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!

For more information on Moral Foundations Theory check out:

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Evolution of Abundance: An Interview with Steven Kotler

An exclusive interview for Evolution: This View of Life

Guru Madhaven: I am delighted to introduce this special interview. Our guest today is Steven Kotler. Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project, he is a best selling author and award-winning journalist. A self described “adventure junkie. Steven's articles have appeared in over 60 publications including the NY Times, Wired, GQ, and National Geographic. His recent non-fiction book – the topic for today, is Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, which he co-authored with X-Prize founder, Peter Diamandis. He also writes The Playing Field, a blog about the science of sport

Our guest interviewer today is Dustin Eirdosh, a graduate student at the University of Kassel in Witzenhausen, Germany. Dustin is examining the interconnections of emergent technology and animal agriculture from an evolutionary perspective. He is the author of the blog, and is currently working with team of volunteers to build the Abundance Hub; an on-line community based on the book by Peter Diamandis and our guest, Steven Kotler.
Dustin, the floor is yours.
...Read the full interview at Evolution: This View of Life

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Cosmic Connectivity in the Quest for a Tender Steak

Two month's ago I posted about an emerging trend called the “Internet of Cows”; the convergence of digital sensors, networks, and advanced analytics intending to improve the way meat gets from farm-to-fork.

In that post I describe that clearly; not everyone who is excited about beef is excited about such an Internet of Cows. I implored then – as now – to put emotion on the particulars aside – and instead ask:

How do we understand the real-world, non-digital - interconnected network between human, cow, and earth?

But... What the hell does that even mean?!? Isn't that just hippie hogwash; a cosmidelic vision based on little more than wishful thinking about a highly interconnected world? Not at all!

I've been a casual, if mildly eccentric student of chaos & complexity theories for about a decade now; and I gotta say – it's kind of been a lot work with seemingly little in the way of tangible gains - till  recently.  Somehow, up until now, I'd missed the explosion in Network Sciences that are finally allowing us a glimpse into the ineffably complex, fractaline universe of meats - and so much more.

Pictured above is an adapted image from Lim (2011); graphing the specific individual protein to protein interactions within beef cells that, along with good forages and low stress, lead to the tenderness of a steak. This isn't an amalgamation of human knowledge over the centuries; this isn't biochemistry. It's the cutting edge in molecular biology, and essentially the real-time quantification of a non-stop intra-cellular fiesta-del-mundo; the end result of which (in this case); is simply amazing beef.

Now, my friends and readers in the world of small-scale and grass-based beef might argue: so what! Many farmers produce outstanding beef products without ever having the aid of such technological frizz-a-frazz. They might even argue that such a techy approach diminishes from the 'real' research we need into agro-ecological production methods. Indeed – here in Madagascar the meat of the Zebu cattle is most generally, and perhaps surprisingly - superb. We can be quite sure these farmers have never seen, and feel no need, to contend with such Proteomic Network Graphs;  and surely they would benefit far greater in the short-term from an agro-ecological research agenda.

So what indeed! It's a good question. To say such data-intensive maps are the “future of beef”, as it may appear I am arguing here, is to miss a critical lesson regarding the evolutionary nature of technology and change in food and farming.

The proteomic graph above was created through the very cutting edge in technology – millions upon millions of research dollars; thousands upon thousands of human hours; even centuries upon centuries of knowledge building up to this current crescendo of progress......a barely intelligible, if cool-looking, network of cellular activity that no farmer can directly put to use. Shit!

But all this – the money, the time, the centuries of toil – all of this was done with little or no interest in creating a melt-in-your-mouth tenderloin.  Rather - it's a result of what can be called Information Technology (IT) spillover.

IT is truly an evolutionary force to be reckoned with. Genes, neurons, and yes – computer chips flicker on and off;  yes or no, 1 or 0 – in direct relationship to their environment in the unending, unfurling binary dance from the ultimacy of the micro to the complexity of the macro. From genes emerged neurons; from neurons emerged computer chips; and today – from computer chips emerge better computer chips.

