True believers are a dangerous lot. Not dangerous in the sense that they’ll physically hurt, or inflict something worse on you—dangerous in that they think they are the only ones with a direct line to the source of truth.
Their unwavering belief in their cause—whatever that cause might be–renders them incapable of considering alternative viewpoints, or being able to empathize with how others frame the same issue with equal fervor. While belief of this type is often directed towards deities and religious systems, more and more this same kind of rote call and response is found in most of the debates about issues from gay rights to gun control. Ultimately, people just end up talking past one another.
Food is one of those battlegrounds, among many, littered with unexploded mines waiting for you to step on. And again, opposing sides can’t seem to come a middle position between polar extremes.
Rarely do I read more than one book per year by a particular author. I think 2014 is going to be different; it’s only March and I’m already doubling up on books by Maureen Ogle.
I enjoyed her excellent book about beer and decided I wanted to read her latest one on America’s meat industry, In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America. In it, Ogle drills down even further on the topic of food and looks at the history of meat in America, and along the way, reveals much of what is at the core of almost every other debate being waged in this country, the myth that Americans are wedded to—our pervasive sense of entitlement—we can have everything we want, in this case, meat three times a day and have it cheaply, while also not having any environmental, health, or other social fallout from the process. As Ogle indicates in her introduction, “we can’t have it all.”
While I have my own quibbles with some of her points, I think everyone would benefit from reading the book because Ogle does a terrific job helping readers understand how we got to where we are with meat today.
Americans want their meat (and they want it cheap)
Today, Americans slaughter 10 billion animals annually; actually, very few of us know anything about the slaughter of the animals we consume—perhaps if we did, it might change our perspective on eating them—it also might not. That means that in 2011, 92 billion pounds of beef, pork, and poultry was produced mainly through large-scale farm operations.
This carnivorous penchant of Americans is nothing new; Ogle does an excellent job in setting the table on our meat-eating history. What she also does well is debunk the myth about meat that says, “back in the good ole’ days” farm families raised a diversity of livestock and crops—chickens and cattle all grazed freely and ate natural diets. Then, the big, bad corporations barged in with their nasty factory farming operations and turned rural America into a feudal state beholden to agribusiness.
Actually, I’d be guilty of holding that belief pretty close to my bosom, and Ogle’s book opened my eyes and helped me to see that again, blindly subscribing to binary beliefs is intellectually disingenuous, even if they make us feel better, and even morally superior.
If you want to change your meat, you better change the model
In the 1820s, only 7 percent of the nation’s 9 million people lived off the farm. Beginning in the 1830s, the percentage of people moving to urban areas exploded—in a mere 30 years, one quarter of the 31 million Americans were calling cities their home.
This move to towns and cities and off farms is an important one; city folk don’t produce their own food. The more people live in cities, the more difficult it became for fewer farmers to feed the growing urban population in America. This is compounded especially in relation to meat production, and also because the urban population was skewed eastward, while meat production was in the west, with the large stockyards located in Chicago.
Some of the statistics offered by Ogle really made me sit up and take notice of this issue. For instance, in the 1860s, nearly 1 million people were living in Manhattan; in order to satisfy their appetites for meat, 1.1 million animals had to be slaughtered. This involved increasingly sophisticated logistical methods of moving livestock from the farm to the city’s slaughterhouses. Just getting the entire animal into a product that butchers could carve up for consumers was complicated enough.
Take eggs, for example. In the last 1860s, New Yorkers were devouring 126 million eggs annually. In another 10 years, the number was up to 442 million. These eggs weren’t coming from backyard hen houses, either.
Thus begins Ogle’s careful scrutiny of how the “Far West,” the region west of the Missouri River was turned over to cattle in order to feed the nation. While only touching on the need to remove the 30 to 40 million bison, who roamed the plains, along with the Native American population. Since the Indian way of life was dependent on bison for both their food and shelter and clothing, their extermination would destroy that and open the Far West up to cattle and the white man’s hustling ways.
What Ogle does well is to detail the evolution of meat production. If Americans wanted meat—and they most certainly did; cheap meat, too—then there had to be changes in the production of meat. This where the names of Gus Swift and Phillip Armour and the other packing magnates are introduced. Also, Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle; oh, and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which actually had little to do with meat.
There have been countless books that have come out that cast Big Ag as villains and the progenitors of factory farming; that’s a convenient tack and one that reporter Chris Leonard takes in his exposé of Tyson Foods and the chicken industry.
Ogle covers Tyson in her book, so you’ll have to invest some energy and read it—I’m not going to spoon feed you the rest in my post. I will say this much—Tyson, and other meat producers are merely giving Americans what the majority want—cheap, plentiful meat.
The argument comes down to whether that’s in our best interests, or not, but maybe more important—is it possible to go back to a more idyllic time—and was there an actual, historical period like that?
Ogle’s position is that there wasn’t, and what makes it hard for everyone accustomed to fairy tale endings—she doesn’t offer a solution to wanting our meat, and wanting it as cheaply as possible.
When it comes to our food, and how it’s produced; the genie’s out of the bottle, and I don’t know how we can put him back, short of an entirely new way of living.