A baker’s dozen of us turned out in Williamsburg last Tuesday, to discuss the intricacies of the American food system and our own attitudes towards eating.
“Knowing where the food comes from” was the succinct answer to the question posed to Alex, on why he had become a vegetarian. Of all who attended, he was the only one who had forsworn meat. While working at McDonald’s – where he had often eaten his three daily meals – he had decided he could no longer eat beef or chicken. He cited links between red meat and heart disease and cancer, links which were disputed by Matt, of the chili takedown.
“The worst part of Food, Inc, I thought, was when they killed the organic chickens,” said Jeff. He was mainly impressed with the vast increase in yields that farmers have seen over the last fifty years. “Who can worry about the ethics of killing animals?” Someone asked the question, does it matter if the animal lived a better (happier?) life, if you’re still going to slaughter it?
“This is just white guilt,” somebody said.
Jeremy spoke about Peter Singer and his suggestion that apes be considered as candidates to be granted some form of “human” rights. The leap from gorillas to cows and pigs is surely not that great, though, is it? And so what is the litmus for inclusion in the sentient and politically protected species club? Someone suggested: “Does it cuddle?”
Indeed, consider an expansive line of thought. Not so long ago, doctors performing surgery on infant children did not bother anesthetizing the little ones, as they were not considered able to feel pain. It was long thought that dogs could not suffer, and that a lobster tries to escape a pot of boiling water by mere instinct – not because it hurts. Just last year, we started considering that fish might feel pain. What if we eventually learned that plants could experience suffering? Is there any denying that all life require death?
Animal welfare is irrelevant
There were a few people in attendance who had tried vegetarianism for awhile, sometimes for years, but had gone back to eating meat. It comes down to habit and taste, and the fact that “human cravings can’t be stopped” – at least not without great willpower and discipline. At a personal level, Mery reminded us, we don’t have to eat everything that’s served to us. Portion sizes in America dwarf the rest of the world, and evidence shows that we often assume what we’re given is the normal amount of food that we need. Only in America, Sean pointed out, is it normal to eat meat at all three meals, and possible to do it so cheaply.
Ultimately, Jeff’s argument is correct: the production of American farming is a triumph. Even though we have done awful environmental damage by creating vast monocultures and concentrated animal feeding operations, we have also eliminated the problem of food scarcity, and we’ve turned beef – once a luxury – into a commodity. We’ve taken two crops – corn and soy – and turned them into 46,000 different kinds of consumer food products, everything from Wheat Thins to Big Macs.
The consolidation of such a food system is inevitable, because the American demand for meat cannot be satisfied by a network of small, self-sustaining farms. There simply isn’t enough land to raise 10 billion chickens, cows and pigs for slaughter every year in a sustainable way. If each one of us must have his sixty pounds of beef a year, then – yes – it’s going to require a food factory to produce it. It has caused us to turn nature itself into a machine.
Of course, we aren’t really that clever. The unforeseen consequences of this experiment in agriculture – and it is an experiment – are increasingly apparent: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, water pollution, soil depletion, E. coli breakouts… The repercussions of farm policy go so far as to affect illegal immigration.
The answer is not to overcome nature, but to learn from her. As Chef Dan Barber recounts in a recent TED talk (which Lauren directed us to), a fish farm in Spain has restored a natural marsh to such a condition, that the thriving ecosystem is actually purifying the water of a long-polluted river. And the fish taste delicious. This is the kind of system we can have, if we demand it. Maybe it can’t provide us each ninety pounds of chicken a year – but maybe that’s a good thing.