Category Archives: agribusiness

In-vitro meat as ideological barometer

My food politics class has been discussing food, science, and the influence of ideology on food policy choices (hence Zizek’s RSA Animate – I generally disagree with his conclusions, but he’s right to point out what’s wrong with a certain kind of ethical consumerism, and his critique of environmentalism-as-ideology is apposite). Specifically, we just finished reading Robert Paarlberg’s Food Politics, which I assigned to counterbalance pretty much everything else in the course (Patel, Nestle, Pollan, Foer, Visser, Estabrook). My main problem with food technology isn’t so much the technology itself, but its near-exclusive dominance by a few powerful actors with ‘special’ rather than ‘public’ interests. That said, I share the technologists’ skepticism of the idea that nature provides a useful normative template.

In this vein, the media flurry around in-vitro meat provides an excellent case study. It’s no surprise that this is getting a lot of attention, because it sits at the intersection of academic and public discourses about: authenticity, alienation, disgust, sustainability, animal ethics, food safety, and the role of technology in society. And as Haidt and Bailey note, traditional conservative-liberal divides can break down when discussing food, technology, and purity.

I’m curious to track this potential fracturing of the food movement, with Pollan et al‘s ‘eat whole foods’ on the one side and the likes of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) on the other. In some respects, these debates also apply to the ‘fake’ meats made from textured soy protein, which many people would probably regard as far less yuck-inducing.

In an era of increasing alienation from the means of production, the back-to-the-roots food movement provides an avenue for empathic priming and hands-on learning. But the reality is that we’re eventually going to embrace ever-increasing levels of technological manipulation of the living environment. The relevant questions for me are when this biotech revolution will really take off, and how it’ll be regulated at the national and international levels. But maybe I read too much speculative fiction.

On food safety, people also tend to forget that inaction is a form of action – and this is what inaction looks like. This is also a domain where the Zizekian challenge of environmentalism-as-ideology comes into play: many environmentalists in the Global North have a knee-jerk opposition to artificial as opposed to natural systems, with the result that rich-world environmental elites sometimes transpose their own circumstances and agendas on the Global South. (This whole Green Revolution for Africa debate is complex and contested, but surely such personal biases should be challenged, or at least examined?) A lot of the science here seems to be looking for predetermined answers, whether it’s the agroecological or organic approach trying to prove that GMOs are dangerous, or the Gates Foundation doing the opposite. This is bad science, probably on both sides. But neutrality may be out of reach in such contested terrain.

So do vegetarians really have ‘a moral obligation to eat in-vitro meat’? I wouldn’t go that far, but the topic is definitely ‘good to think’, to borrow from Levi-Strauss. They’ve got a ways to go, in any case.

Horse slaughter

A number of my animal studies students have written interesting research papers on the law, policy, and ethics of horse slaughter. I’ve found the issue to be an excellent case study for various key animal politics issues: determining the boundaries of the moral community; understanding whose voice counts, and why; and parsing the the national and international political economy and trade law issues under consideration. The image featured above is from a campaign for electoral reform–“We Need More Party Animals”–but most of the things I came up with when I image searched ‘horse slaughter’ were too nasty. (And speaking of political animals and animal lovers, here’s one)

I actually changed my views quite substantially on this issue over the last few years. Originally, my approach was mostly utilitarian and anti-speciesist, and I couldn’t help but think that if some of the millions of people who called their congresspeople about horse slaughter-related issues (it’s the number one thing anyone in Congress gets called about..) would chime in instead about the billions of other animals sent to slaughter, it would have a better net effect.

But the more I learned about some key issues–the difference between slaughter and euthanasia; the welfare problems inherent in shipping and slaughtering skittish animals whose skulls are not an easy target for captive bolt guns; and, yes, the relational issues that arise from killing animals who traditionally have a strong human-animal bond–the more my views on the issue started to shift closer to a capabilities approach.

Here are some recent pieces on the topic, both of which I felt were lacking, but in different degrees and for different reasons: Josh Ozersky (Time food writer), “The Case for Eating Horse Meat“; and philosopher Mike LaBossiere, “They Eat Horses, Don’t They“.