Mapping the incomprehensible network of protein to protein interactions became possible because of evolutionary exponential growth in IT. It became desirable because it fuels a revolution in health care (Loscalzo & Barbasi 2011); but it only became applied to the luxurious domain of beef tenderness because it became practical. An emergent property of a constellation of convergence among sensing and thinking cybernetics; it strikes me as unreasonable to assume that IT spillover will stop any time soon.

Network science plays the role of both beneficiary and master to this endless spilling over of information into the world. Transforming medicine, ecology, economics, transportation, and now – food and farming. While the proteomic graph may seem – no matter how much you enjoy tender beef - like a banal example of this technological trend. And while farmers may not make direct use of this data – network analysts can; and the results will undoubtedly guide the evolution of healthier, more delicious cows. This story isn't about proteins and tenderness however, it's about new approaches to complexity.....and complexity is what abounds and confounds as we try to feed the growing population without harming the earth, our animals, or our selves.

The global (and local) systems that put beef on your table are no less complex, adaptive, or seemingly incomprehensible than the proteomic graph above. As the Internet of Cows, or so-called Smart Agri-Food systems, begin to apply these very same networked sensors and analytics to the “network of networks” we call meat; Farmers and Consumers should expect anything but a lack of change. Information Technology is spilling over into food and farming at astonishing rates. We  can either prepare for this and guide the turbulent flows of data to our collective wishes; or ignore these trends - and be washed away in a flood of dynamic change.  The farming, slaughter, processing, and distribution of meats are all currently on the plate for  network analysts. What this will mean - no one can say. The technology of illuminating network complexity is a technology cleaner than tractors and with perhaps greater promise for yielding a new agricultural revolution!

Loscalzo & Barbasi; (2011) Systems Biology and the Future of Medicine.

Lim ; (2011) Identification of Candidate Genes Related to Bovine Marbling Using Protein-Protein Interaction Networks;

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Lemur Steaks & Pigeon Pickings - The Malagasy Bushmeat Conundrum

While casually devouring a roasted pigeon,
Golden gave me his uniquely informed take on the many
challenges facing this rising nation of Madagascar.
Last night I had the fortune of sitting down with the leading researcher in Madagascar focused on the intersection of wildlife conservation and human health, Dr. Chris Golden from the Harvard School of Public Health.

I'd been reading up on Golden's work - 13 years of research, deep in the northern Malagasy jungles; producing an impressive body of research that is leading to real change in how the conservation community looks at it's challenges. That he's just my age truly gives pause for thought on what a determined individual can achieve!

As he ordered a whole-roasted pigeon for the table, I wanted to talk with him about his research connecting the issue of bush meat harvesting to the issue of human health. Bush meat (any non-domestic meat, usually illegally harvested from conservation lands) occurs on such a scale across the country, that it threatens multiple species survival, and ultimately the sustainability of the human food supply as well. Perhaps paradoxically, this very action that threatens the survival of future generations - is supporting the health of the current generation. In a land where starchy cassava and rice reign supreme; the meats of the iconic lemurs, and up to 23 other forest dwelling mammalia, offer critical nutrition to the growing rural youth. What's to be done? Is it a classic "man vs. nature" situation?

Far from it - Golden's connected vision of society and nature have yielded critical insights and are leading to genuine long-term solutions. Meat is of critical importance for childhood nutrition here, of this there is little doubt; but it need not be the flesh of the island's precious endemic species. In seeking solutions, Golden used his academic entrepreneurialism to bring a cavalcade of veterinary experts across the ocean; discovering that the manageable Newcastle's disease was a leading and devastating killer of rural poultry flocks. Rather than the "hands-off" descriptive sciences so often the rule of thumb here, this researcher is rolling up his sleeves and conducting an empowering action-research project to help small-scale poultry farmers improve flock health and productivity. This work seeks to simultaneously raise nutritional standards while reducing the need and desire to harvest the rainbow of illegal meat diversity that fuels the majestic aura of this rising island nation.

