Meat: What Big Agriculture and the Ethical Butcher Have in Common

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The power that industrial animal agriculture has allows it to manipulate the rhetoric of alternative animal-based systems to its advantage.

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I've repeatedly argued that supporting alternatives to the industrial production of animal products serves the ultimate interest of industrial producers. The decision to eat animal products sourced from small, local, and sustainable farms might seem like a fundamental rejection of big business as usual. It is, however, an implicit but powerful confirmation of the single most critical behavior necessary to the perpetuation of factory farming: eating animals. So long as consumers continue to eat meat, eggs, and dairy -- even if they are sourced from small farms practicing the highest welfare and safety standards -- they're providing, however implicitly, an endorsement of the products that big agriculture will always be able to produce more efficiently and cheaply. And thus dominate.

Contrary to how it sounds, HumaneWatch is the self-appointed watchdog -- think Cujo -- of a group that actually does watch out for dogs, and many other animals,

Until the act of eating animals itself is made problematic, "voting with our forks" will be little more than a vacuous slogan. Critics claim that it's unrealistic to expect a substantial transition to veganism, and advocate the support of small-scale animal farms as a more achievable alternative. What's truly unrealistic, however, is the expectation that small, more eco-friendly and "humane" farms will permanently defy economic logic and convince a meaningful percentage of meat and dairy eaters to spend substantially more money to buy a nobler egg or pork chop. I'd bet on a massive transition to veganism before a massive transition to economic irrationality.

A point that's germane to this issue, but frequently muted, is how the preexisting power and amorality of industrial animal agriculture enables it to manipulate the rhetoric of alternative animal-based systems to its profitable advantage. Agribusiness has been conspicuously nonplussed by the rise of the food movement, shrugging its shoulders as it markets itself as "sustainable," "supporting family farms," and steadfastly oriented toward the "welfare" of animals. Industry grasps, then thrills in manipulating, the axiom that language is both cheap and powerful. Industrial machinations are helped along by the fact that the food movement's buzzwords are slackened catchphrases that allow the largest pig farm on the planet to advertise itself as "humane" and "sustainable." This fungible verbal lexicon, with every well-meaning new term appropriated by the marketers at Big Ag, is the food movement's Achilles' heel.

A recent confirmation of this point is the emergence of an organization called humanewatch.org. Contrary to how it sounds, HumaneWatch is the self-appointed watchdog -- think Cujo -- of a group that actually does watch out for dogs, and many other animals, with admirable dedication: the Humane Society of the United States. Calling HSUS a "stealth animal rights organization" that's stealing money from the public to promote secret agendas, humanewatch.com is a propaganda tool of the Center for Consumer Freedom. According to Source Watch, CCF is "a front group for the restaurant, alcohol, tobacco, and other industries" that "run media campaigns which oppose the efforts of scientists, health advocates, doctors, animal advocates, [and] environmentalists." Its website offers a sordid example of how the pursuit of sustainable animal agriculture, so long as the consumption of animal products is encouraged, easily plays into the hands of influential industrial interests.

CCF -- through humanewatch.org -- claims as one its "allies" the "Ethical Butcher." The Ethical Butcher (a concept I find absurd, but that's for another post), is a blog run by a guy named Berlin Reed. Reed describes himself as "driven by personal relationships with small local farmers, a deep love of food, respect for the animals we eat, and the environment on which we depend." He lives in Brooklyn, by way of Portland. If you called central casting to find a character to oppose the evils of industrial agriculture, all the while appealing to the gluttonous impulses of the foodie elite, Reed would be your man.

But now it's the CCF -- inspired by the ethical butcher's staunch advocacy of meat consumption -- that's doing the calling, highlighting his website as consistent with CCF's industrial values. Reed, who I would imagine isn't thrilled with the CFF association, can complain all he wants that he's been appropriated by a charade organization working to promote the idea that, in the face of the HSUS's apparent threat to carnivorousness, it's your God-given right to eat animals. The meat industry doesn't care. As it sees it, any perceived threat to eating animals (HSUS) far outweighs any threat that consumers will source their animal products from the farms so close to Reed's heart (and butcher block). Hence the co-opting of the Ethical Butcher.

I realize that this example might seem minor. Think ahead on this one, though, and you'll see how things portend poorly for the future of alternative animal agriculture. Right now industry is merely stealing words, concepts, and websites. In the unlikely event that mass economic irrationality prevails, and there is in fact a statistically meaningful transition to supporting the non-industrial production of animal products, what's to stop industrial agriculture from building a few token sustainable farms where the animals are pastured, pampered, and publicized? Most of the small-scale animal farmers I know are literally living hand to mouth. Tyson's or Smithfield wouldn't suffer such hardships.

We'll never beat Big Ag at its own game. Those of us concerned with the myriad problems of industrial agriculture will make genuine progress toward creating agricultural systems that are ethical, ecologically sound, and supportive of human health only when we pursue alternatives that are truly alternative. The most immediate and direct way to take a step in this direction is to stop eating animals.

Image: Dario Sabljak/Shutterstock.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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