Saturday, May 28, 2011

Meat Market

This is a book by Erik Marcus, who is also known for his blog, (a welcoming, how-to blog, with links to useful sites for new vegans) and for "Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating" and "The Ultimate Vegan Guide: Compassionate Living Without Sacrifice."

"Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, & Money,"(see that link for the interesting history of the ampersand) recounts the uncomfortable reality of factory farming and then moves to a discussion of how to organize a better "dismantlement" movement.  Marcus sketches the limitations of the vegetarian movement (it does not address things like egg laying chickens in cages, and it "emphasize[s] celebration over action"), the animal rights movement (Marcus is an admirer, but the movement loses popular support when it is against medical research and performs publicity stunts), and the animal welfare movement (even as it draws attention to a widespread cruelty, another one pops up). Some of his dismantlement ideas include: reforming school lunch programs, ending grazing subsidies, and putting NIH scientists rather than the USDA in charge of nutrition information.  It is interesting that this was the first book I read that tackled the consumption of fish.  Marcus describes commercial fishing as factory farms underwater.

Marcus is idealistic, and The Curious Vegan is more practical.  For example, fish farms provide one of the few alternatives to overfishing that do not require either a change in habit by a large percentage of the Earth's population or reform in one of the murkier areas of regulation. Aquaculture has of course grown; it was 3.9% of the world's seafood production by 1970 and it was 27.3% by 2000. If fish farms were outlawed, many humans would continue to eat fish and more serious overfishing would follow. We have forty years' experience with international fishing treaties and the tragedy of the commons remains.

Similarly, we must be careful when we wish for regulation.  Regulation has raised the cost of food production and probably encouraged the growth of large factory farms -- where animal welfare advocates see the greatest problems. This reminds me of the aftermath of Sinclair's "The Jungle."  Following publication of that book, meat sales dropped 25%.  New regulations were then introduced which made consumers feel safer. The regulations, however, appeared to drive small meatpackers out of business.  I doubt there was an overall effect on animal welfare, and it is certainly the case that as many or more animals were killed for food.  Perhaps The Curious Vegan should be renamed The Skeptical Vegan.

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