This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
One of the most hilarious articles I've come across lately is by low-fat vegan diet promoter Dr. McDougall. It's titled The Paleo Diet Is Uncivilized (And Unhealthy and Untrue). Who the hell uses words like "uncivilized" these days? The whole time I was reading it, I imagined Dr. McDougall as a snobby British gentleman with a tophat and monocle, as well as a Richard Dawkins-like scowl, pontificating on the savages.
Part of the blame can be placed on Loren Cordain, who is the paleo diet paradigm that McDougall chooses to attack. You can tell that both are actually quite uncultured when it comes to food.
Dr. Cordain writes, “For most of us, the thought of eating organs is not only repulsive, but is also not practical as we simply do not have access to wild game.” (p 131). In addition to the usual beef, veal, pork, chicken, and fish, a Paleo follower is required to eat; alligator, bear, kangaroo, deer, rattlesnake, and wild boar are also on the menu. Mail-order suppliers for these wild animals are provided in his book.
More than half (55%) of a Paleo dieter’s food comes from lean meats, organ meats, fish, and seafood. (p 24) Eating wild animals is preferred, but grocery store-bought lean meat from cows, pigs, and chickens works, too. Bone marrow or brains of animals were both favorites of pre-civilization hunter-gathers. (p 27) For most of us the thought of eating bone marrow and brains is repulsive. But it gets worse.
Seriously what is wrong with these people and where do they live? Where I live in Chicago, there is LINE in the rain to eat at places that serve bone marrow and liver. The bone marrow at Au Cheval goes for around $20. In NYC, Montreal, San Francisco, London...any major city, these are common menu items. They are damn delicious and I refuse to take any dietary advice from people who clearly do not enjoy life. Although in my experience with such wretched diets, I eventually stopped desiring everything as I succumbed to being a catatonic libido-less appetite-less zombie.
Sorry, people in the centers of civilization are eating bone marrow, not disgusting veggie burgers or lean chicken breast and broccoli.
And does anyone else think it's hilarious that he says we should dismiss the paleolithic diet because there is some evidence for cannibalism and then says "Men and women following diets based on grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables have accomplished most of the great feats in history." His example? Genghis Khan. Yeah, because that guy never participated in bloodshed. Also we should refrain from eating any cuisines from cultures where people have resorted to cannibalism in hardship...which basically throws out almost all of them.
I'm all for starch, but like Genghis I'd love some butter on my potatoes.
But guess what? People like different things. They do well on different diets. I've met people who had success on McDougall's high-starch diets. But I guess it's hard to sell a dogma if you admit that.
Also this is a perfect example of how diet guru doctors are so manipulative. Even though McDougall is linking to sources, if you follow the trail, you will find many are not good sources. They are in scientific journals, but they are letters or commentary. Or they don't support his assertions.
A reader alerted me that the Nytimes has put up the finalists for the meat ethics contest I mentioned before. Foolishly, they are allowing the readers to vote on them (the tyranny of the enthusiatic internet community). And the one that's winning currently is hilariously bad.
My father was an ethical man. He had integrity, was honest and loathed needless cruelty. He was also a meat-eater’s meat-eater...His habit killed him in the end: the first sign of trouble came with gout, then colon cancer, heart problems and strokes, but he enjoyed meat for decades before all that "wretched bother" in a time when ethical issues were raised only by "a handful of Hindus and Grahamists."
Nevermind that those problems aren't even conclusively tied to meat and are common in even vegetarian regions of the world, but the solution they proposes is
In vitro meat is real meat, grown from real cow, chicken, pig and fish cells, all grown in culture without the mess and misery, without pigs frozen to the sides of metal transport trucks in winter and without intensive water use, massive manure lagoons that leach into streams or antibiotics that are sprayed onto and ingested by live animals and which can no longer fight ever-stronger, drug-resistant bacteria. It comes without E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella or other health problems that are unavoidable when meat comes from animals who defecate. It comes without the need for excuses. It is ethical meat. Aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, it is perhaps the only ethical meat.
