyers. My past may not be representative, but there's at least a possibility that meat-reduction would be an easier cause to push among the bottom half of the U.S. than purchasing organic (without either fundamentally restructuring agriculture and food distribution or fundamentally changing the meaning of "organic").

Either way, of course, a long-term popular campaign on food issues would not treat these as fundamentally disaparate topics.

ariel said...

you don’t need to tell me about the importance of cheap groceries and sales- my salary for at least the next 7 years places me out of the middle class entirely (jesus, you would think that with the like 400 trillion dollar or whatever endowment they could pay the people who teach their precious undergrads enough to support a family. of course, that’s nothing compared to the underpaid and overworked security guards and janitors here who are getting actively screwed….). i meant that in a vacuum, the choice to switch to organic food is easier than going vegetarian- i would be extremely hesitant to discount the socio-cultural importance attached to food. and my exhortation was directed at people who can afford to buy organic/local and people who are willing to sacrifice for their political commitments- that’s why i mentioned the possibility of demand driving down cost- i obviously don’t expect a family struggling to get by to pay $3/lb for local, organic tomatoes. but everyone else should.

Jake said...

i wonder if it's realistic to expect organic prices to come down with increased demand. wal-mart is lowering prices, but (as michael pollan pointed out) is doing so by encouraging the industrial agriculture techniques that are fundamentally hostile to the environmental sustainability goals the organic movement started out with.

the question is whether organic is expensive because the well-off people who are its current market are willing to pay more, or because it simply costs more to responsibly produce food. i'm guessing it's more the latter than the former.

Patrick said...

In that case, I agree with you entirely, Ariel. ;)

Yet another problem here is that, generally, available locally-grown produce is NOT organic, unless you focus most of your buying on farmers' markets or CSAs. Jewel or Dominicks pretty much never seem to have local produce, at least the stores I visit, and Whole Foods and Wild Oats seem to offer primarily conventional local produce (when they have any at all). Some organizations are working to create more of a market for local/regional organics, but there are obviously huge hurdles or we'd be seeing more progress.

Farmers' markets and CSAs are great, but they're obviously not large-scale solutions. But I think part of our challenge is the notion that there *can* (or should) be large-scale solutions. Organic probably won't work very well until we shrink our agricultural economy back to a local/regional scale - at which it largely functioned prior to WW2, when (not coincidentally) most agriculture was organic or pretty damn close to it.

Patrick said...

Btw, a friend of mine worked for several years on the organic farm connected to Hampshire College in Mass., and she told me that they were able to offer organic produce to the local community at competitive prices - usually *lower* than those for non-organic produce in the area supermarkets. She insisted there was no subsidization from the college involved in this equation. I don't know all the details, and I also don't know how applicable this is to the rest of the country (soil, climate, infrastructure, etc.), but it's an encouraging example.