Saturday, February 02, 2008

Eating meat in the world

So, I am a little late commenting on this article from the New York Times, Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler, but I'd like to mention it none the less. I want to discuss it because I am a pot-smoking, hippy, vegetarian liberal. Actually, I am not all those things, but I am a vegetarian, so sometimes I get lumped into political movements in which I don't believe.

In general, I really enjoyed this article. The author presents ample evidence about the environmental impact of consuming meat, and for the most part doesn't use the accusatory tone often associated with PETA or their supporters. I am especially pleased that he doesn't start down the path of "animal rights," or cruelty, as it is such a nebulous and contentious notion that it is dismissed (as I think it ought to be) by most people who are generally sympathetic to notion of environmental degradation due to meat production.

I am also very much in favor of two of the solutions he submits, namely reduction of farm subsidies and better food technology. I don't agree with President Bush on many things, but I support very much his attempts (in the past, at least) to curb agricultural subsidies. These subsidies prevent consumers from seeing the true cost of their foods, and because of the massive lobbying groups supporting particular foods (I am talking to you, corn), situations develop where food is used in crazy and inefficient ways simply because the cost is artificially low (corn-based ethanol to reduce greenhouse gases? Ridiculous!) Though I am a democrat, I hope that a republican president has the will to cut these subsidies. Goodness knows the politicians from my state of Arkansas don't have the gumption. Growing food is something that the developing world, including South and Central America, do very well, and we should let them, and bring down trade tariffs to prevent their cheaper foods from being sold in our markets. The argument that in a crisis we need to be able to produce our own food doesn't quite hold water to me. In a crisis, we could stop eating a bit of the meat we eat and basically be flooded with the extra grain. I'm disappointed that Mike Huckabee has taken this stand in the presidential debates.

Secondly, the author mentions advancing food technology as an option, and I am proud that he does:
Longer term, it no longer seems lunacy to believe in the possibility of “meat without feet” — meat produced in vitro, by growing animal cells in a super-rich nutrient environment before being further manipulated into burgers and steaks.

I am proud the author mentioned this because for many of the hippy vegetarians who shop at the farmers market and whole foods, this is an option they find so distasteful as to be repugnant. However, it is a viable option, and we have continually manipulated nature in order to feed the growing population of humans (by domesticating cows, domesticating wheat, breeding chickens, etc.) It would be morally deficient of us to not develop technology that could help feed people because it doesn't sit right with us.

However, speaking specifically about moral decisions in food production and consumption, I am disappointed with the authors final paragraph:
In fact, Americans are already buying more environmentally friendly products, choosing more sustainably produced meat, eggs and dairy. The number of farmers’ markets has more than doubled in the last 10 years or so, and it has escaped no one’s notice that the organic food market is growing fast. These all represent products that are more expensive but of higher quality.

My problem with this paragraph is that there is an assumption that farmers market and organic food is better for the environment, when there is at least compelling evidence that organic food and farmer's markets are actually worse for the environment. There may be benefits of organic and farmers markets, such as less chemicals for sensitive consumers, but to say it is environmentally better is either nebulous or outright false. To the author's credit, though, he mentions that these specialty and more expensive options for meat hopefully will lead to less consumption, which, considering the epidemic of obesity in our country, would be over all a good thing.

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