Jonathan Safran-Foer: “Eat a ton less meat”

I’ve developed quite a healthy respect for Jonathan Safran-Foer. I’ve never read any of his novels, but from what I gather, he’s a critically respected writer who could probably carve out a profitable niche churning out books in the vein of Franzen and other contemporary “literary” novelists.

So it must have been somewhat risky, career-wise, for Safran-Foer to write a nonfiction book–about factory farming and vegetarianism no less! (A really good one, as it turns out.)

And he hasn’t stopped there. Safran-Foer has gone on to become a low-key but (in my view) quite effective spokesman for the vegetarian cause. Here’s a recent interview, for example, where Safran-Foer manages to be firm in making the moral case against factory farming without ever coming across as shrill and self-righteous.

Here’s a snippet:

…at the end of the day we need to eat a ton less meat. I have yet to meet the person who disagrees with that statement. Anthony Bourdain agrees with that statement. Can I imagine half the planet going vegetarian? Not anytime soon. Can I imagine half of the meals on the planet being vegetarian. I can—a kind of lifestyle shift in which people might say “I won’t have it at lunch.” And finally can I imagine the government doing anything that would bring about that level of reduction of meat consumption? Impossible. I can imagine them saying “cage size should be increased by three inches,” but to bring about real change, I just can’t see it happening.

But the shift in consciousness that would require half of our meals to be vegetarian doesn’t seem that out of reach. It’s a question of reframing the conversation toward the agreement that we need to eat less meat. The more we know about effects on the environment and on human health and on rural communities, the greater an appreciation we have for why it matters. It’s not that hard to imagine things changing really dramatically, really quickly.

I like this message of “eat a ton less meat.” It’s not going to please hard-core vegans, but it has the advantage of being simple and potentially having a big impact. Buying “humane” meat (and other animal products) can be surprisingly difficult since it means navigating a variety of competing (and often meaningless) labeling schemes, or alternatively, buying directly from a farm where you can observe the conditions the animals are raised under. And, in a lot of cases, it’s also not clear how much better off the animals actually are.

By contrast, virtually anyone can reduce the animal products in their diet, which is less onerus than demanding immediate and total abstention. And yet, people who cut back on meat, etc. may find that they want to go all the way, or nearly so. From the animals’ point of view, the more we reduce meat consumption, the less suffering there is, even if people don’t become total, 100% vegetarians or vegans. (Not to mention the environmental and other benefits.) So, I’m really glad to see Safran-Foer out there making his case.

Link via

(p.s. I am going to make a point of reading one of Safran-Foer’s novels.)

Friday Links

–Why unions are essential for the future of liberalism.

–Maryland is very close to legalizing same-sex marriage.

–Indiana is very close to passing a draconian, Arizona-style immigration law.

–International aid groups appeal to Congress to restore funding for humanitarian aid.

–A slideshow and discussion on the question “Is meat green?”

–How much would a government shutdown cost?

–Why tech writers should stay away from politics.

–An interview with Tom De Haven, author of the novel It’s Superman! and, more recently, Our Hero: Superman on Earth.

–A review of two books on American Tories/loyalists at the time of the Revolution.

–Why the Obama administration changed its mind about the Defense of Marriage Act.

–Twenty questions for Over the Rhine.

Vegetarians, vegans, and the varieties of reform

Via Critical Animal, here’s an article looking at whether animal welfare reforms (e.g., banning battery cages or veal crates) reduce meat consumption. Some animal-rights activists, notably those associated with or sympathetic to Gary Francione’s “abolitionist” approach, have argued that such reforms only encourage people to eat more meat, because they make people feel better about consuming animal products. But according to this article, the data point in the other direction.

As scu notes, however, this doesn’t refute all of the abolitionist’s arguments. One that they make is that people who reduce or give up eating meat will compensate by eating more dairy or eggs, resulting in little or no net reduction in animal suffering. In the abolitionist view, mere vegetarianism is not even a step in the right direction, much less an acceptable alternative to full-blown veganism.

