From Trophic Tales: The focus on the welfare of individual domesticated animals might be an extension of the modernist tendency to simplify and discriminate. The morality of living, eating, and dying is more complex than two-word slogans can prescribe. If we care about animals —wild or domesticated— we’ve to think in terms of entire ecosystems.
“The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.”
It is not surprising that there are growing numbers of vegans and vegetarians worldwide who are becoming dogmatic about their food choices. Many aspects of the hyper-synthetic cityscapes we inhabit are disorienting to mammals such as ourselves. Over the last hundred years, our food systems have undergone drastic change. Food — that basic, life-igniting, community-building element — has become completely outsourced, processed, industrialized, and bland. Worse, animals are distorted and abused beyond recognition to produce it.
The meat we come across in cities looks less and less like a part of the animal it came from, and more like another factory product packaged in layers of thick plastic. We have become detached from the relationships we have formed with animals over thousands of years. We are conceptually isolated from trophic cascades. Eating animals in this context surely feels like cheating, since the only models we have for our relationships with them are our relationships with other people.
One by one, city dwellers awaken to the fact that their chicken no longer tastes or looks like chicken and that their bodies are dulled by the meat of the crippled, hormone- and antibiotic-stuffed animals we breed. They begin to feel a visceral, intellectual, and moral repulsion towards the animal products that everyone eats so flippantly.
The slaughtering of animals used to take place within a relationship. There was little room for cowardice, since the act of killing was personal. The hunter looked into the eyes of the deer and was changed by that gaze. The farmer lived in close proximity with her cattle and understood that her own well-being depended on that of her animals. The cook knew how to calm her chicken before she twisted its neck, and let no part of the animal go to waste. The shepherd risked his life to defend his herd. Everyone who ate was intimate with the cycles that brought food to the plate. Ritual mediated relationships, providing for a way for people to both honor and eat the world around them.
Now we are divorced from these processes. Veganism is another reaction to this isolation, and indeed could have only emerged within it.
Urbanites looking for alternatives easily come across veganism, a mainstream trend now widely accepted and supported by the sweet embrace of the profitable business of vegan deserts and snacks. When continuing to eat feedlot meat and eggs from enslaved chickens becomes impossible, veganism beckons with a practicable solution. But subjective health claims and moral appeals that harness the disgust response too often blind vegans to the many nuances that determine our food culture. It can also blind them to more exciting, systemic antidotes to the plethora of fatal faults in our food systems.
Agriculture that is running off a cliff
Industrial agriculture has wrought many miracles. It has allowed developed countries to produce more food on less land and with fewer people. But it has achieved this wonder by making fertilizer and pesticides out of fossil fuels, eroding topsoil, and reducing the variety of plants in our diet. In other words, we are paying for our cheap food and our disconnection from the land with degraded landscapes and monotony.
Most plants for human consumption today are grown in monocultures. The first step to making a monoculture is to strip a plot of land of its community of plants and animals. This rich web of life is replaced by a single species — a high-yield crop — and every other organism is policed out of the perimeter by chemical and mechanical aggression. The soil, shorn of its cover, languishes and the microorganisms and fungi within it perish. The carbon formerly contained in the soil is released into the atmosphere. To make this impoverished medium keep producing, farmers are obliged to inject it with massive amounts of synthetic nitrogen, a fertilizer that is manufactured from oil. The fertilizer runs off the beaten land into waterways and oceans, where it destabilizes natural ecosystems, rendering them practically barren. Our planet’s oceans are pockmarked by 146 of these dead zones where marine life has been completely choked out.
Harnessing the genius of nature
But there is another way of doing agriculture, one that turns organic waste into fertilizer and builds soil rather than eroding it. It goes by many names, but we like to call it regenerative agriculture, because it is a way of eliciting food from the land while simultaneously enhancing its ability to produce food for us in the future. It requires fewer inputs but more intelligence. In this sort of system, the farmer is not an industrial conqueror, forcing food from the land until it gives up in exhaustion. Instead, the farmer observes nature and the tendencies of the land. With this knowledge, she leverages its genius, tilting natural ecosystems this way or that to both make them richer and ensure that they produce yields that humans can eat.