And here‘s a piece on the growth of the animal studies field in today’s NYT: onward and upward!

Food fight: free to choose?

This picture was featured in an ad purchased by the Washington Legal Foundation in today’s print NYT. Fat taxes are causing a stir. Junk food marketing is coming under fire. It’s getting easier to track our food, at least in theory. So what does the industry shill formerly known as a Phillip Morris front do? Attack “platernalistic plaintiffs’ lawyers, government officials, and professional activists [who] are pecking away at consumers’ freedom of choice. They think we can’t manage our own lives, and through lawsuits, regulations, and taxes, they want to make our food choices for us.” There’s actually something to this argument from personal responsibility, but real choice would require much less imperfect information and an absence of manipulation verging on coercion…I don’t see the WLF pushing that level of deliberative democracy anytime soon. To paraphrase Nader: when all you’ve got to choose from is the evil of two lessers, you don’t have much of a choice.

In other news – I just got back from a trip to DC, where I ran a workshop on agriculture and animal welfare at the Public Philosophy Network’s conference on publicly engaged philosophy. It was great fun: after the opening talk by E.J. Dionne, Bill Galston, Hanna Rosen , and others, I participated in a workshop on social media ethics that helped clarify some things for me (about this blog, about my wikis, about FB and school, etc.), and there were some fascinating paper presentations on topics ranging from farm animals to climate change to bioethics to public policy. If anyone’s interested in getting involved, I’d recommend requesting access to the PPN wiki.

What counts as a “food dialogue”?

The US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance has decided to shift tactics from bunker mode to PR blitz, probably because they know Bittman and others are shifting the discourse, much as other front groups might try to intervene. The resulting Food Dialogues are trying to harness social media and to fight back against Meatless Mondays and other gradualist flexitarian programs. (If ever I’ve seen a sign that things like Meatless Mondays – or even meatless weekdays, for the more committed – are powerful policy tools, this kind of backlash would be it.)

The image above is from a study conducted by the USFRA, and I think this post by Civil Eats does a good job deconstructing it. Especially this: “While I believe the majority of our nation’s ranchers and farmers are respectful stewards of the land with the public’s best interest at heart—they’re working hard to reduce their environmental impact and address pesticide, artificial hormone, and antibiotics overuse—the USFRA clearly is not representing them. Instead, a look at the Alliance affiliates reveals that it is made up of, and funded by, the biggest players in the food industry, including those who profit most from toxic agricultural chemicals, polluting farming and food processing practices, and concerning animal welfare policies. No wonder, then, that that limiting protections from toxic pesticides and pushing back against antibiotic regulation are just two of the current policy priorities of USFRA affiliates.”

This response from La Vida Locavore is slightly more activist, but this passage gets at a core problem here: “Farmers, no matter how they actually farm, say they CARE about the environment and animal welfare. Which adds up to roughly nothing in reality, since the question does not ask what the farmers actually DO on their farms. But the last question is a loaded question.” Since environmental stewardship and good animal treatment are perceived as unmitigated goods by the public at large, only an idiot would say otherwise. Calling the Congo a “democratic republic” comes to mind — everyone wants the cachet of democracy, so they use the keywords and void them of meaning in the process.

All of which is unfortunate, because a real food dialogue would be a wonderful thing. Yes, Pollan et al can be disconnected from the concerns of the average producer and/or consumer, but to turn around and say that Monsanto has the answer? This Habermasian says thanks, but no.

(It should also be a red flag that this ‘dialogue’ is funded mostly by the checkoff programs, a.k.a. the people who try to figure out how put more cheese on pizza. Thanks to the schizophrenic mandate of the USDA, this is a program where following image, from the Onion‘s “World’s Fattest Town Makes, Consumes World’s Largest Mozzarella Stick”, would be right at home.)

Paths to caring

This image is from an ongoing Daily Dish thread about the role of government in regulating the presence of dogs and/or kids in restaurants. Some would use the image as a demonstration of the retrenchment hypothesis (nonhumans should take a back seat to humans, as long as human suffering exists), others would see instead an affirmation of the extension hypothesis (to paraphrase Mary Midgley – ‘caring is not a scarce resource’).