I obviously have no data to back this up, but the argument that people who give up meat for ethical reasons will compensate by substituting eggs and dairy strikes me as implausible on its face. As an ovo-lacto vegetarian myself, I have some experience to draw on here, and I can confidently say that, far from increasing my intake of eggs and dairy, I’ve significantly reduced it–to the point where probably about two-thirds of my meals are vegan. And this makes sense when you think about it: dairy and eggs are not, in general, substitutes for meat. It’s not like instead of eating a steak you’re going to eat a big slab of cheese or even an omelet in most cases. When I gave up meat, the alternatives I generally substituted were veggies, legumes, nuts, and in some cases prepared meat substitutes like veggie burgers.

This doesn’t show, of course, that the abolitionists are wrong in upholding veganism as the non-negotiable moral baseline (they may or may not be) or that their approach is less effective than an incrementalist reform approach. But I’d like to see more evidence for the specific claim that giving up meat increases consumption of other animal products.

Friday links

–The Australian broadcaster ABC’s Religion and Ethics site has a series of articles by Martha Nussbaum on democracy and education: parts 1, 2, and 3.

–Coal is not cheap.

–Vegan nutritionist Virginia Messina argues that healthy diets can include meat analogues. (A corrective of sorts to anti-processed-food extremism.)

–At the great metal blog Invisible Oranges: why lyrics matter.

–Camassia has the first part of a review of Miroslav Volf’s interesting-sounding new book Allah: A Christian Response.

–Radiohead has released their new album “King of Limbs” a day early. You can download it here. I haven’t heard it yet, but the early reviews seem to be mixed. On the other hand, Radiohead albums generally take several listens to digest, so I’m withholding judgment.

–Paul Krugman on the budget “debate.”

–What’s going on in Bahrain?

–The Madison protests are about union-busting, not budget cuts.

–The history of using the National Guard to break strikes.

–According the calendar observed by Lutheran and some other Protestant churches, today is Martin Luther’s feast day (he died on this date in 1546).

ADDED LATER: The Nation‘s “Breakdown” podcast, hosted by Chris Hayes, tackles “the confusing concepts that make politics, economics and government tick” via questions submitted by listeners. This week’s episode tries to answer a question I asked: Why exactly are government deficits bad? (If or when they are.) Chris’s guest is economist Robert Pollin. You can listen here.

This seems appropriate for today:

Meat industry starting to feel the heat

Via Mark Bittman, an article on the effect that efforts like the “Meatless Monday” campaign are having on beef and pork producers:

Efforts like Meatless Mondays are yet another headache for the beef and pork industries. They have been struggling to cope with the soaring cost of corn for feed and to hold on to consumers because of rising retail meat prices.

[Food service giant] Sodexo’s alliance with the Meatless Mondays campaign coincided with an endorsement by Oprah Winfrey, who devoted a week of programs this month to promoting meat-free dieting. Another blow to the meat industry came from the release of the government’s new dietary guidelines Jan. 31.

Those recommendations, which guide health care professionals’ advice to consumers and dictate menu choices for government nutrition programs, called for Americans to cut back on the artery-clogging type of fats found in meat and replace some meat with fish or other seafood.

When a reporter demanded to know why the government didn’t just say, “Eat less meat,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack responded that the seafood recommendation was “a way of saying what you’re saying.”

Those guidelines, coupled with rising prices for beef, pork and poultry because of soaring feed prices, are likely to combine to reduce meat consumption per capita, said Helen Jensen, an Iowa State University economist.

“Dietary guidelines are making suggestions and recommendations about meals that go along with substituting toward a lower-cost meal,” she said.

Here’s a response from the meat industry:

The meat industry says the efforts to reduce consumption are misguided and driven in part by animal rights activists. Consumers need the protein and nutrients that beef and pork provide, industry officials say.