These yields are more nutrient dense and often more delicious than their conventional counterparts, coming as they do from vibrant communities of plants and animals expressing their nature in concert. These production systems, when properly managed, regenerate the soil, endowing it with higher quantities of minerals such as magnesium and calcium, which are then transported by fruits, vegetables, and meat into our bodies.
This portrait of food production may sound fantastical, but it is in fact in the mould of nature, which has no trouble making something from nothing, and where thriving ecosystems become more verdant and diverse over time. However, if we want to stick around for the feast on this warming planet, we need to find ways to produce our food that are as generative and enduring. Were it implemented widely, regenerative farming could capture more carbon dioxide than we emit, as demonstrated by the Rodale Institute. So in addition to providing food for human consumption, agriculture plays a central role in addressing climate change.
As it happens, animals are essential to many — if not all — of the cleverest systems that humans have devised for deriving food from landscapes while preserving them. Just as animals are keystones in the rainforest and the wild grasslands, they vitalize agricultural processes as well.
On farms that produce crops, it makes a lot of sense to keep animals that can convert vegetable waste into protein-dense food. In turn, their manure fertilizes crops and their pecking can aid pest control, reducing the need for industrial inputs. Animals raised in this manner have the opportunity to graze on good pastures, enjoy social lives, breathe fresh air, and bathe in the light provided by our star, all while making agriculture more sustainable.
In some geographies, the best way to support the richness of the land and produce food is not by imposing crops, but by properly managed grazing. If the land is water-restricted, the most sensible way to make food is often to use ruminants to convert grass — which humans cannot eat — into nutrient-dense food. This leaves more water in the rivers and aquifers and stimulates the growth of grasses that not only feed cattle but store carbon in the ground.
Shades of green
If you are a vegan who only eats plants that come from regenerative, polycropped, organic food systems, it’s certain that your diet has a claim to higher moral ground than the average diet. If you eat this way and also occasionally buy local animal products from food production systems that caringly integrate animals into regenerative landscapes, your claim is much stronger. But if you are not paying careful attention to where your plants come from, how they’ve been processed, or how far they have traveled, it’s likely that for all your efforts you are not improving the lot of animals overall, and neither are you saving the world.
Even if you are persuaded by the environmental arguments, you may have a problem with the idea of killing animals. But if you think deeply, you might find that the immoral thing is not necessarily to deliberately take life. The immoral thing is to live in a way that destroys nature, which industrial agriculture does. In this context, the focus on the welfare of individual domesticated animals might be an extension of the modernist tendency to simplify and discriminate. The morality of living, eating, and dying is more complex than two-word slogans can prescribe. If we care about animals — wild or domesticated — we have to think in terms of entire ecosystems.
If you’re a vegan who eats food from monoculture fields where farm workers are routinely poisoned by synthetic inputs; if you eat food that comes packaged in layers of plastic that choke marine life after they are discarded into the ocean; if your nuts and quinoa are flown in from Brazil on the wings of fossil fuels — then are you really more moral or are you simply disconnected?
Eating to support life
Veganism is perhaps the gateway-par-excellence into conscious eating. In fact, people often feel better when they switch to a vegan diet, especially if it marks the first time they are thinking deliberately about what they are putting into their bodies. But it’s not clear whether the initial benefits that are sometimes felt come from being plant-exclusive or from the elimination of certain toxic foods that were formerly in the diet. It’s also been extensively documented that fasting from particular foods and nutrients for a period of time has health benefits, so long as those periods punctate a diet that is on the whole well-balanced.