Wait, so it's a really unhealthy substance that causes cancer, heart disease, strokes, and gout, so we should grow it in the lab? Sure it might not have "misery" or e. coli, but as they said, it's still meat. At least doctors like Campbell, Fuhrman, Ornish, etc. make sense when they say we should go meat-free, because they say that meat is bad for you and you just shouldn't eat it. I'd personally take lentils any day over lab-grown meat, considering that plain-protein grown in the lab is going to probably be as flavorless as textured vegetable protein (and will need additives in order to taste decent) and at least lentils have been bred for flavor. The inclusion of this essay makes the contest seem even more insincere than it already did.
While I've been acused of doing otherwise, I did not chose to become an omnivore again because of taste. In fact, I had no idea how to cook meat and it took me several years to really get into it and like it. I LOVE hummus, falafal, sambar, dal and all kinds of veggie dishes. I was always perfectly happy eating those things, but my stomach was a wreck all the time. I still love them and have to be careful when I do eat them. In NYC I maintained an expensive addiction to Organic Avenue's raw falafal, which at least didn't seem to cause the inflammation the conventional fried falafal seems to trigger for me.
Which essay is your favorite and why? What do you think of the contest so far? I liked the holistic ecological view of Sometimes It’s More Ethical to Eat Meat Than Vegetables. Of course mathematically, the likely winner is the vat-grown meat essay because it will get all the anti-real meat votes, whereas people without that agenda are likely to fragment amongst the somewhat similar other five.
The New York Times recently announced a contest to write an essay on why it's OK to eat meat. They made it clear that entries that engage in the naturalistic fallacy and a smattering of other silly common arguments would not be acceptable. Some people wrote me to ask if I would enter.
I will not. In order to argue that it is OK to eat meat from an ethical standpoint, you must establish philosophically that animals do not possess the right not to be eaten by humans. In 600 words. And to a panel of judges that is biased to say the least. This is a philosophical and ethical question, the the judges should be experts in those areas. Instead, you have Michael Pollan, who is a journalist, Jonathan Safran Foer, who is primarily a fiction author who wrote a popular non-fiction book about meat called Eating Animals that is anti-meat, Mark Bittman, who is a cookbook author who has branched out into frequently ill-informed food policy blogging. Mark Bittman eats meat, but it's clear he hates himself for it. Peter Singer IS a philosopher, but only represents utilitarianism, and certainly already has his mind made up about meat since he has been outspoken about this issue for many decades at this point. Andrew Light is of the pragmatist school from what I gather and seems ambivalent(pdf of a book on animals and pragmatism) on the issue. He is a pescatarian.
So you not only have a few totally unqualified people, but mainly people who already are biased on the issue. And those that are qualified do not represent the full spectrum of philosophical schools involved in this debate. So you have to convince mainly people who are already convinced...in 600 words. In many ways I am a masochist, but it's not that extreme.
Hey, at least i'm not complaining that the panel is stacked wrongly because of what's between the judge's legs like the vegan second wave feminists are. They are asking for people EVEN LESS qualified, just because they are women and vegan, like Kathy Freston, who writes unscientific garbage for the Huff Post.
Also, an addendum, if you are entering this contest, your most serious opponent is probably Peter Singer, who has been arguing about this for DECADES. I strongly recommend reading his works, particularly since he's written some books for a laymen audience, such as The Ethics of What We Eat. Peter Carruthers, another philospher, has a book online that opposes some of his most important ideas.