Speaking of caring: this recent Dot Earth piece argues that fishing can be an important path to caring about fish. As the author notes, this is controversial. I’ve had a lot of interesting discussions with my students about hunting and its role in connecting to nature. And, as usual, I’m polyvalent on the issue. (On the one hand, alternatives like hiking don’t usually involve sitting quietly in one place for a long time — nature photography is the closest activity I can think of. On the other hand, well duh.)

More generally, what Louv calls ‘nature-deficiency disorder’ is a serious issue. So many kids are being raised as urban environmentalists (etc.) who care in an abstract, sometimes even programmed, sense. But an abstract road to empathy can only take you so far. I’m not saying that we need to hunt or fish to appreciate animals. I think that even catch-and-release fishing teaches some very harmful lessons about human-animal relations. But it’s definitely a dilemma.

(And because everyone‘s been posting about Chipotle‘s new Willie Nelson video, I may as well do the same: yes, Chipotle’s taking advantage of its humane meat marketing blitz, which may be less than meets the eye – but it’s a start, for sure. In any case, it’s a neat video and a pretty song)

Elitism and food

I’m late to this party, but I’ve been on vacation for a few days. Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen are in a tiff, and the NYT’s former food critic Frank Bruni weighs in. Basically, Bourdain says Deen is destroying our health, and Deen says the expensive-ass foie gras eating foodie elitist isn’t one to talk.

I agree with Jane Black that Bourdain is really not one to talk, although he is of course free to do so. (I also agree that “values, priorities, and taste” may dictate more than “access and affordability” when it comes to our food habits) The CSM also has a reasonably balanced take here. Feministe, aggressive and race/class/gender-y as usual, makes some important points. And as usual, Nestle’s analysis about social movement and elitism-speak is spot on.

But the essence of this piece is that people can’t afford to spend more on healthy food, and in most cases I think think that’s just wrong. But it’s still used as a argument killing catch-all, and it will be until we address the shameful rates of food insecurity in this country.

The foodie-elitist conflation goes way back, and there’s been a lot of interesting pieces on politics and elitism recently. But what really bothers me is the unapologetic know-nothingness of a lot of these claims. They’re usually from the right, and they’re often openly anti-science. But the important point is that these kinds of arguments never get much beyond the base of Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement. (below)

This is no surprise, really. These tactics function as discussion stoppers — essentially the rhetorical equivalent of just telling somebody to shut up. I show this graph to my students every semester, in an effort to get them to argue higher up this curve. If it’s easier said than done in my college classroom, I can see we’re going to have trouble parsing Palin’s “real America” in the 24/7 soundbite culture.

Yes, cost matters. And yes, culture matters. But Nestle, quoting Schlosser, is right: “social movements have to begin somewhere and several began with elites but ended up helping the poor and disenfranchised—the civil rights, environmental and women’s movements, for example.” Addressing these issues will require all manner of solutions, from all manner of perspectives. Branching AmeriCorps off into a FoodCorps, for example, is one small and recent step. But it’s a start.

Autophagy and alienation

Justin E.H. Smith has a good new post on the advertising history of animals eating themselves. There’s even a whole blog dedicated to this macabre-fest: Suicide Food. So where does alienation enter in? I broached the topic of in vitro meat to my students last week, and while we were parsing the pros (health, environment, animal pain) and cons (feasibility, disgust), one of the bigger shortcomings seemed to be that such a food production transition would be yet another step in our alienation from the forces of production (in this case: the food we eat). Either way, the phenomenon of food offering itself up for our consumption is all kinds of messed up. ‘Yuck factor’ indeed.

The paradox of happy meat?

So the big news this week is the HSUS-UEP deal over egg-laying hen wefare. I’ve been putting off writing about it, because I just started my Summer Animal Rights & Animal Welfare class, which runs intensively and keeps me pretty busy. It’s also hard to write about these issues, when the welfarist middle ground is openly scorned from both sides. Now that the dust has settled a bit, I want to use this case a springboard to talk about some fundamental differences between welfarists and abolitionists.

