Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Times' Latest Myth

My husband pointed out that the Times had developed a habit as of late of publishing articles that seemed carefully orchestrated to piss off broad swaths of their readers (remember that "Yoga Will Effing Kill You!" one a while back?) So, maybe they know what they're publishing is inflammatory and misleading...or maybe the Times just sucks...anyway, an article popped up on the husband's facebook feed, and we couldn't resist giving it a once-over:

"The Myth of Sustainable Meat"

I don't think we made it past the first paragraphs before we starting pointing out issues with the premises offered. This is the second time the Times has written an article about the movement to fix our food systems that has pissed me off. The first time the article was about how shopping at Farmer's Market is an elitist hipster hobby. You can bet the author received a strongly worded letter from a particular yoga instructor who has shopped at the Farmer's Market for years, including for the six months we survived on food stamps. The first time a letter to the author was enough to make me feel better, but alas, that is not to be this time. I need to do my part to right this shameful take a minute. Open another tab, and google the article, or click the link below. Maybe even read over it once on your own, then scroll down, where I'll be dismantling it paragraph by paragraph. You'll have to bear with me: separating fact from exaggeration, and out and out fiction, takes some time and careful explanation.

Paragraph 1: I must have been exaggerating earlier; I agree with this paragraph wholeheartedly!

Paragraph 2: Problem Number One. An animal product labeled "free-range" or "cage-free" was almost 100% definitely not produced on a small, or organic farm. If it also has an "organic" label, then yes, it was produced on an organic farm. A huge, industrial, organic farm. The only way to know your meat is coming from a place that respects the animals and treats them humanely is to know the farmer, and ideally, visit the farm. All "free-range" means, legally, is that those chicken live in a huge, dark hen house, packed in at absurd volumes, and at one end is a small door that leads out to a pasture that is opened so infrequently, the chickens never figure out they can use it. "Cafe-free" means there's no door. If the chicken is not organic, the chickens also are given loads of antibiotics, and are fed cow blood that may or may not have mad cow disease, along with grains grown with lots and lots of pesticides and fertilizers. Did I mention mad cow disease can incubate in humans for years, but once infected, the mortality rate is 100%?

Paragraph 3: At this point, it's hard to say what he's accusing of being a poor substitute for industrial farming: large-scale, corner-cutting, customer-deceiving industrial farms doing just enough to put a friendlier label on their product? Or actually small, organic, sustainable, humane farms?

Paragraph 4: And now we really get into it! Seriously? Cows? Cows are causing global warming? And chickens of course, damn those pastured chickens! We should drive over them with one of the multiple cars most families have these days! Make it a hummer!!

Alright, alright, it's easy to scoff, but the fact is: livestock are responsible for 18% of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming: more than the whole transportation sector. Cows produce a whole lot of methane (hey, if all you ate was grass or grains, you'd fart a lot, too!) and methane is over 20 times more warming than carbon dioxide. Holy shit (holy cow?)! Could he be right? Should we get rid of the cows?? Here's the thing: their farts aren't causing all those greenhouse gases. Big problems with cows include: deforestation to make more room for cattle to be raised, land being taken up growing corn and soy for cows to eat, and the production of fertilizers and pesticides for those fields where the cows' unnatural food source comes from, and the simple fact that at our current beef-eating rates, the methane farts alone are a legitimate global warming issue that will get much much worse in the coming years assuming trends continue unabated.

Well, I can't dispute his figure on how much land it takes to pasture a cow. I do know that A.) When cows are grazed in a small area of their whole range at a time via portable electric fencing, they eat all the grass there is and not just the stuff that's their favorite, and are kept from trampling or chomping the rest of the pasture while it recovers, and they don't have a chance to eat the grass down to the ground, meaning it recovers faster. The overall effect is that the cows need less land, and B.) Us sustainable meat eaters aren't eating anywhere near the quantity of meat the average American is right now, let alone an average that would match the figure that's projected as more people have enough money to eat more beef in the coming years. The amount of meat we eat right now isn't sustainable under any system. We need to cut way, way back, instead of ramping way way up. No one with any sense is saying otherwise. That makes this a straw man argument.

And grazing cattle in the rainforest? What moron thought that was a good idea? That land is not grassland. It's fecking jungle. Of course it can't properly support grazing cattle! You clear cut it, you put cattle there, oops, the land is destroyed and won't feed your cattle for long, so you repeat...instead of, oh, I don't know, crazy locavore idea...CULTIVATING THINGS THAT GROW IN THE FECKING RAINFOREST!!! How about fair-trade, shade-grown, organic coffee? You'll get more for that per pound than beef, I'd wager. I realize this stupid industry is built on the backs of people who are starving, who aren't educated in the damage this technique is doing, and who live in poverty and just want to feed their families. So, instead of exploiting them, why are we not teaching them how to make a living off of the land they live on?

