voting with your fork: why eating is political. part 1- to meat or not to meat

Creative Commons image from a dead flickr site

This is part one of a short series I’ll be doing on the ethics and politics of food and the environment. The next installment will be next Monday.

Disclaimer: I’m not a vegetarian. I try to keep my meat consumption to a minimum and I won’t eat any pig products or veal, but I’m yet to take the jump to true vegie-ness.

Last week, the Environmental Working Group released the results of a study – ‘The 2011 Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change.’ On the surface, the results weren’t terribly surprising – the nutshell version is that a vegan is going to have a whole lot smaller environmental impact than someone who orders the meatlovers pizza. Digging deeper though, there were some pretty amazing statistics. Through their Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs – taking into account all aspects of feed production, manure, transport, slaughter etc), the EWG calculated that if every American went without meat of cheese for just one day per week, it would be the GHG equivalent of taking 7.6 billion cars off the road. Obviously this is just a rough assessment, but it’s still a remarkable figure.

EWG website

Clearly though, GHG emissions are not the only issue around meat consumption. There are a number of animal welfare and human health issues to be taken into account. How is the animal raised? Where is it housed? What is it fed? How is it transported? How is it slaughtered?

While Australia is nowhere near as dependent on feedlot farming as the USA, pigs in particular are still raised in appallingly inhumane conditions. Unable to root around or socialise (as is their nature), they are confined to sow stalls and farrowing crates. Often, their tails are docked and their teeth are clipped (with reason – frustrated and confined pigs do tend to get a bit bitey and can easily wound one another). There are no laws in Australia that ban battery farmed eggs. Broiler chickens can be fed hormones and antibiotics with abandon – and the confined conditions in which they live are an ideal breeding house for the next superbug. Bobby calves (live veal, basically), can be transported at less than 5 days old and can legally be left unfed for up to 30 hours. Australia also has a thriving live export industry, which sees animals being confined in small spaces for days and weeks on transport ships. Recently, there was an enormous furore leading to the temporary suspension of live cattle transport to Indonesia, after horrifically cruel practices in that country’s abattoirs were exposed. And while Australian abattoirs are by all accounts, operated in as humane a manner as possible, there are always some animals which aren’t killed quite as quickly and cleanly as some would like.

So, with all that said, should we stop eating meat? My answer is generally, no. One of the best pieces I’ve read about meat consumption recently, comes from another blog, Itty Bitty Farm in the City. One of the most important things that Heidi writes in this post is: “Americans eat waaaaaay too much factory farmed, plastic wrapped, monoculture-subsidized everything. But my pastured, locally raised beef where the entire animal is consumed is probably of less environmental consequence than your Creamy Sheese imported from Scotland. Just sayin’”

To me, that’s the key. The problem is not eating meat, per se. It’s how we eat meat – it’s the overconsumption and the lack of awareness of where our food comes from. We don’t have to stop eating meat (or, God forbid, cheese!). But it’s something that we do need to think about, because in each mouthful, there is an ethical and political decision – the decision to choose free-range over caged, to choose organic, pasture-raised rather than grain-and-hormone-fed, to choose local where possible and most of all, to choose to eat less meat. With every food item you buy, you are putting in your vote for the type of food you want to eat.

I’d really recommend scanning the EWG At-a-Glance guide. It’s interesting. Mark Bittman’s column in the NY Times is also worth a read.

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3 thoughts on “voting with your fork: why eating is political. part 1- to meat or not to meat

  1. Interesting. In Australia we should also consider the appropriateness of the stock animal; the impact of cattle and sheep on the land is also incredibly destructive (compared to, say, a camel). But try battling that industry, and you’ll need a lot more than facts; you’ll need money and a hell of a lot of luck. And sometimes the ‘ethical’ choice is one only some people can, literally, afford. Local and organic produce can be a pricey alternative.

    Honestly, I don’t give a damn about my carbon ‘footprint’ because of the way I drive, what I eat, how I live, etc. I care more about the idea of sustainability. Can we sustain the viability of our land for food production with our current agricultutal practices? Hell no. But unless you can phrase the problem, or an alternative, in economic terms you don’t have a chance of being heard.

    All the decisions that we make may affect the future of human life on this planet, but until things become dire enough, we’re unlikely to prioritise our intangible future needs over immediate economic concerns. Which seems insane. And yet.

    /ramble

    • Wow! Thanks for such a long and considered response. I really agree with a lot of the points you raised, especially around land degradation from “traditional” food animals. To be honest, I think that Australians should be eating a whole lot more roo and a whole lot less beef.

      Re. your comments about organic and local- that’s a topic for next week :)

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