Dr. Golden's research is far more complex and interesting than I can report here - the full story can be found at - but the take home message is clear; meat plays a complex and dynamic role in the balance of humans and nature; the prevailing dichotomies in discourse on the subject are rarely if ever helpful; what we need are integrated, pragmatic solutions to build resilience across and between society and nature.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Internet of Cows: an Island Expedition

I gave a talk in April at an international conference on food systems held by the College of the Atlantic on Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine; the topic was a heady blend of evolutionary psychology, agroecology, and the future of meat itself. In brief, I argued that the "lightning rod issue" of meat is, in reality, too complex for meaningful human comprehension. That how a cow grows and burps in Maine today, could impact economies in the mid-west, and even the very future of island communities around the world, bespeaks of the complex web of interconnections we must examine to even begin to understand meat systems. In other words - no cow is an island!

I concluded the talk by offering up the idea of "The Internet of Cows". By 2009, there were more "things" connected to the Internet than there are people in the world. If you have a smartphone, a home computer, and work computer, there are 3 things for your one person right there. This transition has come to be known as the "Internet of Things", or IoT for short. That the developed world is awash in connective technology is not particularly heartening or interesting news in and of itself....but the IoT vision extends far beyond phones and computers. As Cisco's Chief Futurist, Dave Evans points out, some of the "things" being connected to the net include cows - from farm to fork. Exponential advances in technology are creating economically sensible opportunities for farmers to implant high-tech, low-cost sensors into their cows, pastures, and even beef product packages. Why would anyone want to do this? Common examples of beneficial applications include improving animal welfare through the early detection of disease, greatly improving the traceability of meats in the event of food safety problems, and improving environmental performance across the food supply chain. These all seem like  worthwhile goals, yet many in my audience, and even fellow farmers and panel members, were not so enthused about the prospects of such an "Internet of Cows".

To be sure, I have many serious reservations about the emergence of the IoT. If big brother is to truly manifest, no doubt the IoT is his most fertile of wombs. Despite my fears of how the IoT may pan out in our personal lives, food systems - I feel - are public domains; transparency is always a good thing. Likewise, easy access to more, and more accurate information about our food systems can't seem to hurt. Yet in this audience of largely "local" and "organic" advocates, this appeared to be a tough sell.

Critiques and questions varied quite a bit. One horse-powered farmer offered a concern that it would distance the farmer from direct observation on the farm, and perhaps more generally, that it replaces a human element of farming. An aspiring young vegetable producer pulled out the "appropriate technology" card, fearing that this kind of thinking will turn the noble profession of farming into a domain for computer geeks. All potentially valid concerns, and I'll discuss them further in future posts.

I was quite happy to see my talk result in such lively and thoughtful conversation, but I was somewhat saddened that the prevailing techno-skepticism of the room seemed to overshadow my much broader point. I hadn't traversed the Atlantic ocean to sell anyone on the hard-wired version of the Internet of Cows. Rather, my hope was to use the globally networked, democratic structure of the Internet as a metaphor for how we need to be thinking about food systems the meats they produce.

No cow is an island - how we raise meat, whether in Maine, Germany, or here in Madagascar,  the deliverable qualities, the holistic meat quality we are able to achieve, is most often not the sole of province of one innovative farmer or processor. These complex traits, especially social and ecological traits, are relative to complex contexts occurring simultaneously across multiple scales - from the global to the local.

The IoT, and it's child - the Internet of Cows, will, without question, become a major and potentially divisive issue in the years to come. Whether you find yourself in support or opposition to this hard-wired version, I hope you will join me in opening your mind to understanding the true nature of the Interconnected Network of Cows and Humans that was made manifest some tens of thousands of years ago.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Be Here Now - The Evolutionary Ethics of Slaughter

The ethics of eating meat are so unfathomably complex, so fraught with unknowable parameters - that the majority among us have retreated into a comfortable haze of collective ignorance on the matter. This need not be the case.

Fully admitting the complexity of the beast at hand, let us inspect just the fillet d’ ethique; the litmus test beyond which all other moral concerns of dietary selection are irrelevant; the issue of slaughter.

The essential and inescapable wrongness of taking an animal’s life for it’s flesh, especially in the profane name of base culinary desire, is a keystone argument against our dietary staple of interest. Animal protein proponents are quick to address the myriad web of ecological, nutritional, and even social concerns relentlessly dogging ‘the industry’. The rapid rise in the heroification of ‘happy meat’ farmers by alternative agriculture advocates, is evidence many consumers are literally hungry for ethical eats. Yet how can we possibly get passed this sin qua non moral stumbling block that meat really is murder?

