Thursday, August 16, 2007

More on Foodies, Foie Gras, and Farmers

Susan Schneider recently posted a thought-provoking piece on the inhumane treatment of geese destined to produce foie gras. Susan noted that the abuse uncovered at a particular farm went well beyond the “necessary” abuse of force-feeding geese, but stepped back to pose a moral question – even if the only maltreatment of the animals was the force feeding necessary to produce foie gras, is it worth it?

Susan also hinted, as Steven Carpenter of Farmers' Legal Action Group has noted elsewhere, that this moral question is poised to become an economic one, as more and more consumers are paying attention to how meat is treated before it becomes meat. To very loosely paraphrase Carpenter (I was a sleep-deprived parent of a days-old baby when I heard this, and I hope Steven will forgive any misattribution), the prevailing view in traditional farming and ranching operations is that soccer moms and other non-ag folks just don’t understand the real world of modern agriculture. If those suburbanites “had a clue” and weren’t unnecessarily sentimental, they wouldn’t raise a fuss about animal treatment. Carpenter’s sensical rejoinder is that, in fact, as these soccer moms begin to become more of animal treatment (and mistreatment), they are going to demand reasonable treatment of livestock. These demands will have an impact on agriculture's bottom line.

Carpenter and Schneider appear to be on to something. In this month’s “The Critics” section of the Atlantic Monthly, B.R. Myers offers up yet more tantalizing fodder for this discussion via his review titled, "Hard to Swallow: The gourmet's ongoing failure to think in moral terms." Myers reviews two works, an anthology, "Best Food Writing 2006” and Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (I guess mine wasn’t the last word on the book).

Myers begins by observing that “people are more concerned about animal welfare than they used to be.” One reason for that concern is that consumers “know that the more humanely the average animal is treated the better it will taste.” Myers also suggests that most consumers, though, have another reason for their growing compunction, and that is a sense of morality and empathy. Most of us, at least, are uncomfortable when “asked to laugh at the suffering of a living thing.” I hope Myers is right.

Myers makes short but scathing work of the anthology before turning his gaze to Pollans’ work – and the review is mixed. Pollan’s book is divided into four sections – the first section is a fascinating discourse on corn. As a kid growing up surrounded by corn in Iowa, I never would have believed that “fascinating” and “corn” belonged in the same sentence, but Pollan proved me wrong. At any rate, the “Industrial Corn” section gets due praise from Myers who calls the section a “tour de force” and generously acknowledges Pollan’s exquisite writing style--“(This is a writer…who can make even biochemistry vivid.)"

The rest of the review is not so charitable. Myers' main critique is that Pollan's moralizing about eating meat is longer on rhetoric than convincing argument. Though I am a big fan of Pollan's work, I found myself agreeing with at least some of Myers' critique. Myers himself, though, is open to some of the same criticism that he leveled on Pollan. I found myself wanting Myers to develop his arguments -- for example, Myers criticizes Pollan and other gourmets who "preach the benefits of organic fare to the country at large, feigning a child's ignorance of economics all the while..." That's all we get on the economics of organics. Of course, this review was in the Atlantic Monthly, not the New Yorker, so Myers no doubt faced some word limit restraints. Nonetheless, I wanted more. If you do too, you can read the review for yourself here.

Thanks to commenter Patrick S. O'Donnell for bringing this review to my attention.
Posted by Morgan Holcomb