Recently we seem to detect a bit more stridency in the tone of conversation when it comes to eating meat. The nastiness used to be pretty much one-sided, with surly comments coming from the meat-eaters directed at those who abstain. Now it has flipped and seems to be coming more from aggressive vegans concerned about climate change. George Monbiot recently opined:
Rainforests, savannahs, wetlands, magnificent wildlife can live alongside us, but not alongside our current diet.Monbiot cited studies by scientists at Florida State and Oregon State universities that tallied the damage:
Reluctantly, since we have lived half our life on either side of this choice, we feel a need to wade in.
The consumption of animal-sourced food products by humans is one of the most powerful negative forces affecting the conservation of terrestrial ecosystems and biological diversity. Livestock production is the single largest driver of habitat loss, and both livestock and feedstock production are increasing in developing tropical countries where the majority of biological diversity resides. Bushmeat consumption in Africa and southeastern Asia, as well as the high growth-rate of per capita livestock consumption in China are of special concern. The projected land base required by 2050 to support livestock production in several megadiverse countries exceeds 30–50% of their current agricultural areas. Livestock production is also a leading cause of climate change, soil loss, water and nutrient pollution, and decreases of apex predators and wild herbivores, compounding pressures on ecosystems and biodiversity.
One might think that more women are vegans than men, but in fact the opposite is the case. We think, without much science data to support it, that vegans tend to be more of an urban phenomenon than rural. We wondered why that might be.
Watching our chickens scramble for food scraps thrown to them off the kitchen porch, we think back to Lassie and the TV shows those of us at the cutting edge of the Baby Boom watched. Lassie’s house always had chickens in the front yard, even though it was probably on a sound stage in Burbank.
Many of the other shows in American children’s television c. 1950 shared this same rural bias. The Howdy Doody Show (1947-60) followed the success of other puppet theaters like Kukla, Fran and Ollie (1947-57), Time for Beany (1949-1955), and Rootie Kazootie (1950-54): it was a Western. Howdy and Buffalo Bob were cowboys. Chief Thunderthud and Princess Summerfall Winterspring were Indians. Clarabell, well. That’s another story.
Hopalong Cassady, The Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger and Gene Autry were all rural ranchers — trying to make an honest living but being cheated by banksters and railroad land grabbers. Even the Mickey Mouse Club, which came a little later, was as often out on the ranch with Spin and Marty as in the soda shoppe with Tommy and Darlene. Captain Video (1949-1955) was urban, but that was because it was sci-fi, and everyone in the future lives in cities.
The move from rural living to urban living was made possible by cheap energy, automobiles, and the globalization of food. Chances are, if Hopalong, Cisco or Roy herded their cattle to market, that market was near a railroad that took the herd to Omaha or Chicago where they were sent up ramps into factory abbatoires, processed at the rate of a freight train per hour into frozen steaks and hamburger and sent immediately to New York, San Francisco and abroad.
The limits to eating higher on the food chain are dictated by the same limits as traditional kinds of farming with hoes and water buffaloes — it comes back to population size. A good system for a village of 300 may not be possible, or responsible, at the scale of 300,000 or 300,000,000. A pastured poultry or Salad Bar Beef operation like Joel Salatin has at Polyface Farm in Virginia can feed thousands of people, but it cannot feed millions. Cities require very large foodsheds with very big energy requirements for transportation, cold storage and delivery. Joel can truck his meat to Washington DC, but it would take many thousands of Polyface Farms to provide for that entire city, and that’s only its meat. That is also a lot of trucks and refrigeration storage units.
This is what comes to mind as we listen to discussions about grasslands and carbon farming with pastured animal production. Can the world’s population, now over 7 billion, soon to be swept to 9 billion just on inertia, offer grass fed beef, dairy, poultry and eggs to everyone as a climate remedy? Is it faster, more reliable and more profitable than, say, tree planting?
Too often this debate turns to polemic as both sides talk past each other, but having lived in both worlds now, we think it worth looking at the evidence for meat in the diet and the arguments for restricting or excluding it. If that bores you, or you have heard it all before, then see you later.
Morality is a ruthless companion. Vegan advocate Peter Singer wrote:
It is at this point that the consequences of speciesism intrude directly into our lives, and we are forced to attest personally to the sincerity of our concern for nonhuman animals. Here we have an opportunity to do something, instead of merely talking and wishing the politicians would do something. It is easy to take a stand about a remote issue, but speciesists, like racists, reveal their true nature when the issue comes nearer home. To protest about bullfighting in Spain, the eating of dogs in South Korea, or the slaughter of baby seals in Canada while continuing to eat eggs from hens who have spent their lives crammed into cages, or veal from calves who have been deprived of their mothers, their proper diet, and the freedom to lie down with their legs extended, is like denouncing apartheid in South Africa while asking your neighbors not to sell their houses to blacks.
