Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why (Only) Meat Eaters are Hypocrites

On the discursive road to human and non-human
animal flourishing; humility and cooperation
will be vital virtues for all concerned
Recently, a friend whom I respect greatly but disagree with on the basic ethics of eating meat, posted a link on Facebook to the Carnism Awareness and Action Network, the activist leg of Humanistic Psychologist, Melanie Joy's efforts to found the concept of Carnism; an invisible belief system that blinds meat eaters to the inherent hypocrisy in their caring for animals.

Now, despite my carnistic ways, I do agree that something like what Joy describes is indeed going on in the minds of many meat eaters. As a moral psychologist; there is really nothing new about Joy's work - yet it I did still find it shocking. Shocking at the twisted approach Joy took to the sciences, and disturbed by the impact I believe it could have. 

As as result of my concerns I crafted a simple blend of quantitative and qualitative analyses to illuminate what is going on in terms of how Vegan's are using the scientific literature on cognitive biases - and how they perhaps can do it better. It's an argument that applies equally to meat eaters - though as you will see; Vegans are dominating the discourse in this arena, and without justifiable cause for such an imbalance.

I invite you to read the full report on my investigation; but for those who want to skip to the lessons learned, I'll quote here:

"[Compared to the current direction of Vegan moral discourse]Modern moral psychology suggests a different approach. An approach that renders Joy's unduly weighted theory of carnism incomplete at best, and harmful to non-human animal progress at worst. It is an approach in which all who are concerned with the genuine well being of non-human animals engage collaboratively and respectfully in the co-examination of each others moral matrices. All moral entrepreneurs must be willing to put our most sacredly held beliefs on the table for deep introspection. All moral entrepreneurs must come to the table expecting that their own moral community is just as likely to be blind to certain arguments as their moral out-groups. Lastly, all moral entrepreneurs should seek to engage the complexity requisite in as issue as ancient and interconnected the eating of other animals."

I don't portend to have all the answers; no one should - but I do believe that on the discursive road to human and non-human animal flourishing; humility and cooperation will be vital virtues for all involved. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Label Me Embarrassed

Prop 37 Supporters engage the Authority/Subversion
foundation to bind their groups together; but it may
have blinded them to the erosion of moral capital their
campaign has caused! 
It increasingly pains me to admit it; but for much of the last 10 years I was firmly situated among the rising tide of self-proclaimed 'food revolutionaries' - seeking change in our food systems towards 'local', 'organic', and 'small-scale' production methods. Now - I still think these are all [potentially] very good things to strive for - but as a cohesive social movement supposedly rooted in 'science' - I now stand quite some distance from my foodie friends.

The latest embarrassment to come from these ever vocal activists is "Prop 37" - a California Ballot initiative to label all foods containing GMOs within the state. If we do a quick analysis of the issue using my favourite moral claims framework - we can make a bit more sense of the diversity of opinion seen here.

According to evo-psychologists; the
mind is like a tongue - with 6 receptors
for tasting morality
Supporters of Prop 37 (those who want to see GMOs labelled) certainly invoke the Care/Harm and Sanctity/Degradation moral foundations when they talk about the impacts of GMOs themselves - but this policy measure goes beyond. It really is about a third foundation - Authority/Subversion. Proponents of the ballot call the measure 'historic' - and claim it will allow consumers to reclaim control of their food system from oppressive food corporations. 

Opponents of the measure generally dismiss these narratives of Authority, and instead focus on their own tribal interpretations of Care/Harm and Sanctity/Degradation. For Prop 37 opponents - worries that the policy will increase food prices appear as the prominent resource for moralising; but even more core to this position is concern about the degradation of scientific integrity among the consumer base. By labelling food as "Containing GMOs", opponents argue, it promotes a feeling that GMOs present health risks - a stance rejected by the vast majority of scientists looking at the issue. 

So - why I am embarrassed by my bleeding-heart cohorts - who's position of "we have a right to know" - seems so utterly reasonable? 

