The basic must-knows of carnism and neocarnism

March 7, 2012

Melanie Joy’s celebrated presentation on carnism and the psychology of meat-eating is finally online in its entirety. If I could have people watch or read one thing about animal rights, it would probably be this. It’s about an hour long and truly worth engaging with if you’ve got some free time. Melanie Joy is an extremely articulate and brilliant animal, and I believe her work is at the forefront of animal liberation philosophy and practice.

I think it’s important to note that in some societies meat-eating is not a choice, but truly a matter of survival. We have to discuss this carefully. Many people are frankly offensive when they talk about what “survival” does and doesn’t mean in terms of food. In my experience, many folks use the word “survival” not to connote actual, literal life-and-death situations, but to justify chosen behaviors. The classic carnistic protein myth–that one needs protein to survive and that meat is the only good source of protein–is a perfect example of this. One simply needs protein to survive and, save extremely rare physiological conditions that you almost definitely don’t have, one can get all of the protein they need from plants. Another good example of the faulty invocation of food-related survival is when we use words like “omnivory”, a necessary practice, to refer to what is actually carnism, a set of choices and beliefs. We’re calling upon the naturalist fallacy here to justify chosen behaviors and beliefs. Biologically speaking, we are not obligate omnivores. We will not die or get sick without meat. Therefore it is more accurate to refer to meat-eating as an ism or ideology, just as we do with veganism.

So when I say that some peoples use meat for survival, I don’t mean folks debating whether human teeth were “made” for slicing and chomping meat and deciding in the affirmative; I don’t mean the oft-spouted fallacy that we must eat meat to get all of our essential nutrients and amino acids; I don’t mean various vague, often new-age, often inexplicable “intuitions” that it just feels better to eat meat and that this is the only information one should need to make ethical decisions. By “survival”, I mean that a person has no other choices. Some Inuit peoples might represent an example of this: in most Arctic climates plants cannot grow, and for some traditional Inuits, it is virtually impossible to even get to locations where there is access to a larger variety of foods. Unfortunately, and absurdly, many meat-eaters use this extremely harsh survival situation to justify their first-world meat-eating. I’ll draw another example from current personal experience: right now, I am a teacher for Burmese refugees and political exiles who, at times, have had to escape into the forest for long stretches with no food at all. If they come upon meat and eat it, that is survival. Survival is pre-moral because survival is not a choice and is therefore not based on beliefs and ideology.

So, to talk about both carnism and veganism, we must recognize the differences between survival and the luxury of choice.

These survival scenarios couldn’t be more different from a person– like most of us reading this blog– in the “developed” world who has some level of informed choice over what they eat.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to have chickens in their front yard in Brooklyn or Boulder instead of growing a vegetable garden.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different than a farmer making the choice to farm animals instead of plants.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to buy flesh or eggs instead of legumes and vegetables at the grocery store or farmer’s market.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to eat locally slaughtered pigs instead of locally grown vegetable products.

I have a bias: I feel flustered and offended that such situations are framed as survival to so many meat-eaters, when there are about a billion people in the world who have no food at all, and the mass existence of non-necessary, first-world carnism is so destructive to the world and everyone’s food supply at large. Let alone the fact that with the luxury of choices comes the incredible ability to enable the survival of others by not eating them.

The point is this: Basic survival is not a matter of ethics. Chosen behaviors, including most meat-eating, are. They have their roots in complex ideology. For most people, meat-eating is based on carefully-constructed, mutually-reinforcing cognitions and actions. And since most people are good people who don’t want to cause unnecessary suffering, to unnecessarily eat meat requires complicated feats of cognitive dissonance. Simply put, the core identity as a nonviolent person, on one hand, and the behaviors, on the other, of most carnists don’t match up. Not even the kindest person in the world can eat meat without engaging in violence. Carnists must use complicated defense mechanisms to navigate this disconnect. Those defense mechanisms become the basis of an entire ideology structured around meat-eating. This ideology, like all ideologies of the dominant culture– patriarchy, white supremacy, ecocide, capitalism, heterosexism– remains largely invisible and taken for granted.

