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A Bunch of Bull at BEEF

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A Bunch of Bull at BEEF

By James McWilliams
August 2012

Big Agriculture is feckless. Specifically, it could care less about the threats posed by the sustainable food movement. Local, organic, sustainable . . . whatever. As long as nobody’s talking about avoiding animals, Big Ag sees them all as easily co-opted. What scares Big Ag is veganism. Scares the holy-living-god-fearing daylights out of them. Because they cannot co-opt veganism. Because the industry—dare to dream!— would die.....And so I end with the sentence I began with: food reformers will never effectively work to end factory farming if we continue to eat animal products.

It has long been one of my core claims that food reformers will never effectively work to end factory farming if we continue to eat animal products. I’ve based this argument on the premise that any cultural affirmation of eating animals—no matter how those animals were treated—perpetuates the most basic requirement for factory farming to thrive: the idea that there’s nothing ethically wrong with killing sentient animals to consume food we don’t need.

As long as unnecessary suffering is legitimated, economic principles will dictate that the production of animal products occurs primarily in industrially scaled operations. We cannot beat factory farms at their own game. We have to change the game altogether. Until food reformers appreciate this point, they’re spinning their wheels.

In making this case (something I’m actively doing right now as I work on my book The Modern Savage), I’ve speculated that big industry is poised to co-opt the reformist ideas promoted by advocates of small-scale animal farming. My speculations are based on extensive discussions I had with industry executives years back while writing my book Just Food.

The more I spoke with industry representatives the more I became convinced of something that the sustainable food movement would be wise to consider: Big Agriculture is feckless. Specifically, it could care less about the threats posed by the sustainable food movement. Local, organic, sustainable . . . whatever. As long as nobody’s talking about avoiding animals, Big Ag sees them all as easily co-opted. What scares Big Ag is veganism. Scares the holy-living-god-fearing daylights out of them. Because they cannot co-opt veganism. Because the industry—dare to dream!— would die.

The shameless ability of Big Ag to purloin the virtuous meat-related ideas of the sustainable food movement became quite clear in a recent column published in BEEF magazine, an industry propaganda rag that’s worth consulting every now and then to renew yout activist fervor. Advocates of small-scale animal farming have been especially vocal lately about the supposed ecological benefits of responsibly grazing farm animals. I attacked this idea in the New York Times earlier this year, but no matter—it has become a hugely popular justification for foodies to continue eating animals.

It is no doubt due to this popularity that the beef industry has taken this idea and branded it as their own, cynically, and through an almost hilarious slight of hand, equating the ecological practices of rotational grazing to factory farming! As I’ve been saying for three years now: if you play the game these guys want you to play, no matter how well-intentioned you may be, you lose. These people do not follow the rules of common decency.

Here’s the piece, which builds on arguments made in a recent book called Should Meat Be On the Menu (if you’ve read Simon Fairlie, don’t bother with this one): http://beefmagazine.com/blog/author-asks-should-meat-be-menu.

What really galls me is how utterly shameless the BEEF piece is in taking what appear to be subtle arguments (although, to be sure, wrong arguments) and hammering them like a cutlet into the kind of cheerleading soundbites that will make mainstream consumers swoon with the false pride of environmental virtue as they tuck into their next steak, liberated from ever pondering the suffering involved.

Consider this one, from the magazine’s freshly burnished Earth Day page: “As ranchers, we labor to grow a healthy and nutritious product while efficiently and sustainably caring for the environment and animals under our stewardship. Our romantic history with the land dates back longer than any anti-agriculture trend or activist group, but while our role in this world is just as important as in the past, our numbers have dramatically shrunk.”

As for the book’s potential impact on “conscientious carnivores,” the first Amazon review says it all: “I read ‘Eating Animals’ last year and felt pretty bad about eating meat. Now, I’ve read this book which says that says that eating animals isn’t bad for the environment.”

No matter that the book’s author is talking about an entirely different kind of agriculture. Details, details. This distinction is irrelevant to the spin masters at BEEF, not to mention the beef industry as whole. With these justifications for smaller and more responsible agricultural practices duly articulated, industry can, on the basis of the unchallenged idea that eating meat in and of itself is perfectly fine, cross this line with impunity. Anyone who supports the consumption of animals—sustainably or not—makes this charade possible.

And so I end with the sentence I began with: food reformers will never effectively work to end factory farming if we continue to eat animal products.