Well - if "morality binds and blinds" - as Jonathan Haidt likes to say - Prop 37 is a shinning example of the self-defeating stupidity this tribalism can cause. The food revolution's taste for the moral foundation of Authority/Subversion is so strong; like a hoard of fat guys at a buffet - righteous minded foodies have been clambering to get a place at the table. In this mad rush to turn tides of power on our 'corporate oppressors' - it seems all reason has been put on hold.

What the foodies forget to tell folks is that GMOs are already labelled - simply by being not labelled. Anything that contains corn or soy and is not certified as Non-GMO (or Organic) - likely has some GMOs in it. Prop 37 does absolutely nothing except to provide a platform for a very unhealthy form tribal discourse. 

The NGO Food Democracy Now! has reported on the millions of dollars 'both sides' have spent on this ballot initiative. The intent of reporting this is clearly to paint of picture that big bad corporations are funnelling so much money against Prop 37; that the grass-roots supporters are being further oppressed. The lesson I took away from these figures was something else entirely.

By my count, just shy of $20 Million has been spent (~15 Million opposing Prop 37; ~5 Million supporting). If you want to try to quantify the erosion of social or moral capital - here it is - $20 Million freakin dollars - wasted! 

What if - instead of scary corn-faces from the left; and glossy PR campaigns from the right - what if we had taken this $20 Million and invested in something with real gain? What if Prop 37 supporters took a moment to see that their adversaries are not necessarily greedy corporate fat-cats? What if Prop 37 opponents took a moment to see their adversaries are not necessarily ignorant granola-munching idealists? What if both sides came together to respectfully recognise the evolved moral matrices we all bring to the table - the foundations that bind us into groups and blind us to the possible truths of others? 

We could then begin the kind of real discussions that an informed democracy requires. Conventional food companies may have wasted some three times the amount of money as their Organic colleagues on this debacle - but I place blame solely on the righteous indignation of the alternative food movement. They let their craving for subversion overtake their reason - and the result was the misdirection of vast amounts of funding that could and should have been put to any number of far more beneficial purposes. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

There's Gotta Be a Better Way to Clean Goat Guts!

The sun hadn't yet peered above the horizon - so I could only hear the crashing ocean waves as I walked to meet up with the family of goat butchers I'd met just two days ago. It was 5am; and by the time I arrived - their one goat of the day was already slaughtered and on the fire. I was greeted cheerfully and offered a steaming cup of malagasy coffee.

The malagache; as I believe for most African meat workers - use an open fire to scorch their animal carcasses prior to removing the guts..... it looks just disgusting - but I try to keep my emotions in check as I remember the lessons learned from a dearly departed colleague; Dr. Chris Raines from the Penn State University Meat Sciences Department. Before his tragic car accident just over a year ago - Chris and I had many discussions about the purported benefits of small scale slaughter and meat processing. I had come to him as a wide-eyed cattle farmer hell-bent on developing viable meat processing on a micro-scale.

At first I thought Dr. Raines was 'just another meat scientist in the pocket of industry' - as the narrative goes; but over our more than year long discourse - I came to see his very valid point. It is a point, as well - reflected deeply by some of the latest evolutionary thinking in agricultural development!

What Chris was incredibly adept at, was understanding the trade-offs inherent in the complex adaptive systems that yield our edible meat-stuffs  The scale of operation (e.g. the size of a butchery) is - in many cases - far less important than the management of the operation. Indeed - very few problems are as scale-dependent as the "Local Organic" food movement too frequently touts; most challenges we find in our meat systems simply require the best and most appropriate management for the size of the operation.

I wanted to visit this family-run independent goat butchery because; compared to the larger scale urban meat markets - their potential for hygienic handling seemed orders of magnitude higher. I chatted with the brethren of butchers as they carefully tended their product - it became clear that their care for their work was genuine. Yet - my point is not that these small-scale goat folk are good; and that larger urban meat markets are bad - far from it.