This is, in my eyes, the core of Melanie’s research and teachings: that almost all people identify, consciously or not, as non-violent people. They would generally never harm another human except in perceived self-defense; they wouldn’t harm the vast majority of most nonhumans, either. They only harm those seven or eight species–out of hundreds of thousands–who fall into the tiny, culturally-constructed group of “edible animals” (in US culture, this groups consists basically of cows, pigs, lambs, a couple types of bird, and a couple fish and crustacean species. The “edible animals” group changes from culture to culture but always remains tiny.) We are compassionate, empathetic, and creative creatures, yet we make choices several times a day–some people, every time they eat–that have unnecessary suffering and death at their core; we are gentle and full of love, yet for some of us, the only contact we ever have with fellow creatures is literally as so many dead body parts on a plate. We use the ideology of carnism and its attendant defense mechanisms to maintain this disconnect. We shut down, we justify, we deny, we intellectualize, we look away, we naturalize, we objectify, precisely because we care and are good people.

Since Melanie talks about this in much more detail and with much more eloquence, you should watch the video to learn more about the intricacies of how we, as cultures and individuals, banish the realities of meat from our awareness so successfully. I think both carnists and vegans and everyone in-between will get a lot out of it.

Melanie has also recently published an illuminating article that touches on many of the issues in this blog, entitled Understanding Neocarnism: How Vegan Advocates Can Appreciate and Respond to “Happy Meat”, Locovorism, and “Paleo Dieting”.  She breaks down the psychology, cognitive dissonance, and defensiveness behind three issues central to neocarnist ideology: compassionate carnism (humane meat), ecocarnism (carnism for ecology’s sake), and biocarnism (carnism as biological imperative). She frames neocarnism as a backlash against veganism– which, in some respects, we should take as a positive sign that veganism is working as a movement. Unsuccessful movements do not inspire backlash.

Watch it. Read it. Love you.


Let’s move this conversation forward; or, (another) study: pasture-raised cows produce four times more methane emissions than feedlot cows

January 23, 2012

A new study confirms higher rates of methane emission from grazed cows over feedlot cows. Abstract and full study available here:

Direct measurements of methane emissions from grazing and feedlot cattle

This study, citing and building on studies which already demonstrate that cattle farming represents a mass contribution to the emission of methane–one of the most consequential greenhouse gasses–examined and measured output from large samples of cattle in undisturbed (non-laboratory/non-constructed) settings.

Its main conclusion: “These measurements clearly document higher CH4 production (about four times) for cattle receiving low-quality, high-fiber diets than for cattle fed high-grain diets.”

To advocates of pasture-raised beef and dairy: Please start discussing this kind of information and please stop spreading the myth that pasture-raised beef is good for the environment. That there are a lot of problems with agriculture-in-general, including plant agriculture and monocultures, is not in dispute. But from the mass destruction caused by grazing, to the mass methane emissions, raising animals on pasture is not simply detrimental; it’s more detrimental than on feedlots, in terms of land/habitat destruction and greenhouse gas emissions.

This article by Mike Tidwell was recently brought to my attention, and impressed me as a very good, simple overview of the environmental impact of carnism, on humans as well as ecosystems and individual animals. Tidwell points out that even many folks’ beloved fall-back, “free range” and “sustainable” chicken and egg farming, produces far more greenhouse gas emissions than its terrible factory-farming sibling– 14 percent more!

This is to say nothing of the myth of “humane” meat that we have discussed elsewhere.

We’ve listened to the “humane” meat-ers. We’ve listened to the Weston A. Price Foundation’s non-scientists and non-nutritionists misconstrue information about teeth, soy, cholesterol, and raw meat. We’ve listened to Lierre Keith straight-up hate on vegans and paint caricatures of health and sustainable agriculture. We’ve listened to Michael Pollan and Joe Salatin’s carefully (and conveniently) constructed happy-meat, return-to-pasture narratives. We’ve listened to people who don’t come from gatherer-hunter cultures say, “let’s hunt, then!” and we’ve tried not to be dicks when we’ve pointed out that, if even a fraction of billions of today’s non-tribal humans started hunting for their meat, ecosystems would almost immediately shatter. We’ve listened to Barabara Kingslover as she drives 3,000 miles in her car to eat another location’s local food. We’ve listened to really excited ex-vegan bloggers talk about how they literally feel the energy of nutrients x, y, and z rushing through their body the minute they eat meat again for the first time (something which isn’t physiologically possible.) We’ve gotten a good share of what anti-vegans–both the subtle and the not-so-subtle ones–have to say. For all our faults and snark, we’ve tried to listen–we actually really have.

