Food politics more visible, still naive

Last Tuesday, Oprah aired a show about California's Proposition 2, which would require livestock producers to give their confined animals enough room to stretch and move around. It was a balanced show, including both advocates of the measure and some of the factory farmers it would target, but Oprah's sympathies were clearly with the measure's proponents. Unfortunately, the alternative offered to factory farmed pork, veal, etc was free range pork, veal, etc. Not eating animals was not raised as an option. Nor did the show go into the environmental or food supply problems of animal agriculture.

Oprah could be a huge force for raising consciousness about these issues, so I encourage everyone to take a minute (even if you didn't catch the show) and write a quick comment to the show - the form is here. This is what I wrote:
Your show on factory farming was great, raising extremely important issues about the ethics of how we raise animals. But I was surprised and disappointed that you did not explore a key option for addressing these issues - eating vegetarian. Even the most humanely raised animals end their lives in the horrors of the slaughterhouse, and I believe that unnecessarily taking life is at least as big an ethical problem as unnecessarily causing suffering.

Vegetarianism not only eliminates the cruelty and killing of the livestock industry, it also solves the deep environmental problems with meat. The livestock industry produces 1/5 of human-induced greenhouse gases - making meat a bigger global warming problem than cars. In addition, meat production is a terribly inefficient use of resources, which is why it's a central cause of the current global food crisis.

I hope that you'll bring up these issues in future shows, because reducing the amount of meat we eat is the only way to a sustainable, cruelty-free society. And the best way to facilitate this transition is to expose people to the incredible diversity of delicious vegetarian food.
* * *
In other food news, Michael Pollan had a cover article in The New York Times Magazine last weekend. The first half covers the same ground Pollan always covers - how perverse market and government incentives have built a food system with horrible effects for the environment, the economy, national security, and public health. The rest of the article offers a range of policy solutions that the next president should follow to dig us out of this mess.

The policy ideas are all focused on moving us back to the organic, integrated, labor-intensive kind of farming that dominated before World War II, which would both dramatically reduce the amount of oil used in food production and raise the artificially low prices of the foods destroying our health - meat and junk food. Pollan emphasizes the array of policy options available and necessary for such a profound transformation - from a complete rewriting of agricultural subsidies to the symbolic power of planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn and announcing a weekly meatless meal for the first family.

These are all good ideas, but what Pollan does not do is grapple with the two enormous obstacles to this agenda: the extraordinary political power that agribusiness wields, and the popular commitment to a diet full of cheap meat. As urgent as these issues are, do we really expect someone as cautious - even timid - as Barack Obama to cross the farm state senators and their patrons the meat and grain corporations? Even if he did, imagine the national uproar that agribusiness could mobilize by simply pointing out that these reforms would end of cheap meat.

Capitalism gives big business a stranglehold over our politics, and Americans are almost dogmatically committed to eating meat. What Pollan needs to do, rather than simply reiterate his (admittedly very strong) arguments, is start confronting how we can overcome these obstacles. The key here is that we need to be building a movement not just of self-satisfied yuppies eating organic food in the comfort of their suburban home or big condo. Instead, if we as a society are going to get past the seduction of cheap meat, we need a movement of people who morally reject the power of corporations and the predominance of meat.

Meat means cruelty, unnecessary killing, global warming, air and water pollution, and global hunger. Corporate power undermines democracy and disfigures our culture. There's no shortage of reasons to oppose the two, but until we can mobilize people by explicitly appealing to these ideas, it will be impossible to create the political will needed to transform our food economy.

This isn't an impossible agenda. You don't have to be a vegetarian to recognize that the amount of meat Americans eat is ethically unacceptable, and you don't have to be a socialist to demand an end to corporate control of politics. But before Americans are willing to give up the era of cheap meat, they will have to make these connections. Our job is to speed up the process.


Bea Elliott said...

You've raised some very good points here... I too was disappointed that Oprah did not offer the obvious 3rd choice of converting to a plant based diet. I suppose there are her sponsers and the network affiliates to consider. Such is the nature of "business".

On the subject of the 3rd option... if ethics are to be considered - vegetarian diets contribute to the needless suffering of animals. Most vegetarians consume dairy... which it is said there is more suffering in a glass of milk than in a steak. Veganism opts out of the institutionalized cruelty of the dairy industry. I used to be an "ethical" vegetarian till I discovered the horrible abuses by the dairy industry. Constant artificial insemination, immediate seperation of mother and calf... then comes newborn calf slaughter or "veal"... No ice cream cone in the world is worth that kind of suffering.

I enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for inviting comment -

Jake said...

I agree, of course, that conditions at most dairy (and egg) farms are unacceptable. And I think both the availability and price of dairy and eggs should be increased quite a bit. But while I think killing an animal is always wrong because no animal would willingly give up its life, dairy and eggs are conceptually compatible with a good society because their production does not necessarily conflict with the animal's wants and needs.

Not only that, but sustainable agriculture greatly benefits from having animals on the farm because they can convert unproductive material (scraps, grass) into organic fertilizer and provide food (dairy and eggs NOT meat) in the process.

sergius said...

As always enjoyed your arguments on the issue. Just for completeness sake I would like to point to a difficulty of assigning moral evaluation to meat eating. While meat industry is indeed wasteful, there are nomadic societies living in areas where agricultures is not viable that rely on cattle grazing and whose cousine is almost completely meat oriented. I was particularly curious to evaluation of this practice within generally vegetarian Mahayana Buddhism tradition. Mongols and other Turkic tribes, while belonging to that tradition, are voracious meat eaters. Dalai Lama's own comments one the issue are rooted in one of the Buddhist main truths that "Life is a suffering". It does frown on wasteful culling of cattle, or utilization of animal derived calories if other subsidies are available, but it does not see it as absolute evil. While inevitable in the long run, move toward vegetarianism by general population is not feasible in the short term just as move toward mass transit and green energy substitutes.