While the eldest brother prepared the carcass for quartering (dividing the whole animal into quarters and ultimately steaks and ground chevre) - the youngest brother took to his thankless task; manually - or should I say orally - cleaning out the goat bowels...... I've been curious about the hand-made charcuterie that abounds in the marketplaces here - but was not quite prepared for this intensely personal practice. Is this practice requisite to small-scale sausage making? What kind of improvements would it take to make it such that this otherwise 'good' butchery didn't require one of it's key workers to kiss goat butt every time they process?

There are aspects of this micro-butchery that make it far better than "the big guys"; but there are also limitations - for whatever systemic reasons - that make it far worse. As R. Ford Denison describes in his latest Darwinian Agriculture - what we must seek in terms of agricultural development is "trade-off free improvements" - improvements to the whole that don't also 'cost' some measure of quality elsewhere in the system. For evolved biological systems, Denison theorises; such trade-off free improvements may be challenging to find (whether through GMOs or Agro-ecology). For evolved socio-economic systems (such as butcheries), I postulate many of us have only begun to look in this direction.

In the great global debates about meat; we should paying less mind to the divisive "big vs. small" narratives - and more attention to matching the scale to the society; and then adapting the management to that scale. Improving meat systems in Madagascar will be no easy feat for anyone; the only clear thing we can say is that cookie cutter one-size-fits-all solutions imported from the west will be unlikely to work whether they are big and efficient or small and artisanal. What is needed is a concerted effort and support for regional butchers to internally and cooperatively search for those trade-off free improvements that may be out there - and start implementing them!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

If Cows Were Time Travelers...

A Cow in Madagascar; richly emotional, uniquely intelligent - yet when we
talk about differences in the nature of consciousness - we must be very
careful! Evolutionary thinking helps.
The BioPolitics of Animal Consciousness

If cows were time travelers - I would stop eating most meat! Let me explain....

Earlier this summer, a group of prominent scientists across fields connected to the Animal Sciences came together to sign The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness; a statement of consensus among the researchers declaring numerous assertions regarding the similarities between human consciousness and animal consciousness. As stated by the signatories - I agree most wholly with their assessment - indeed it didn't even strike me as anything new. Animals have rich emotional lives- as rich or potentially richer than humans. I would imagine in many examples this case is easy to make. My problem comes with how this report is to be interpreted.

Consciousness is a complicated and nuanced world. I've been a farmer for the last decade - not a neuroscientist; but I am also an evolutionist - and I believe that from between these fields I can shed some light on the spin this story obligatorily induces from many involved in Animal Rights movement (including the highly respectable George Dvorsky - a fellow contributor to the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technology)

My proposition here is quite simple - the ability to be a time traveller is a critical defining marker in how we must practically interpret the nature of any given animal consciousness. What I call time travelling here - is what linguists call displaceable symbols - the ability to break from the here and now of experience and map the world from it's seemingly infinite past through it's imagined infinite future. In his 2009 book, Adam's Tongue; author and evolutionary linguist Derek Bickerton describes in magnificent richness the hard won freedom that humans earned from the animalian 'prison' of the here and nowness of experience. Without spoiling Bickerton's wonderful story; he argues that our emergent culture and stone technology conspired with a changing landscape; propelling our lineage of great ape into an new ecological niche - a niche that needed both tools and talking - the niche of scavenging for the meats of ancient mega-fauna.

Many have asserted that the proto-human diet first shifted to meat; and following this transition - the dense nutrition of meat allowed our minds to grow. Whence grown - we began to speak. Bickerton says we have that all backwards. We needed to get meat, yes - but the only way we could get it at first was to talk. It was the talking that gave us access to meat ("hey buddy - come help me cut up this dead hippo!"); and it was this subsequent interaction of language and nutrition that gave us our brains. It was telling our tribal friends and family about our find of meat sources located across time and space that gave us displaceable symbols. The apprehension of displaceable symbols - or the ability for us to construct internal, mental maps of the world able to consider an infinite range of space and time -this was the quintessential mutation that spawned the bio-cultural arms race leading to our current human predicament. Bickerton points to bees and ants as the only other creatures to have constructed a niche needing displacement within their communications systems; hence bees and ants share some interesting cultural homologies with humans.

