The indispensability of vegetarianism

This article at Grist observes, I think accurately, that, at least among eco-conscious foodies, “conscientious carnivorism” is in, and vegetarianism is out:

At some point over the past few years, vegetarianism went wholly out of style.

Now sustainable meat is all the rage. “Rock star” butchers proffer grass-fed beef, artisanal sausage, and heritage-breed chickens whose provenance can be traced back to conception on an idyllic rolling hillside. “Meat hipsters” eat it all up. The hard-core meaties flock to trendy butchery classes. Bacon has become a fetish even for eco-foodies, applied liberally to everything from salad to dessert, including “green” chocolate bars and “sustainable” ice cream.

The piece goes on to argue, however, that vegetarianism remains indispensable, as a response both to the challenges of sustainability and the inhumane treatment of animals. This is true for a variety of reasons. First, as the article points out, the percentage of meat produced in this country that could accurately be described as “humane” is vanishingly small. Second, it’s extremely doubtful whether a model of humane, sustainable meat production is scalable enough to meet the current demand (which is growing worldwide at an alarming rate, even if meat consumption in the U.S. has declined somewhat).

I’d add that not only is genuinely humane meat a tiny niche market, it’s also extremely difficult to know if what you’re buying actually fits that description. This is because there are essentially no agreed-upon or enforceable standards for “humane” meat (or for that matter, “natural,” “free-range,” etc.). Unlike “organic,” which is regulated by the USDA, these terms mean whatever the producers say they mean. The only way to be sure that the meat you’re buying actually conforms to a specific ethical or environmental standard is (a) to look for a third-party-certified label (there are some) or (b) to buy directly from a farm that you have personally visited to observe how it operates. (Significantly, almost all discussion around this focuses on how the animals are raised, but even animals raised under not-terrible conditions are typically slaughtered in just the same way that factory-farmed animals are.)

So, I agree with the author of the piece here:

To nudge our horrific food system toward sustainability, we don’t need vegetarians to shift to occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. We need the American masses who eat an average of half a pound of factory-farmed meat a day to shift to the occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. (Americans are actually eating a little less meat overall these days, no thanks to the meat hipsters.)

Eating truly sustainable meat, in modest quantities, is a fine thing. But it’s not better than eating no meat — certainly not when we’ve got more than 7 billion people on a fast-heating planet competing to feed themselves via shrinking, oversubscribed cropland and increasingly limited, degraded freshwater supplies.

That’s why, when people ask my advice (not that they often do), I simply encourage them to eat less meat. Eating less meat doesn’t require a radical lifestyle change. It’s flexible and open-ended. It’s not elitist the way conscientious carnivorism often tends to be–after all, almost everyone has access to plant-based meat alternatives. And it doesn’t lead to situations like this:

I don’t know if universal vegetarianism is a real possibility–or even a desirable one. But if we agree that our current system of meat production is both inhumane and unsustainable (and we should), then our only viable future is one of drastically reduced meat-eating. This means that vegetarianism remains one important–indeed indispensable–path into that future.

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9 thoughts on “The indispensability of vegetarianism

  1. I guess conscientious carnivorism is supposed to take the wind from the sails of vegetarianism but it doesn’t really answer the sustainability problem (The End of Food) and it also doesn’t really answer the ethical problem either, at least for me … I mean, is it the killing of animals that’s bad or is it only the painful killing of animals that’s bad?

  2. I agree with you that the killing per se is an important ethical issue. However, I also think that even if all you care about is how the animal is treated up to the point that it’s killed, you’re going to be pushed in the direction of vegetarianism, or at least significantly reduced meat-eating.

    (I should add, of course, that I’m a hypocrite because the egg and dairy industries are just as bad as, if not worse than, the meat industry, and I still consume some dairy and eggs.)

  3. Wait. Being myself conscientiously flexitarian–or vegetarianisch as it were, you encourage eating of less meat to avoid the elitist sensibilities and then call yourself a hypocrite because you yourself fall within that larger morally complex and ambiguous range you encourage given your consumption of eggs and dairy? I would posit that related to elistism on these matters is a righteous tendency that often shuts people down altogether in making more discerned choices because it is all or nothing, and if not all, then hypocrisy. It’s not helpful to complex matters like these, and precisely something to be tackled head on. We should be encouraging folks to live courageously within complexity and ambiguity, to live with some bit of angst as itself a part of being human every bit as much as increasing compassionate, sustainable choices. The all or nothing may actually harm positive changes. Coupled with elitism, it becomes repulsive.

  4. I do think ethical treatment of eventually killed animals is better, of course, than unethical treament before killing. It just feels like an end run around the issue or a reframing of the issue somehow.

    Dairy and eggs – but you buy eggs from free range chickens, buy dairy from ethical dairies, and no one dies.

    • The situation is a bit more complicated I think, even setting aside the issue of accuracy in labeling. For instance, even “free range” hens typically come from hatcheries–and those hatcheries “discard” (i.e., kill) all the male chicks that are born, often in horrific ways. With dairy there is the question of what happens to the cows when they stop producing milk, as well as what happens to their male offspring (the calves of dairy cows often end up as veal). So, a truly end-to-end humane egg or dairy operation is much harder to come by than people often think.

  5. Dude. I live in Portland. That is what we like to call “creative license”. Yeah, a lot of the frou frou restaurants (and the Gilt Club ain’t really all that frou frou) will put what farm they buy their meat from on the menu, but anyone asking for the name of the chicken will get a bird put on it.

    And by bird put on it, I of course refer to the gesture of extending the middle finger.

    (Having said that, have you seen the entire sequence of events in that sketch? It’s hilarious.)

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