I've mentioned before the fact that you can get all your necessary animal-based nutrients from invertebrates like oysters. Why do people with ethical qualms about eating cows and pigs becomes vegans and forgo foods like oysters? Animal rights propaganda is full of stories about how invertebrates feel pain and are enslaved to make honey etc. etc. etc. Like this fine example of wingnuttery:
But it really doesn't matter anyway, does it? Vegans typically don't judge species based on their intelligence. If it were ok to eat someone because he's dumb, a lot of humans would be in trouble. It must be because bees can't feel pain. But why wouldn't bees feel pain? They are animals with a large nervous system (Snodgrass, 254) capable of transmitting pain signals. And unlike in the case of plants, pain as we know it would be a useful evolutionary feature since bees are capable of moving to avoid it. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is all that matters. Pain must be unpleasant or else it wouldn't work. If common sense isn't good enough, we can always resort to scientific studies that indicate that bees feel pain.
The next section is titled "The Enslavement of Bees."
Unfortunately for these folks, our entire crop-agricultural system is founded on growing food that invertebrates love as much as we do. Obviously letting them share in the bounty is infeasible, so we kill them with various pesticides. Take BT toxin, used in both organic and conventional agriculture:
When insects ingest toxin crystals, the alkaline pH of their digestive tract activates the toxin. Cry toxin gets inserted into the insect gut cell membrane, forming a pore. The pore results in cell lysis and eventual death of the insect.
Cell lysis...sounds like fun! My choice of pesticide last year was one based on soy oil, which coats the insect so it suffocates and is arguably the proper use of this noxious oil. In the end, what is the point of arguing about whether or not a bee feels pain when our agricultural system kills millions of insects with identical cognitive capacity every year? I suppose you could argue about intent, but intent doesn't particularly matter to insects when they are suffocating to death. It underscores the fact that veganism is a nonsensical ideology where people would rather consume synthetic supplements made in a factory than eat an oyster or some bee larvae.
In a recent post I discussed how the death of a vegan baby wasn't caused by veganism, but by a denialist myth that humans are naturally herbivores, so vegans don't need to supplement. I tallied up some of the documented cases of unsupplemented veganism harming or killing children. Now Rhys at Let Them Eat Meat has a great post on whether or not this case is really about veganism.
I wasn't aware until reading Rhys' post that our friend T. Colin Campbell, pseudoscience grandmaster, was a peddler of deadly vegan creationism:
I’ve asked myself why, if the health benefits of a plant-based diet are as comprehensive as contemporary research suggests - meaning that Nature did the packaging for us during our evolution and that a plant-based diet is our natural diet - then why did she leave out this one very important piece of the puzzle? Having paid attention to the research literature and having questioned clinicians who treat vegan patients, I’ve reached the following somewhat unorthodox conclusions and observations:
1. Contrary to the most recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines, B12 can be found in plants.
2. Organically grown plants contain higher levels of B12 than plants grown non-organically with chemical fertilizers.
3. Plant roots are able to absorb certain vitamins produced by soil microorganisms, thus suggesting that plants grown in healthy soil, full of microflora and microfauna, are more nutritious.
4. Vegans - and anyone else - should be able to obtain B12 by consuming organically grown produce.
There is some evidence that produce contaminated with feces contains b12, but NONE that shows that plant sources themselves contain bioavailable b12 (some forms of fungi and mushrooms contain b12 we can't absorb). If y'all want to start a business called Steve's Poo-Covered Natural B12 Potatoes, go ahead, but don't pretend that b12 deficiency isn't a real and serious thing for vegan children.
But vegans Looooove Colin. Imagine how many vegans might read that and chose not to supplement. Guess who suffers?
But Colin, why do you want us to be B12 deficient because of your stupid ideas?
Most of us know enough anthropology to know that the natural diet of our species in not herbivorous. The evidence for meat consumption goes back millions of years and our closest great ape cousins consume at least small amounts of meat. We also have digestive and other biochemical adaptations to meat consumption.
Unfortunately there are vegans who subscribe to what is really a form of creationism, a fictional evolutionary narrative in which humans are a peaceful herbivorous species. Proponents of this often cite "evidence" that is very poor and completely irrelevant, such as our lack of fangs (plenty of herbivores have fangs and many omnivores do not).
Other vegans recognize their diet as a modern diet for their modern philosophy. These people are willing to follow science and supplement to make up for the animal foods they are not consuming.