If we can believe that 'real' language is dependent on displaceable symbols; and if we can believe that language created our distinctly human form of consciousness; it follows that to posit claims of animal consciousness being remotely like ours - one must demonstrate a viable ecological niche over evolutionary time that would have selected for displaceable symbols.

Yes - without question a wide range of non-human animals have rich - and I would argue potentially and occasionally richer emotional - affective lives than human animals. But emotion does not equate consciousness and we must therefore be very careful how we than interpret what is in the non-human animal's interest.

Does the Cambridge Declaration have implications for how and if we should conduct bio-medical research with a range of animals? Yes - without a doubt.

Does the Cambridge Declaration have implications for how livestock are raised? Yes - I think it and the science behind it should be at the forefront of animal welfare discourse.

Does the Cambridge Declaration have implications for the ultimate ethics of slaughtering livestock for human food sources - specifically animals raised under 'humane conditions'? I would argue it does NOT.

Yes - animals - including cows - have rich emotional lives. We must treat them well and give them vibrant, safe, and fulfilling lives whilst they are under our care. However, in the absence of any evidence that that have achieved displaceable symbols - we must think through carefully what slaughter actually means to the cow herself, as well as her herd mates.

Take for example Prof. James McWilliams claim:

"no matter how they are raised—the animals we eat ultimately succumb to a violent death, 
one that they are smart enough to anticipate, sentient enough to suffer through, and,
were they given an option, wise enough to avoid." 

This is common among those in Animal Rights movements to express concern that the cow knows what's coming and, given the choice, would choose not to die that day.

On-grass Slaughter - herdmate reaction
Cattle in a German research project for On-Grass Slaughter;
Herd mates are calm and grazing while their friend is being bled and
gutted just off camera. 
Of course it is true that if cows could understand what death is; and if it were possible to ask them - they would likely choose to continue grazing and die another day. But these if's are pretty big - and the behavioural evidence leans in an contrary direction.

Take for example a research project being led by Katrin Schiffer in the Agrartechnik department at the University of Kassel in Witzenhausen Germany. Schiffer and colleagues are paving new ground through an action-research project exploring On-Grass slaughter of beef cattle. Now - you may have heard of "on-farm" slaughter - where a cow is walked to a small abbatoir on the farm. On-Grass slaughter takes it one step further and has the cow shot while she is grazing - unconscious before she even knows anything ever happened. The purpose of the project is to explore the technical and legal challenges to making this into a commercially viable system - yet an interesting off shoot has emerged in watching the behaviour of the herd mates who do not get slaughtered. POP - the gun goes off, the cow falls to the soft earth- eyelids non-reactive- her waking experience is over. The herd mates scatter at the sound of the gun - yet - unlike a reasoning self-reflective creature desiring at all costs to live - they don't keep running. Invariably they stop after a few meters - regroup and continue grazing. Just meters away their less fortunate friend is being hoisted by a tractor, neck cut - and blood drained into a bucket. Cattle live in the here and now. Their herd mates provide critical social interaction and joy - but as the saying goes; out of sight, out of mind.

And what about the poor cow on the tractor? What about her rights? What about her interests? This is tough- and to be sure- I can not be 100% certain I am correct here; but I do think especially this type of slaughter can be navigated in an ethically acceptable manner.

Clearly on-grass slaughter (if not most proper methods of livestock slaughter) is a far less painful way to go compared any sort of "natural death" option. Degeneration, disease, dehydration, starvation, predation - compared with these options - I think it's safe to say the cow prefers a quick bullet or spike to the brain - followed by the unconscious draining of blood. Even farm animal "sanctuaries" put their animals down - albeit via medication. So the question is not - should cattle death be delivered by the hands of man - it's when should it be delivered. Now we're down to a discrepancy of days (between the Animal Rights folks and the Animal Welfare folks). Sure - if we're talking about killing a steer at 15 months vs. 10 years - we might be talking about a few thousand days this cow could otherwise live, but we're still talking about a number of days. It comes down to what do these days mean to the cow. Does the steer have hopes and dreams for these future days? no. If the steer lives till age 10 - will he console his aging body with fond memories of strolling through the fields with his friends? no. Will more happy cows be able to use the grass he would otherwise consume? yes.

