Convenient Truths?

Published on: 13:20PM May 20, 2011

I’ve commented in the past about some of the writings of James McWilliams, a history professor in Texas, who – while critical of rank and file food production in the U.S. – is more interesting to listen to, because he’s also  clear-eyed about many of the weakly-supported notions and downright falsehoods behind other, “alt” forms of food, such as organic, grass-fed, local, etc.  (Here are links to 3 previous postings of mine, from August, July, and March of last year, that mention some of his observations).

His latest column, in the April 8 issue of The Atlantic, about how “natural” food production is morally no better than any other conventional form of food production, is also worth posting.  The crux of his argument is stated thusly:

For consumers willing to pay more for pastured meat, this [“free-range”] is a guilt-absolving distinction. We've imbued "natural food" with such virtuous connotations that meat supposedly raised according to the law of nature is, ipso facto, thought to be an ethically worthwhile choice.

From his point of view, any system of meat production (and I am including dairy in that, although his column doesn’t mention it) lacks any ethical superiority just because the animals were supposedly closer to nature.  Or, as he puts it:

But what if, as I'm arguing here, the free-range experience is nothing but a more humane way to force animals into serving our culinary wants?

The reason I think this line of argument is notable is that he is willing to explore the notion that “natural” production, which exposes livestock to greater threats from predators, parasites and extreme weather, is hardly more humane than more common confinement operations….and is, according to many measurements, demonstrably more stressful.  And it arrives at the same bottom line:  the demise of a farm animal so people can consume their meat.

There are people for whom meat consumption, or the ingestion of any animal products, is a deal-breaker.  Like it or not, they’re a part of all societies.  They’ve become much more vocal (although probably not really more numerous) as of late in American society, and farmers and ranchers understandably may feel picked on because of the rise of veganism, and its fellow traveler, the animal rights movement. 

But just as to govern is to choose, so is eating a choice.  What’s happened in the rise of food-ism, as McWilliams and a few others have noted, is that people are being presented with false, or at least illusory, choices.  “Natural” isn’t really all that different, at least as officially defined by the USDA and FDA, than foods without that label.  And indeed, within livestock production, if natural means more exposure to harsh or unhealthful practices, is it better for livestock?  There is a growing body of evidence that it is not.