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Books, Humane Meat, and the Need for Direct Outreach

-Matt Ball

There have been a number of recent books that address where our food comes from, including: Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall, The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. Of these, The Omnivore's Dilemma has been doing the best by far, both in terms interviews, media exposure, and sales.

It is not hard to imagine why this is so. Goodall, Singer, and Mason are all known vegetarians who are concerned with animals. By saying Omnivore right on the cover, Pollan makes it clear: Not a vegetarian! I still eat meat! Which book is more likely to receive favorable treatment by the meat-eating establishment?

Unfortunately, in addition to strawman potshots at vegetarians and the animal rights philosophy, Pollan bases his conclusions on falsehoods and debunked claims, as pointed out in Erik Marcus’ review (first Spotlight review here). For example, Pollan contends that vegetarians don’t really save animals, based on an article by Stephen Davis that was shown to be totally wrong in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics.

It could be argued that Pollan is reaching new people with descriptions of factory farming that people like Singer, Goodall, and Marcus won’t reach. As we’ve written, “When it comes to advocating for the animals, people are looking for a reason to ignore us – no one sits around thinking, ‘Wow, I really want to give up all my favorite foods and isolate myself from my friends and family!’” So it is unlikely that a large number of people are going to buy and read a book that says they need to become a vegetarian.

On the other hand, what does Pollan’s ultimate message (“Eat ‘humane’ meat” / “Vegetarians are anti-social fanatics”) accomplish? Pollan goes out of his way to badmouth and ridicule the possibility of being vegetarian: “the subtle way it alienates me from other people and… a whole dimension of human experience” (e.g., “cultural traditions like the Thanksgiving turkey, or even franks at the ballpark, and family traditions like my mother’s beef brisket at Passover”).

His option is to eat meat from “humane” operations, like Polyface Farms (his main example). Yet accommodating a diet of “humane meat” is a practical impossibility for virtually everyone; e.g., there isn’t a humane option at even 1% of restaurants. And Pollan points out that Polyface isn’t looking to expand.

The vast majority of Pollan’s readers are not likely to decide to eat only meat from Polyface Farms; it’s hard to find and requires a real commitment. What his readers get is: “There is this huge problem on factory farms, but humans need to eat meat for many reasons. You certainly don’t want to be a vegetarian!”

This is not to say that people should be discouraged from taking steps away from consuming the Standard American Diet (SAD), just as one can be a vegan and support reforms. Few people go vegan overnight, and not everyone will change. But ultimately, the main failure of the “humane meat” argument, like the “health argument,” is that, in and of itself, it is not strong enough to keep most people from falling back into the convenient and familiar status quo.

While books like Singer’s are important for a number of reasons (look for an upcoming full review), we can't rely on books, “reasonable” compromises, or the meat-eating media. We must take the animals’ case right to people, in its genuine graphic, gruesome entirety, and the sustainable steps people can take to end the cruelty.

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