"Green" Eggs and Ham? The Myth of Sustainable Meat and the Danger of the Local
Abstract In the New York Times bestseller, The Omnivores Dilemma, Michael Pollan popularizes the idea of a “local” based diet, which he justifies, in part, in terms of environmental sustainability. In fact, many locavores argue that a local based diet is more environmentally sustainable than a vegan or vegetarian diet and concludes that if vegans and vegetarians truly care about the environment they should instead eat sustainably raised local meat. However locavores are incorrect in their analysis of the sustainability of a local based diet and in its applicability for large scale adaptation. Instead locavores engage in the construction of “a literary pastoral,” a desire to return to a nonexistent past, which falsely romanticizes the ideals of a local based lifestyle. They therefore gloss over the issues of sexism, racism, speciesism, homophobia and anti-immigration sentiments which an emphasis only on the local, as opposed to the global, can entail. In this manner the locavorism movement has come to echo many of the same claims that the “Buy American” movement did before it. The conclusion is that a local based diet, while raising many helpful and valid points, needs to be re-understood and rearticulated.2 The first thing I ask Salatin when we sit downin his living room is whether he's ever considered becoming a vegetarian. It's not what I had planned to say, but we've been in the hoop houses with the nicely treated hens, all happily pecking and glossy-feathered, and I've held one in my arms. Suddenly it makes little sense that this animal, whose welfare has been of such great concern, will be killed in a matter of days. Naive, I know, and Salatin seems surprised. "Never crossed my mind," he says… Salatin is hitting his stride now. "We tried heritage chickens for three years and we couldn't sell 'em. I mean, we could sell a couple. But at the end of the day, altruism doesn't pay our taxes.3”
- Interview by the Guardian (Sunday 31 January 2010, 44)
I think there is an enormous amount of political power lying around on the food issue, and I am just waiting for the right politician to realize that this is a great family issue. If that politician is on the Right, all the better. I think that would be terrific, and I will support him or her.
- Michael Pollan, Interview with Rod Dreher, TheAmerican Conservative, June 20, 2008
In 2007 Oxford University Press chose “Locavore” as the word of the year4. Such a move, while purely symbolic, at the same time speaks to the movement’s growing popularity and emerging significance in any discussion on food policy, environmentalism or animal ethics. The essence of the locavore argument is that because it is harmful to the environment to transport food over long distances (referred to as “food miles”) people should instead, for primarily environmental reasons, choose to consume only food which is grown or slaughtered “locally.” This idea of “locavorism” has been described and defended by a range of authors; such as Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Michael Pollan in his New York Times bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as well as enunciated by Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface farms and a featured personality in both The Omnivore’s Dilemmaand the recent documentary Food Inc. However, despite this popularity, there is much I find deeply troubling in each of these texts and their ultimate justification for locavorism. For example part of Pollan’s main argument against “organic” meat is that it represents a false pastoral narrative, something produced by the power of well crafted words and images yet lacking ethical consistency, reality, or ultimately an awareness of animals themselves. He describes these problems, and his own motivation in addressing them, while shopping at Whole Foods:
This particular dairy’s label had a lot to say about the bovine lifestyle: Its Holsteins are provided with “an appropriate environment, including shelter and comfortable resting area...sufficient space, proper facilities and the company of its own kind.” All this sounded pretty great, until I read the story of another dairy selling raw milk—completely unprocessed—whose “cows graze green pastures all year long.”
Which made me wonder whether the first dairy’s idea of an appropriate environment for a cow included, as I had simply presumed, a pasture. All of a sudden the absence from their story of that word seemed weirdly conspicuous. As the literary critics would say, the writer seemed to be eliding the whole notion of cows and grass. Indeed, the longer I shopped in Whole Foods, the more I thought that this was a place where the skills of a literary critic might come in handy. (2008: 135-136)
However, while I agree with Pollan about the need for literary critics in Whole Foods, I fear many locavore advocates, including Pollan in his own text, suffer from the same flaws of creating an unrealistic literary pastoral, which he attributes to the free-range organic farmer. Hence, as a literary critic, I hope to provide to the locavore movement what they have given to others and to view their work as a text in order to reveal the manner in which they too, create an idealized, unrealistic, and, at times, distressingly sexist and xenophobic literary pastoral which allows them, much as with the first organic dairy farm, to seem to raise the issue of care for actual animals even as they elide the issue of the animal herself. My intention is not to discount the possibility of a more natural, environmentally sustainable food system—a goal I deeply support—but instead to reveal the potential dangers that focusing purely on the “local,” at the expense of the global, can contain for both the human and non-human animal alike.