“Be Good to Ira Glass”: And Other Thoughts Regarding Friday’s Times Op-Ed

Many readers forget this point, but the purpose of an op-ed is not to hand down The Truth from on-high, it’s to provoke.  What else can one do in a thousand words on a topic requiring volumes to fully explicate?  An op-ed that does not provoke is an op-ed that’s failed. By this standard, I’m pleased with the dialogue sparked by my New York Times piece, published last Friday

This one says I simplify, to which I say, of course I do (it’s 1000 words!): http://fromanimaltomeat.com/2012/04/16/mcwilliams-enfant-terrible-and-radical-oversimplifier/ 

I almost choked on my tabouli when I read that Grist’s Tom Laskaway sort of agreed with me: http://grist.org/food-safety/where-the-whole-animal-meets-pink-slime/

This one from vegan.com predicts that Joel Salatin’s going to freak: http://vegan.com/blog/2012/04/12/james-mcwilliams-the-myth-of-sustainable-meat/

And Joel Salatin freaks: http://on.fb.me/HF6I2C.

Oh, but whenever I’m feeling beaten down there will always be this clip of Ira Glass on Letterman to cheer me up, sent by a reader of the blog: http://youtu.be/gP02yahsoCw. WATCH UNTIL THE END. The punch line will blow you away.

Be good to Ira Glass (and Karen Davis).


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.