Next Up on the Ethical Butcher’s Block: James McWilliams

Hellfire if I don’t have a knack for angering butchers. Fortunately, they come at me with words (thus far). What follows is an open letter from Berlin Reed. As I reported in a recent Atlantic.com post (and reposted yesterday on Eating Plants) Reed’s blog, the Ethical Butcher, was recently co-opted by a propaganda wing of industrial agriculture. My reason for mentioning Reed was to show how big agriculture shamelessly co-opts those who purport to threaten it, doing so on the common ground of the basic belief that it’s okay to kill animals unnecessarily. Reed, who certainly deserves to have his viewpoint heard, has this to say: 

Mr. McWilliams, we’ve never met. We’ve never spoken to one another. I only wish you had sought to remedy that situation before writing a treatise on meat consumption using me as an example. I was flabbergasted by the inaccuracies in your article in the Atlantic,but your biggest mistake in writing “What Big Ag and the Ethical Butcher Share” was deciding to build your stance against me based on little more than two lines from my blog bio. I’ve been hanging under the radar, head down on a few new projects and preparing to write my first book, which you have gracefully gifted me an opportunity to mention. Why not attempt to stand on the fortitude of your ideas alone? Or, at the very least interview me so that you could write about me from a more informed perspective. With minimal effort, you could have found a more recent portrayal of my ethos at work,in this interview, which was released the same day as yours, by a writer who did the legwork you blithely bypassed in your fervor to assert your self-righteousness while disproving my methodology.

I pity the limited scope with which you seem to view the world. To begin, your article was a disrespectful disgrace to this nation’s farmers and to the many people working tirelessly to change the meat industry. I would have explained the meaning of “The Ethical Butcher”, had you called me for even a short interview. Since you didn’t, I’ll have to take a step back to explain. First, “The Ethical Butcher” is the title of my project, not a self-assigned moniker. Second, butchery is a craft, a skill. Ethics are philosophy in action. Butchery is what occurs at the block, knives in hand. It is still butchery whether I get the animal from a sunny green pasture or a dismal feedlot. Nothing I can do will make the physical act of butchering itself more or less ethical. The ethics come in on either side of the block. The ethics guide how to choose the animal, how to make use of it and how to relate to consumers in representing the meat, farms and farmers. Not so absurd, after all.

In my opinion, the single most critical element in the perpetuation of factory farming is corporate greed. We must focus on the whole picture: our entire food system. This includes the USDA, the FDA, and in this conversation, the entire agricultural system- livestock, corn, soy, wheat, monocrops, GMO’s, the whole nine. The outdated obsession with meat as the crux of the problem is unnecessarily narrow-minded and closes us off to the advantage of seeing the complex web we are struggling to free ourselves from.

I have never, ever argued against being vegetarian or vegan. I argue against shaming and demonizing something so monumentally personal as food choice. I argue against dogma, against the moral superiority complex that plagues so many herbivores, and against the unrealistic and elitist goal of worldwide vegan fascism. The world is waiting for a better solution. Going vegan doesn’t answer the bigger issues of a fossil-fuel propelled world economy based on the abuse of humans, the destruction of the environment and the unchecked rapacity of a few hundred people. Going vegan doesn’t stop Monsanto from poisoning the earth and our bodies or threatening the very choice to grow food for ourselves. Going vegan doesn’t improve the labor camp living conditions of migrant workers who supply your precious veggies. Going vegan doesn’t preserve generations of time-honored traditions and it doesn’t help us return to a more sustainable and enriching way of interacting with the earth. Most of all, going vegan does not absolve you from participation in the suffering of living beings or environmental destruction.