But Singer can be hoisted on his own petard. When eating plants he is ignoring the millions of living and recently deceased species he slaughters. Who is the specieist?
We kill lifeforms by the millions with every spoonful we eat, whether it is Provençal bouillabaisse or a wheatgrass smoothie. Many of those swimming around in that spoon have eyes that look up at you, and given the opportunity, would attempt to escape. This is as true of breathing, or having pores in your skin. We are what we absorb, but for the vast majority of those being absorbed, life ends.
Our ancestors separated from their herbivore brethren about 7 million years ago. Whether our interest in eating animals outweighs their interest in not being eaten (assuming for the moment that is their interest) often turns on the vexed question of animal suffering. Vexed, because it is impossible to know what really goes on in the mind of a cow or a pig or even a hairless ape. But since we humans are all basically wired the same way as a pig, we have excellent reason to assume that their experience of pain feels much like our own. Michael Pollan agonizes over this:
For any animal, happiness seems to consist in the opportunity to express its creaturely character – Its essential pigness or wolfness or chickenness. Aristotle speaks of each creature’s “characteristic form of life.” For domesticated species, the good life, if we can call it that, cannot be achieved apart from humans – apart from our farms and, therefore, our meat eating. This, it seems to me, is where animal rightists betray a profound ignorance about the workings of nature. To think of domestication as a form of enslavement or even exploitation is to misconstrue the whole relationship, to project a human idea of power onto what is, in fact, an instance of mutualism between species. Domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political, development. It is certainly not a regime humans imposed on animals some 10,000 years ago.
Rather, domestication happened when a small handful of especially opportunistic species discovered through Darwinian trial and error that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection, in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk and eggs and – yes – their flesh. Both parties were transformed by the relationship: animals grew tame and lost their ability to fend for themselves (evolution tends to edit out unneeded traits), and the humans gave up their hunter-gatherer ways for the settled life of agriculturists. (Humans changed biologically, too, evolving such new traits as a tolerance for lactose as adults.)
Joel Salatin likes to say his cows and chickens have a really, really good life, right up until the last minute or two. And then it is over, quickly and relatively painlessly.
But if omnivores need to consider where their meat comes from, vegans need to notice how they grow their grains. Almost all grain production currently depends on large quantities of nitrogen — 100 megatons per year — produced in fertilizer plants. Fertilizer is mostly produced from natural gas, which is a finite resource. It could be made from coal, but at the current rate of use, global coal reserves would run out quickly.
The only alternative is to introduce nitrogen into the soil by growing legumes. Peas and beans produce some nitrogen but the plants that fix the largest amounts of nitrogen from the atmosphere are forage plants like clover and lucerne. Apart from some innovative attempts at leaf protein extraction, we cannot eat these crops, and that is a key reason why more grazing ruminants could be needed in future, as gas, potash, phosphate — and artificial fertilizer — peak. Clover grown with grass produces healthy beef and lamb and can indefinitely put enough nitrogen into the soil to grow grain crops three years out of four. Animals get that field every forth year, or, more permaculturally, we do shorter rotations and keep building soil all the time.
Consider: 73 percent of British farmland is considered not suitable for crop production and is growing grass. But with demand for chicken masala and chicken tandoori increasing every year since 1950 and demand for beef and lamb falling, well over a million acres of grassland in the UK have been converted to grain production to feed the chickens. Before Brexit, even larger areas of land were growing chicken feed for England across the Channel. If all Brits were vegan, the island could feed 200 million without imports.
No need to panic, say the Brexited Brits, we can frack fertilizer gas from the Midlands and offshore and turn our grasslands back to grain, as in Roman times. Plenty of chicken tandoori, and we won’t have as many Poles and Romanians to eat it. What the frack could be wrong with that idea?
In his now viral TED talk, Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory says that after studying the question, no rational scientist can conclude that we have any other choice than to “do the unthinkable,” and increase the numbers of grazing animals, bunched and moving, in order to restore the balance of planetary ecosystem health, replace extinct wild herds and predators, and reverse desertification and climate change. He makes the meat diet a moral duty.
For their parts, vegans point to the obvious disparities between who can afford to eat conscientiously grown meat and the cruelty implicit in the whole modern food system, vegetables and grains included.
We think both sides are missing the real problem. We outlined it here last week. Its the population, stupid. The whole modern food system was created because that is how you can feed 7 to 9 billion people, bunched in cities, as a proxy for Lascaux and Canyon de Chelly.
Simple as that. If you want the luxury of being either organically vegan or compassionately omnivore, you will need to reduce your own species’ numbers.
next week: The Vegan Paradox Part II: Climate