Is There Anything Truly Sustainable or Humane About Eating Meat?
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Natural food sections in our grocery stores are chock full of them. The ethical foodies seek them out. They're intended to inform the consumer about where our food comes from and how it's produced: "Sustainable," "organic," "free-range," "local" products -- we've all seen the terms and we hope they genuinely convey what they imply.
But what do they really mean? What's the truth behind the label? Can meat ever really be sustainable? Is purchasing local a good thing for the environment? Not always, says activist, author and educator Lee Hall, who serves as legal affairs VP for Friends of Animals. Hall is also an active supporter of HumaneMyth.org, a new group that seeks to expose the facts behind our misleading food labels and farming practices.
I spoke with Hall, whose new book on animal-rights theory and advocacy, On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth, is due out later this month.
Joshua Frank: As someone who frequently shops at farmer's markets and natural food stores, I have noticed a rapidly growing trend toward so-called ethical eating. People are becoming aware of the dark side of industrialized farming, and as a result more and more animal products are being labeled with terms like "cage free," "humane certified" and "organic."
Lee Hall: You're right; this trend is growing fast and the advertising hype that's driven by enterprises such as Whole Foods have a lot to do with it, as does the reality that global warming really is upon us. Climate disruption is the most frightening thing since the bomb (and that's not gone). People are looking for pacifiers. People want to be able to say they've grasped the inconvenient truth but they still want peace of mind. If they've got money, they'll pay a bit more these days for that.
JF: But you've argued that these are simply marketing terms that do not necessarily mean what they convey to consumers. Can you explain why? What's the reality behind these terms?
LH: First, they're usually just marketing ploys. There's no legally binding definition for cage-free eggs, for example. These items are bought by people who want to believe the birds were treated OK. That's well-meaning. But think about what's going on. Packing a mass of birds into a shed isn't much better than jamming them into a cage. Cannibalism increases in shed situations where so-called cage-free chickens lay eggs, as does bone breakage. Recall that birds who are purpose-bred to lay eggs do that a lot. So they're always short of calcium; it leaves their bodies and goes into the shells. That means osteoporosis is common in commercial birds. I don't mean to be a party pooper here; I assure you there are great vegan recipes for just about anything you're making with eggs now.
I know some people will say: Oh, but my eggs, my ham -- it really does come from a good farm; look at their Web site and all the greenery! Well, you must have a lot of money to eat that way all the time. But even if the animal farms you support are spacious, think about the ramifications. More space for agribusiness concerns, less free animals in wild spaces. Just like suburban development, farms take up a lot of land. Why would we as a society continue to think this is a good trend?
JF: What about grass-fed cattle? Michael Pollan and others have touted the alleged environmental and ethical benefits of eating free-range beef as opposed to cows raised in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). Isn't this method of raising animals qualitatively better?