Op-Ed Responses: “The Myth of Sustainable Meat”


Several people who have commented on my article have made the point that smaller scaled systems would lead to more expensive meat and, in turn, reduced consumption.  I appreciate the time these people took to comment, and I’d like to briefly address this claim. (These comments, by the way, can be found in the “about” section of the blog–which–lo– got about ten times as many hits as it normally gets.)

The premise that higher priced meat would lead to reduced consumption is, as far as it goes, accurate. In fact, that’s the only way we’re going to achieve sustained reduced consumption–make animal products radically more expensive. The problem, however, is that no matter how many boutique operations emerge, we’re never going to see the price of animal products collectively rise to the point that it mitigates consumption.

The reason is skyrocketing global demand. Normally, increased demand would lead to increased price–and that may happen, but nowhere near to the extent that it would reduce consumption. Here’s why: this demand virtually dictates that no matter how many expensive options arise, industrial operations, by virtue of their efficiency, will always dominate as the leading form of production–a form of production geared to lower the price of animal products. For the vast majority of consumers, a pork chop is a pork chop is a pork chop. They want it, and the cheaper, the better. Even many privileged consumers who choose expensive alternatives rarely stick with the more expensive option, no matter how righteous it might be.

Americans might be eating nominally fewer animals than we did a decade ago, but global rates of consumption are exploding. Between 1980 and 2010 the consumption of eggs, dairy, and meat has risen by a factor of 3 to 5 in developing countries. This spiking demand virtually guarantees the proliferation of new factory farms that capitalize on consolidation to meet that demand. Over 80 percent of the aforementioned rise in demand has been met by newly built factory farms in China and India–factory farms with minimal regulations.  None of these figures factor in the impending 2 billion people about to be added to the face of the earth.

The fact that wealthy, educated, and health-conscious consumers in the United States are increasingly choosing to pay a lot more for meat, eggs, and dairy in no way reflects the reality of global consumer behavior (or national consumer behavior, for that matter). Nothing, in fact, could stand in sharper contrast. Thus, to think that humans will collectively decide to wise up and eat less meat while producers, in turn, will scale down to meet that decreased demand through more eco-correct and expensive offerings, distorts not only economic reality, but human nature.

I’ll concede that to argue that small scale animal farming would “work” if we all just ate less meat makes sense in theory. But the reality–the entrenched nature and growing demand for affordable animal products globally–suggests that we’d be better off fighting to end the production of animals altogether.

And this is all irrespective of that other thing we never want to talk about, but need to be: the ethics of eating animals.



About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

15 Responses to Op-Ed Responses: “The Myth of Sustainable Meat”

  1. Paula says:

    Yes, the ethics. I always think of that one unlucky animal that got “bred for food” and is at this very second on the killing floor … and I can’t do a damn thing about it … except to continue my veganism. Across the board for both animals, and humans, It doesn’t look too hopeful James, does it.

  2. cobalamin says:

    Are you ever going to do a post on meat addiction and how meat shifts the biochemistry of the brain towards psychological manipulation type of mentality?

    • cobalamin says:

      What a waste of money!

      The vitamins and energy to feed the artificial meat have to come from somewhere; how much do you think it will cost to refine vegetation down to feed the artificial meat? What about the petroleum needed for the machines to refine down vegetation??

      Meat eaters, their manipulating mentality and their way of defending their meat addiction at all costs.

  3. Adam Merberg says:

    I predict that somebody will yell at you for saying that Salatin feeds his chickens “imported soy and corn.” Presumably you just meant that it was “imported” from another farm, but expect to hear locavores pointing out that Salatin’s grain is local, not from another country.

  4. Anne B says:

    Well put. I want to make a point about domestic meat consumption. Discussions of price are incomplete without noting that meat is heavily subsidized. Also, the politics of food in this country are such that it is very hard to do anything legislatively that could increase the price of food or “hurt farmers.”

  5. I am confused about how, in your view, it’s a more realistic goal to end meat-eating altogether rather than reducing consumption. The same argument you use against smaller scaled systems (i.e., increased global demand) is equally as applicable against the absolute ending of meat production.

  6. carnivore says:

    the imported grain vs. exported meat observation MacWilliams makes in the op-ed is interesting. Professional crop advisors balance nutrient budgets all the time, for farms large and small, so it seems like his knowledge is limited. One explanation is that he is a historian, not an agronomist. his ideas are interesting but they amateur in context of real world food production, whether they be organic, alternative, mainstream or whatever. He is writing and speaking for popular audience, not a professional or academic audience.