For sure - cows are individuals. They behave as individuals, with individual personalities. We must treat and care for them as individuals. But this does not mean they experience and value individuality in any sense of the way that we do. The concept of knowing that one's self is an individual is, itself, a displaced symbol - it is something all science indicates our domestic farm animals do not have. It may well be that the clearly preferable death-by-human hand is actually desirable to "cow at large" even if the individual cow lifespan is shortened. Cows live in the here and now; for us to halt beneficial grazing practices - and remove grazing lands from the earth's agricultural coiffures based on a misinterpretation of their interests would truly be a crime against all creatures of the world. The rising challenges of meat production are steep - we must work together and we must get it right.

If cows were time travellers - I would stop eating most meat. But more than likely - they are not - so let's treat them well, graze them properly, and eat them with the highest respect.

Friday, August 31, 2012

A Contact Lens for Cows?

Dr. Babak Amir Parviz, at the University of
Washington, is hard at work developing a
a 'bionic contact lens' for humans;
He believes a simplified cow-version could
marketable for under $1 per cow before 2030 
From the You Heard it Here First department - let me present an idea that sounds patently ridiculous and yet - according to my discussions with the leading researcher in the field - is entirely possible within 20 years - a possibility that I argue - is indeed a probability.

Introducing - a contact lens for cows! Not just any contact lens - but ones infused with augmented reality capacities that guide the herd across pastoral landscapes with an ease and precision unimaginable today. What? How? Why? - So many questions may arise from this claim - I'll deal with the first two as succinctly as possible before getting to the far more interesting third inquiry - Why on earth might we want to do this?

Much has been made about the Google Glasses to be released - at least for testing purposes - later this year. The glasses have a tiny screen embedded in them to connect the user and his/her environment to google (and vice versa). A tiny camera in the bridge of the glasses allows the users visual world to literally be "searched" - buying tickets for a concert simply by looking at a poster and verbally asking your google glasses is but one example purported by google. On the team of developers for this project is Dr. Babak Amir Parviz, a nano-materials specialist with vision far beyond glasses - he seeks to integrate a google-enhanced reality directly into contact lenses. Parviz is years if not decades away from getting high-resolution, Internet enabled visuals seamlessly integrated onto a human's contact lens - but he's not that far away. Already proto-types exist for getting very simple visual cues onto such lenses.
The prototype for Google-Glasses

Simple visual cues are really all we need for cows! Numerous researchers around the world are engaged in projects seeking to develop 'virtual fencing' - the ability to control where cows graze without the energy intensive use of fencing. To date- these projects use a range of audio and vibratory cues to train the animals - and while there has been some success - it is far from effectively controlling the grazing patterns at a scale and precision optimum for truly ecological cattle production.

It's been estimated that, given consistent exponential growth in the price-performance of information technologies, augmented reality contact lenses could achieve "throw away" economic levels. That is to say - in my conversations with Dr. Parviz - he estimates it is entirely possible to achieve a 'virtual grazing' contact lens for cows that costs just $1 per cow within 20 years. When this occurs - the ability to produce grass-fed beef through the latest in holistic grazing management - will, in fact, be the easiest and lowest cost option.

The application is simple. The contact lens' will be placed in bovine eyes during routine handling sessions. Tiny GPS units in a cow's collar will simply blur the landscape as a cow leaves the current delineated grazing area.  Using simple iPad or Android tablet apps; integrated with Google Earth - cattle and farmers will work in fluid synchronicity, balancing the needs of the land with the interests of the cows. Farmers will be more profitable, land will be healthier, cows will have more freedom, bountiful and better grass; that is - for those who choose to adopt such an emerging technology.

