Here in the piedmont region of North Carolina the local food movement is flourishing. Over the past several years, residents of the state’s urban hubs have begun to demand more local, “sustainable” and “humanely-raised” food products. Consumers enjoy getting to know farmers on a personal level and learning more about where their food comes from. They’re so curious, in fact, many consumers now visit the farms from which they purchase food; two weeks ago North Carolina hosted “America’s Biggest Sustainable Farm Tour,” where hundreds of residents from the capital and surrounding cities paid $25 per carload to tour the region’s most sustainable farms.
Critics of the local/organic food movement argue that it is inefficient, can’t feed the world, doesn’t actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or that it is, as Paul Collier remarked in his essay The Politics of Hunger, an “upper-class love affair with peasant agriculture.” I disagree… mostly.
There is one aspect of the local food movement in which these claims firmly stand their ground: the obsession with local, “humanely-raised” meats, eggs, and dairy—in other words, animal products. James McWilliams, a writer and professor at Texas State University, is perhaps the most outspoken critic of the local food movement’s exploitation of animals. Along with publishing articles in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other online news sites, he maintains an insightful blog in which he openly criticizes the local and “sustainable” meat industry.
McWilliams and others point out many inconsistencies of the local food movement’s appetite for flesh. First, animals are far less efficient than plants at converting solar energy to food. This inefficiency is compounded by the fact that most parts of the animal are discarded rather than eaten. Additionally, much more land—land that we do not have—would be needed to feed the world a diet of grass-fed, “humanely-raised,” pasture-based, sustainable meat, dairy, and eggs. Grass-fed cows produce more methane, a potent greenhouse gas, than cows fattened on grains. “Sustainable meat” is indeed only a love affair of the upper class; unlike local produce, which tends to be comparable in price or even less expensive than supermarket produce, local animal products sold at farmers’ markets are often triple or quadruple the price of their industrial counterparts. For these reasons and many others, “sustainable meat” (and dairy/eggs) is an oxymoron from both an environmental and social perspective.
Perhaps the largest hypocrisy of the local food movement’s omnivorous appetite is the curiosity that propels consumers to pay a good deal of money to take a tour of a farm. The curiosity about where one’s meat, dairy, and eggs come from only goes so far. It is unlikely that any farmers on North Carolina’s farm tour—or even Michael Pollan’s famous Joel Salatin—choose to slaughter (or send to slaughter) their animals while visitors are meandering about their barns and pastures, cooing over happy pigs in mud and newborn calves with big doe eyes and little knobby knees. There is a reason for this. People are uncomfortable with non-human animals being treated as commodities, and we cannot easily stomach the unnecessary killing of innocent beings. We do not like to see blood spilled, and perhaps we wouldn’t buy the meat (or other animal products) if we had to see—much less participate in—the inevitable killing that occurs before the shrink-wrapped package exits a cooler and enters our hands at the market. For all its (many) virtues, the local food movement refuses to acknowledge that it is unethical to use non-human animals for their flesh, milk, or eggs. Most of all, it refuses to recognize that there is nothing “humane” about bringing a being into this world, treating her as a means of production, then ending her life, all for nothing more than a few moments of gustatory pleasure.