Again a note to people who aren’t Sean Upton: I’ve been having a bit of back-and-forth with Sean, a good friend of mine from my Korea days who’s recently gone vegan. He started it with a post called “Why Do You Eat Meat?”, and then I wrote my previous post, “Why I Eat Meat”; Sean came back with “Why I Still Don’t Eat Meat”—and that brings us to here.
Hello again Sean,
I’ve put off blogging for the last month and a half or so, and I must admit that it’s not because I’ve been taking all that time formulating a response to you but because I was avoiding it, since I knew I’d have to do some real thinking, and some figuring out how to express things. But I’ve finally put aside the time, so here we are, back on the question of meat. I didn’t quite expect it to turn into this novel-length missive, but, well, that’s what happened. You asked for it, you got it, I suppose.
This new post of yours embraces considerably more depth and nuance than the first one. But it still seems to me that you’ve gotten yourself stuck looking at the present moment, and forget that a solution that solves this moment’s problems won’t necessarily solve the problems of the future. I agree that veganism is a brilliant solution for the problem you seem to have posited as the world’s problem ne plus ultra: that is, how to feed the current world population of seven billion with less of the devastating environmental impact that humanity currently wreaks. But I have much less faith that it’s the long-term solution that you see it as.
Something that I try to keep in mind whenever I’m trying to predict the future (or to understand the present and the past, for that matter) is that everything is systems. I’m talking about systems in the sense of systems theory or Donella Meadows’ book Thinking in Systems (which, I should note, I haven’t actually read yet, though I’ve learned about systems theory in a piecemeal way from many other sources). A system is an organized group of interacting parts that come together to form a coherent whole. A cell is a system, and a lake is a system, and a human is a system, and an ecosystem is, rather obviously, a system. Almost any system you care to name, any system that’s larger than subatomic, is made of a nested series of other systems, each of which plays their part in making up the whole: the system of you is made up of your circulatory system, your nervous system, your digestive system, and so on. One of the big things that systems do is interact in complicated ways that give their components roles and interdependencies that are far from obvious if you look at them on their own.
It’s in this sense that I try to understand the global food system. At this point it’s fair for you to wonder how this differs from your own way of seeing all this, since of course you understand that actions have consequences. The difference is this: the way you’re trying to understand the global food system focuses on the value of one or just a few variables. In this case you’re looking at two variables that could be seen as different ways of looking at the same thing—the amount of resources that go into feeding the world, and how much of the world’s population successfully gets fed. In your analysis, minimizing the resources and maximizing the number of people who aren’t hungry is the criterion by which you judge whether your plan is successful.
In the way I look at it, on the other hand, minimizing the resources and maximizing the number of people fed are not the goals. If it were, veganism would fall unacceptably short of perfect, and I would settle for nothing less than an all-potato diet for the world, with liberal use of vitamin supplements. In my view the goal, to borrow from Wendell Berry’s indispensable essay “Solving for Pattern”, is the health of the system.
Berry contrasts two approaches to making agriculture the best it can be. In the reductionist approach, the agronomist works out ingenious new ways of increasing the yield of grain crops, and keeping them free of pests. When the agronomist has enough resources at their disposal, we end up with a system like today’s vast expanses of monocrops, which are extremely successful at getting more calories per acre, at the cost of destroying the ecosystem. Meanwhile, the farmer who takes the health of the farm and of its community to be the highest good will behave very differently. Since integrity and independence are a big part of the health of the system, the farmer will focus on meeting their own needs with minimal borrowing from the outside.
I want to clarify with an example, and then I promise I’ll start moving a little more perceptibly toward the point.
Imagine there is an island, a little island somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean a dozen or so degrees north of Antarctica. There are people here, and their only source of food is an endemic species of holdout woolly mammoths. The only plants that grow on the island are eucalyptuses and grasses, both inedible to the humans but delicious to the mammoths.
One day, a traveler arrives from a distant land, bearing strange items they’ve never seen before, and one of these is a packet of corn seeds. The stranger explains that the seeds grow into a plant that can be eaten by humans—no, not mammoths, humans, a point she must explain several times—and eventually the island people accept her gift and begin to cultivate it.
Well, whereas before everyone had just enough to eat and no more, and it was important not to waste a single part of the mammoth, now there’s plenty of food for everyone and to spare. Corn gives ten times the calories per acre that mammoths do. People celebrate. Corn is life.
Forty years later the traveler’s grandson comes back and finds that there are ten times as many islanders. And, strangely, finds that now they are back to having just enough to eat. No corn is wasted. The same amount of the island’s land is dedicated to food, but where before it was mammoth grazing land, now it’s carefully gardened corn.
So: what has actually changed on the island? Can we say that things on the island are better because more people are being fed for less land per person?