It is not the eating of animals at issue; that is a reactionary and short-sighted distraction. The issue is the system through which most of the animals we eat are supplied. As this system is tied to a larger system of irresponsible and abusive agriculture, it is absolutely necessary that we seek a solution to the entire problem. I have always said, in every interview and in my own work, that curbing meat consumption goes hand-in-hand with humane treatment of animals and responsible farming methods. I don’t eat very much meat and one look at my latest menu(http://ethicalbutcher.blogspot.com/ ) will dispel your claims that I encourage wanton meat consumption. It will show menus that teem with fresh, seasonal vegetables in all preparations. The photos will display plates with reasonable, some may even say small, portions of meat.
I can actually still count the number of animals I’ve served over the past two years, a feat only possible because of the infrequency and purposeful nature with which I approach the use of meat. I abstain from soy at all costs and I don’t eat any seafood other than shellfish and a very, very short list of truly sustainable fish. As for the CCF connection, the fact that a website lists my blog as recommended reading does not align my philosophy with theirs. Welcome to the 21st century, we call it a blogroll. That list includes many publications dedicated to the subject of meat, animals and farming. Just as you wrote about me without contacting me, those sites are free to do the same. I am in no way connected to CCF, Humanewatch, Meatpaper or any other organization outside of The Butcher’s Guild.

For a long time now, my focus has been on consumer education and demystifying the green-washed marketing that both the government and food industry use to their advantage. The most effective tool for fighting this tactic is information. I will never assume to know what others should do; I find that to be a dangerous mindset. I can only share knowledge and remind people that they can make their own decisions. I rarely get into the ethics behind the actual choice of whether or not to eat meat, and I won’t be baited do it here either. I am in full support of everyone having the ability to make the very personal decision of what to feed themselves and their families. I am not interested in persuading people eat meat or abstain from it. I am interested in where ALL of their food, but especially their meat, comes from. I am invested in helping people to understand how these companies misrepresent their practices and in challenging consumers to make their own choices.

Our responsibility to be vigilantly engaged with the dismantling of the status quo doesn’t end with what is on our plates. We must all continue to vote with our forks, with our legs, with our wardrobes and with the power of our words. Every single day, we make choices about the world we want to live in. I will continue to fight for a world where I can trust where my food comes from and encourage others to do the same. As I funnel the momentum of the EB projects into my book, I am likewise finding a new outlet for an expanded vision of my practice. I have just co-founded 718 Collective, a band of fellow activist chefs, musicians and artists hell-bent on food justice for all. I am thrilled at the potential we have for reaching even more people in the community through the meshing of food, art, politics, music and fashion.
I am fairly certain many of your readers had never heard of me before you named me in your article. Thanks for the mention and this fortuitous occasion to shift from underground grassroots activism to representing a movement on the national stage. It was no coincidence that your article should come out the very day the contract for my upcoming book from Soft Skull Press,The Ethical Butcher: Real Food Rules, arrived on my doorstep. Such a tasty little platter of publicity…I could not have dreamed of a better way to announce the Spring 2013 hardcover release of my book.
Now that we’ve cleared up a few of your misrepresentations, I invite you to prepare your notes, and come at me again.

The “Ethical Butcher”: Co-opted by the Unethical Food Industry

 

This piece ran on the Atlanic’s website two days ago. Here’s the link:

[http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/02/meat-what-big-agriculture-and-the-ethical-butcher-have-in-common/252679/] 

Check out the comments. Crazy.

-jm

 

I’ve repeatedly argued that supporting alternatives to the industrial production of animal products serves the ultimate interest of industrial producers. The decision to eat animal products sourced from small, local, and sustainable farms might seem like a fundamental rejection of big business as usual. It is, however, an implicit but powerful confirmation of the single most critical behavior necessary to the perpetuation of factory farming: eating animals. So long as consumers continue to eat meat, eggs, and dairy — even if they are sourced from small farms practicing the highest welfare and safety standards — they’re providing, however implicitly, an endorsement of the products that big agriculture will always be able to produce more efficiently and cheaply. And thus dominate.