These folks need to be very critical of the woo vegans, because frankly woo veganism kills people and makes, This baby that died in France of b12 deficiency died of woo. I would never argue that veganism can ever provide optimal nutrients for childhood development and there is ample and growing body research to support this contention (DHA, Taurine, Carnitine, are known issues, what is unknown is more interesting…also the massive amounts of human variation which is why some children seem to do OK, but who knows how many IQ points have been lost?), but there is no reason to die from veganism. b12 supplements are widely available, though some people don't absorb them very well and may need injections. Vegans might also want to consider that the environmental impact of having children is definitely greater than that of eating a steak every day.
Paleo and real foodists also have to be aware of woo. There are plenty of people parroting ideas that have not only no evidence, but no plausible scientific basis in our side of the internet. I guess the main advantage we have is that we are usually not ideologically attached to our diets the way some vegans are. My doctor tells me my kid needs some corn? OK, we're having grits! My diet is about humans living well, not humans sacrificing themselves.
Remember the movie Independence Day? An awesome piece of campy b-movie sci-fi, but animal rights folks really remind me of the people on the roof of that building in New York with the "Welcome Aliens!" signs that subsequently get blown to smithereens.
In conclusion: I think veganism is suboptimal and anti-humanistic, but there is no reason to also be antiscientific and die for your cause, however foolish it might be. Just admit you are not a cud-chewing herbivore and take some freakin b12 and DHA supplements and stop making yourselves look stupid. Or how about eating just a few brainless oysters a week? Oh, sorry, that's against your religion even though oysters possess no thoughts, feelings, or nerves.
A few other woo victims (strict vegetarianism =vegan):
Earlier on Twitter I circulated an interesting recent paper a commenter pointed me to- Hypogonadism and erectile dysfunction associated with soy product consumption. The paper documents the case of a 19 year old who had type 1 diabetes, but no other health problems. After starting a vegan diet he experienced alarming erectile dysfunction and general loss of libido. Upon examination, low testosterone levels were found. When asked about his habits, he revealed that he had recently switched to a vegan diet: "This diet included a large amount of soy products equalling 360 mg of isoflavones per day. The diet consisted of soy milk, soy cookies (soy crisps), tofu, soy sauce, soy nuts, and soybeans (edamame)." He quit the vegan diet, but it took almost a year for his testosterone levels to normalize (and the normal line should be higher for a young man).
It's funny because professional soy shill (he works for the Soy Board) and (not coincidentally) animal rights activist Mark Messinahas written many articles that male vegan friends of mine have showed me about how soy doesn't feminize men. He even published a review on it in which he concludes "Thus, men can feel confident that making soy a part of their diet will not compromise their virility or reproductive health." This despite the infancy of the science. For example, look at how long these studies are:
And how much soy? For whom? Are their genetic differences in processing isoflavones? Hmm. I can't say that soy is always an issue for men, but like any plant food, it can have powerful hormonal effects that people should be aware of. On the other side of the spectrum is a man who used phytoestrogens to improve his sperm quality and was able get his wife pregnant.
One thing that struck me about the list of foods from the young man is that they are all the processed dreck that Messina and his Soy Board shills want to sell us. They are hyperpalatable and my experience with them is that they are very easy to overeat. I remember buying a box of Tofutti Cuties and eating them all in a single night...
I am not one of those folks who doesn't ever eat soy. I enjoy miso and soy sauce when I eat Japanese food. Like most traditional soy foods, they are very strong and it's hard to eat too much of them. When I was at ag school in Illinois, I had a class that was a series of seminars. One of them was a visit to the food science lab sponsored by the Soy Board. In that lab the lead scientist talked about how they were removing (or overpowering) the natural bitter flavors in soy to make tastier soy foods! Hmm. That bitter taste is what keeps us from eating too much plant poison. I feel bad for vegans who care more about their health than about soy farmers, because the reality is that you CAN do a vegan diet with reasonable levels of soy or no soy at all.
