Meat, morality, and the vortex of lies

An early morning rant from Colin Tudge

We are invited to be cheered by aspects of the Agriculture Bill for it seems that at last a Secretary of State is finally taking notice of what people who are truly interested in food and farming have been saying for the past half century or so — and to get governments of the usual kind even to listen to people who actually know things and give a damn is itself a triumph. Or so we seem to accept.

But it isn’t really. Agricultural strategy in Britain and increasingly in the world at large is based on a lie, or a series of lies, each one following from the one before; and we are all of us invited or obliged to spend our lives living up to those lies. But if we are serious about the present and future plight of the world, we really can’t afford to base our lives on lies.
The great lie or at least misconception that underpins standard agricultural strategy is that what is sold in greatest amounts is what we truly want: that sales reflect something called demand; and that demand reflects some deep, perhaps even God-given predilection and predisposition; and – which is very strange morality! – that it is morally virtuous and a fundamental principle of democracy to strive always to satisfy these hypothetical predilections.

In particular, people are buying more and more meat and this is taken as irrefutable evidence that human beings have an innate, evolved or perhaps God-given penchant for animal flesh and indeed a need for it; and standard agricultural strategy is accordingly designed to produce more and more of it. In practice, industrial meat production, culminating in “CAFOs” (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — an ugly name for an ugly concept), is an extension of the arable industry, and is intended expressly to dispose of arable surpluses. The modern arable industry in turn is an extension of the petro-chemical industry; and the modern economy is designed to maximize short-term profit which requires us to produce more and more stuff of whatever kind and to flog whatever it is as quickly and abundantly as possible. The petro-chemical industry is hugely profitable (nothing more so) and so it drives the whole global economy, and politics follows the economics however crass the economics may be, and agriculture is swept up in the rush like everything else.

To be sure, people do buy more meat as they get richer – and more booze, and more or less everything else that is tasty (who denies it?) and expensive (and also more clothes and cars and cocaine). Turnips on the other hand seem most unfashionable (it’s hard to get them). But the only thing we can legitimately infer from all these facts – that at any one period of history people buy some things and not others, and that different people buy different things, and that the same people buy different things at different times – is that our tastes, our preferences, in food and just about everything else, are very flexible. Indeed, apart from a few built-in antipathies to foods that make us say “yuk” (and are probably bad for us), our tastes seem almost infinitely flexible. Some people eat sea-urchins and it used to be smart to drink crème de menthe, and so on. What we choose to buy, at any one time, is determined by tradition and fashion (because the things that are perceived to be smart are the things that gain us kudos) and by what we can afford, and, above all, by what is available. Make a food available (but a little bit expensive so it looks prestigious!) and surround it with a good story of one kind or another (which is called salesmanship) and with a following wind and government approval (to remove legal and bureaucratic obstacles) you can sell whatever it may be, in vast quantities, including proverbial fridges to proverbial Eskimos.

That really does not mean that there is any innate “demand” for whatever it is that is commercially successful, or that commercial success reflects some innate, unsatisfied desire, rooted deep in our psyche and biology or instilled in us by divine decree. Scientists are supposed to think critically and they above all should realize that the facts do not justify that idea. But scientists in practice beneath their cleverness and apparent self-confidence tend to be simple souls, and those who take the commercial shilling seem all too ready to leave their critical faculties at the reception desk, and go along with whatever myth the company cares to spin. Not only do they go along with the idea that we need more and more cereal and soya to feed the animals that we are supposed to need, and don’t, they have invented a whole new technology – that of GMOs — to boost the yield of those crops even further, and a whole new mythology to go with it (which says that GMOs are necessary, and that high-tech is innately superior to tradition). After all, scientists have mortgages like everybody else.

So the myth has it that people “demand” more and more meat because of some deep need and unsatisfied desire and agricultural scientists of a certain kind are all too ready to provide the means that enable the myth to be fulfilled if that’s what their paymasters want. CAFOs are the smart thing not because they are “efficient” (as the myth has it; though life-cycle analysis shows them to be immensely profligate in ecological terms) but because they provide the means to add value to oil, which in its pristine state is not desirable at all, by turning it into cereal and soya with the aid of photosynthesis, and then into burgers and barbequed chicken wings, and peppering the world’s high streets with “outlets”.

In fact, of course, we could produce all the meat the world really needs, and – even more to the point – all that is needed to meet the requirements of the world’s greatest cuisines (which all use meat sparingly) — by agroecological means that are, as the bureaucratic cliché has it, truly sustainable: by grazing cattle and sheep on land that doesn’t lend itself to crops, and feeding pigs and poultry on leftovers and genuine surpluses.

But then, even if we really did have a huge and insatiable desire for meat, it does not follow that it is necessarily “good”, in a moral sense, to satisfy that desire. Indeed it is very strange to suppose that moral good means satisfying carnal want. Most moral philosophy that is worthy of the name, and particularly of the kind that lies at the heart of all bona fide religions, teaches restraint: that we should not expressly aim always or primarily to satisfy carnal desires. That we, and the world’s most powerful commercial companies – who in practice do more than anyone to determine how we live and indeed how we think – should make a prime virtue  of satisfying carnal desire, and that people in positions of influence do not seem to question this, shows how morally corrupt the world has become. Given that in this case the supposed carnal desire is itself a lie, we are caught in a double whammy. In fact we are caught in a giant tautology, a vortex. We invent a lie to justify greed and then make a virtue of living up to that lie and in the process kill the biosphere and leave a lot of people without enough food at all. It will take more than a government bill that seems marginally more sensible than the outpourings of the past few decades to put that right.

Colin Tudge October 29 2018

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