Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Is this war really necessary?...

I have been reluctant to climb aboard the popular meme of "fighting back" against food activists, because I felt the response was disproportional and really harmful to our sector in the longer run. (See also: TSA)

Many of the supposed threats were extrapolations of tiny numbers and trends into the future without thought of inhibiting factors or countervailing forces that develop with time.

One such trend is veganism. While most farmers (I would guess) fume indignantly at campaigns against animal products, they don't seem to listen to their own words: humans are on the whole omnivorous.  Lookit these eye teeth, for Pete's sake, we splutter.

My take is that assumption is actually pretty strongly grounded in truth, and veganism, while not totally unworkable - is fighting a strong evolutionary tide.  Hence, I think it is a "self-limiting" phenomenon.  Only a segment (likely small) of people will be able to adapt to it.

Consider this admittedly emotional experience from a deeply committed vegan and read a few of the hundreds of comments.
Many of you know that I have recently been struggling for the first time in my life with health problems. When I discovered that my problems were a direct result of my vegan diet I was devastated.  2 months ago, after learning the hard way that not everyone is capable of maintaining their health as a vegan, I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life and gave up veganism and returned to eating an omnivorous diet. My health immediately returned. This experience has been humbling, eye-opening, and profoundly transformative. To hear the whole story just keep reading… [More]
Extreme behaviors are hard to sell to the vast mainstream.  Taking a new look at meat and animal products in our diet is not a bad thing, but fearing every individual choice as the tip of an iceberg of radial overall change is clearly not sound thinking. Going to war with customers over deeply emotional personal decisions likewise has no upside for any supplier.

Indeed, strong reactions by the protein industry may only serve to fuel the publicity that attracts dietary experimenters and invites weaving other controversies with veganism, such as anti-imperialism and feminism.  This really clouds the issues for producers.

But we have not arrived at our current agricultural systems through chance or evil intent. That does not mean they are sanctified by pragmatism, only that they are not the products of malevolent motives too often ascribed to farmers and only much later understood by critics.

Nor does it relieve us from constantly upgrading and refining our work to limit externalites and improve efficiency. This process does not occur overnight and the self-education of consumers will not either.  But the same questions must eventually be confronted by both sides of the issue.
I eventually forced myself to apply the same ethics I had used to analyze animal foods to the analysis of plant foods, and tried to calculate the macro impact of my food choices.  I soon realized that I had to make a serious change. As I’ve written about before, the foods I was eating as a vegan saved no more animal lives and were no ethically better than the foods I am now eating as an omnivore, with two main differences. First, I now no longer lie to myself about the fact that life requires death. Second, I am now healthy. Just like always, I still care intensely about the environment, the well being of animals, and the politics of food, but my ideas of how to do the most good and effect the most change have drastically transformed. I reexamined the party line of veganism, that it is the moral baseline, and admitted to myself that I had never been comfortable with the arbitrary declaration of drawing a line in the ethical sand. In fact, during my time as a vegan I never stopped searching for an even better solution and a more ethical way to live. I definitely believe I’m on the right path. My new thoughts don’t have veganism’s catchy slogans like ‘Meat is Murder’, but here’s a quick wrap up:
In one of those strange circumstances of serendipity that life is always throwing our way my veganism induced health problems coincided with a period of intense food justice activism in my own life. During this time in my work as a food rights advocate I had many, many discussions with agronomists, farmers, agroecologists, and global south advocates, and I learned how very wrong I was in my previous conviction that veganism would save the world. While veganism presents a very simple and easy to understand solution to the world’s problems, and has therefore become the go to politically correct strategy, it is at best a band-aid for the ecological and world hunger crises we are facing. The need for the entire world to go vegan in order to stop global warming or prevent chronic hunger is simply and irrefutably false.
As I learned while sitting at the metaphorical feet of the world’s leading revolutionary ecologists and food rights advocates, the only way for humanity to survive in any meaningfully sustainable way is for us to live entirely within our local food systems, eating the plants and animals that naturally live on our immediate landbase. And this most definitely does not include millions of acres of grains, the cultivation of which is amenable to only very small parts of the globe. To produce the vegan foods that I used to consider so cruelty-free; modern, industrialized agriculture forces land to grow crops that are alien and unnatural to it, robs the planet of its resources, destroys whole eco-systems, wipes out entire species of plants and animals, and creates a chaos of death and destruction as more and more wild land is needed to replace the devastated cropland.
This planetary devastation (and the resulting socio-cultural ramifications) has been going on far longer than the advent of factory farms, which were only introduced in the past several decades. Of course, just like any decent human being, I abhor the evil that is factory farming, and I stand opposed to their slavery, torture, and abuse. I also recognize that the massive production of grain is what led to the creation of factory farms in the first place; they simply would not have been possible otherwise. We do not grow so much grain because we want to have factory farms; we have factory farms because we are growing such an avalanche of grain. Veganism, while coming from a decent place of compassion, is ultimately short sighted and does not fix our problems. Truly local, preferably wild food is the only way we can live without causing devastation to this planet. And living truly locally, without massive consumption of monocrop industrialized grains or soy, in almost every part of the world necessitates the use and consumption of animals for us to be healthy. [Same]
I suspect such painful epiphanies are more numerous that we know.  After all, who announces they are going off their diet when they had promised to lose XX pounds?  Therefore knee-jerk angry rebuttals to even outrageous claims by food extremists seem to me a waste of our time and suggest an embarrassing insecurity in our industry.  Better to listen when we can, do our work well, and allow people to cope with the same real-world factors we do.  Many will come closer to our views simply because they are not irrational.

I for one am tired of getting angry at every criticism and launching yet another "campaign" of some sort. It's exhausting. While good for the employees in the "campaign" industry, like organization and media professionals, it wastes time I could be doing something useful. Not to mention significant sums of money. Blogging has taught me that at least. Let time lower temepratures and uncover more good information. Truth endures. And there is no rule that every argument has to be settled in this news-cycle.



From Virginia said...

John, I wholeheartedly agree that we do not need "knee jerk rebuttals" but I do think we need to thoughtfully engage with consumers, especially the 15% of them that really care about production practices, and have an informed dialogue that engenders trust and the social license farmers and ranchers need. Yes, we may need to refine some production practices, but I think the biggest challenge is consumer understanding of what we do and why and how we do it. To that end, I am excited about the U.S. Farmer and Rancher Alliance that was announced a couple weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

Well stated John. I agree. Constant anger and outrage is harmful to healthy living. Live and let live.

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