Monday, November 23, 2009

Maybe not a battle...

Military metaphors are all the vogue, and the hard-pressed animal agriculture sector is frequently described in terms like "attacks", and "offensive".  While the debates being carried on in such terms may seem useful to "rally troops", the whole symbology could be misleading and counter-productive.

To be sure there is heated rhetoric, but name one arena of public contention that does not deploy over-the-top language to gain a few meager moments of public awareness?  This is a one-way emotional street, as well, with real mental and political difficulties to reverse.

But regardless of the individual arguments over meat consumption, biodiversity, healthy diets, animal care, global warming, or rural economic and social structure, I think a slowly merging flow can be detected.  More importantly, assessing the overall direction of these singular struggles may be the key for producers to planning well in this century.

I think I see a change in the nature of the discourse, at least at some levels. Notes of realism and compromise are popping up is diverse places. For example, Urban Lehner's typically thoughtful take has some powerful similarities with one of the economic blogging universe's superstars, Tyler Cowen.  First Lehner:

Problem is, even if the industry's right, these arguments may not win battles. Voters hear so many confusing and contradictory claims in the name of science that it's lost some of its power to persuade. If science says cages aren't cruel but voters see photos and film footage that make them squirm, my guess is they're going to believe their own eyes.
As for veganism, the question before the voters won't be whether to declare meat eating illegal; it will be whether the meat and eggs they eat should come from animals raised in cages and crates. Tell a carnivore that activists want to ban meat eating someday, and she'll tell you she'll vote no when that day arrives.
This is not something hog and poultry raisers want to hear, especially when many of them are bleeding red ink. It would be easier to win the battle if the science was conclusive and uncontradicted. It isn't. It would be easier to win the battle if it was over veganism -- and someday it might be. But today it's over cages.
To win the battles immediately ahead, the industry needs better arguments. It can offer halfway measures, like bigger, less-confining cages. The new Ohio board might do that. It can make clear how much more consumers will pay for meat and eggs if cages and crates are outlawed. It can point out that pricier cage-free eggs, free-range chicken and heritage pork are available, so if consumers feel strongly about farm-animal practices they can vote with their wallets.

In the end, the industry must somehow persuade voters animals aren't suffering. Otherwise, Ohio could end up being a melancholy victory -- or perhaps one of the industry's few victories, period. [More]

This well reasoned observation hardly fits with calls to arms by other livestock proponents. More importantly to me is the tone, which has been missing too long in the ag media, I think: grownup-to-grownup.

At the same time, Cowen - hardly a Pollanesque crusader - offers a similar logical approach.

Speaking of animal products, a few of you asked me a while ago how the eating of animals could possibly be morally justified.  My primary objection is to how we treat animals while they are alive, especially in factory farms.  The very rise and continuing existence of humanity is based on the widespread slaughter and extinction of other large mammals, not to mention other animals as well.  I'm not saying we should feel entirely comfortable with that, but rather a "non-aggression" stance toward other animals simply isn't possible, short of repudiating all of human civilization, even in its more primitive versions.  Everyone favors the murder of animals for human purposes, although different people draw the lines at different places.  I don't know of any good foundationalist approach to these issues, but at the very least we should be nicer to non-human animals at the margin and less willing to torture them.
At the policy level we should tax meat more heavily and regulate farms more strictly, for both environmental reasons and reasons of animal welfare.  I draw a line at where the life of the animal is "not worth living," but for me animal slaughter is not immoral per se
There are a few things you can do personally, including:
1. Buy less from factory farms.
2. Eat better meat and in turn eat less meat, substituting quality for quantity.  This is a common demographic pattern, so it shouldn't be too hard to mimic. [More]

It is hard to look at the American citizenry right now and think reasonableness will soon come into vogue, but I think it will.  The alternatives lack the power to endure.  Consequently, I see a future where such opinions will be commonplace, and our livestock industry will be reshaped as a result.

Nor am I sure raising the alarm about costs (our traditional fallback retort) will win over all those who think changes should be made. It's not 100% guaranteed what will happen to meat costs, as the system will adapt economically and productivity changes are hard to predict.  Mostly, warnings about rising costs don't have much traction.  Until people are confronted with the actuality, they tend to assume it may not happen. [This is one key problem with the health care debate].  Maybe we've simply been over-warned about too many economic possibilities.

But the cumulative effect of these several influences on the livestock sector  - not to mention the unruly grain markets - make assuming a return to old trends seem wishful thinking.  With all the above forces trending the directions they are, changes will occur. Not overnight nor universally, but powerfully and relentlessly.

We're not fighting battles, we're responding to new decisions by increasingly informed and empowered consumers.

1 comment:

Rich said...

the question is not, "healthy or unhealthy" nor is it "humane or inhumane" these are matters of personal preference. the underlying question is, do we need or want laws that tell us what we can eat, and who we should buy that food from? if you are a "vegan" or vegetarian, I'm fine with that, everyone has free agency, and the right to eat or live as they see fit. the problem is when a group of people (who are the minority) start dictating something as humanly basic as what the rest of us can eat, do you think there might be a problem there?? I don't know of any "carnivores" who go around beating the "eat meat" drum like these zealots do for the opposite. the cage and treatment issues are just back door tactics for these people to impose their lifestyle on everyone else. John, please do not dignify their buzz words like "factory farm",and "mega dairy" by using them. make no mistake, this is a battle, and those who don't stand up and fight will be conquered by those who do. you are exactly right when you say let the market decide, but the no-meat crowd is using every underhanded tactic they can find to convince the public that they are right, and that if you eat meat you are an evil, murdering, torturing, nitwit!!!