Doubtlessly there will be many who will get hung up on my third question posed Why would we want this? This dissent is doubtless a good thing; debate and discourse on new technologies should be both omni-present and vigorous in nature. There certainly could be unintended consequences from this (and every) technological advancement. Though in this case - I do believe such consequences could all be managed fairly easily. What concerns me more than unintended consequences is the reasons I predict many will reject this highly probable future of farming option before it even reaches the field.

Farms of the future will use advanced information technology,
rather than steel and diesel fuel, to guide the movements of
cow herds across time & space in an optimum balance
for cattle, soils, farmers, and consumers.
Cows truly are sacred in so many contexts and ways - it makes them a subject rife with moral judgements; from if they should be eaten, to how they should be born, raised, and die. There is no area of bovinity out of the scopes for modern food ethicists. Some will inevitably claim we are degrading the purity of the animal with such technology; that the farm itself is somehow cheapened by this particular step towards precision grazing. I remain open to the possibility that these claims could bear fruit - that this technology could introduce it's own set of animal welfare, environmental, and human health concerns itself. I argue only that we should think through these possibilities with high levels of scrutiny - and not let real agro-ecological progress be missed by knee-jerk reactions to 'high tech solutions'.

Indeed - holistic grazing uses cows instead of tractors to manage vast landscapes. Farmers of the future may well view steel & diesel as high-technology; and nano-scale computation as appropriate-technology. To me the idea of a contact-lens for cows is emblematic of the nuanced challenges technology will thrust ever more upon our moral reasoning - let's try to understand it's full ramifications and adopt or reject it based on evidence over emotion.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reasonable Genes, Rational Responses?

It's not easy to grow stuff here - but divisive moralising
in the "1st world" surely won't help!
The US National Public Radio (NPR) service recently posted a story about Saving Lives in Africa with the Humble Sweet Potato - the piece is 'fair and balanced' to the degree that it is requisitely vague in detail. The ~5 minute audio segment documents a project in Mozambique (a stones throw across the channel from where I've been living in Madagascar); this project aims to save lives by improving the genetics of sweet potatoes to enhance their production of life saving micro-nutrients. While the story has nothing to do with meat - the responses on NPR's Facebook comments reveal insights critical to all food debates.

The story does go into the potential of genetic engineering of crops to enhance micro-nutrient properties - though from my listen; it's hard to tell whether the majority of the crops their using are GMO or not, and in fact, the sweet potato they were highlighting was just a normal everyday, orange fleshed tuber-au-natural. Perhaps it was this lack of clarity that, in part, fueled a not-surprisingly heated debate.

Right out of the gates, minutes after the story was posted; a Dave Wu comments "NPR, stooping to new lows, promoting GMO crops. wow! every day you post more crap!". Just moments later, Josh Hofmeister rebuts Wu by claiming "anti-gmo is pro-starvation"

The lines have been drawn, the food tribes begin to gather and circle around their sacred beliefs!

To be fair- not all commentors engaged in high level tribalism here - many were happy with the story and many others were simply confused.

But soon after Josh Hofmeister's strongly divisive stance, Eleanor Pickron weighs in; "Josh, yams, the orange-flesh sweet potatoes are NOT at all GMO food. I am totally anti-GMO and there's no benefit to GMO-food only problems."

As well, the fiesty Melissa Giaccheti adds "Anyone who says anti-GMO is pro-starvation is an ignorant moron....of course the people benefiting from the sale of those [GMO] crops are going to spew propaganda. look at the facts".

Already we see many moral foundations being invoked:

>Care / Harm
-For GMO opponents; this is the potential harm of using them
-For GMO advocates; this is the potential harm of not using them

>Liberty / Oppression
-For GMO opponents; this is mega-corp Monsanto oppressing the rural poor
-For GMO advocates; this is about the freedom to farm, eat, and live

>Sanctity / Degradation
-For GMO opponents; this biotech process threatens the sanctity of their sacred object- food

Now, NPR has a reputation for attracting an intellectual listener base.