  7. Provoked says:

    As long as everyone else is asking or suggesting what you might write about next regarding the future of sustainable food I thought I’d chime in on a request as well. On the high tech end I was wondering your thoughts about vertical gardens and urban farms?

    As a head start there’s Plantagon in Sweden: http://plantagon.com/plantagon/
    Nuvege in Japan: http://nuvege.com/
    The vertical towers at Chicago O’hare Airport: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RL6FmdK8lKg
    And a converted meat packing plant in Chicago:
    Unfortunately the later is using fishes in it’s aquaponics – But still all these appear to be feasible alternatives to food production with better use of land and water… And none of the bloodshed required in animal meats.

    So if you ever get stumped on a topic to discuss or have any thoughts on the benefits of these systems – I’d be most grateful for your views. ~Thanks.

  8. Keith Akers says:

    I think that nutrient cycling is worth thinking about, but is not worth the space that permaculture advocates are giving it. It’s worth figuring out what the truth of the matter is and what the best way to respond to it is. What is nutrient cycling, why is it important, and what is the best way to accomplish it? My quick answer is that the soil needs nutrients to grow food, agriculture depletes them, and you need to get these nutrients from somewhere.

    Your response to nutrient cycling concerns, which is quite good, is to say that IF animals are best at doing this, then this could best be accomplished by just letting the animals live out their natural lives. This is a sort of reductio ad absurdum argument; you’re actually pulling nutrients away by taking the animals and killing them and eating them. This leads to the odd paradox that if you killed the animals, and then left the bodies to rot in the field, from an environmental point of view this would be all right (even though totally pointless, and violating both the vegan’s desire to be compassionate and the permaculturalist’s desire to eat meat).

    Another way to respond is to say that all nutrients come from the same place, whether animal or vegetable. Michael Pollan’s statement on nutrient cycling, which you quote, is astounding: “It is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients.” This is sufficiently silly that I had some questions whether he actually said this, but it’s in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” p. 326-327. Where does he think the animals, which are recycling all these nutrients, get them in the first place? Unless we’re talking about cows with fusion reactors in their tummies, they’re getting them from plants.

    Whether animal-based or plant-based, any transportation system of nutrients from point A to point B is going to take some effort. But using animals to do this is a serious waste of energy and time. Why introduce the animals in the first place? It consumes energy and emits carbon dioxide and methane, both of which promote climate change, two waste products that the animal industry, no matter how local, can never eliminate. If you’ve read the Goodland and Anhang article in WorldWatch, you know that this is actually likely the LEADING cause of climate change.

    • Adam Merberg says:

      My issue with the nutrient cycling argument is that it seems that we’re told that grain farms are bad, and then Polyface, at least, seems to leave us more dependent on these grain farms than a grain-based diet. Is nutrient-cycling that great that it provides compelling reason for growing extra grain? Aside from that, Salatin advertises on his website that he doesn’t buy fertilizer, when of course that’s exactly what the grain is to his farm. Really, he’s just moved the chemical fertilizer to a different farm.

      Anyway, here’s Salatin’s response to the column: http://on.fb.me/HF6I2C

  9. Keith Akers says:

    Interesting. Salatin’s very first point is as follows: “First, that grass grazing cows emit more methane than grain-fed. This is factually false. Actually, the amount of methane emitted by fermentation is the same whether it occurs in the cow or outside. Whether the feed is eaten by an herbivore or left to rot on its own, the methane generated is identical.”

    However, “Methane is produced in the guts of ruminant livestock as a result of methanogenic microorganisms (belonging to the Archaea),” according to this site:

    The point is that cows concentrate these methanogenic microorganisms in their guts. While it’s true that rice fields or wetlands do the same thing, you need specific conditions for this to happen, and inside the cow these conditions apply, whereas in a field of grain they do not apply. Does this sound right? So his very first point, in which he complains loudly about the facts, is factually confused.

    I know that people can manipulate scientific studies to support their case when arguing to the general public, and perhaps that’s what Salatin’s trying to do. But if this is his very first point, I’d say his whole argument is in trouble.

  10. ssupak says:

    Are you ignoring Joel Salatin on purpose?


    > The recent editorial by James McWilliams, titled “The Myth of Sustainable Meat,” contains enough factual errors and skewed assumptions to fill a book, and normally I would dismiss this out of hand as too much nonsense to merit a response. But since it specifically mentioned Polyface, a rebuttal is appropriate. For a more comprehensive rebuttal, read the book Folks, This Ain’t Normal.

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