Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Herbivore's Solution

I just finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, and it's a book that demands a response, especially if, like me, you're a vegetarian. I'm not going to bother summarizing the book's contents, since the only likely reason you'd be interested in this response is if you've already read it. I'm also not going to spend a lot of time dissecting Pollan's dismissive, patronizing attitude toward vegetarianism, because B.R. Myers already did so, very cuttingly, in the pages of The Atlantic.

It's perhaps not surprising that Pollan gives short shrift to vegetarianism. If, after all, his conclusions had been different – if he had ended by endorsing a vegan or vegetarian diet – would his book have been such a bestseller? Well, maybe. There's a great deal that's worthwhile here, and maybe readers could overcome the discomfiture of having their diets pilloried for the sake of learning something about the origins of their food. I guess we'll never know.

As it stands, though, the book to my mind does very much the opposite. Rather than challenging readers at a base dietary level, it instead provides a sort of moral cover for their bad behavior. Pollan would no doubt protest this reading, since the book advocates forcefully for small, sustainable, pastoral farms, modeled by Polyface Farms in Virginia, which Pollan presents as "a scene of almost classical pastoral beauty – the meadows dotted with contented animals, the backdrop of woods, a twisting brook threading through it all ..." This "verdurous vista" contrasts sharply with the manure lagoons and mechanized feed mill of the industrial feedlot, "teeming and filthy and stinking."

So here's we're presented with a choice: happy cows fed on green grass, or sad cows fed on industrial corn and liquefied fat? It's a no-brainer, of course, although there remain those so committed to our destructive corporate system of monoculture crops that they'll defend the feedlot to their dying breath. For the rest of us, we'd obviously prefer the farm that actually looks like a farm.

And Polyface Farms is a shining model of sustainability, or so Pollan would have us believe. The cows are moved from day to day over its pastures, never overgrazing, their manure contributing to the soil, the land becoming ever more fertile, the grass ever greener. The chickens too move in a daily round, pecking grubs out of the cow patties and adding their nitrate-rich droppings to the land. This is all part of a beautiful cycle, Pollan makes clear, wherein grasses take sunlight, water and soil and and turn them into energy that may be eaten by cows. The cows eat the grass, we eat the cows, and everyone's happy (up until the moment the cows are shot in the head with a bolt gun, but never mind that).

Now there is, he notes in passing, another, simpler cycle, wherein humans grow plants and then eat the plants, thereby cutting out the cows, pigs or chickens as the unfortunate middlemen. But obviously humans can't eat grass, so this scenario would never would work at Polyface Farms, and vegetarians are thus excluded from the utopia.

Of course, it would work everywhere else, including the thousands and thousands of acres currently devoted to corn and soy, very little of which is eaten by humans as corn and soy. The whole corn monoculture system, it turns out, is predicated on meat. Three-fifths of the corn crop goes directly to feeding livestock. Most of the rest is used to produce two things: ethanol and our favorite sweetener, high fructose corn syrup. Only a small fraction is used to feed humans directly.

Stop eating meat, and the whole system collapses. Of course, it would collapse anyway, if the government just stopped subsidizing corn. The farmers already don't make much money from it, and survive only via government subsidy checks. Supporters (read: corporate lobbyists) say this makes food cheaper. But actually what it does – let's be clear – is make meat cheaper. It doesn't make vegetables cheaper, or tofu, or beans. To the contrary, by artificially reducing the cost of meat, corporations and government have succeeded in convincing people that vegetarianism is an elitist endeavor, the province of MFA graduates shopping at Whole Foods, while the poor fill themselves on three-dollar Big Macs at McDonald's. Through most of the developing world, the situation is by nature reversed: the poor eat rice and beans, while the wealthy dine on steak.

And I do mean by nature. Eating lower on the food chain is inherently more energy-efficient. Sometimes you hear people defending monoculture farming by saying, "But there's no other way to feed so many people! Food would be way more expensive!" This simply isn't true. It's meat, and meat alone, that would become more expensive. Dispense with raising meat – cattle, pigs, chickens – and you immediately free up vast amounts of energy and land to grow vegetarian food, or to move to less intensive, more ecologically sound farming practices, or simply to lie fallow.

Even so, I would never say that the Big Agra model is ideal. At the same time, I also don't believe, as Pollan seems to, that the Polyface model is the only alternative for feeding people. It is the best alternative for meat production. But you'll never learn what an ideal vegetarian farming community looks like from his book, because he never even considers it.

To Pollan, vegetarianism is historically limited to a few "dissenters": "Ovid, St. Francis, Tolstoy, and Gandhi come to mind." And granted, this is true in Europe, but the inclusion of Gandhi in that list should have reminded Pollan that most of the world's vegetarians are in India – hundreds of millions of them. Are they just "dissenters"? And how are they surviving, when they lack both feedlots and ranches? What function do their cows have, when they don't slaughter them after a year or two? What about China? You know, the other of the world's two most populous nations, whose people have historically subsisted in large part on rice and soybeans? What about the millions of vegetarians in Southeast Asia and Japan? What about monastic farming communities in these countries, which may be the best models for sustainable vegetarian agriculture?