In other news, my spell checker wants to correct edamame into "damned."
Vegans: many of them are smug self-satisfied jerks who believe they know everything about economics, nutrition, and environmental science. Even though experts in those fields realize we are just at the tip of the iceburg in our human knowledge. Yes, vegans, particularly on the internet, know their diet is sooo healthy and no one could possibly not do well on it and it saves cute puppies and you are a murderer if you eat bacon blah blah blah.
So you can tell I have no love lost for these folks. And when I saw this article title I got excited Being vegan could put heart health at risk: study. Then I realized there is a group of people who are even more insufferable: science reporters. Really, almost all of them suck and are a testament to our over-saturated journalism schools. As my brilliant science journalism professor once said "If you want to be a good science reporter, get a SCIENCE degree."
So this isn't even a study. It's a boring review paper with lots of chemistry that obviously gave the reporter a headache.
OMG IT'S SCIENCE AHHHHHHH
It's called Chemistry behind Vegetarianism
by Duo Li from Zhejiang University and it's in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Oh yeah, it's not about vegans either. It's mostly about vegetarians, which isn't surprising since only mainly a of people are vegan in the world and there are probably less than 100 studies on these mostly-smug folks.
And right at the beginning it says "Omnivores have a significantly higher cluster of cardiovascular risk factors compared with vegetarians." In the paper it postulates some reasons why a vegetarian might have a heart attack, mainly having to do with imbalance of omega-3 to omega-6 ratio and the ineffectiveness of vegan forms of omega-3 in foods (ALA is in vegan foods, but vegans can buy DHA supplements made from algae, who are not as cute as puppies). Only stupid vegans in fantasy raw vegan land think it's OK to be an unsupplemented vegan and this paper drives that point home.
The homocysteine and platelet stuff may have to do with the omega imbalances in vegetarians.
Collagen- and adenosine-50-diphosphate (ADP)-stimulated ex vivo whole blood platelet aggregation were significantly higher in both vegetarian and vegan groups than in both high- and moderate-meat-eater groups. The vegan group had a significantly higher mean platelet volume(MPV) than the high- andmoderatemeat-
eater and ovo-lacto vegetarian groups (35). Increased MPV in vegans suggests the presence of larger, activated platelets. Evidence from case control studies has indicated that an increased MPV is an independent risk factor for acute myocardial infarction (MI) (39) and for acute and/or nonacute cerebral ischemia (40).
That's an interesting study referenced and speaks to the fact that not all aspects of vegans have been studied. There are also no life-long multi-generational vegans. As science uncovers facts about how what your grandparents and parents ate affected you, this seems like a big blind spot.
It's interesting to compare Meat : A Benign Extravagance to the Vegetarian Myth. On the surface both challange animal rights dogma, but Meat is primarily a book about economics and is far more rigorous than the Vegetarian Myth. Unfortunately one thing they have in common is that both authors adhere to philosophies that I would deem somewhat noxious to put it lightly, though Fairlie's in a bit benign.
Behind both of their philosophies is the idea that somehow humans are bad for the planet (some even call us an "invasive species"). Our pleasures are irrelevant, we are a scourge upon the goodness of nature. I first heard about Keith from a lecture given by her good friend Derrick Jensen, a misguided character who would welcome a new Black Death and advocates violence as a way to solve environmental injustice. Her association with that movement is unfortunate. Luckily Fairlie is more an acolyte of a secular form of neo-puritanism advocating the idea that we should live very simply, perhaps similar to 15th century European peasants, spurning "luxuries" and only having a few "extravagances."
But what are luxuries and what is extravagant? One lesson I've learned from studying paleolithic cultures is that humans don't really need very much. Bushmen get along quite well without houses or possessions of any kind. This family in Chad gets by with a tent, a few animals, and meager rations of gruel. Most vegans spurning meat as an arrogant luxury go home to well-lit artificially heated apartments. Why are those OK? I don't know. The whole thing seems arbitrary.
