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On Why I’m Still Wary of Mark Bittman

When Angus directed me to a Mark Bittman video that’s a 20-minute argument for eating less meat, I was wary. I was annoyed with Bittman back in January when I deconstructed his "Rethinking the Meat Guzzler" and, well, I’m still annoyed because he tends to present an incomplete picture. He tends to leave out a crucial component in the food equation: ethics as they relate to nonhuman animals.

Let’s deconstruct:

  • The fact that Bittman isn’t a vegetarian is appropriate because once again, though there may be en ecological ethic that ties his points together, there is no ethic that includes the premise of eating nonhuman animals when you don’t need to. In fact, he does believe we don’t need to eat animals, and he even says that "We eat animal products not for nutrition, but for an odd form of malnutrition."
  • Bittman (like Michael Pollan) thinks we should be eating fewer animals (though Pollan’s language is that we should be eating "less meat"). However, Bittman also says, "Let’s get the number of them we’re eating down, then worry about how we’re treating the rest of them." He finds the factory farming system unacceptable, but he has no ethical problem eating animals. I am taken aback by the way he casually relegates the suffering of animals to an afterthought.
  • He takes on the food pyramid, which is helpful, and notes that Americans eat twice as much protein as the FDA suggests (1/2 pound per week is the suggested amount). There isn’t a vegan on the planet who hasn’t been asked to justify their protein sources and intake, and it’s nice to have an omnivore tell the truth about protein.
  • He describes what it was like in 1950 in America, when people were real locavores and ate real food (and there were no Skittles or TV dinners and corn wasn’t in just about everything), which is interesting, but again, no question about the ethics of food.

The positive aspect of this particular speech is that it’s not a commercial for happy meat. Bittman’s message isn’t to stop buying animal products from factory farms and buy only from "free range" or family farms. His message is to cut down drastically on your meat intake (he also says animal products once or twice). He doesn’t tell you to replace all the cow flesh you’re eating with chicken flesh (and certainly not farm-raised or "organic" salmon. After he describes them, you wouldn’t want to eat them.). In a way, then, part of his message is similar to ours. We say: Start by eating vegan meals one day a week (or even one meal), then increase from there. Though Bittman uses the word vegan only once–and he doesn’t lump it with vegetarian, which is thoughtful and accurate–it appears that the sentiment (or something like it) is there. He provides health and environmental arguments for cutting down on the consumption of animal products.

Of course, the part of his message that is dissimilar to ours is that he says he’ll never stop eating animals and I assume he doesn’t believe there is any kind of massive injustice to nonhuman animals as long as we use them for food.

I’ll try anything to get people to examine their beliefs about nonhuman animals. And if watching this 20-minute video gets someone to start going vegan a day or two a week because Bittman has convinced them of how detrimental the production of animal products are both nutritionally and environmentally, I guess that’s a step in the right direction. But I’m skeptical.

It’s difficult to forget who the messenger is: Just another guy who doesn’t want to give up his animal products, despite all of the arguments he just presented against eating them.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I agree with you that health isn't the main reason people should stop eating animals. But it's a convincing argument for some people. That's why I'll show and share Bittman, but only on my personal blog, not on Vegan Soapbox. His video and articles simply aren't appropriate for animal advocacy and it seriously bothers me that Friends of Animals loves Bittman so much.

    But ultimately, I don't care why people stop eating animals – and I'm sure the animals don't care either. Intent only matters so much and it's more important long term. The fact is, once people figure out that they can stop eating meat and they'll survive and be healthy, then they often start thinking seriously about the other reasons for vegetarianism. Once they can break the habit of meat-eating, they can think a little more clearly 🙂

    May 17, 2008
  2. I sent it to every omnivore acquaintance in my address book…. With a subject heading I'm sure they loved to read: Not vegan or vegetarian – with that touchy matter out of the way, maybe some watched and learned…. maybe a few will cut back on meat in a gradual manner and see it's do-able. And I don't understand either how Bittman and others can conclude that we don't need animals as "food"….. yet, here's how we go about eating them in a "better" manner. It just boggles me to no end!

    May 17, 2008

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