Mammoth Island shows us that the amount of resources and the number of people fed are not the point. Never were. The point is all the other details of how the islanders live. Now that there are ten times as many of them, are they building too many houses for the eucalyptus forests to grow back? Are they using up the island’s supply of freshwater faster than the rains replenish it? Are they letting their fields lie fallow long enough for mammoth droppings to give back the fertility that the corn took up? (Probably not, to be honest. They’ve never farmed before—they have no clue what they’re doing.)
This is why I tried to point out last time, and why I’m going to keep stressing, that our ability to feed the world is not the point. Rather, the point is: how do we feed the world, and how does the world then live?
Veganism has, if I remember right, been estimated to be able to feed at least ten billion people. The thing about that is: if veganism were embraced by the whole world, it would feed ten billion people. And then we would have ten billion people. Does the world have enough resources to deal with ten billion people? Feeding them is only the beginning. If veganism feeds ten billion, how do we house ten billion with forests already getting cut down? How do they get around if oil scarcity is already playing havoc with the global economy? How do we dispose of their waste when cities’ sewer systems worldwide are already overloaded and exporting more toxic waste than can be dealt with?
And that’s if we ignore the issues that come with changing the world’s food system over to a vegan mode. At first less land will be used, but as on Mammoth Island, it won’t be long before we’re using as much land as we were before, or pretty close to it if we discount the rocky places that tractors can’t reach. If we’re only growing vegetable crops on all that land, where is the fertilizer coming from? The Haber-Bosch process guzzles up a lot of fuel, and world potassium is expected to peak in not too many decades. Among other issues that come from the transition itself.
It’s quite fair for you to point out that it’s not as though we’re avoiding these issues right now, either. We’re gaily polluting our waterways, poisoning and eutrophying the oceans, and feller-bunchering down old-growth forests worldwide to maintain the world’s current range of lifestyles, and we’ve got other food system problems besides—manure buildup at CAFOs, overfishing, and all the rest.
But those problems, I’m pretty sure, would be outmatched handily by the problems of a world with ten billion vegans. As Wendell Berry articulated, the one-variable approach to “improving” a complex system is the kind of solution that leads to a “ramifying series of new problems,” and the only thing that these problems have in common is that all of them have spread to be outside the system they arose from. Whereas a holistic approach to solving a system’s problem, when based on a deep enough knowledge of the land and executed by someone who’s living on the land to receive its feedback, leads to a “ramifying series of solutions” and you end up with a system that is healthier for all humans and animals involved.
So far, though (as you may be shouting), I haven’t offered much to tell you why I’m so confident that including animal products does work to improve the health of the food system, besides “It’s a systems thing, you wouldn’t understand.” (If one of the big lessons of systems theory is that systems are almost impossible to describe accurately from first principles, then these thought experiments I keep throwing out are no more useful than a bunch of statistics.) Well, here’s my reasoning: history. More specifically, because the food systems of practically every human culture known to exist or to have existed, through history and prehistory, included meat. There are vanishingly few possible exceptions. You could argue that some sections of present-day India are an exception, but it’s an exception riddled with caveats and even after all those, they eat loads of yogurt and paneer.
When you come across a fact like this, you have to stop and wonder: Why? If veganism is the ideal food system, allowing the most nutrition per person from the least land and with the added benefit that you never once have to think about pig shit or get your hands bloody disemboweling anything, then why have so many human cultures been so eager to ruin the whole idyllic arrangement with meat? Have poor Eastern European subsistence farmers taken the time and money to build themselves barns just because it’s a long-lasting fad? Do Papua New Guinean families build pens for pigs outside their huts because they think it’s important to get their youngsters accustomed to killing in case they need to go to war?
Obviously not. They raise animals because it makes more sense somehow than eating a vegan diet. But if veganism offers so many more calories per acre, what makes meat more attractive anyhow?
Because we’re talking about a complex system, the answer, perhaps a bit frustratingly, is “There are a lot of reasons of various importance.” But let me try to point out some of the big ones.
Perhaps first and foremost, there’s nutrition. Now at this point I’m going to have to contradict the dietitians you’ve been reading, or at least your interpretation of them, and this is an interesting enough point that I’ll go into some detail. Basically: animal-based foods have every bit as much place in a healthy diet as plant-based ones. We all know that plants are important for health. There are a lot of vitamins and minerals and fiber and other goodies in there that we can’t be healthy without. And plants are pretty much the only game in town for your daily carbohydrates.
