Meat Book Club, Part 2

by wil — Jan 19, 2011

Melissa’s Meat (Section 1) discussion questions:

  1. What does extravagant mean? What do you think Fairlie means by it? What does it mean to you? What foods do you consider extravagant?
  2. Should we use policies and regulations to reduce meat consumption to a default level? Do you agree with Fairlie’s definition of default?
  3. At what point are regulations part of a “nanny state?”

What does extravagant mean? Extra + vagant. Obviously. But I have no idea what “vagant” means, so I looked it up. Merriam-Webster offers this etymology:

Extravagant — Middle English extravagaunt, from Middle French extravagant, from Medieval Latin extravagant-, extravagans, from Latin extra- + vagant-, vagans, present participle of vagari to wander about — more at VAGARY

So, etymologically speaking, extravagant means wandering beyond, wandering afar, wandering outside the normal range. I tend to think “lavish”, “excessive”, but at its most basic, it can mean simply “beyond the norm”. Is meat-eating extravagant? In its “beyond the norm” sense, clearly not (by all accounts, hominids have been eating meat for millions of years). But is meat-eating excessive, lavish? Again, I would have to answer, No. Meat-eating, much like corn-eating or cabbage-eating, is not, in and of itself, excessive. Excessive meat-eating/corn-eating/cabbage-eating is excessive. But, one might argue, isn’t it more energy/nutrient efficient (thus, less excessive) to eat plants directly? Generally speaking, Yes*. But does that make meat-eating, with its inherent inefficiencies, “extravagant”? My personal answer is No (yours may differ).

But what about this?

There is currently not enough meat around for every human to eat at the level at which it is currently consumed in the USA and other wealthy countries.

Isn’t it extravagant for the rich to consume more than their fair share? Isn’t it extravagant for the rich to eat meat when more than a billion people worldwide are malnourished? These questions are important and complex — and reach far, far beyond meat-eating.

Fairlie responds to some of these complexities here — referring to agricultural exports from the Sahel during famine conditions in the 80s:

The export of food under famine conditions is indeed an obscenity, but the accent on livestock is misplaced. It is largely because of demand for animal feed that any surplus food is grown in the first place. Under famine conditions the animal feed should have been turned over to human use, because that is partly what animals are for: to ensure that there is always a surplus of grain. The reason why it wasn’t…was because the people who were starving didn’t have control over it.

And here:

The causes of famine are many and complex; but one has to hunt high and low find any example of a famine being caused through ‘inefficient’ animal husbandry displacing ‘efficient’ arable agriculture…. [T]he distinction between livestock and agriculture is a red herring. The conflict is not between animal and vegetable, or between peasant farmer and nomad herdsman…. The conflict is more often between a locally rooted and proven tradition of land-use which invariably has its animal element, and a superimposed ‘efficient’ agricultural improvement, often a monoculture, designed to extract and deliver resources for the international market. Whether the commodities so delivered are to provide consumers with meat that they don’t need, cotton tee-shirts they don’t need, or palm oil they don’t need, is almost immaterial.

And here:

Ownership of a cow, a goat or a pig is a way for the landless to sequester whatever scraps of vegetation may come their way and harvest them, either daily in the form of milk, or at one final reckoning in the form of meat.

Those of us who live in countries where social security payments cover the unemployed’s supermarket bills may need reminding that while meat is the rich man’s luxury, in many parts of the world it is the poor man’s necessity.

[T]he poor and landless of India obtain four benefits from the cow: milk, manure, muscle-power and meat. The amount of milk produced by these hardy Zebus is pitiful by industrial standards, but it is protein for the poor and the feed is free.

The “extravagant” question leads directly to deep questions of an economic, political, and agricultural nature. What is your stance on foreign trade? Long-term sustainability? Short-term profitability? Social justice? Urbanization? International development? Privatization? Job creation? Self-sufficiency? Nationalism? Localism? Globalism? Monocultures? Synthetic fertilizers?

It is certainly laudable to offer a helping hand to those in need; for the rich to share with the poor. Absolutely. But as activist/writer/journalist George Monbiot states, “the world produces enough food for its people and its livestock, though some 800 million are permanently malnourished.” That is not an indictment of meat-eating, but rather the political/economic/social system. Inequality exists. Should it be eradicated via the State? I am by no means a radical communist (far from it) and am often highly critical of the State, but my opinion is that the State should indeed assist the very poor and curtail the excesses of the very rich.

So where am I going with this? I feel like I’m starting to veer off track. Let me wrap this post up before I start ranting about heavy-handed State regulation of raw milk.

What does extravagant mean? I dunno, but to quote Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”

Should we use policies and regulations to reduce meat consumption to a default level? I read this question as the corollary to: Should meat production be sustainable? My answer to that question is, Yes.

At what point are regulations part of a “nanny state?” Regulations become part of a “nanny state” when they annoy you. ;-)

* See Meat Book Club, Part 1 for a list of common conversion ratios.

One response to “Meat Book Club, Part 2”

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