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On “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler”

Mark Bittman’s "Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler" in yesterday’s New York Times is the sort of article that schmoozes you while winding up to bat you over the head. If your eye isn’t immediately drawn to who he is (at the bottom of the page), you could almost think the article was going to go your way.


Mark Bittman, who writes the Minimalist column in the Dining In and Dining Out sections, is the author of “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian,” which was published last year. He is not a vegetarian.

Let’s deconstruct:

The first page of the article, though not containing anything new, is like one-stop shopping for almost all the reasons we shouldn’t be eating meat (Because it isn’t right for some reason didn’t make the list). Bittman compares meat to oil (hence the title of the article):

The two commodities share a great deal: Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government. Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn, sends prices higher. Finally — like oil — meat is something people are encouraged to consume less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.

Because of the increasing global demand for meat (and note that consumption in the US has steadied at 8 oz./day, but that’s still twice the global average):

  • livestock production now produces more greenhouse gases than transportation;
  • 3/4 of all water-quality problems in our rivers and streams can be traced back to CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations=factory farms);
  • our wealthier people (who buy meat, and by the way this easily leads to the response to people who claim veganism is too expensive: it’s cheaper than eating meat) are suffering from heart disease, some types of cancer and diabetes;
  • most Americans get over twice the amount of protein they need each day (which we can use to point out the ridiculousness of I tried going vegan, but I wasn’t getting enough protein).

I’m loving Bittman at this point. He’s my new best friend, providing I haven’t read the part about who he is.

Then I turn to page 2, and that’s when, as my husband says in an ominous tone: Depression sets in.

"What can be done?" asks Bittman. Gee, after all that about the problems of raising animals to eat, you’d think he’d say the obvious. You’d think he’d go to the cause of the problems and say: Stop growing animals for food.

But no. Instead, he writes "There’s no simple answer." Meanwhile, I’m screaming, "Yes there is! Go back to all the stuff you’re saying about the problems created by animal agriculture! You stop animal agriculture and your problems are solved! (And yes, I realize that wouldn’t happen immediately. But it would happen.) Bittman’s take on the solutions?

Better waste management, for one. Eliminating subsidies would also help; the United Nations estimates that they account for 31 percent of global farm income. Improved farming practices would help, too. Mark W. Rosegrant, director of environment and production technology at the nonprofit International Food Policy Research Institute, says, “There should be investment in livestock breeding and management, to reduce the footprint needed to produce any given level of meat.”

Then there’s technology . . . . [and also] meat produced in vitro, [and] a return to grazing beef.

As I wait in vain for some talk of ceasing the production and consumption of meat because not only don’t we need to eat it, but it’s destroying the planet, I get:

Animal welfare may not yet be a major concern, but as the horrors of raising meat in confinement become known, more animal lovers may start to react. And would the world not be a better place were some of the grain we use to grow meat directed instead to feed our fellow human beings?

He finally mentions the animals, but only with in the trite: people who care about the torture of animals do so because they "love" animals, not because the torture is morally indefensible. I do agree that the world would be a better place if we fed our fellow human beings rather than cows with the grain we grow, but Bittman almost sounds too cutesy about it. In my opinion, it’s disgraceful that we grow grain to feed to animals (whom we will later eat) rather than to people. I think it’s our obligation to feed starving people.

And for all those people who claim that if meat were more expensive people would eat less of it:

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, [doesn’t] believe meat prices will rise high enough to affect demand in the United States.

“I just don’t think we can count on market prices to reduce our meat consumption,” he said. “There may be a temporary spike in food prices, but it will almost certainly be reversed and then some. But if all the burden is put on eaters, that’s not a tragic state of affairs.”

If price spikes don’t change eating habits, perhaps the combination of deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease and animal cruelty will gradually encourage the simple daily act of eating more plants and fewer animals.

At that, my friends, is why we need to present every argument we’ve got when we’re talking about going vegan. Bittman and the ubiquitous flexitarian, Michael Pollan, think the trends of consumption in America, where more people are buying more expensive, but allegedly higher quality products, will lead to a decrease in meat consumption.

No one can argue that fewer animals being created for slaughter is better than more. But what’s the ethic underlying Bittman and Pollan’s prediction? We’re not giving up our meat. If they really thought we were experiencing an ecological crisis and a health crisis (to say nothing of the injustice of allowing people to starve to feed cows so we can eat them), I’d think they’d express some sense of urgency. They’d propose that we take a stand and fight for our planet, our health and the animals, rather than finding a way to continue to eat what we want. After all, flexitarian is really just another word for omnivore.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. You should send your excellent article to the New York Times.

    January 29, 2008

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