But meat and dairy… compare the fat and protein to plant-based foods, and there’s a clear winner. Beans are the best option for plant proteins, but they have a lot of carbohydrates in them that get turned right into glucose by your body, as if we needed more sugar in our diets. They also have a lot of defensive chemicals in them that the plants put in there to stop you from eating them; this is why beans give you gas and make you feel bloated. That is not a clue that they are doing good things to your body. Most cultures that eat beans have worked out that you need to ferment them to make your body accept them, but that still leaves the carbs. And as for fats, well, try eating both local and vegan, and you’ll find that your options for fats dwindle pretty quickly, which is a problem because your body needs fats. You’re down to corn oil, soy oil, and canola oil (I’m not actually sure that the crops for all of these are grown in meaningful amounts over there in England)—all three of which are not remotely healthy: all of them invented within the last fifty years, produced exclusively in big factories via alarming industrial processes, and abounding in the omega-6 and polyunsaturated fatty acids that make your digestive processes choke up. If you’re fine with imports, there are olive oil and coconut oil, which are decent replacements for some of your animal fat, but are pretty resource-intensive to produce. There’s a reason ancient Jews used olive oil to anoint the blessed: the stuff is precious if you’re making it yourself.
I should briefly address the article you linked me to, “Wheat Eaters or Meat Eaters”. Its science and rhetoric are both pretty dodgy, and it derives most of its punch from showing all the differences between humans and obligate carnivores. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are a lot of differences, because humans aren’t obligate carnivores, we’re omnivores, as any grade-schooler can tell you. Woodvine does point out some ways that we’re different from some other omnivores; I seem to recall seeing charts that cut the other way in other books, but that’s not what I want to focus on right now. I want to look at this argument that because most of the great apes are vegetarian, we should be too. This is much like saying that because all of the panda’s ancestors were meat-eating bears, the panda’s bamboo diet is clearly not healthy for it. Humans have been hunting for a long time—two million years. There’s a well-supported theory that the human brain could only evolve into what it is because we were able to eat meat: high-energy-density, fatty foods.
One of the more laughable things in Woodvine’s article is the suggestion that we have a natural revulsion to meat, as opposed to our natural affinity for sugar. (I can assure you, I have an affinity for both.) If our body is really primed to seek out carbohydrates exclusively, why does eating them exclusively make us so sick? Excess carbs are the elephant in the room as diets are concerned; everyone knows they’re unhealthy, but we keep blaming fats anyhow. There’s fascinating history behind why that happened (the processed-food industry was heavily at play, especially in this country), and there’s also very good evidence to suggest that our carb-heavy diets are the source of a very large portion of the ailments that afflict industrialized humans, from heart disease to cavities.
Anyhow, that’s the food angle, and I’ve only filed off the tip of that iceberg. For more information and to corroborate some of what I just said about carbs and health, you can pick up practically any book that has to do with the paleo diet, but some are better researched than others. Nora Gedgaudas’s Primal Body, Primal Mind is pretty deep if sometimes a bit alarmist; one that’s possibly better if not as broadly focused is Natasha Campbell-McBride’s Gut and Psychology Syndrome, and there’s also the classic Nourishing Traditions, which is quite good and not saddled with some of the ridiculousness that’s gotten caked onto the paleo movement since it became big. Probably the most vivid of them all, though, is the section of Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth that deals with nutrition and health. I recommend the entire book.
The other ways that meat fits into a healthy food system and human culture are numerous. Sheep give wool, pigs till the soil for free when they root, chickens control pests in your garden and fertilize it with highly nitrogenous poop, cow manure is still a coveted fertilizer, goats can get rid of those invasive rosebushes that you can’t keep under control, and on and on. A healthy farm acts a lot like a natural ecosystem, and animals, if you’ll allow me to state the obvious, are a part of natural ecosystems.
Now this point makes it possible to open the door to what you said about farms: that on a farm like the one I’m describing (a “cool, organic” one), “[e]ssentially you’re still keeping thinking and feeling creatures in captivity for the sake of nuggets and burgers,” and that “this is still unnatural.” On the contrary, I would say that giving animals a place to do all the things that I described just a moment ago is as close as a human can get to living with nature and letting it do as it pleases. What does a grassland goat do in the wild that it can’t do on a farm plot? What does a bison do in the wild that a bull can’t do on an open range? And animals die in the wild too, by predation. In the case of the farm, the difference is simply that the human is the predator.
A farm that lets nature do its thing with minimal interference is an example not of subjugation but of symbiosis. Without the animals, the humans would starve after the first potato crop failure (that resulted from lack of fertilizer) and have to relocate to the city; without the humans, the animals would starve come winter because they didn’t put up any hay because they can’t work a pitchfork with those hooves.