There’s a bit of logical smoke-and-mirrors there, of course. While it’s true that people need protein and nutrients that are found in meat, it’s obviously not true that you can only get them by eating meat. And I certainly don’t think that any reputable nutritionist would say that it’s healthy to eat meat in the quantities that Americans tend to. And, even if you totally discount the concerns of those nefarious “animal rights activists,” American-style meat consumption on a global scale would in all likelihood be an environmental disaster, as well as driving up food prices for very poorest people in the world. There’s just no question that reducing our consumption of meat makes sense for health, environmental, global justice, and animal rights/welfare reasons.

Is universal vegetarianism (or veganism) possible?

In his interesting book Beyond Animal Rights, philosopher Tony Milligan considers, among other questions, whether the whole world could be vegetarian (or vegan). If not, this could be considered a strike against these two dietary choices.

The problem, he argues, is that we need to transition to a more ecologically sustainable system of food production, one that relies less on concentrated, industrial methods of farming, extensive use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, etc. However, universal vegetarianism would seem to require an industrialized food system since there would be no cows or other farmed animals to provide, for example, natural fertilizer.* In other words, animals seem to be a key part of a healthy and organic farming ecosystem (as Michael Pollan and others have argued). And if raising at least some animals on farms is necessary for a sustainable food-production system, then universal vegetarianism doesn’t seem to be a desirable goal.**

Milligan points out, though, that it’s at least conceivable that we could raise animals on farms without killing them for their flesh. A system of, for example, non-intensive dairy farming seems to be compatible, in theory, with the kind of natural agriculture that sustainability-proponents have in mind. So, he concludes, while universal veganism might not be compatible with a system of ecologically sound and sustainable agriculture, a universal vegetarianism might be. A “mixed community” of vegetarians and vegans is, therefore, at least a hypothetically attainable ideal.

I don’t actually know whether vegan organic (“veganic”) farming is a live, large-scale possiblity, or whether animals are strictly necessary to an environmentally sound mode of farming. It’s clear that the widespread frequent meat-consumption that we currently have (much less the greatly expanded amount we’re likely to see as other nations develop economically) is not sustainable. But what exactly the feasible alternatives are isn’t so clear. I’d like to find out more.
*Milligan considers another possible response by the vegetarian/vegan: even if such diets require industrialized food production, they would require less land to be devoted to such methods for the familiar reason that it takes far fewer resources to produce plant-based food for direct human consumption than for raising animals who are, in turn, consumed by humans.

**Even if that’s true, however, Milligan points out that there may still be good reasons, including ethical ones, for some people to be vegetarians. See this earlier post of mine for a similar point.

Ethics and isolation

Scu at Critical Animal has interesting take on the Anthony Bourdain-Jonathan Safran Foer debate I posted about last week. One of Bourdain’s arguments (which echoes an argument made by Michael Pollan, among others) is that embracing vegetarianism alienates you from human community. As Scu points out, however, sometimes this is a good thing. Not to mention, embracing a particular ethical perspective can also lead you to new forms of community.

(Incidentally, the Henry Salt Scu mentions as a mentor to Ghandi was an English social activist and campaigner for animal rights; here’s a link to his “Logic of the Larder.”)

Jonathan Safran Foer keeps it real

One thing that Eating Animals author Jonathan Safran Foer does really well in this debate about vegetarianism with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is to keep bringing the discussion back down to earth from Bourdain’s hyper-idealized view of meat-eating. Safran Foer’s not interested in arguing that meat-eating is always, everywhere, and under any conceivable circumstances wrong; he’s more interested in making people aware of the horrors of modern factory farming, which, after all, is the method by which upwards of 90 percent of the meat consumed by Americans gets produced. Bourdain waxes poetic about meat-eating as a convivial celebration of human commonality, but Safran Foer keeps presenting the listener with the stark reality that makes all that cheap meat possible–an industry that wreaks havoc on animal, human, and environmental well-being.

(Incidentally, the quip attributed to Bourdain at the beginning of the show, to the effect that humans were designed to chase down “smaller and stupider” creatures makes me wonder how many of his meals Bouradain has personally chased down.)

