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.