Now, there are two approaches here. One can argue that it simply is wrong to take the life of another animal no matter what - that life has an inherent value regardless of what matters to “it”. Perhaps I am more farmer than philosopher, but this reeks of a little too much wavy-gravy grooviness for my liking. I am more inclined to agree with vegan animal liberationist, Peter Singer, that a utilitarian approach is in order. That, for an ethical quandary to arise, what happens to an organism must matter to that organism. It is here that Singer’s and my ethics align, and it is also here where they diverge. That we do agree on this significant point, however, would indicate that we are perhaps looking at different science to rightly determine what truly ‘matters’ to our domesticated dinners.

For it to matter to an animal that it will be slaughtered is to make the case, as a great many authors do, that the livestock “wants to live”. Singer himself, is an artful scholar of the evolutionary sciences, and it seems straightforward that in a very darwinian sense, survival for reproduction is the goaliest of goals. I submit, however, that to claim an animal “wants to live” is to make a claim of cognitive science that the data simply does not support.

Perhaps surprisingly, we can turn to a linguist for some novel insights. In Adam’s Tongue, Derek Bickerton makes a compelling argument connecting the origins of language to the hominin shift towards meat consumption. Not via the traditional reasoning that meat gave us bigger brains - but rather - that this dietary shift thrust our ancestors into a unique ecological niche - presenting novel challenges that only language could solve. We had a need - a need to recruit our clan mates across time and space to help butcher and transport the scavenged meat of paleolithic megafauna. We had to free ourselves from the here and nowness that, until this rise of language, had imprisoned all animals of even the highest cognitive ability.

What matters to animals is fear and pain; death is truly a concept beyond their temporal scope of interest. Only from this common understanding can we begin to discuss how animals are raised, and even how they are killed. We must first accept and understand that the slaughter itself, is not as innately wrong as it may emotively appear; and then work together to ensure that all creatures achieve the most fantastic of lives, and the most peaceful of deaths.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Repackaging Cultured Beef: Contextual Quality & Collective Action

Dr. Mark Post at the University of Maasstricht, inspecting
a proto-type culture of beef.
By the end of this year - Dr. Mark Post, and his team of researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands claim they will offer a celebrity-chef taste testing of the world's first lab-grown beef - also known as cultured beef. Now, at a price tag of some $200,000 - the technology is not quite economical to assuage our global hunger for hamburger. Rest assured - the price will go the down, the quality will go up - and in spite of the obvious 'yuk factor' - a huge majority of the world will accept cultured meat as a tasty and nutritious status quo (for more on how and why that is possible - see this article I wrote back in 2010).

If you happen to be a beef farmer today - whether conventional, organic, or grass-fed - you might be thinking '"Not me - I'll stick with real meat, I'm simply not interested" - well, I've got news for you - get interested, because this game-changing technology will literally affect the actual quantifiable quality of YOUR product.

This might seem counter-intuitive. We might be tempted to think that meat quality is absolute and that we are capable of engineering desired qualities into the processes of the supply chain. Indeed - some elements of quality are this way - farmers can control what feeds, supplements and health care treatments are offered to their cattle. Processors can control the humanity of their slaughter methods, and the post-slaughter processing practices.  Indeed, even consumers can and do select the quality of their meats based on any number of 'absolute' criteria - organic or conventional, more processed or less. This absoluteness, however, when it comes to ecological and social dimensions of quality - is largely a mirage.

A rigorously holistic understanding of meat quality in today's globally connected economy reveals a vastly different picture. Far from being absolute, holistic meat quality is highly relative and contextual.

Consider this - if you are an advocate of grass-fed beef being slaughtered on-grass and on a small-scale, as indeed I am - perhaps you would like to see a law passed within the US banning feed lots and industrial slaughter houses? Sounds like a good idea -  right? Wrong! The results would be globally negligible if not disastrous. Overnight, producers around the world would jump on this sudden and overtly significant market opportunity, and like it or not, America's industrialised beef production really is vastly superior to industrialised beef anywhere else in the world. The Brazilian rainforest would be pillaged at unprecedented rates, and less feed-efficient cows in Australia, Europe and Asia would overcrowd feed lots to pick up the slack.

