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!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Abundance in an Age of Food Tribalism

For those who haven't heard yet - 2012 has gotten off to a highly optimistic start, in no small part due to the NY Times Best Seller, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.

No matter where you fall in the broad spectrum of the food and culture wars - it's well worth your reading. The subtitle kind of says it all, but within the pages of Abundance, Diamandis and Kotler yield some really counter-intuitive conclusions, based on an amazingly strong convergence of data. The book has done a pretty spectacular job convincing me, and a great many others, that we are in fact about to enter a new age of abundance. Not in a caddy materialistic sort way, but rather in terms of the very basic of human needs - water, energy, shelter - and yes - Food. How will we get there? The authors suggest it will be through the convergence of emergent technologies.... the idea is nothing completely new, and it's scope of controversy is beyond the reach of this posting, but needless to say - it can be something of a divisive issue.

Now, I've spent my entire academic career in educational institutions with explicit missions of promoting sustainability - most typically through a framework of "organic" agriculture. I've lived off-the grid in the backwoods of Maine, bred open-pollinated organic vegetable seeds, and spent the last 7 or so years focused intensively on grass-fed meat and milk production. So why, one might logically ask, WHY am I so excited about a book that so explicitly promotes the kind of transgenic crops, nano-technology, and synthetic biology I've been literally academically incubated to revile for over 12 years now? Have I lost my way? Did I drink the kool-aid of corporate techno-optimism? Hardly - I'll leave it to you to read the book, or at the very least, watch Peter's TED Talk embedded below to judge for yourself the validity of Abundance.... I've got a more pressing question for this post:

Where are the voices of protest and outrage from the Organic food movement around this book?

I've been scouring the digital ethers to find, what I had thought, would be a litany of outraged commentary from the local, organic, and slow food movements. This book, at first glance, is an academically rigorous assault on the incumbent scarcity posited by many of those preparing for the 'post-petroleum economy'. Where the alternative food movement is preparing for this inevitability by scaling down, Diamandis and Kotler insist we must - even more aggressively prepare - by scaling up. 

I am already well versed in the anticipated critiques - that technology has failed us in the past; that things are more complex than these authors admit; that we'll lose our humanity in the process. My point here is not to weigh in on the merits of these arguments - though I will say I think Abundance, combined with the works of Ray Kurzweil, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, and others offer significant food for thought on the matter.

My point is to consider this - why the digital silence? I've found a few, often barely coherent, criticisms hidden among the comment sections of the great many websites a-buzz with Abundance - but what I am not easily finding is a single well argued, professional, or citizen journalism piece really digging into the book from an alternative food perspective. As we all know - this kind of silence just does not happen with controversial issues on the Internet!

So what's going on? 
Is the organic movement dumbstruck into silence? Hardly. 
Do they actually agree with the book in it's entirety? I'm sure not. 
Are they too busy hand-crafting this summer's seedlings? Perhaps, and I would hardly judge anyone for that! 

My concern however, is that the real cause of this silence is a form of food tribalism. A fear that rather than possibly being a good scientific argument - that Abundance is perhaps seen as nothing more than a flag for the "other side". Paid for by Monsanto, packaged by the geeks of silicon valley, and sold to the ignorant and culturally depraved as the same sort of technological panacea we've seen since the rise of synthetic chemistry. Perhaps it is this type of sentiment that has caused an overwhelming majority of slow-foodies (among which I occasionally count myself) to simply miss this wonderful and thought provoking book. 

If this is the case, and I think it is somewhat fair to say that it likely is - this is a treacherous place for both organic food, and society as a whole to feel comfortable. When tribalism trumps science, and a lack of civil discourse becomes a roadblock to developing common vision - we are indeed, in a very undesirable spot.

I certainly don't agree with every single thing Diamandis and Kotler write - and I'll surely comment about these aspects in the future. Yet, where so much of what they say, truly is so pertinent, not only to those in alternative agriculture, but to all of us as human beings - I truly hope everyone who cares about food and our future will take the time to explore their message with an open and critical mind!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Meat Quality is Sustainability, Not Snobbery!

In the face of global hunger and malnutrition issues facing millions, it seems utterly elitist to concern oneself with meat quality - let alone "holistic" meat quality. Indeed - the exact opposite is true.

A rigorously holistic approach to understanding the qualities of meat has profound impacts on our understanding of this most central of foodstuffs. Real holism requires more than just multiplicity in thinking (though the 12 dimensions of meat quality are certainly foundational to the theory). Holism, here, also refers to examining the interconnections between quality dimensions, and exploring all such interconnected attributes across multiple scales (from the cow to the globe).

At first glance, the approach is nothing new. Proponents of  veganism, alternative agriculture, and conventional agriculture, all frequently discuss the issues in such terms. It is precisely because of this widespread, informal adoption of holistic arguments - that an ethical imperative emerges to better understand the framework.

How we measure and talk about meat quality has 
profound impact on  how we produce meat  
It simply can not be true, simultaneously, that veganism, alternative agriculture, and conventional agriculture each, respectively, represent the single best and most ethical option - as the more extreme advocates from all three camps frequently decry.

An evolutionary perspective can help us understand that, rather than searching for global panaceas, it is perhaps in our better interest to understand the diversity in ethical positions held globally, and identify the range of holistic meat (and non-meat) qualities that science best indicates are in alignment with a range of commonly held values.

When I reference a vision for building greater consensus on the ethics of meat and grazing - I am far from implying that more and more people should move toward any particular ideology. Instead it is that we can do vastly better at understanding and appreciating the diversity that exists. Building a common ground in this manner, appears so critical if we are to develop the levels of cooperation we need to address the coming exponential challenges for food production of all kinds.

I am the first to recognize that this is easier said than done - but we can still move forward. The food media has to end the false dichotomy of "good meat / bad meat" and instead focus on developing more rigorously science-based discourse on the diversity of holistic meat qualities we find around the world.

There is no such thing as "perfect meat" (or non-meat) - we will always be dealing with trade-offs among the quality dimensions (e.g. price vs. taste). Where such holistic qualities are so intrinsicly interconnected, it is the optimisation of all such quality dimensions, for all humans  that clearly becomes the only path to a sustainable, ethical future.