Pollan doesn't answer these questions, because he doesn't care to ask them. Having decided beforehand to eat meat, he's concerned only with how to assuage his conscience afterwards.

But putting aside this very serious omission, I want to consider how his argument, such as it is, plays out in real life. The very premise of The Omnivore's Dilemma is that we are faced with too many choices in the grocery store, most of them bad. Virtually everything in a Safeway is produced industrially, from a can of soup to a package of beef to a head of broccoli. Go to Whole Foods, and you'll find a greater variety of food sources, but from a consumer's viewpoint, there's not really more connection with the food. If you're being "good," you read the label and try to avoid the worst, minimizing the harm you're doing just by eating. If you're indulging yourself, you buy the chocolate-coated ice-cream sandwich and damn the consequences.

One way or another, though, you're not actually going to the farm. Certainly you're not driving miles and miles to buy a pasture-fed chicken (and let's not even get into the ethics of burning gallons of gas for the sake of eating a more "natural" chicken).

What about the farmer's market? Sure, awesome. Take the one here in Capitol Hill, which happens every Sunday from eleven to three, five or six months of the year. If you manage to make it there during those limited hours, you'll find some delicious produce, pasture-fed meat, and farm-fresh eggs. Now, if you missed it, for whatever reason, or if it's winter, then you're out of luck. And what will you do? You'll go to the grocery store, like everyone does. And I mean everyone, at least in the city. You'll walk down the aisles and make your choices, and hope it's all right.

You won't actually know that it's all right, though, since once again, you haven't actually seen the fields, nor are you ever going to. There will remain, for your entire life, a gap between you and those fields, because that is the world in which we live. Because the simple truth is, we are not all farmers, nor have we been, for thousands of years, and now more than ever.

What I'm pointing to here is the gap between the ideal and the actual. Pollan is big on presenting the utopian farm and the "perfect meal," but he's shy on outlining how this actually is supposed to play out in real life. So far as I can tell, it means asking for pasture-fed meat at the grocery store. Or maybe going hunting, which he really seemed to enjoy.

Is that an improvement on feedlot cattle? Sure! Absolutely! Point granted! News flash, guys: Feedlots suck! So if you're determined to eat meat, by all means, eat meat that's at least been decently raised, or go kill it yourself.

Now, are you actually going to do that? Because I've noticed something peculiar, in talking to people about this book. Lots of people have read it, including a lot of "foodies," people involved in the restaurant industry. And they widen their eyes and say, "Yeah, it's crazy!" and then return to eating their absolutely non-pasture-raised hamburger or steak or chicken or whatever. And they do this at meal after meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Do they know it's wrong? Sure they do. And when they go to the grocery store, they might sometimes buy the better meat or eggs. Then again, they might not. They might be at a gas station, and decide that a one-dollar stick of beef jerky is just what they need that second. Where did it come from? Well, they're not going to think about it right now. Or they're drunk, and are they going to eat that hot dog from the stand? Hell yes! Or they're at a restaurant, and are they really going to quiz the server about pasture-fed beef when they're ordering? No, they're not.

So let me ask you: Who doesn't eat the jerky, even if they're in a hurry? Who doesn't eat the hot dog, even when they're drunk? Who does quiz the server, even if it's a pain?

Yeah, you know who. Vegetarians, that's who.

Right now some meat-eaters are rolling their eyes, thinking, "God, how annoying!" But sorry, guys, you can't have it both ways. You can't earnestly resist these embedded corporate systems, these societal evils, and not offend anyone. You can't press against the tide and not have it press back. You can't eat two ethical meals a week, and nineteen clearly unethical ones, and pretend that you're doing the right thing.

Faced with the opacity of the food market, vegetarians make a conscious choice to avoid the worst harm. The great advantage of this choice is its simplicity. No, I may not know the condition of the soil that the soybeans were grown in, or the evils of the corporation that grew them, or the minute details of how the beans were processed. But I do know one thing: no animal was involved along the way. No chicken had its beak cut off, no cow was dismembered alive, and no corn was wasted feeding those chickens and cows.

There's a Sanskrit word for this approach: ahimsa, or non-harming, a central concept in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Basically it says: If you can't do good, at least don't do harm. Beyond that, it means extending kindness and compassion to all beings.

Occasionally people will ask me why I'm a vegetarian. I usually reply, "Because I think it's wrong to kill something if you don't have to." It's really that simple. I wouldn't shoot a dog, I wouldn't step on a spider, I wouldn't tear a plant out of the ground, unless it served some real need. In just the same way, I wouldn't cut a chicken's throat, or shoot a cow in the head, just because I liked the taste. And never has doing so been less needful, when it's as easy as picking up a block of tofu and putting it in your cart.