Unfortunately - the comments cited, and many more left on the cutting room floor - do not seem to exemplify this. Let's remember - the sweet potato they are talking about is - by point of fact - NOT a GMO. To turn this story into a battle ground for the GMO-Debates is neither needed nor helpful. To argue that "anti-GMO is pro-starvation"  is self-defeating in that this whole story is about a non-GMO making strides in alleviating hunger.

And yet - I'm afraid both of these points soared to to voluminous heights - leaving a far more real and critical issue never to be discussed. It's an issue best described by the brilliant Bill McKibben. Back in 2003, McKibben wrote Enough - a book outlining the dangers of emergent technologies including GMO's. Now I actually disagree with almost everything he claims in that book - except for his point around the so-called "bio-fortification" of crops to alleviate hunger in developing nations. McKibben reminds us, it's not a lack of Vitamin A that the worlds poor are lacking - it's a lack of a diet rich in diverse vegetables and adequate in everything else. McKibben is specifically arguing against the bio-fortified GMO Golden Rice - but indeed - his argument goes beyond the issue of GMO's.

African folk aren't lacking in sweet potatoes, they're lacking in access to a diet rich in diverse vegetables and adequate in everything else. So what - is this potato story just a scam? an illusory feel good story turned into a worthless heated debate?

Literally as I write, my girlfriend is in the extremely isolated village of Efoesty in southern Madagascar. She's an agronomic researcher working with local farmers to diversify their vegetable production in these unbelievably harsh semi-arid conditions. Together with the farmers, they are experimenting with varieties, irrigation methods - and all manner of complex variables to hopefully help these folks add diversity to their rice-based diets rather than putting nutrients into their rice.

You want to tell this girl she shouldn't eat
because it's a GMO? Conversely - she
may very well have no need for GMO Food!
Without question - this is how it should be done - but guess what - it's TOUGH! Given current technology it is highly questionable whether such diversified yields will be attainable in the near future. And it's the near future that is most important to the kids who need nutrition today.

What we need is long-term vision and short-term solutions. What we don't need is idealogical brow-beating that obscures reality and wastes our precious social capital.

As evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt says "morality binds and blinds". Our minds are intuitive and emotional - this binds us into groups of the like-minded, and blinds us to real problems and real solutions.

If you're staunchly anti-GMO; perhaps realise that SOME applications, in SOME contexts - may just possibly be helpful and appropriate.

If you're staunchly pro-GMO; perhaps realise that sometimes things are more complicated than they appear; that sometimes a hard-nosed engineering approach, however powerful it may be, just might not be what is actually needed.

Instead of accusing others of ignorance and malice, lets remember we all want to feed the hungry and assume the best of anyone willing to talk about it!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

When Poultry Divides: Moral Diversity & Chik-Fil-A

"When the politics of poultry becomes a moral wedge that we can't as a
nation overcome - we are indeed roosting in a vast pile of shit"
Gay marriage would normally be beyond the purview of my humble blog here - but it's the power of meat to connect into nearly all domains of humanity that, well, here we are. It's no new news that Chik-Fil-A restaraunt founder, Dan Cathy, recently admitted he is "guilty as charged" for believing in the sanctity of "traditional, biblical marriage" - as well a funnelling millions to support organisations that advocate against the freedom of certain single consenting adults to marry each other, aka - "gay marriage".

Now - my politics generally fit into the box of 'bleeding heart liberal' - but it would be a waste of my time and yours to write one more blog on the level of disgust felt by me and my 'leftist' comrades regarding the actions of Cathy and his chain of oh-so-delicious chicken sandwiches (truth be told - I've actually never been ;). Despite the liberal, carnivorous evolutionism that shapes my world views - I follow all manner of folks in the social media sphere. From conservative Christian cowboys, to radical vegan activists. I follow folks I frequently disagree with, not for "opposition research" aiming to craft better attacks on the enemy, rather - to understand how it is that good people can become so divided by politics and religion. Let me attempt to shed some evolutionary light on this most recent chicken-based wedge threatening to pull the US populous deeper into tribal anomie.

