By Tamar Haspel
Monday, August 14, 2006
It's almost a movement. Sustainable agriculture -- David to factory farming's Goliath -- is capturing the eating public's imagination with its contented cows, bucolic landscape and its practice of leaving the environment intact.
With an assist from some recent books describing the miserable lives of animals under big agriculture, the small farmer's message that we should care about the lives of our livestock is getting traction. As it does, it gives those of us with a concern for animals, but also a fondness for pork chops, a place to hang our hats.
Until relatively recently, when grass-fed beef and free-roaming pork began arriving in stores, consumers had to be one of three things: carnivore, vegetarian or hypocrite. If you didn't care about your pork chop's quality of life, you could be a carnivore. If you did, you could either renounce it and be a vegetarian or eat it anyway and, well . . .
Vegetarians had a good claim to the ethical and environmental high ground. Factory farms abuse animals and devastate the environment, and a world where we all eat plants is clearly better than that. When you put the vegetarian vision up against a system of small, sustainable farms, though, the equation changes.
Ecologically, vegetarians focus on efficiency. If humans eat animals that eat plants, it takes much more land to feed us than if humans just eat the plants. That seems like a quaint concern, though, in this era of abundance. Besides, what would we put on freed-up farmland? Gated communities? Wal-Mart?
There's also more to agriculture than efficiency. If animals make farming less efficient, they also act as weed control, pest control and fertilizer while they do it -- they're integral to sustainability. Michael Pollan, in "The Omnivore's Dilemma," profiles Polyface Farm, where the cows and chickens make the lettuce and sweet corn possible. And Joel Salatin, the farm's owner, makes a different kind of efficiency argument: Animals convert calories that human can't eat (such as grass) or prefer not to eat (such as grubs) into calories humans want to eat (such as chicken).
None of this would matter if the livestock suffered. Sustainability couldn't excuse keeping pigs in such close confinement that they chewed each other's tails off. But the beauty of the sustainable farm is that the pigs root, roam and wallow. Of course, you still have to kill them, and there are people who find that unacceptable under any circumstances.
But there's a strong case that giving a farm animal a happy life making a constructive environmental contribution and slaughtering it humanely to feed people is ethical. Even animal rights hard-liner Peter Singer, in "The Way We Eat" (co-authored with Jim Mason), can't condemn "the view that it is ethical to eat animals who have lived good lives and would not have existed at all." He concludes that it's "more appropriate to praise" this relatively enlightened view than to criticize it for not being the veganism he prefers.
Vegetarians have one more motivation: health. While vegetarians are undoubtedly healthier than meat eaters, no study has compared a wholly vegetarian diet to a largely vegetarian diet that includes some grass-fed beef, free-rooting pork or cageless poultry. Since grass-fed meat provides some nutrients missing from vegetarian diets (long-chain omega-3 fats, for example), it's just possible that vegetarians might be better off eating a little meat. We don't know. (The real health benefit of eating sustainably, though, might be decreased meat consumption among carnivores -- a response to the higher price of grass-fed meat.)
And so we can have the moral high ground and the pork chop. But the point here isn't to holier-than-thou the vegetarians (all of the sanctimony, none of the tofu!). By eating only animals that are raised sustainably and treated well -- and those in moderation -- we can protect our environment, our livestock and our health and support the small, sustainable farms that might be able to change the nature of American agriculture.
A vegetarian alternative needs a name. Singer suggests "conscientious omnivore," which, while accurate, doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. Since we're shifting the emphasis from what we eat to how what we eat was raised, how about "farmivore?" And, since every good movement needs a motto: Eat the farm.
Tamar Haspel writes on food and health.