And for all of this, there’s one thing they all seem to say some version of, and I agree with it: We need better, more diverse, more creative, less mono-culture based farming methods. Nobody here is saying otherwise.

But it’s time to move the conversation forward: the ethics of, and cognitive dissonance that is necessary for, “humane meat”, grass-fed meat, and pasture farming are highly questionable; and we have to contend with those questions now if we want to deal with the crises of ecology, psychology, and ethics that are literally destroying the earth.

There is, at this point, simply too much available information to ignore regarding the destructiveness of animal farming and the unnecessary suffering of animals. There is too much information to ignore regarding the existence of viable, healthful, plant-based alternatives to meat diets and animal farming. We can’t continue to ignore this information if we want to have conversations about diet that aren’t disingenuous. We can’t refuse to discuss the fallacy, the gaping logical inconsistency, of “humane” captivity and slaughter, and the environmental destruction of animal farming–the latter of which is an issue for both entire species and their individual bodies. We can’t keep falling back on the simplistic vegan straw man of “but monocultures–but soy–but the paleocene–but protein”. These straw-men have been debunked to death. Healthful, animal-friendly plant-based alternatives to this mess of meat agriculture and carnism exist, right now, today. Just because these plant-based alternatives are inconvenient to a Western culture that is steeped in the ideologies and practices of meat, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Our refusal to look at them does not erase their reality.

If you need more information about any of these issues or about striving towards sustainable plant-based lives, we’ve discussed it a lot in this blog. Please refer to other posts such as those here and here, do a quick google or JSTOR search, or refer to our resources page or our sustainable vegan agriculture page. You might also consider checking out The Humane Myth.

James McWilliams: What’s Being Butchered Here is Logic

May 27, 2011

James McWilliams’ recent piece in The Atlantic has been making the online rounds recently. I read it this morning and thought he highlighted a few interesting points about nonhuman animals that often get passed over when people are discussing sustainability and food production. Namely, McWilliams discusses the ways in which Darwinism problematized the binary human/nonhuman paradigm which, for a stone age throwback, still gets a lot of play in certain quarters.

When humans and non-human animals are part of a continuum, rather than qualitatively distinct forms of life, human meat-eaters confront a serious quandary. It becomes incumbent upon us to forge a contemporary justification for carnivorous behavior. Aristotle and Genesis will no longer do. By undermining the long-held basis of inherent human superiority over non-human animals, the science of evolution obliterated the framework within which thoughtful carnivores long justified their behavior. As it now stands, human meat-eaters, unless they reject modern science, support the killing of non-human animals without the slightest intellectual or ethical grounding.

I can’t say I’m a fan of foodie-ism as it pertains to real solutions for the problem of food production, distribution and sustainability. It rankles just a little bit to see people turning food into an expensive hobby when you know that over a billion humans worldwide are starving, to say less of the 45 billion nonhumans being murdered every year for a nutritional need that does not exist. I’m glad that there seems to be a consciousness shift away from CAFOs and industrial monocultures, but sometimes well-meaning people can be frustratingly blind to matters of class or species privilege. Food is not a toy. We live and die by it. Or, as Josh Harper put it: “reading a Michael Pollan book doesn’t excuse you (or him) from having to consider the lives you are taking and the suffering you contribute to.”

“Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impact of Food Choices in the United States”

April 20, 2011

This study is a must-read for anyone concerned with food politics. It’s one of the only studies done on the issue. Abstract and full text are available here: Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impact of Food Choices in the United States

For those not into the technical language of scientific articles, here are the basic findings:

1) Food miles are not an accurate way to measure a food’s ecological footprint. Transportation of food accounts for only about 15 percent of its ecological footprint.

2)Production, storage, whether a food is animal or plant, non-carbon greenhouse gas emissions, scale, and other factors account for about 83 percent.

3) An accurate picture of a food’s environmental impact needs to include all those aspects and that can be done much more throroughly with a life cycle assessment (LCA). Movements for ecological sustainability would fare much better if they used the LCA instead of the food miles model.

4) It is impossible to do an all-encompassing study on the climate impact of food. This study is based on the “average” US household. Unmeasurable factors might play a role in many situations. Despite, these findings point to critical issues regarding diet and ecology.

