James McWilliams on the Myth of Sustainable Meat in the New York Times

A Revolution in Eating

“After all, it’s not how we produce animal products that ultimately matters. It’s whether we produce them at all.” — James McWilliams

Last Friday, the New York Times ran an op-ed by CUP author James McWilliams, author of A Revolution in Eating and American Pests, entitled “The Myth of Sustainable Meat.” McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos and a recent fellow in the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University.

In his editorial, McWilliams claims that, while “factory farming is the epitome of a broken food system,” nonindustrial food sources–typically small, organic farms–are not a significantly better way to convert animals into food for humans. Throughout the article, he addresses and rebuts various arguments that are commonly used to support small-scale farming operations, from claims that nonindustrial farms are more natural:

Advocates of small-scale, nonindustrial alternatives say their choice is at least more natural. Again, this is a dubious claim. Many farmers who raise chickens on pasture use industrial breeds that have been bred to do one thing well: fatten quickly in confinement. As a result, they can suffer painful leg injuries after several weeks of living a “natural” life pecking around a large pasture. Free-range pigs are routinely affixed with nose rings to prevent them from rooting, which is one of their most basic instincts. In essence, what we see as natural doesn’t necessarily conform to what is natural from the animals’ perspectives.

To claims that smaller farms provide a beneficial service in rotational grazing:

But rotational grazing works better in theory than in practice. Consider Joel Salatin, the guru of nutrient cycling, who employs chickens to enrich his cows’ grazing lands with nutrients. His plan appears to be impressively eco-correct, until we learn that he feeds his chickens with tens of thousands of pounds a year of imported corn and soy feed. This common practice is an economic necessity. Still, if a farmer isn’t growing his own feed, the nutrients going into the soil have been purloined from another, most likely industrial, farm, thereby undermining the benefits of nutrient cycling.

McWilliams ends his essay with a powerful plea to consider the entire project of animal production:

Opponents of industrialized agriculture have been declaring for over a decade that how humans produce animal products is one of the most important environmental questions we face. We need a bolder declaration. After all, it’s not how we produce animal products that ultimately matters. It’s whether we produce them at all.

1 Response

  1. Iteresting article. Small scale v factory farming. Even the small farmer has his issues as per the example regarding the imported feed. Unless he is growing everything himself, he can not truely claim to be eco-correct.

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