Meat eating is under attack! And yet you may not have noticed all the noise—new, shocking reports from the World Bank, United Nations, and more—because you were too busy mawing on that delicious artisanal bacon.
The upshot is that, by some estimates, livestock farming produces more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transportation systems combined. Factory farms are responsible for 99 percent—yes, 99 percent—of all the meat in the U.S.
Then there’s the newish (November) nonfiction book by hot young writer Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals, which details more horrors of factory farming. Like how just one pig farming operation (Smithfield) produces more tons of shit than does the entire human population of California and Texas combined, and how that untreated waste has nowhere to go other than sprayed in a fecal mist into the air and waterways.
The timing of this stuff is really weird. We are arguably in a meat-obsessed cultural moment. Trendy Williamsburg restaurant like the Brooklyn Star features few dishes in which the main course is not wrapped in bacon. Hell, Fig in Santa Monica serves bacon wrapped in bacon. The New York Times even coined the phrase “hot butchers” to describe chefs like Ryan Farr of San Francisco, who teach sold-out classes in sausage making to slavering packs of meat nerds. Then there are Crif Dogs kimchee hot dogs, Shake Shack burgers, David Chang’s pork belly, Donald Link’s Boudin Balls. We can’t get enough of it. It’s just so damn cool.
Of course, for all of us ordering charcuterie plates, there’s a caveat: we eat sustainably-raised meat. The pork skins Farr uses for his chicharonnes aren’t from a factory farm, they’re from pasture-raised pigs from Becker Lane Organic Farm, Dyersville, IA. The philosophy many of us have is that promoting the right kind of meat is helping fight the good fight against the wrong kind of meat produced by big agribusiness.
“I do feel like the environmentalists, vegetarians, and sustainable meat people do have a common enemy, and it is factory farmed meat,” says Sasha Wizansky, editor of Meatpaper, a print magazine that chronicles meat culture.
But you, with your artisanal bacon, are you really above the fray? Spoiler Alert: Foer’s book says we’re full of shit.
Reason number one: All “ethical omnivores” cheat.
Admit it: Not all the meat you eat is sustainably raised.
“How effective would the Montgomery bus boycott have been if the protesters had used the bus when it became inconvenient not to?” writes Foer. Zing!
“If I’m down in Mexico City or Barcelona, Japan, and there’s really good street food, I’m going to eat it, and if I don’t know where the meat’s coming from, I’m still going to eat it,” Ryan Farr told CHOW. And what about that pho place you love to go to for lunch? Is its beef grass fed? Or how about when you felt too stingy to buy the heritage turkey for Thanksgiving, because it was like, 80 times more expensive than the conventional one?
Reason number two: Organic, free-range, and cage-free mean jack.
These words do not mean healthy, happy animals. Here’s the deal, once again (we’ve all heard it before): To be considered free-range, a chicken must have “access to the outdoors.” This, according to Foer and plenty of others who’ve covered this, is interpreted cynically by the poultry industry. Like, there’s a little door or window that gets opened sometimes, that shows a little patch of earth onto which the chickens in their gloomy, overcrowded sheds of doom, will never tread.
“Cage-free” means they’re not in cages, duh. But it doesn’t mean they’re on dirt. And how about the killing floor, where most birds are dragged through that lovely fecal soup? No cages there, either!
Organic, Foer points out, just means they were fed organic food, had “access to the outdoors” (see above), and weren’t fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Not that they were treated humanely or safely during their lives and deaths.
Reason number three: Any meat eating promotes more meat eating, and most meat is factory farmed.
You get invited to somebody’s house for dinner. They know you eat meat. Of course you’re not going to be an asshole, and tell them that you only eat meat from such and such farms.
“This effort might be well-placed, but it is certainly more invasive than asking for vegetarian food (which these days requires no explanation),” writes Foer. “The entire food industry (restaurants, airline and college food services, catering at weddings) is set up to accommodate vegetarians. There is no such infrastructure for the selective omnivore.”
So you eat what they put in front of you. And what they put in front of you is Tyson chicken or Smithfield ham.
And yet, all these very good arguments being what they are, I have not gone vegetarian. Why? For me the main reason is that becoming vegetarian means not supporting the small farmers who are trying to make a difference in our screwed up system of meat production. People like Mark Pasternak, of Devil’s Gulch Ranch, who raises pigs in Sonoma County for many great local restaurants, while also offering nature education summer camp for kids. Or heritage poultry farmer Frank Reese, whom Foer profiles in his book as being one of the few farmers in the U.S. raising non-genetically modified chickens. (His birds don’t have enormous breasts, and instead, have big legs from all the walking and running around that they do.)
Yes, there’s the argument that there aren’t enough of these farmers (or enough farmland) to supply all the meat in our country if overnight the entire U.S. population decided to boycott factory farms. But most nutritionists and doctors agree that we need to cut way back on the amount of meat we eat. And, furthermore, the best way to inspire real change is to find leaders and role models like those guys who create new paradigms consumers and lawmakers can aspire to. Or at least that’s my opinion.
As Foer and the recent reports make clear, it might be mission critical to planet Earth that factory farms stop right now. But let’s face it: Our culture is currently madly in love with meat. Not a day goes by that I don’t get another email from a PR firm about a new product flavored with bacon, or see a menu featuring chicken liver mousse on the appetizer list. That’s the reality. So now let’s work with it. This is just a starting point, something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. So let’s discuss: Where do you get your meat? Do you buy Safran Foer’s arguments?