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Oh, Jonny, my boy, the end of meat is not near

Yeah, that Norman Rockwellian scene of a few chickens, free-ranging pig and couple of cows will feed a real America just as it accurately portrays a fictional America.

Chuck Jolley

May 29, 2020

6 Min Read
Oh, Jonny, my boy, the end of meat is not near

Jonathon Safran Foer, a professional vegan and occasional novelist, has been heralding the end of carnivorism since he learned to spell. He did it again in a May 24 New York Times opinion piece whimsically entitled "The End of Meat is Near."

Wikipedia says Jonathan Safran Foer is an American novelist. He's known for his fictional novels Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Here I Am. His non-fiction books are Eating Animals, and We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. Personally, I think all his works are fiction.

"Extremely Close" is a post 9/11 novel about a boy named Oskar Schell, who lost his father in that terrorist attack. He's nine years old, eccentric, intelligent and clever. He sees himself as an inventor, an amateur entomologist and archaeologist, and an origamist. Like many small boys, he tends to fantasize. He's not imaging himself to be the next Stephen Curry or Patrick Mahomes, though. He suspects passing ambulances can alert him to the severity of their passengers' conditions and sees plantlike skyscrapers.

Little Oskar's mental makeup might contain a little bit of Foer who lives a rich fantasy life, too, when he writes oddly unsubstantiated claims about the coming end of world meat consumption. He wrote his lengthy op/ed about his fantasy-driven expectation of worldwide turn toward veganism, suggesting, "If you care about the poor and climate change, you must stop eating animals."

Like so many other zealots, he loves to make disconnected statements. It's mental shorthand, sweetly pleasing mind candy that appeals to less than deep thinkers. It's a false equivalency and a cheap plucking of emotional heartstrings. If I insist on eating a hamburger, I hate the poor? If I have a ham sandwich for lunch, I'm promoting a hotter, drier world? Give me a break!

To be precise, this (veganism) is not that (a more just and fair world).

Foer claimed The Economist, a well-respected magazine, reported that "a quarter of Americans between 25 and 34 say they are vegetarians or vegans." Googling for the source of that claim, I found the publication accurately states, "In America, roughly 2% of adults consider themselves vegans, according to YouGov, another pollster. Another 5% identify as vegetarians and 3% as pescatarians." Those are numbers that have held steady for decades. There is no provable jump in the number of people who limit their diet to foods like tofu and ancient grains.

He goes a step further when he writes, "The CDC (Center for Disease Control & Prevention) reports that three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic – the result of our broken relationship with animals. His suggestion seems to be those new diseases are primarily caused by factory farming, a direct result of the confinement of chickens, pigs and cows. A serious look at zoonotic diseases, though, rarely points a gnarled and nasty finger at animal agriculture with the possible exception of 2009's swine flu. Bird flu, a health problem half a decade ago, was spread by migratory birds. Rats, dogs, fleas and ticks have always been the primary villains. Here is a link to a paper by the National Institutes of Health that outlines the long history of death caused by wildlife and your favorite creepy, crawly woodland pests: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3323390/.

He's correct on one thing. Most of us have a severely broken relationship with fleas and ticks

A more realistic approach comes from a vegan friend. "On the one hand," he said, "it's impossible to claim with any authority a reliable number of people who've been killed from influenza viruses arising from North American meat producers. On the other hand, I think every CAFO anywhere creates at least the possibility of being the one to kick off a COVID-19 style pandemic. The chance that any one CAFO being responsible is immeasurably tiny, but collectively the risk is real, especially if evaluated over decades."

He believes much of the generation of new annual flu viruses comes from chicken and pork farms in Southeast Asia, aiming the blame at the "wet" markets that tend to breed new generations of viruses. "It's fair to say that the global meat industry has been responsible for creating circumstances that generate annual flu variants. But it's painting with too broad a brush to lump North American and Asian meat producers together."

Want to know how far Foer is willing to go to promote his preferred diet? Here is a quote from his column: "Factory farming is to actual farming what criminal monopolies are to entrepreneurship."

Let's stop that out-of-control, driverless bus right now. First, exactly how does Foer define factory farming? Reading his various screeds, he seems to confuse the raising of animals (the farm) with the slaughter of animals (the factory). To be fair, he objects to large farms as well as factories, especially when the numbers of animals raised or slaughtered in any one location surpass a few dozen. He leaves us with that nostalgic little house on the prairie sitting behind a white picket fence with a big red barn out back. Toss in a few chickens, a free-ranging pig or two and ol' Bossie, everyone's favorite milk cow, grazing peacefully in the pasture.

Yeah, that Norman Rockwellian scene will feed a real America just as it accurately portrays a fictional America.

If Foer likes to eat, he should listen to real, genuine, Grade A experts like Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor and air quality specialist at the University of California-Davis. He's known far and wide as the Greenhouse Gas Guru. Speaking at the recent Alltech ONE Virtual Experience, he said, "But then I hear statistics from the current Agricultural Census that we have 2 million farmers in this country, but 1.5 million of those are hobby farmers making less than $25,000 per year. And then you add that just 80,000 farmers produce two-thirds of all food. Now that, in addition to the information that the average age of our farmers is 60, makes me very nervous. We have to pay more attention to our food-growing sector because it is of strategic importance."

With that in mind, I would love to hear Foer or any other opponent of our current ag system, tell me exactly how they would reorder things to 'improve' how modern American agriculture works. How many of those critical 80,000 fit into his dodgy definition of factory farming? Should we allow our food supply to fall entirely in the hands of 1.5 million hobby farmers? Should we continue to stand by as too many our farmers age out and retire, leaving millions of acres untended?

Foer and friends would see that as the end of animal agriculture, of course. But that vegan diet would disappear, too. We would be forced to roll back to subsistence farming, feeding the family who tilled the soil first with just a few leftovers for people who are convinced food comes from their neighborhood supermarket.


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