There is reason to believe that animal protein—besides having played a leading role in human evolution—is necessary for excellent health. Even so, the debate about whether perfect human health can be achieved without animal products is unsettled. But what is certain is that our croplands and grasslands yearn for the reintegration of animals, and we’re past the point in ecological history where we can afford to not use every good method we’ve got to restore land and habitats. Providing a market for the right kind of animal products is a way to finance the good farmers doing the hard work of regeneration. We can channel our ancestral, vivid appetites into economies that support life.
Veganism is insufficient to maintaining a world where animals of every stripe have space and opportunity to flourish. To build that world, we have to stop cooking the planet by burning fossil fuels to fly out-of-season food around the globe. We have to put more carbon in the ground where it can support life instead of threatening it. We have to stop buying food that comes wrapped in plastic, which later ends up in landfills and oceans. We have to stop poisoning landscapes and people with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. We have to stop tearing down ecosystems to install monocultures. We have to stop destroying living soil and start creating more of it. Lovingly incorporating animals into regenerative food landscapes is a powerful way to do this, a means of creating a world where life can thrive.
People who reject factory farmed meat are already awake to the damage being caused by industrial farming — and what is more, they are willing to change their lifestyles to unplug from destructive systems. But there are solutions that go deeper and ultimately make a lot more sense, ones that produce good instead of simply abstaining from harm. They offer a way of eating that is active, delicious, and embedded. If we take a good hard look at our relationships with our ecosystems and eat accordingly, we might actually be able to save the world, as the vegan slogan goes.
If you care about people, animals, and the environment, we invite you to steep in these questions for a bit:
- Is my food in season?
- If it is an animal product, how was the animal raised? How was the animal killed? What did the animal eat?
- How is my food processed?
- How is the food I buy packaged and where does the packaging go after I discard it?
- How far has my food traveled?
- Is the water used in its production sourced and managed in an ecologically sensible way?
- Is the soil that produced the food languishing or becoming more fecund?
- Does the landscape it was produced on provide habitats for a variety of wildlife?
- How are the people involved in the production, transportation, and sale of my food living? Are they treated fairly?
It’s likely that the only way to know the answers will be to get out of the city and meet some farmers. This takes more time that most modern humans are accustomed to dedicating to food provision, but a trip out into the countryside might also ease your alienation.
Either way, we hope you enjoy your food and your place in the trophic cascade of life and death.
Sunita Narain responds to comments on “Why I would not advocate vegetarianism”
Down to Earth
When I wrote about vegetarianism, or more precisely, why I as an Indian environmentalist would not advocate it, I had expected an emotional response. My article was meant to provoke a discussion. Here’s what I learnt from the responses; let’s see if we can find a middle way—not to agree, but to debate and dissent.
How Indians started drinking milk (and what it has cost us)
Many people think that milk is normal good food. But a large part of the world until recently never consumed the milk of other animals. Even today, Eastern Asia as a rule does not use milk. So, for some, milk is the greatest food, while for others, milk is one of the five white poisons.
Study: A minor change in your diet can reduce water use for agriculture
Down to Earth
A new modeling study published in The Lancet suggests that India’s agricultural need for water can be met if Indians introduce minor diet changes. Research team leader Alan Dangour tells Down to Earth that “dietary change is a potential way to improve resilience of the Indian food system in the face of future groundwater decline.”
Exposé: How big business got Brazil hooked on junk food
Andrew Jacobs & Matt Richtel , The New York Times
As their growth slows in the wealthiest countries, multinational food companies like Nestlé and PepsiCo have been aggressively expanding their presence in developing nations, unleashing a marketing juggernaut that is upending traditional diets from Brazil to Ghana to India. A detailed expose of the politics and economics of junk food, by The New York Times.
Science in the Anthropocene: The emerging field of Planetary Health
Environmental Health Perspectives
It’s no longer possible to separate the health of the planet from the health of its people. Disease patterns are changing as the climate does, and human health is at risk from loss of biodiversity, depleted water supplies, environmental toxins, and collapsing food systems. From this realisation has come a new research field: planetary health.