"Well - people just need to eat less meat" - the organic farmer is quick to reply....perhaps true - but what are we to do? Globally regulate and dictate the diets of every man, woman, and child? Personally, I would never ever want to have the government involved in regulating anyone's diet. To be sure, cultural changes will be important, but in an increasingly interconnected and free world - we have to realise that the ecological and social "qualities" embedded in meat (and non-meat) foods co-exist simultaneously in both a local and global context.

Cultured meat is about to change this context in ways we can only begin to imagine. In a world of abundant cultured meat - the moral high ground that high-production agriculture currently stands on will vanish. Laws to stop behaviour limiting farm practices such as gestation crates and overly maligned feed lot will suddenly seems much more justifiable and achievable.

What about alternative agriculture? Small-scale, organic, and grass-fed producers - won't they go out of business also? Well, many undoubtedly will, but those that do not will truly be a testament to the emerging ethical imperative of our evolving partnership with non-human animals. Grass won't stop growing on otherwise un-farmable land, and our ruminant friends - under our guiding hand - truly are the best in the world at managing this critical global resource. As well, we can, when we chose, offer animals the most peaceful of possible death options: on-grass (not just "on-farm") slaughter.

Here-in lies the challenge to all farmers everywhere, and one they must begin preparing for now. In an age of abundant cultured meat of almost limitless holistic quality enhancements - attention to the qualities of 'real meat' will reach levels of introspection we can only anticipate.

There will always be a critical role for traditional animal agriculture - this is, I believe, ethically inescapable, but how farmers evolve sustainability in this brave new context will be the challenge of the century - and it starts NOW!


For more info on Cultured Meat - check out the Ted Talk in the Emergent Technology playlist on the Mythic Meats YouTube Channel

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Welcome to the Meat Tribes!

How do I possibly feel okay taking the
 life of  an animal? It's a good question, and
it has real answers!
"Nobody wants to have their science called bad, but of course, there is such a thing as bad science"

"The science is not always a good narrative, and a narrative is not always good science"
-David Sloan Wilson

I recently entered an essay contest, held by the New York Times - the challenge: to defend the ethics of meat eating in 600 words or less. The winners will be printed in an April edition of the Times.

Since the day the contest was announced - the tribalistic flags from all sides of the meat wars have been waving on high. Vegans, conventional, and alternative agriculturists have all been mightily quick to point out that they are, by point of fact, obviously correct in their respective ethical point of view. "Science", they each claim, "clearly supports OUR view".

Likewise, the vegan and conventional ag tribes - have apparently converged on an unheard of point of agreement regarding this contest - It's Stupid!

Michelle Simon, a public health attorney and contributor to the Huffington Post, derides the contest as "silly" - going on to claim:

"It saddens me that given all the pressing problems of our day, many of which caused by excessive meat eating (global warming, contaminated air and water, chronic disease, worker injury, and yes, animal suffering, just to name a few) the Times is promoting such a self-indulgent contest.
I am sure the meat industry is jumping for joy."
If Simon truly believes that meat is causing the atrocities she lists....why she would argue that proponents of carnivory shouldn't absolutely have to justify their actions,  is beyond any litmus test of reason or coherence. I do tend to find that vegans, of all the diversity amongst the meat tribes, are most often guilty of employing bad science to prove a point - and here again, Simon adds to my mountain of supporting evidence for such a claim. The meat industry is not only NOT 'jumping for joy' - I find most of them indignant if not outraged.
Enter the 'unconventional cattle woman',  Jesse Bussard. Yesterday she chose to stake her ground on the issue in ways I can't imagine anyone would want to stand behind. Bussard claims "why should I, or anyone else who chooses to consume meat for that matter, have to explain our ethics for doing so?". Well, okay, we live in a free country, and you shouldn't have to justify your actions to anybody - but - you should be able to. 
Conventional agriculture too often takes a stance akin to saying 'We're feeding the world so get out of our way' - and certainly it is far too easy for an overtly emotional public to cause real harm by over simplifying what are incredibly complex issues. Regardless of this fact - everyone should be reflective enough about their own actions so as to be able articulate why what they are doing is the right thing to do.
To be fair, Bussard does point out a concern I shared for a brief moment, that is, the heavy bias of the panel of judges:
"What [the NY Times] call 'a veritable murderer’s row of judges' is no less than just that.
The line-up features the father of animal rights himself, Peter Singer, along with Michael Pollan, Johnathan Safran Foer, Mark Bittman, and Andrew Light."