Even a ecoconscious vegan's life in the US seems extravagant compared to this family in Chad. This is their food for an entire WEEK. Their housing and clothing are very simple too.The OED says one of the meanings of extravagant is " 7. Exceeding the bounds of economy or necessity in expenditure, mode of living, etc.; profuse, prodigal, wasteful." The word comes from "medieval Latin extrāvagāt- participial stem of extrāvagārī (or extrā vagārī) to wander, stray outside limits, < extrā outside + vagārī to wander. "
So from the outset, by calling meat extravagant, we establish Fairlie as a complex character. We won't find him at either an animal rights ralley or the local Argentine steakhouse. He's kind of like an old school hippie.
It's funny because in the end people calling things luxuries are often the most arrogant. Last week I had a conversation with a vegan on a blog about The Heifer Project, which provides families in developing countries with livestock. Vegan dude was angry because Heifer sponsored a study that seemed to show that children fed animal products in developing countries did better. According to him "let them eat tofu!" Well, if folks want to chose a bicycle tofu press over a goat, that's find by me. But I suspect they won't. But that's not the point of vegan dude's views. Vegan dude thinks he knows what's best for everyone. I don't know what's best for everyone, though I suspect that goat milk is better for children than tofu. So in the end I think it should be up to people in Sudan to make that choice for themselves. Too bad the world is full of people who want to make choices for other people.
When I was a child my little sister and I sometimes fought bitterly. One day we were fighting over some candy and my mother was so frustrated that she said "Well, if you children can't share it equally, none of you can have it at all!" Besides the obvious lesson here that children who are given candy are liable to behave badly, this reminds me of some common positions in environmental debates. Namely that (insert food or agricultural practice) is bad because it can't feed the world. Sure, feeding the world is an admirable goal, but isn't it a little silly to assume that there is one system that will feed the world perfectly?
And yet,this is taken very seriously in environmental debates. I hear again and again how terrible organic is because it can't feed the world. Or how terrible meat is because of the same. It almost becomes nauseating. Hasn't macroeconmic reductivism caused enough problems in our world?
Meat tries to answer some questions about whether or not meat is inefficient, but in the end you end up with what most of us localists already knew: different production systems are appropriate for different places. There is no one magical system that's going to work everywhere. People should be free to chose the system that works for their own land.
With that, it's still interesting to inject some numbers into the debate. Agricultural production is more complex than people would give it credit for being.
Some animal rights environmentalists would have us think that when you raise livestock you are taking food that humans could eat and wasting it on animals, who convert feed to meat/dairy/eggs inefficiently.
If you've ever had pets, you might notice that animals will eat things that we won't. In the old days of small farms animals served primarily as a way to inedible things into food. Cows can eat fibrous waste products and forage on land impossible to till. Pigs can eat well…pretty much anything (haven't you seen Snatch? *spoiler you can feed humans to pigs!*, wild boars are omnivores). Chickens can eat kitchen scraps.
Some of the waste resources animals can turn into food include
1. spoiled food
2. byproducts from milling, oil pressing, slaughterhouses
3. foods that humans spurn (bruised apples)
Animals turn these things into meat, milk, eggs, and manure. Fairlie calls this level of animal production, that which is a byproduct of plant production rather than as a primary product, "default livestock." I would personally quibble with that, as it reflects an agrocentric view of things that ignores nomadic pastoralism as a potentially ecological livelihood in certain situations.
Vegans sometimes call milk "liquid veal" since veal production is an inevitable part of milk production (though through science this might be eliminated in a future through cheap sex selection). Turns out that with that logic, most vegetable oil is liquid meat! The meal left over from vegetable oil processing is a highly profitable part of that industry because of its value as feed.
One of the things livestock provide is fertilizer from manure. Of course veganic (livestock completely without domestic animals) proponents could argue that some of the waste we are talking about could be composted and turned into fertilizer that way. Fairlie examines some current veganic farms and it turns out some of them do quite well, but others don't. As always, it seems that the ideal system varies from land to land.