Here's the thing: livestock used responsibly, so to speak, is beautiful alchemy: you have, for example, an uncultivated field of very rocky or sandy or clay soil, or maybe it's a series of steep slopes. You could plow it up and grow plants here, but it would be very difficult, and wouldn't make a lot of sense. You can't eat grass! Your friend the cow can! Put him and his friends on this field, and watch them turn something worthless to you into incredibly nutritious beef and milk products! And, if the cows are grazed rotationally as explained earlier, you can actually get more biomass out of that land by grazing cows on it than you can by growing corn on it! AND, since we can't eat grass, the cows are basically converting solar energy to food energy for us. Magic! Goats, sheep, and chickens all do the same thing, and we should more of these creatures and less cows because a monoculture is harmful 100% of the time, but cows can still be a part of the picture. And, they all also produce fertilizer! Collect cowpies on a sunny afternoon, and you can fertilize your fields of plants without any nasty artificial fertilizers. You'll need a field or two to grow supplemental food for your herd when foul whether comes, true, but the cows are making the fertilizer for that field for you. This is miles away from the horrendous foolishness that is our industrial beef industry. On a reasonable scale, it CAN be done sustainably, and guess what? If it's NOT done at all, all our fertilizers have to be the fake, scary chemical kind made in a greenhouse-gas-producing factory.

Paragraph 5: Since he's talking about the breeds designed to fatten up to an absurd size absurdly quickly, he may be back to talking about the industrial "free-range" farms I explained early. Again, know your farmer. Ask your farmer what breeds of chicken he's farming, and if the answer is a breed that can't properly fend for itself on pasture, I would suggest not buying it. When I buy a roaster at the farmer's market, it weighs four pounds or less. Because it's a fecking bird, not a genetically engineered people-obeser. Ask your farmer how he handles the issue of pigs rooting. Ask him why some farmers use nose rings, and what impact that has on the animals. If what we see as 'natural' is not 'natural' to the animal, guess who has to change their definition? Hint: the species that is capable of logging onto the internet and reading this.

Paragraph 6: Yes folks, that's right. Humanely raised animals cost substantially more to bring to market than do their tortured counterparts. This means sustainable meat is substantially more expensive. This is one of the reasons that sustainable meat eaters don't hesitate to eat rice and beans, eggs, tofu, etc. instead of meat, more often than not. That's a healthier lifestyle for the people, and a healthier lifestyle for the planet. This man seems to be arguing against the stance that we can continue to eat the same quantities of meat we're eating now as long as the package says 'organic' and 'free-range', or that meat comes from small, sustainable, humane farms. That stance is not actually held by anyone who is informed on this issue. As previously mentioned, that's the definition of a straw man argument.

Regulations would have to be in place of course, to keep companies from cutting corners for profits (that's what got us into this mess in the first place), but the most important thing is just informing people of why sustainable meat is worth the money; why it's the only meat anyone should ever be eating, for their own health as well as for the animals and the planet, and why they need to keep their meat eating within reason, even if they can afford to eat more meat. Once that becomes common knowledge, the only regulations necessary will be to require transparency, so customers can know what they are buying. The system can be set up to favor smaller farms as well, instead of the current one that favors gargantuan enterprises that aren't good for anybody except the guy sitting in his office at the top.

Paragraph 7: Yes, thank you. It's called the circle of life.

Paragraph 8: I would like to know, first of all, what he means by 'economic necessity'. Does he mean, if he doesn't give his chickens supplemental feed, he'll have to raise the price on his chickens more? I'll bet people who care will pay it. But let's say that for whatever reason, it just is not reasonable to raise chickens on only pasture. After all, chickens can't find a whole lot to eat in January in New York. Is there a reason the farmer can't grow organic corn and soy for his birds? Or buy organic corn and soy from a fellow farmer locally? Not only are the nutrients then not coming from an industrial source, but they are staying, in a broad sense, within the system. Maybe the buyer of the corn and soy can offer some chicken manure in return! Chicken manure is very high-nitrogen, and can actually burn plants instead of feeding them, so that may not actually be a good idea; it's just a thought.

Paragraph 9: We all know that bears, wolves, coyotes, hawks, owls, etc., carefully watch their prey, choosing to eat only those who have already enjoyed a long, full, manure-producing life. It's true that predators eat what they can catch, and the old and the sick are frequently on that list, but so are the very young. We live in a symbiotic relationship with our farmed animals: we protect them from all of their usual predators, we ensure they have food, shelter, and the opportunity to propagate the species. In return, we are their predator. Please explain to me how this is not natural. Would it be better if I got down on all fours and galloped after the chicken, snatching it in my teeth and swinging it around as it squawks in terror? It is true that our waste does not go back into that closed system. I think that's a level of falling short of naturalism we can all happily tolerate. There are sustainable farms that let the animal carcases rot and use that resource as compost. That is, in fact, an option.