5.) For the average household, eating vegan food one day a week achieves more of a reduction in environmental degredation than eating local animal products every day. Or, more precisely: “The results of this analysis show that for the average American household, ‘buying local’ could achieve, at maximum, around a 4−5% reduction in GHG emissions due to large sources of both CO2 and non-CO2 emissions in the production of food. Shifting less than 1 day per week’s (i.e., 1/7 of total calories) consumption of red meat and/or dairy to other protein sources or a vegetable-based diet could have the same climate impact as buying all household food from local providers.”

I look forward to more work being done on this, and more conversation being had.

Problematizing ecology, local, and grass-fed… again

March 30, 2011

I originally posted this as a comment, then thought, well, this is a lot of writing just to be a comment. So here goes:

Eighty percent of corn and soy crops are used for livestock feed, not for vegan food. The problems of grain, soy, and monocultures are simply not ones that can be pinned on the vegan movement. To paraphrase Gary Francione, the problem of designer foods is not inherent to veganism any more than the problem of designer clothes is inherent to wearing clothes. There are plenty of designer foods that meat-eaters eat, and there are plenty of vegans who eat mainly local and organic, plenty of vegans who don’t eat soy or tons of corn and wheat, etc. To claim that all vegans eat all grain and soy, or that a vegan diet only consists of grain and soy, is a disingenuous straw-man argument.

Veganic/stock free permaculture is a thriving practice all over the world. It seems many locavores are willfully ignorant of this fact, and I’m not entirely clear why. Veganic permaculture is by far the most sustainable farming practice. There are many books and internet resources on this if you need more information.

Grass fed livestock don’t partake in the problem of corn and soy feed. But pasture/grass fed animals require more than twice the land of factory farmed animals. Grazing is one of the worst environmental problems that exists. Overgrazing has trampled and compacted land and been the largest contributor to desertification. Two-thirds of the American West, for instance, is grazing land. Clearing land for pasture is the major reason for destruction of forests and biodiversity including the atrocity of rainforest destruction. This is simply not a problem with even the least sustainable plant diets. Even the most industrialized plant diets use exponentially less land per yield than meat diets, especially grazed meat diets. Grazing is one of the most ecologically absurd situations humans have ever created. One researcher, Vacliv Smil, who has done very careful math has estimated that by 2050, if we are to feed the world on a meat diet, we will need 67 percent more land on the earth. Again, there is no comparable number for even the least sustainable plant agriculture, as plant protein is much higher yield per energy input than meat, and is consumed directly instead of being turned into an animal first.

Cows emit massive amounts of methane, one of the worst greenhouse gasses, and it is well documented that this is a major cause of global warming, surpassing all forms of transportation combined.  Grass fed and free-range livestock emit many times more methane than industrial livestock, in fact, because they live much longer. Again, this problem is simply not comparable to the problems of plant agriculture. Plants are not farting and stomping us to extinction.

Raising livestock, even grass-fed, is also by far the world’s number one cause of water usage and water pollution. Again, not comparable to the water usage of plant agriculture.

Furthermore, the issue of transportation of food over long distances is often cited by locavores, but the truth is much more complicated. The simple equation of food miles does not account for whether or not irrigation is used, whether or not food is grown in hothouses, whether or not food is in season, how food is stored, how food is cooked, how much food was shipped where and how, whether or not it is animal or plant food, etc. In short, transportation is about ten percent of a food’s energy cost. To quote James McWilliams, who has many problematic ideas but is right-on when it comes to food miles, “To take an extreme example, a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples at his stall at the green market.” Furthermore, simplistic food mile equations do not account for people who live in regions where food is not available, which opens up a sizeable, incredibly complicated can of worms in terms of human rights and food access. The local ethic, despite its benefits, simply does not take responsibility for the problem of food access in a globalized world where food is an inherently global issue. I am not saying I have a perfect answer to this problem, but I am saying that food access in a globalized world is complicated, and it deserves to be dealt with in a complicated way, especially if people who have social and economic privilege are claiming to be concerned with human rights.

But I digress. I don’t at all mean to tear local agriculture a new asshole. There are many reasons to eat local, especially in places where, unlike the Arizona desert where local food–including all meat–is all sustained by irrigation, local makes sense. I support eating local for several reasons, and I eat local as much as I can (and I’m a vegan… gasp). The point, rather, is that just because something is local does not mean it is the most environmentally friendly option. A life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a much more honest and comprehensive way than food miles to figure which food is the most sustainable.