Which brings me to my point about the nature of science and the alarming levels of tribalism espoused by almost everyone passionate about the meat issue. 

The ethics of eating meat, or not eating meat for that matter, are unfathomably complex and touch upon almost all of humanities grand challenges. To capture this complexity in a 600 word essay is a truly torturous request for anyone who has done any quality thinking on the matter. Realising this, I crafted my entry around what I've called the fillet d' ethique, the sin non qua moral issue beyond which concerns of ecological, nutritional, or social impacts are null and void; 

Is it okay to KILL a sentient domesticated creature for food?

Now, I'm not going to answer that question here - it's my entry in the contest for crying out loud ;) Needless to say, I did answer it, I answered it affirmatively, and I answered it with quality science (I'll post the full essay here, after the contest ends). 

Briefly, I employed a blend of evolutionary psychology and animal cognition sciences to illuminate how this seemingly intransigent moral dilemma can be acceptably navigated. In doing so - I believe I've poked a hole of some significance into the utilitarian arguments that codify 'the father of the animal rights movement', Peter Singers' grounds for the moral rightitude of the vegan lifestyle. 

I won't lie - I entered this contest to win it - so was it a wise move to explicitly attack the extensive and impressive body of work of the most eminent and scholarly judge on the panel? 

Whether or not I win this contest - I actually have very strong faith that it was a wise move - and I have YouTube to thank for this. I'd never read Singer, and from what I'd heard, I imagined he was living in a tree somewhere plotting which 'factory farm' to blow up next, as indeed, the fringes of his readership occasionally do. As you can see for yourself on the Ethics & Carnivory playlist in the Mythic Meats YouTube Channel - Singer is, in fact, a world renowned Bioethicist at Princeton, and far more importantly - he's a pretty reasonable guy, and clearly someone who respects the scientific process. 

Yes, Jesse Bussard is correct in pointing out that the NY Times has selected quite a biased panel for this issue. If this panel was to solely decide what constitutes the ethics of eating meat - I would agree, we need far more balance. Instead - this 'veritable murderers row' is charged with a quite different task: they have to pick at least one winning essay, regardless of how essentially wrong they may feel meat, of any sort, may be.

In this context, I would argue that the Times' judgement is a remarkable exercise in trans-tribal diplomacy. Instead of the tired routine of staking our ground and waving our flags - these unlikely set of minds have to deeply explore what, for some of them, is the null hypothesis of their life. This is the scientific ideal.

The reason that carnivory and veganism have reached unheard of levels of ideology in recent times is not just fuelled by the general rising interest in food - it is representative of the most serious of scientific literacy issues  facing the world at large. Science is not a citation or an authority - it's a community process. Civil discourse - talking about the issues without throwing cheap shots, without hiding behind rights to freedom, without attachment to even your deepest held beliefs - this is the only route to progress.

The discourse around meat consumption is in perilous danger of becoming a drain on our cultural capital, unless we can collectively bring real science, and thus real discourse back to the table.

Within an hour of posting this, Jesse Bussard got in touch with me, with a wonderful note, respectfully pointing to things I'd helped her think about, as well as pointing out that I was incorrect in characterising her as not being able to defend her ethical stance... 
"I am fully capable of defending my ethical choice to consume meat, but felt that the NYT contest given their panel of judges it was not worth my time or effort. I do not ask vegans or organic proponents, for example, to explain to me why they feel that their food choices are more ethical than mine, and therefore don't feel it's a publication or an individual's place to question mine. However, if the need did arise I would fully be able to state them."

I applaud Jesse for her reply - and hope all discussions around the complexity of meat ethics can be this civil and productive!