I played some of this video of Francione on moral schizophrenia in class yesterday, and the core idea, reiterated in Francione’s take on the HSUS/UEP deal complements James McWilliams’ new piece in the Atlantic arguing against ‘humane meat’ (indeed, he seems to be arguing the same thing there, over and over). To say that people consume animal products merely because they “want to”, or because “they taste good”, is at the core of McWilliams’ and Francione’s arguments. Indeed, they are arguing pretty much the same thing, I think, but McWilliams is probably trying to reach a different audience. But this is a problematic argument: it reduces our social and evolutionary history to a mere gustatory preference. For Francione to say, as he often does, that he can persuade anyone to be vegan in 15 minutes if they accept the premise that unnecessary suffering is morally wrong, demonstrates both hubris and myopia. (In my Rortyan opinion, of course; I have no doubt that others would view this very differently, but the ‘final vocabulary’ of “minimize harm” has to be balanced against various other vocabularies. The problems of fertilizer, runoff, and global veganic agriculture, for one…not that this is an insurmountable problem–actually, I don’t know the answer to this–but it’s a demonstration of how looking at these issues through one lens only shows you the elephant’s tail, so to speak.)

I’m not saying that ethical veganism doesn’t have powerful arguments in its defense. It does. But to trivialize all non-vegan diets as being “merely for pleasure” is, in my view, to frame the premises of your argument dishonestly. (It also opens up the whole Puritanical critique of aestheticism-as-luxury-and-therefore-morally-corrupt argument, which can be powerful but often runs the risk of collapsing into anti-consumption extremes.) This is also the logical conclusion of looking at the world through critical theory-tinted glasses that reflect only power relationships of oppression and inequality (Marxian rather than otherwise left-Hegelian). Viewed in this perspective, bigger cages aren’t the answer, and they never can be.

On to the matter at hand: the reactions were as varied as one might expect, and they read like a Rorschach test of political persuasions. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition presents a reasonably editorial-free overview. The Oregonian raised the scare flag of 8$ eggs. Humane Watch is as amusingly shrill and shill-y as usual, as is their industry-driven front, the Center for Consumer Freedom. Vegan Soapbox (from which I lifted the picture above) presents what I think is a balanced and honest overview that maintains a vegan ethic while acknowledging that this really is a big deal. I can’t find any specific commentary from the AVMA, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re playing their hand close to their chest, given their less-than-progressive record on farm animal welfare.

My view is that this is a big deal, and, pace this reasonable counterargument over at Grist, that it’s an example of effective policy pluralism at work (I just taught a class on public policy and five of the main schools of thought: pluralism, policy science, policy specialism, public choice, and critical theory). This is a case where interest group competition (the two lobbyists in question, the HSUS and the UEP, represent very different minipublics. Obviously.) overcame private interests to serve something resembling a public interest that takes nonhuman animal interests into account. I think this case will make for an important case study of interest group bargaining in the domain of farm animal welfare, just as the back-and-forth between PETA and McDonald’s accelerated the process of hen welfare standardization in the last decade.

Looking at the two images above, I don’t agree with Francione that they’re both clearly being ‘tortured’. Yes, implementation will clearly take a very long time. And yes, the fact is that enriched cages on the level of production market demand ‘requires’ will still likely involve large-scale animal suffering. But that doesn’t mean that two wrongs, to paraphrase Asimov, are equally wrong.


Why is the USDA helping to hype Perdue chicken indeed? “Always raised cage-free…we’re trying to make a better chicken.” A few thoughts: first, this is a form of greenwashing similar to Shaving cream, etc. cans advertising that they’re “CFC-free” —  it’s completely irrelevant. In the case of CFCs and other ODSs, it would be illegal for a company to use them, so all its advertising is compliance with the law. In the case of ‘cage-free’ meat chickens, broiler chickens are never kept in cages; this only applies to egg-laying hens. The real issues when it comes to broilers are stocking density and various forms of enrichment.

On the second point: it’s important to note that the guy in the video (a Perdue scientist, presumably) said “we’re trying to make a better chicken”, not “we’re trying to raise a better chicken.” This gets us into the important bioethical questions about biotechnology, animal genetics, and animal ethics. These aren’t your grandpappy’s backyard birds.

And they even managed to riff on the gendered ethic of care: “she talks to them more than I do”…