Earlier this year, champion of evolutionary moral pyschology, Jonathan Haidt published The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Inside, Haidt offers a cavalcade of concepts that might help us use this poultry-based debacle to yield greater mutual understanding, rather than simply fodder for hatred between the Christian right and those advocating for gay rights.

Haidt argues that our ancestral environments shaped our minds to universally behold (at least) 6 mental mechanisms - or highly emotional moral responses - to a variety of stimuli. The graphic summary on the left lists these moral foundations and it is not difficult to imagine how ancestors which had moral responses to anything listed became more cohesive communities - and out competed the less cohesive.

Today, Haidt argues; "morality binds and blinds". It binds us into groups based on shared moral responses to these stimuli and it blinds us to the potential truths or rationale of others. This can be either helpful or harmful - the end result will be based on how You and I take the time  understand each other's moral matrices.

For our conservative cowboys - Chik-Fil-A's Dan Cathy was standing up for the sanctity of marriage- protecting a sacred institution from degradation of the authoritative word of God. When liberals respond by calling for a boycott on these poultry palaces- conservatives cry fowl. Numerous conservative ag-commentators have spun the issue as one of free speech. The liberals, some say, seek to limit Cathy's liberties - his freedom to voice his support against gay marriage.

Predictably, according to Haidt's intensive empirical findings - this stance outrages liberals and fills us with disgust. You see - for the liberal moral matrix - the Care/Harm and Fairness foundations are incredibly strong (indeed stronger than for conservatives). When we see the pain caused to entire groups of people due to discriminatory policies and dangerous pseudo-psychological treatments (as in bans on gay marriage and 'pray the gay away' clinics) - we cringe and wonder how any supposedly moral community could allow this to continue. 'They must be stupid and ignorant out there in the mid-west' - we stay to ourselves on either coast.

Conservatives would do well to understand that liberals have a notoriously difficult time seeing the loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations as having anything to do with morality - in fact we frequently see them as negatives. Conservatives do indeed have a "more balanced" moral matrix than liberals - but this is not to say it's better. Morality binds and blinds - and in the case of gay marriage, perhaps conservatives in their rush to bolster full array of moral foundations - become blinded to the real and perceived harm of their actions. The astonishing levels of support for Chik-Fil-A (in recent days the restaurants have been flooded with conservative consumers) is easily perceived by liberals as actions of hate, not a defense of free speech.

Likewise, Liberals could reduce the anomie and build bridges toward productive conversation if we took time to at least understand where our conservative bretheren are coming from. True - the harm caused to homosexual communities by such political rhetoric can be seen as so great "why would we even want to take time to understand these assholes" - I can hear many of my gay-supportive friends asking.... I'm not asking for agreement, merely pause to understand the foundations of moral diversity. If we were to do this perhaps our communications would sound different - perhaps the 'other side' would listen to us instead of turning inward to their existing tribal groups.

A boycott of Chik-Fil-A is a logical and reasonable step for anyone who supports gay rights....I for one will never eat there (never have - but still, now I never will). People should, if they feel so inclined, align purchasing power with personal values (whatever those may be). But if liberals can understand as well that conservatives have an ultra-attenuated response to the Liberty/Oppression foundation - perhaps we could be more careful about how we communicate. Yes - Dan Cathy has a right to say and fund what he likes, and yes, Chik-Fil-A has as much right to exist in the US as much as any group we may vehemently disagree with. I think every liberal agrees with that statement, but too often we don't start conversations this way - and just as often these conversations stop before they even begin.

Morality binds and blinds; when the politics of poultry becomes a moral wedge that we can't as a nation overcome - we are indeed roosting in a vast pile of shit. Let's open the doors of our respective hen houses, pick on the fresh grasses of tribal diplomacy - and use this odd example as a way to understand each other in new and productive ways!

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