Bad arguments against vegetarianism, the continuing series

The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote two posts on why he’s “going vegetarian.” One thing that always seems to happen when someone discusses their decision to become vegetarian is that people take umbrage–as thought they’re being personally attacked. Some of TNC’s commenters fall into this category.

One argument made there–and one that comes up with surprising frequency–is that vegetarians (and vegans) are being irresponsible by “dropping out” of the meat production system instead of working for change “from within.” One of TNC’s commenters writes:

I would argue that vegetarianism is in fact the easy way out: removing oneself from the problems of meat consumption and societal harm it causes doesn’t necessarily change anything–even on a personal level.

There are a few problems with this argument. First, it cuts both ways: if my going veggie doesn’t necessarily change anything (presumably because one person’s impact is too small), then how would my buying “ethical” meat change anything? Second, there’s nothing preventing vegetarians from working on a societal level to reform the practices and institutions of food production. (The Humane Society’s Wayne Pacelle is a good example: he’s a vegan who is ruthlessly pragmatic in working for factory farming reforms.) Third, I’m willing to bet that vegetarians are more likely, on average, to be involved with efforts to reform and find alternatives to our industrial food system than their meat-eating counterparts.

It’s also strange to suggest that it would be somehow bad to “remove oneself form the problems of meat consuption.” Would it be bad to remove oneself from the problems of clothes made in sweatshops or produce harevested by exploited workers if it were possible? And besides, surely no one is obliged to eat meat.

Ultimately the motive for ethical vegetarianism (and veganism) isn’t just to effect change in an obvious consequentialist sense. It’s an act rooted in a desire for integrity, of opting out of the products of an industry that is cruel and unjust. There is moral value in simply refusing to participate in some practices, even if others don’t follow suit, and even if doing so doesn’t bring those practices to a halt.

On weekday vegetarians, flexitarians, and other part-timers

A while back I wrote a post about the debate between vegetarians and “conscientious omnivores.” I proposed that this debate was largely irrelevant to the bigger problems that characterize the standard American diet:

[T]his is an extremely specialized debate among a very tiny segment of the population. The vast majority of the meat consumed in the U.S. (upwards of 90 percent) is factory-farmed and thus horrible for the environment by any objective measure.

The bottom line is that the standard, meat-heavy American diet and the industry that supplies it are bad for the environment, bad for human health, and absolutely require cruel treatment of billions of animals.

In a similar vein, Time has a new piece on “part-time” vegetarians, or flexitarians as they’re sometimes called. Although there aren’t many numbers in the article, it quotes Graham Hill, founder of the website TreeHugger, who is touting “weekday vegetarianism.” It also has supportive quotes from Peter Singer and PETA president Ingrid Newkirk.

While Singer and Newkirk both agree that part-time vegetarianism is less than ideal, they both support the idea of getting people to eat less meat, even if they’re not going to abstain completely.

This makes sense to me as a simple message, one that’s easy to grasp and implement. A lot of people are put off by the seemingly wholesale lifestyle change required to be a full-fledged vegetarian (much less a vegan). But committing to avoiding meat, say, one or two days a week, or two meals a day (a la Mark Bittman’s “vegan before dinnertime” idea), can be much less disruptive.

It’s also simpler than a commitment to eating only “humanely raised,” “grass-fed,” “free-range” or other boutique types of animal products. Not that I’d discourage anyone from doing that, but (1) as we’ve talked about before, these various labels can be pretty misleading and (2) these products tend to be expensive or not available to a lot of folks. All “weekday” (or other part-time) vegetarians have to do is make the choice not to eat meat at their next meal.

I’d add one other thing: sometimes people find that once they start cutting back on meat, or cut out certain categories of meat, they want to go all the way. In my case, it started with a commitment to give up pork after reading about the conditions that pigs are raised in. From there my abstinence gradually extended to beef, then chicken, fish, etc. I’ve also tried to cut back significantly on dairy and eggs, and my general rule of thumb is to eat at least two vegan meals a day. This gradual kind of process is probably more realistic for most people than a once-and-for-all decision to go veggie.