Michael Pollan had a similar insight in The Botany of Desire, where he pointed out that, though we think of the endless cornfields of, say, Iowa, as a human-dominated space, you could equally well think of it as a corn-dominated space; he makes a good argument that as much as we domesticated corn, it has also domesticated us. It’s a well-worked-out analogy, though only covered in a single chapter. But I have a book in mind that examines this interdependency between humans, plants, and animals in spectacular detail, and not only explains that meat makes sense on a global scale, but runs the numbers, and the numbers behind the numbers, to show how it makes sense. It’s called Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie, and I’ll link you to this review of it because I can hope to do no better job of introducing the book to you. If you want your mental picture of how the food system works on a whole-system level, and why it is the way it is, to be expanded, this is the book to read. (And as a bonus, it’ll probably be even a little bit more relevant for you than it was for me, because Fairlie is English and writes a lot about England’s food system.)
So, when you have small farms with closed loops, you fairly well have to use animals to complete those loops, even if you don’t eventually eat them (but what will you do with all those extra eggs? Feed them to the local foxes? And how about the proliferating piglets?). Hence a “series of ramifying solutions”: from the extensive monocropped grain farm where biodiversity and diversity of human cultural practices are alike banished (a cornfield is cultivated much the same way in any nation, excluding a traditional Mayan milpa), to a series of farms where an orchestra of species work together for the goal of life for all of them.
Spectacular! But how do we get there?
This is the last point of yours that I want to address. A lot of why veganism looks like the best solution to you is that it’s the only apparent way that we can feed, without cruelty, all the people currently in the world. I’m willing to grant that point, more or less. But the thing is, I think feeding everyone in the world is a doomed proposition.
The world population currently stands at somewhere around seven billion. In 1900 that number was around 1.6 billion. Why do we have all those extra people now? Not a very hard question: it’s because we were able to farm more. And we were able to farm more, mostly, because of fossil fuels. Tractors, grain silos, railroads (which made more far-flung land arable because you no longer had to pack out the crop via horses), motorized tillers, all of it. This also allowed us to use up our land’s fertility to dangerous levels, but luckily we also figured out a way to eat oil: that’s the Haber-Bosch process that I mentioned earlier, fixing atmospheric nitrogen into fertilizer with the help of very hot gas-powered flames.
Now we’re at a point where most of the 7 billion people we feed are fed thanks to oil. And peak oil has already arrived. So something needs to change. But vegan farming requires inputs of fertility from Elsewhere, and while it may be less fossil-fuel-intensive than a CAFO, vegan farms are never going to be both fossil-fuel-free and as productive as claimed by their advocates. Either you put over a lot of the area to animals who help you with the fertility, or you buy fertilizer.
So if the current system doesn’t work, and the vegan system doesn’t work, what then? Hunting is out, as you noted; not enough deer in the forest to keep us fed for long. Free-range farming like I’ve been describing? It’s good, but without oil it’s only going to feed as many people as it was feeding in 1900.
Well shit, then, we’re out of options, aren’t we?
The only option left is the one that no one wants to talk about: the population going down, code for “lots of people die”.
But I think we need to start talking about it, because I think it’s going to happen. I don’t look forward to it happening, because it looks like it’s not going to happen gracefully, but I think it’s going to happen. And if we start talking about it, well, then maybe we’ll discover something interesting: that even though lots of people are going to die, that won’t necessarily be as ghastly as people imagine. Or, to quote John Michael Greer’s excellent essay on the subject, “Just as it didn’t take vast public orgies of copulation and childbirth to double the planet’s population over the last half-century, it wouldn’t take equivalent exercises in mass death to halve the planet’s population in the same time frame.” (I encourage anyone to read that essay to get a good picture of what a population decline of that magnitude could look like to a person living through it.)
So to answer the original question of “How do we get there from here?”, the hard part is going to happen whether we like it or not. The less hard part is where a huge number of people have to start learning to farm, especially in the most industrialized countries. And how we get there is by learning to grow our own food, as many of us as possibly can. If it’s at all possible, get out into the country and start growing there, because the countryside needs more young people who can learn the wisdom of the old people who remain, and take up their mantle.
Only by looking at the whole system, and living inside our solutions until we solve the problems inside the solutions, and understanding more deeply, can we hope to create a food system that works. Veganism is a simple solution—but food is a complicated problem that doesn’t admit of a simple solution. And thus it does what most simple solutions do when you apply them to a complicated problem: it creates more problems. Some problems are foreseeable, some would take us by surprise. But all in all, though it’s important to eat plenty of vegetables, it seems clear to me that a globally vegan future would lead us down a road paved with good intentions into a situation even more precarious and unsustainable than the one we’re in right now. And that’s saying something.
(By the way, I’m going to leave the subject of meat alone for a while, as I’ve pretty much had my fill of writing about it for the next several months. (This post kept me up until 5 in the morning last night. I just barely got to bed before sunrise.) I’d like to write about some other stuff. But I’ll still answer comments on this post, and there’s always video chatting. For now, I just hope you’ve found this useful, and that anyone else who reads this does too.)