Until the act of eating animals itself is made problematic, “voting with our forks” will be little more than a vacuous slogan. Critics claim that it’s unrealistic to expect a substantial transition to veganism, and advocate the support of small-scale animal farms as a more achievable alternative. What’s truly unrealistic, however, is the expectation that small, more eco-friendly and “humane” farms will permanently defy economic logic and convince a meaningful percentage of meat and dairy eaters to spend substantially more money to buy a nobler egg or pork chop. I’d bet on a massive transition to veganism before a massive transition to economic irrationality.

A point that’s germane to this issue, but frequently muted, is how the preexisting power and amorality of industrial animal agriculture enables it to manipulate the rhetoric of alternative animal-based systems to its profitable advantage. Agribusiness has been conspicuously nonplussed by the rise of the food movement, shrugging its shoulders as it markets itself as “sustainable,” “supporting family farms,” and steadfastly oriented toward the “welfare” of animals. Industry grasps, then thrills in manipulating, the axiom that language is both cheap and powerful. Industrial machinations are helped along by the fact that the food movement’s buzzwords are slackened catchphrases that allow the largest pig farm on the planet to advertise itself as “humane” and “sustainable.” This fungible verbal lexicon, with every well-meaning new term appropriated by the marketers at Big Ag, is the food movement’s Achilles’ heel.

A recent confirmation of this point is the emergence of an organization called humanewatch.org. Contrary to how it sounds, HumaneWatch is the self-appointed watchdog — think Cujo — of a group that actually does watch out for dogs, and many other animals, with admirable dedication: the Humane Society of the United States. Calling HSUS a “stealth animal rights organization” that’s stealing money from the public to promote secret agendas, humanewatch.com is a propaganda tool of the Center for Consumer Freedom. According to Source Watch, CCF is “a front group for the restaurant, alcohol, tobacco, and other industries” that “run media campaigns which oppose the efforts of scientists, health advocates, doctors, animal advocates, [and] environmentalists.” Its website offers a sordid example of how the pursuit of sustainable animal agriculture, so long as the consumption of animal products is encouraged, easily plays into the hands of influential industrial interests.

CCF — through humanewatch.org — claims as one its “allies” the “Ethical Butcher.” The Ethical Butcher (a concept I find absurd, but that’s for another post), is a blog run by a guy named Berlin Reed. Reed describes himself as “driven by personal relationships with small local farmers, a deep love of food, respect for the animals we eat, and the environment on which we depend.” He lives in Brooklyn, by way of Portland. If you called central casting to find a character to oppose the evils of industrial agriculture, all the while appealing to the gluttonous impulses of the foodie elite, Reed would be your man.

But now it’s the CCF — inspired by the ethical butcher’s staunch advocacy of meat consumption — that’s doing the calling, highlighting his website as consistent with CCF’s industrial values. Reed, who I would imagine isn’t thrilled with the CFF association, can complain all he wants that he’s been appropriated by a charade organization working to promote the idea that, in the face of the HSUS’s apparent threat to carnivorousness, it’s your God-given right to eat animals. The meat industry doesn’t care. As it sees it, any perceived threat to eating animals (HSUS) far outweighs any threat that consumers will source their animal products from the farms so close to Reed’s heart (and butcher block). Hence the co-opting of the Ethical Butcher.

I realize that this example might seem minor. Think ahead on this one, though, and you’ll see how things portend poorly for the future of alternative animal agriculture. Right now industry is merely stealing words, concepts, and websites. In the unlikely event that mass economic irrationality prevails, and there is in fact a statistically meaningful transition to supporting the non-industrial production of animal products, what’s to stop industrial agriculture from building a few token sustainable farms where the animals are pastured, pampered, and publicized? Most of the small-scale animal farmers I know are literally living hand to mouth. Tyson’s or Smithfield wouldn’t suffer such hardships.

We’ll never beat Big Ag at its own game. Those of us concerned with the myriad problems of industrial agriculture will make genuine progress toward creating agricultural systems that are ethical, ecologically sound, and supportive of human health only when we pursue alternatives that are truly alternative. The most immediate and direct way to take a step in this direction is to stop eating animals.