If you are going to eat animal food, grass-fed meat from permaculture farms is the most sustainable way to do it. But veganic permaculture is exponentially more sustainable due to the minimized effects it has on land, water, and greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the less sustainable techniques of plant agriculture are more sustainable than the most sustainable forms of animal agriculture.

And this does not begin to get into the issue of the rights and interests of individual animals. I happen to believe that an egalitarian and ecologically friendly world is not possible when our personal and mass psychology is imbued with the idea that it is okay to unnecessarily use most of the world’s sentient creatures as mere instruments to our own ends. But that aside, I do understand the issue of animal rights lives in complicated philosophical, emotional, and spiritual territory. However, the issue of whether or not eating meat is good for the environment, especially in the long run, is quite simple: it isn’t. And there are viable, thriving alternatives. We might not like them because they challenge our deep-rooted food habits and assumptions, but within this generation there will be 10 billion people in the world, and save hitherto unknown technological interventions, there won’t even be any more land for meat-heavy diets.

Interesting article: The Locavore Myth, James McWilliams

March 8, 2011

The Locavore Myth

James E. McWilliams,
Forbes Magazine August 03, 2009

Why buying from nearby farmers won’t save the planet.

Buy local, shrink the distance food travels, save the planet. The locavore movement has captured a lot of fans. To their credit, they are highlighting the problems with industrialized food. But a lot of them are making a big mistake. By focusing on transportation, they overlook other energy-hogging factors in food production. Take lamb. A 2006 academic study (funded by the New Zealand government) discovered that it made more environmental sense for a Londoner to buy lamb shipped from New Zealand than to buy lamb raised in the U.K. This finding is counterintuitive–if you’re only counting food miles. But New Zealand lamb is raised on pastures with a small carbon footprint, whereas most English lamb is produced under intensive factory-like conditions with a big carbon footprint. This disparity overwhelms domestic lamb’s advantage in transportation energy.  New Zealand lamb is not exceptional. Take a close look at water usage, fertilizer types, processing methods and packaging techniques and you discover that factors other than shipping far outweigh the energy it takes to transport food. One analysis, by Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, showed that transportation accounts for only 11% of food’s carbon footprint. A fourth of the energy required to produce food is expended in the consumer’s kitchen. Still more energy is consumed per meal in a restaurant, since restaurants throw away most of their leftovers. Locavores argue that buying local food supports an area’s farmers and, in turn, strengthens the community. Fair enough. Left unacknowledged, however, is the fact that it also hurts farmers in other parts of the world. The U.K. buys most of its green beans from Kenya. While it’s true that the beans almost always arrive in airplanes–the form of transportation that consumes the most energy–it’s also true that a campaign to shame English consumers with small airplane stickers affixed to flown-in produce threatens the livelihood of 1.5 million sub-Saharan farmers.

Another chink in the locavores’ armor involves the way food miles are calculated. To choose a locally grown apple over an apple trucked in from across the country might seem easy. But this decision ignores economies of scale. To take an extreme example, a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples at his stall at the green market. The critical measure here is not food miles but apples per gallon. The one big problem with thinking beyond food miles is that it’s hard to get the information you need. Ethically concerned consumers know very little about processing practices, water availability, packaging waste and fertilizer application. This is an opportunity for watchdog groups. They should make life-cycle carbon counts available to shoppers. Until our food system becomes more transparent, there is one thing you can do to shrink the carbon footprint of your dinner: Take the meat off your plate. No matter how you slice it, it takes more energy to bring meat, as opposed to plants, to the table. It takes 6 pounds of grain to make a pound of chicken and 10 to 16 pounds to make a pound of beef. That difference translates into big differences in inputs. It requires 2,400 liters of water to make a burger and only 13 liters to grow a tomato. A majority of the water in the American West goes toward the production of pigs, chickens and cattle. The average American eats 273 pounds of meat a year. Give up red meat once a week and you’ll save as much energy as if the only food miles in your diet were the distance to the nearest truck farmer.

If you want to make a statement, ride your bike to the farmer’s market. If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, become a vegetarian.


*Has anyone read his book, Just Food? Thoughts? I’m going to look into it. -cz