The idea that land taken out of production by switching to more efficient food systems would be used as habitat never made sense to me. What are the odds that a farmer who needs less land will let the excess go feral? Odds are that it will be sold and turned into a mall or subdivision, which is what has happened with increased agricultural efficiency in most of the US.
Of course Fairlie and most animal rights folks aren't too concerned with that because they are usually advocates of governmental inventions. Which is ironic since Fairlie discusses quite extensively the havoc created by regulatory capture (when industries lobby for laws that benefit mainly them) and misguided policies. One of the most hilarious is the USDA law that hamburger can't be cut with pork fat. Pigs produce tons of excess fat, whereas grassfed cows don't. Why not make some appetizing burgers using both? The fact it's illegal has created demand for fattier feedlot cattle.
Other more insidious laws are those in response to animal and human diseases. Mismanagement of animal waste has led to several food poisoning outbreaks, such as the spinach e. coli debacle. Laws created in response have discouraged manure as fertilizer and the presence of animals on vegetable farms, which is a shame since properly managed animal manure is an asset.
Without this, one much purchase synthetic fertilizer or set aside large amounts of land to grow green fertilizer.
Some other problematic regulations were created in response to mad cow disease, which banned the feeding of slaughterhouse wastes to livestock. This is unfortunate because slaughterhouse wastes are perfectly appropriate for pigs, who are natural omnivores. Fairlie says this is a result of the "nanny state" but seems to call for regulations when they fit his ideology, which is a shame.
Because of such regulations manure and inedible animal parts have become a liability rather than an asset, though the livestock industry is still remarkably efficient.
The best parts of this section are those in which he dissects numbers thrown around by various animal rights ideologues. In my opinion those numbers are nothing but veils on a philosophy that's at its core about reworking our system of morals to turn them against humans, but either way most of them are wrong. The most amusing one is the idea that one kg of beef requires 100,000 liters of water to produce. Turns out that number is a bit of accounting gymnastics that would make any product seem inefficient, because it takes into account ever scrap of precipitation that falls upon the area of land a cow might occupy. Hmmm. Guess someone didn't learn about opportunity cost. The rain that falls on grassland isn't going to be collected and sent to people suffering from droughts in Africa in the absence of cattle.
This book is enormously dense and I feel like I haven't done this section enough justice despite having written quite a bit. I'd love to take questions from other readers. Please post in the comments or at our facebook group.
Wil asks "Fairlie talks about default/sustainable production and calculates an individual's "fair share" of total world meat production. Is it unethical to eat more than this "fair share"? Can you justify eating more than your "fair share"? How does population growth play into the equation? Are we obligated to help feed the world? Are we obligated to slow/halt population growth?"
In my opinion population growth is another localized issue. The book The Coming Population Crash is one of the few that treats it rationally and not as if humans are a terrible scourge upon the Earth. The truth is that some countries have more people than is optimal and others have less at this point in our history. Barring total immigration reform, this makes population issues fairly local.
As for the areas that may have optimally high populations, we have a well-accepted model called the demographic transition that posits that during development populations growth increases, but then decreases as having lots of children is increasing dis-incentivized. Women reading this from the comfort of first world countries will understand this quite well. How many of us can afford to have five children?
It also seems odd for an advocate of local food to calculate a fair share based on global factors. Unless you are a radical communist that believes everything should be equally distributed, it makes more sense to focus on valuing externalities properly to make the price of meat reflect its true toll on the environment and then allow people to make purchasing decisions based on their own desires. Let's say Fairlie is in charge of policy and decides to give me a meat quota for the month. I still have the same income. I might make even more unsustainable purchasing decisions in that case, like using the money I used to use to purchase grassfed meat on pretty dresses.
A major problem I just mentioned is improper pricing of meat because of subsidies and other distortions caused by the fact that we assign no value to many natural systems. It shouldn't be free to dump waste in an ocean you don't own.
