NOTE: 932 words, including two footnotes that you're free to ignore.
The book’s been out one month and I’ve had time to adjust to what amounts to a major change in both pace and direction of my daily life. (Hey, I’m like a lot of people: change rattles me. In this case, it felt like a nasty case of jet lag.)
I’ve spent much of the month talking about the book. For seven years, I worked on this book alone, rarely talking to anyone about either the process or the content. But those days are over. Now it’s time to discuss what I learned from writing the book. (*1)
Thanks to those conversations, my mind’s at ease and, bonus!, I’ve discovered what aspect of all this interests me most. And it’s not what I expected.
In the weeks leading up to publication, I experienced minor mental paralysis. I assumed that once the book came out, I’d have to “take sides” in the debate about meat. And honest to god: I didn’t know what “side” I was on. I didn’t. So I fretted.
Then the book arrived, I started talking, and hooray! Turns out that I don’t care about the “sides” (except as intellectual propositions).
Instead I want to ponder this question: What role do we Americans want agriculture to play in our national/cultural future? Not “what kind of livestock system do we want”? Not “here’s what’s wrong with the American way of meat.” Not “I’m on this side, not that side.”
But: What place should agriculture play in the U. S. --- in our economy and in our national identity? (And the two are linked; it’s impossible to ponder one without the other.)
As I noted in a recent post, agriculture and agrarianism have long played a role in American identity. Indeed, that longstanding view of agriculture (sturdy yeoman, rugged individuals, etc) has inspired the critics’ proposed solutions. They want to raze our existing meat-making infrastructure and replace it with something that honors our (alleged) agrarian past: a more natural, ecologically, and socially just model of agriculture.
But thanks to seven years of researching and writing, I know this: It’s not that easy. It’s never gonna be that easy, if only because replacing our existing system of food production with the reformers’ alternative will have ramifications, big ones.
That’s because American agriculture in general and the American way of meat in particular aren’t “ours” alone. They serve the entire planet. That, too, plays a crucial role in our American identity: The U. S. is not just the beacon of democracy and hope; it’s also the world’s cornucopia. We Americans are saviors thanks to our food. (For better or for worse. Often that’s meant using food as a big diplomatic stick.)
Bare minimum, if we Americans decide that we prefer that new-old, small-scale model of agriculture, we will no longer be the world’s purveyors. That’s okay. Another country will step in and take over the job for us. (*2)
But we should be careful what we wish for: We’ve given away manufacturing. We Americans seem not to give a rat’s ass about our vast intellectual capital, because we’re spending it down as fast as we can. If we give away agriculture, too, well --- I leave it to you to imagine our national future. (And a new struggle over that old question: What is an American?)
So that’s what I’m interested in talking about: what role do we Americans see for agriculture going forward?
The disputants involved in the “food debate” will continue to argue and discuss (and sling mud and name call and on and on).
Me? I prefer wrestling with this other issue.
Finally, let me add this slightly off-topic bit of rumination: Some folks regard me as a shill and an apologist for Big Ag, Big Food, Big Meat. I’m not, but, hey, people are gonna think what they want to think. (Their logic is simple: if you don’t agree with us, then by default, you’re on “the other side.”)
But I will say this: I’m more sympathetic to the cause of the “farmers” than I am to the critics, if only because of the way the critics have attacked said farmers and farming.
The critics blame “corporations” for what ails meat in America. But they lump farmers into that corporate category. As a result, the critics have not only demonized farmers and agriculture but, because they equate “farmers” with “farming” and “corporations,” they’ve dehumanized those farmers, too.
But the people that I’ve met who work in agriculture are, well, people. Two legs, two arms, woes, joys, bills to pay, etc. And they’re not happy about being both demonized and dehumanized. How would you respond if someone attacked everything you hold dear, all that you’ve worked for? My guess is that you’d not be happy either.
*1: Talking about the finished product is the flip side of writing the product. Writing is how I learn what all my accumulated research meant. Talking about the book is how I learn what I think about what I’ve learned.
*2: Weirdly, that other country will likely be China. I know: The Chinese have all those food safety problems. Yes, they do. But they’re working hard to fix those and one way they’re doing it is by buying intellectual and technological know-how from American meat makers. It’s not an accident that Shuanghui bought Smithfield. It’s not an accident that Tyson is transferring its poultry production technology to China. In another twenty years, maximum, the Chinese will be able to fill the global meat orders now handled by American producers.