jump to navigation

Mere words March 26, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
Tags:
add a comment

Today’s post is more philosophical than usual. I’m not going to talk about the little piggy who went to market or the greenhouse gases his poop emitted. Instead, I’m going to talk about how I choose to talk about these things.

Specifically, I try to talk about the little piggy “who” went to market, not the little piggy “that” went to market. When I describe a lame hen or cow, I say “she” was limping around, and when I wonder what will happen to this male dairy calf, I ask about “his” future. That is, I make a point of using animate personal pronouns – the ones we use to describe people – as opposed to inanimate pronouns. I want to drive home the truth that animals are animate. They are alive and (unlike plants, which are also alive) they have genders. As ethically convenient as it would be for us if they were things, they are not.

It fascinates me that most people don’t follow the same custom, and find it more natural to use some form of “it” to describe animals. (Because that usage is much more common, even to my ears it sounds weird to use animate pronouns – but again, I’m making a conscious decision to do so.) Obviously, a pig is a “he” or a “she,” so why in the world do we feel more natural calling him or her “it”?

You might think that it’s because often, when we’re talking about animals, especially animals we don’t know personally (i.e., not our pets) we don’t know their genders. Rather than inaccurately label a female pig “he” or a male one “she,” we say “it.” But that doesn’t square with our linguistic practice when we don’t know the gender of a person. If we don’t know the gender of Germany’s chancellor, we don’t say “It met with Sarkozy to talk about the future of the Euro,” we say “They met with Sarkozy…” That is, we choose to bastardize grammar by using a plural pronoun to represent a singular person rather than by using an inanimate pronoun to represent an animate person. Why do we do the opposite for animals?

I honestly don’t know. I could advance a bunch of conspiracy theories but I have no evidence for any of them. What do you think?

Advertisements

Don’t kill the messenger March 19, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

I’ve complained more than once on this blog that the agriculture industry’s response to revelations of animal mistreatment is heavy on defensiveness and light on regret. Or shame, or sorrow, or any of the emotions that one might think would well up when farmers realize that one of their own has abused the animals in his care.

Well, it’s time to complain again. Over the past few years the ag industry has tried to push “ag gag” bills through state legislatures that criminalize the undercover investigations that expose cruelty to farm animals. The bills in my old home state of Minnesota and others never made it into law, but there’s one trickling through Utah’s legislature right now that would criminalize filming on a farm without permission – which basically makes it impossible for undercover agents to provide hard evidence for the violations they witness. Worse, according to this report, Iowa actually got an ag gag bill into law that makes presenting false information on a job application for a farm job a serious misdemeanor.  Since undercover investigators obviously can’t be completely truthful on their job applications (try applying for a job at Tyson with “Most recent employer: Mercy for Animals” on your form) that means Iowan producers don’t have to worry that their customers might actually find out how their food is being made.

Let’s say it all together, now: the problem isn’t undercover investigators, the problem is what they’re undercovering.

The USDA Challenge to Fischer Family Farms June 10, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

This week see my article for Heavy Table on how proposed changes to slaughter and processing regulations might endanger small farmers. Plus, some pretty pictures of piggies!

The trials and tribulations of a 100% grassfed butter company June 4, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

This week see my article on Pastureland dairy at Simple, Good, and Tasty for a look at why a butter maker with unflagging local support almost went out of business due to the vagaries of the skim milk market.

Jeffries Chicken Farm February 12, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

This week take a look at the article I published in Heavy Table profiling Jeffries Chicken Farm, a do-it-yourself slaughterhouse in a suburb of Minneapolis. http://heavytable.com/jeffries-chicken-farm/

The elegant economics of comparative advantage, and its messy consequences February 5, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
Tags: , , ,
10 comments

The notion that local communities should be self-sufficient has always fallen foul of my economics-trained, productivity-loving mind. To the argument that buying local keeps dollars in the local community, I have two responses: first, if everyone thought that way, communities would have nowhere to export products, thereby losing lucrative export markets just as they gained local markets. At the end of the day, that tradeoff would leave the average local community no richer than it was before. Second, why should we care so much about enriching our local communities anyway? Does a worker in Mankato deserve my dollar more than a worker in Bangalore just because he happened to be born in a place that’s driving distance from the place I happened to be born?

But even someone who agrees with me on the above two points could conclude that the choice between self-sufficiency and trade is a wash. The Econ 101 case for trade and against local self-sufficiency is stronger. It rests on the principle of comparative advantage. If different communities specialize in what they do best – meaning, not necessarily what they excel at, but what they are “good enough” at to satisfy demand at the lowest cost compared to what everyone else can do – the overall cost of production falls. When we buy a new computer, the physical box will likely have been made in China, the software installed on it designed in the US, and the call centers servicing it run in India. We may not like hearing Indian accents when we call with questions, but we sure do love buying $399 computers. And although we chide ourselves for our insistence on cheap stuff, it’s what allows us to have money left over to spend on a night at the movies, or our kids’ piano lessons, or a new coat of paint on the front door.

When evaluated in terms of providing the best product for the lowest possible cost, the system of specialization and trade entailed by comparative advantage works great. But it only works if all the players – the ones in China, India, and the US – are doing their jobs properly. That seems an obvious point, and true whether you’re a champion of comparative advantage or local self-sufficiency. Even if you’re on the local self-sufficiency bandwagon, all the local players need to do their jobs right to make the system work. But there is one hulking difference between the two systems, and that’s the scale of the damage if something goes wrong. When there’s a glitch in the local system, one community gets screwed. But the rest of the world goes on as before, and if it’s doing just fine, can even lend a helping hand to that unfortunate spot. On the other hand, the wider net cast by the comparative advantage system means that the impact of minor glitches can be magnified by thousands or millions. The sheer scale of the damage also undercuts our ability to recover.  

The scale of recent ground beef recalls due to E. coli contamination offers a prime example. Let’s say we were on the local system, and the beef for each community was provided by local herds slaughtered and processed in neighborhood facilities. If contamination were discovered in the meat from one herd of say, 200 cattle, we’d have about 15,000 pounds of risky ground beef that we’d have to recall. That’s a big deal, but manageable. After all, at one pound of ground beef per household, we’re only talking about a medium-sized suburb’s worth of people who would be affected.

In fact, the most recent ground beef recall, from Huntington Meat Packing in California, was for 390 tons of ground beef. That’s 780,000 pounds, which at one pound of ground beef per household is enough to feed the state of Arkansas. The recall also spanned beef sold over nearly a two-year period. Cargill’s big 2007 recall of ground beef came to over a million pounds, 3000 grocers and 41 states. Why are these recalls so huge? Because one massive packing plant, specializing what it does best, sells beef to that many communities, which as a result have the luxury of not having to invest in individual packing plants of their own. A second problem: in neither of these recalls could the packing plant identify the herd, or even the slaughterhouse, that was the source of the E. coli contamination. Why? The animals come from everywhere from Brazil to Nebraska, and even the slaughterhouses are spread far and wide across the US. In either of these recalls, the problem could have come from just a couple of animals, but they are mixed in with so many others in the global production line that contamination is impossible to trace.

The elegant economics of comparative advantage leaves the world’s production systems teetering on the knife edge of efficiency. As long as no one messes up, we get lots of stuff on the cheap. But if something goes wrong, we all fall down. Is it worth it?

%d bloggers like this: