There’s only one thing meat eaters, flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans can all agree on: no one wants animals to suffer. Beyond that, the war of ideals can sometimes get malicious. At a recent discussion hosted by the Museum of Food and Drink, four experts got together to talk about meat — one of food’s most contentious issues.
On the vegetarian side, there was Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and one of the founding thinkers behind the modern animal liberation movement. In the nouveau-omnivore category there was Patrick Martins, founder of Heritage Foods USA and producer of heritage breed meats. Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest a company that is working to create lab-cultured meats spoke on behalf of techno-foods. Mark Budolfson represented a more neutral view of food ethics. The event’s organizers managed to bring together a representation of the ideals most of us have related to meat. The only thing missing was someone who believed in industrial farming.
Like most conversations, things started out civilly enough. MOFAD Founder Dave Arnold moderated the discussion and allowed each participant to air his or her views on meat and its future. If you knew anything about the participants ahead of time, their answers — with the exception of Budolfson, the only wildcard — were easy to predict. If you want the cliff notes of the moderated portion of the discussion, this is it:
Singer: “I think it’s obvious that animal agriculture as its practiced in this country is a long, continuous nightmare for animals who are confined indoors.
Martins: “Everyone should be eating pasture-raised heritage meats.”
Datar: “If we can produce food without having to kill something, why wouldn’t we?”
Budolfson: Either refuting or backing up the others’ claims throughout.
But that was only about a third of the entire event. After a few quick questions, the moderator opened it up to the audience. Thus ended any chance for an orderly debate. If you want an introduction to meat politics, you can’t do much better than what happened next.
A few vegan or vegetarian activists showed up to the event, bringing signs with them that showed photos of pigs “Animals just want to live,” they kept murmuring, sounding almost like a quiet chant. One of them asked why Martins’s $140 Thanksgiving turkey accounted for his business costs but didn’t pay “for that one moment of slaughter and years of life that turkey doesn’t get to have?” Slightly later, a man gave a very tortured metaphor comparing sex trafficking to factory farming, going so far as to name the group trafficking these metaphorical women “Heritage Girls” to riff off “Heritage Meats.” Amidst all of this, tempers flew. Even the moderator became heated enough to yell at the protestors from his seat on the panel.
By the time the Q&A got to this point, the event had lost all semblance of a discussion. Protestors and the panel were on defense while trying to out-logic or out-moralize their opponents. This is common for modern meat politics; discussions are rarely about finding the best solution to the problems created by animal agriculture. Instead, these discussions often lean towards participants demanding as many people as possible to take their side.
If everyone in the room that evening could agree that industrial animal agriculture was a great evil, no one was prepared to compromise on what to do next. As Peter Singer said, “We no longer need to kill meat to survive and that changes things.” Deciding what comes after that is fraught with issues of economics, ethics and emotions. Taste is thrown in just to make things more confusing.
The actual future of meat is not a subject we address nearly enough when it comes to meat or other food controversies. Most people have simply made up their minds. That’s perhaps the most frightening takeaway from a discussion titled “The Future of Meat.” If those of us who want change can’t agree on what it should look like, then there may not be a bright future for animal agriculture at all.