Paragraph 10: Straw man argument number two. Apparently this paragraph is only here to undercut his own view and point out just how crucial natural fertilizer is.

Paragraph 11: I love how he doesn't come out and SAY he thinks we all need to be vegans, he just suggests that he's proven any other opinion to be unconscionable. Which is patently untrue. Veganism, on a global scale, is so impractical as to boggle the mind. We would lose far more wilderness than we are willing to tolerate in the quest to cultivate enough land to grow enough plant-based food for all, and there are places where growing enough rice and beans to feed a population would be an ecological disaster because there just isn't enough rainfall for more than tough shrubs and grasses and small, irrigated backyard gardens. Ruminants can turn those tough shrubs and grasses into the nutrition so desperately needed. And perhaps you'll recall the issue of fertilizer. Also, without artificial vitamin B12 shots, vegans will run out of that vitamin after about ten years, and will suffer irreparable brain and heart damage. That said, we are in a transitional phase where vegetarians and vegans are crucial because they help to cancel out the people eating way, way too much meat. Go give one a hug! Then talk to him or her about vitamin B12...

So, thank you, James E McWilliams, and the New York Times, for spreading misinformation, and hurting the sustainable food movement. I've done the hard part. Why don't you write this gentleman an enlightening letter? And go buy some delicious, sustainable beef from your Farmer's Market. Don't forget to ask your farmers questions about how they raise their animals and why! Beef is good, but so is chicken, turkey, duck, rabbit, goat, pork, sheep, ostrich...

Live Omily,


  1. I'm a vegan for ethical reasons, but this just sounds so wrong:

    "We would lose far more wilderness than we are willing to tolerate in the quest to cultivate enough land to grow enough plant-based food for all"

    Do you have a source on this? This goes against everything I've ever read about switching from an omnivorous to a plant based diet.

    According to this release, in the US we already grow enough grain to feed everyone in the country almost three times over - it's just that we're just feeding most of it to livestock.

  2. Thank you for tearing this article to shreds!! :) There were so many points that urked me, and you drew them all out so well here. xo style, she wrote

  3. Thanks for reading critically, Chris! I have to do more research to answer your question thoroughly, but the short answer is (no, it’s not short, I’m sorry!), I'm talking globally; not nationally. The U.S. just happens to be a great place for growing food. We have huge land areas that have rich topsoil, and get lots of rainfall. (That's why Napoleon bought that land up in the first place; he wanted to feed all of France with it!) We're lucky in that regard, and somewhat unusual.

    World-wide, we're farming (growing food plants) on about 11% of land. I've been trying to find a percentage of land that we could be farming on and are not, but haven't been able to find that number yet. Basically, it takes a particular kind of land, and a particular climate, to support the large-scale growth of plants. On the other hand, conditions have to be super-harsh before food animals can't live and grow to harvesting-size on that same un-farmable land. Is there enough plant-farmable land on the planet to feed the whole population? Perhaps, but it’s not well-distributed. We’d have to fly and truck it all over to get it to the people who need it, and that’s not a logical or sustainable system.

    It's irresponsible to suggest that because we in the U.S. can grow enough vegan food choices in one area of the country, and can afford to waste non-renewable resources (and don't mind the pollution created by the process) trucking those foods to the areas of the country that can't grow enough vegan foodstuffs, the whole world would be better off being vegan.

    Look at Africa, for example. For them to grow beans, rice, etc., would require a lot of habitat destruction. The jungle is not so good for growing this stuff, and neither is the Sahara. Do we want to take more habitat away from endangered species, or do we want to graze (local) ruminants on that land and let it stay as it is? Do we want to put in lots of roads to ship vegan food choices deep into the jungle, etc?

    Even areas of the U.S., such as Apalachia, aren't so good for growing food crops: the terrain is really steep, and tilling it with a tractor sends topsoil eroding down the slopes at an alarming rate. On the other hand, meat animals can turn what grows there naturally into nutrition, without damaging or negatively impacting the landscape in any way, assuming the animals are pastured responsibly. The people of Appalachia can totally truck in tofu, beans, etc. from California, but again, that choice has its own very harmful consequences.

    I want to reiterate that people who choose a vegan and vegetarian lifestyle, whatever their reasons may be, are doing a positive thing for our planet, because its reducing the overall quantity of meat being eaten by humans, which needs to happen desperately. I do stand behind my argument however, that you can't extrapolate that fact to mean that the whole world would be better off if everyone was vegan. I don't think that's even possible, and if it is remotely, it's certainly not practical, or sacrifice-free.


  4. P.S. A lot of my sustainable-eating info comes from one book:

    Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

    Everyone who eats needs to read this book. Michael Pollan's books and articles are another great source.