Discussion questions from me:
1. What does extravagant mean? What do you think Fairlie means by it? What does it mean to you? What foods do you consider extravagant?
2. Should we use policies and regulations to reduce meat consumption to a default level? Do you agree with Fairlie's definition of default?
3. At what point are regulations part of a "nanny state?"
More blog posts:
People often ask me why I'm still so rankled by veganism despite having given it up long ago. Unfortunately it's not veganism that gets me fired up, but more troubling political issues at the animal rights heart of the vegan movement. Not long after I stopped being vegan, I got involved with agriculture. I saw the makings of a cold war between the locavores and the animal rights groups and became troubled by it. Animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States and PETA pull in substantial amounts of donations and therefore exert some political clout. They get these donations by pretending to go after factory farms, but in reality small farms are also in the crosshairs. They don't admit this much and publicly don't want to admit it because the general public tends to be sympathetic to small farms.
This year, a history professor, James McWilliams, came out with an anti-locavore book called Just Food. Laughably, I saw some "conservative" outlets endorse the book, probably because of the anti-elite sentiment so tragically beloved by Palinites and their ilk. They probably didn't read it, since the ultimate point of that book is that locavores are stupid because really it's not Chilean strawberries, but meat, that is at the root of all problems. Despite not being an economist*, McWilliams frames his arguments as being all about economic rationality. But I saw right through it from the beginning and it's quite obvious from his recent animal rights posts at the Atlantic that his real beef with locavores is their use of animals. Notice that's not on the jacket of his book.
Can one be locavore and disavow all use of domestic animals? Yes, there are a few small farms practicing veganic agriculture (it's telling that one of this method's main advocates has written a book now called Meat: A Benign Extravagance), but they are few and far between. Because they are so unusual, there is little data on how productive they actually are. Much of the fertilizer used on farms comes from animals and if you want low-impact pest control, hunting is a good way to do it. Not to mention the dietary challenge of being vegan and local in very cold climates.
Animal rights groups also rely on videos of cruelty on farms to win converts. These become less effective on people who have actually been to farms. Animal rights groups rely on people being disconnected from farming and from agrarian traditions. But unfortunately for them, these are being revived. Things have been coming to a head recently with animal rights groups attacking backyard chicken-keepers and DIY turkey slaughter. I love it when people show their true colors— that it's not Smithfield farms they are after, but all farms that use animals**. Often the strategy is to divert: when you talk about soy, parrot back that most soy goes into livestock feed. It isn't until activists are cornered that they admit their true agenda, which is to eliminate all domesticated animal use from lab rats to riding horses to pet dogs to the turkey on your table.
It scares me because I feel that agrarian traditions are beset on both sides by conservatives*** who want their right to munch on their McTroglodyte burgers without worrying about what that means and the leftist movement to make such traditions difficult/illegal, either intentionally in the case of animal-rights activists or unintentionally in the case of the average land-alienated urban liberal.
Why should we care? In my view it's because every good farm is so valuable in preserving the health of humans, animals, and the land holistically. What does it take to make people understand this?
I've been interested in following the reaction towards A Vegan No More, a post by a woman who left veganism for health reasons:
While my original choice to be a vegan stemmed from the always noble impulse to do the right thing and be as compassionate as possible, it was a mistake and a choice I should never have made. If I had done my research and actually asked the hard questions from the beginning instead of letting the graphic images of factory farms guide me, I would have saved myself 3 years of misguided efforts as well as the deterioration of my physical and emotional health.
What can we do to prevent this? I think engaging people in producing food is the answer. It's a real threat for animal rightists and they know it.
Danish backyard chickens
*nearly every Animal Rightist on the internet fancies themselves an agricultural economist and parrots the simplistic and de-localized idea that animal agriculture is inefficient.
**This isn't to omit the outright terrorism that animal rightists inflict on scientists
*** I shudder to use that word to describe people who obviously care very little for conserving anything