Wednesday, October 24, 2007

time to rip Slate a new one... again

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Ripping Slate a New One ™, the feature on Where's the Revolution that gives our friendly little pseudo-liberal journal a beating and makes it come begging for more. Last week,
we tried to convince them that picking local apples is not a societal ill. Today, we look at their main headline: Vegans vs. Vegetarians: Who's Greener?

The funny thing about this article is that it's not really about veganism
or vegetarianism. After admitting that vegetarian diets are better for the environment, and furthermore that veganism has even greater impact, the article goes on to talk about how it's not realistic to expect Americans to "forgo steak for the benefit of the planet" (yeowch!) and how it's therefore better to simply decrease our meat consumption. A teeny bit. Some of the time. Well, not really at all, rather, just to be more aware of where our "extra-long bacon cheddar cheesesteak" comes from.

This article has so many logical inconsistencies that it would be a shame not to tackle it. The fact that Slate magazine claims to be fairly progressive (even featuring regular articles on environmentalism and green living) is even more reason to do so, since it's this sort of pseudo-enlightened response that can really throw ethical vegans for a loop. It's one thing to fight against a mythical ignorant meat-eating opponent, it's another when your opponent basically cedes all your points, but still can't take their knowledge to its logical conclusion and give up meat, for reasons of convenience, pleasure, or habit.

At first, I thought it would be fun to do another point-by-point refutation of this article like I did with the apple article last week. That was fun! But I decided, why not make this a collaborative project and share the fun? I'm challenging all my readers to find a fact, a claim, an argument, or a statistical figure in this article that is wrong and call Slate out for it. It's easy- there are a lot of them packed into this tiny article. All fun aside, it is also important for vegans to hone our argument- let's not let the scientific acrobatics here throw us for a loop in future arguments. Read the article and leave a comment with your findings!

I look forward to reading your comments and to a lively discussion- hopefully, we will all walk away with new knowledge and resolve.

Daiku can have the first crack:

The article claims that: "to optimize land use, [...] limit their meat and egg consumption to two cooked ounces per day—3.8 ounces less than the national average."

According to this USDA website, in 2005 Americans consumed an average of 200 pounds of meat a year. That's about 8.7 ounces a day, almost 3 more ounces than the Slate article claims. This is data straight from the horse's (or in this case, the cow's) mouth, not including eggs, which the Slate article does. There might be shrinkage and therefore a discrepancy between "meat" and "cooked meat", but the fact remains that this is typical of a lot of arguments that underestimate consumption in order to downplay the urgent need for reform. The fact is that Americans are eating more meat than ever, their consumption is not going down, and the vast majority of the meat that they eat does not come from local, sustainable sources. The point is, 2 ounces of (responsible, green, sustainable) meat a day is a ridiculous figure- very few meat-eaters would take care to always be aware of exactly where their tiny portion of meat came from.

What about you? What do you find most objectionable in this article? C'mon, everybody, let's Rip Slate a New One™ - again!



Veg*Triathlete said...

Bazu! I just came to your blog to give you a link to that Slate article and ask you to HAVE AT IT!

Taking you up on your invitation, here's the bit that particularly ruffled my feathers:

"Though The Lantern admires the ascetic fortitude of vegetarians and vegans, it's pretty unrealistic to expect the majority of adult Americans to forgo steak for the benefit of the planet."

ASCETIC FORTITUDE? Are you freaking kidding me? If the vegan food blogs I read are a testament to anything, it's that a vegan diet is not "ascetic" in any way, shape, or form. Duh. And forgoing steak is too much to ask for the sake of planet? I'm pretty sure that if Americans could deal with war rations, they can make some conscientious decisions about at LEAST reducing their meat consumption. It's pretty easy to do, in fact. And someone who calls himself the GREEN lantern should be leading the way, not whining like a spoiled child.

Veg*Triathlete said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Veg*Triathlete said...

Okay, I confess that I skipped over the facts and logical refutation part of your request, and went directly to rage. Oops.
Here's a more calm, logical take on the issue:

The author's claim that it's unrealistic to expect U.S. Americans to reduce or give up animal products for the sake of the environment ignores the fact that U.S. Americans have, in fact, done so before. During World War II, the government resorted to rationing items--including meat and butter--in order to conserve resources needed for the army. While these rations were viewed as sacrifices, most people complied willingly, their motivation to do so spurred by deep feelings of patriotism and duty. I'm not suggesting that the government implement a rationing system in 2007; however, people CAN willingly implement thier own rations by reducing or elminating meat and animal products from their diet. It's not too much to expect. Afterall, isn't our desire to have a healthy planet as compelling as any feelings of patriotism in the 1940s?

bazu said...

No, Jen, rage is fine! This article is pretty rage-inducing! Your point still stands. Ascetic fortitude? Bitch, please. :->

Veg*Triathlete said...

You know what stung the most about that article? The sense of glee and hope with which I began reading. I found myself nodding along in agreement, and then BAM! Slapped in the face with his ridiculous conclusions. Ugh! "Pseudo liberal," indeed.

Potato said...

This isn't something that's untrue, but I think their statement that "few Americans have followed Alicia Silverstone's abstemious lead" is an effort to margininalize veg*nism. They picked a young actress when they could have said that "few Americans have followed Gandhi's lead." Or Plato's. Or Einstein's.

Emilie said...

Agreeing with Potato (which is something I have probably always wanted say even if I didn't know it...) and echoing that I'm not following Alicia Sliverstone's nothin.

I also wanted to take this apart a little bit: "That's going to be a serious challenge, however, considering that per capita meat consumption rose by 40 percent in the United States between 1961 and 2002. One hopes that the Chinese don't follow our gluttonous lead, but the news so far isn't encouraging: Meat consumption in China has already doubled over the past decade."

The article here I think tries to claim that people are increasingly unlikely to eat veg. because there is a growing trend of meat consumption. This is a little jumbled as logic goes, for one. For two, it neglects the increasingly levels of vegetarianism in the US. And three it is actually incorrect/incomplete (they give a range from 1970-2002, it's actually 2007, so perhaps more current data is applicable, huh?) 2005 data from the USDA puts total meat consumption at 200 pounds per person, so that's 22 pounds above the level in 1970, or about 10%. USDA also indicates that Americans consumed and average of 17 pounds less red meat (mostly less beef) than in 1970, 40 pounds more poultry, and 4 pounds more fish--so there are measurable changes there. Anyway, this all could point to a willingness to consider other ways of eating or changing one's diet to be a little more sensitive to the environment. Maybe Americans are willing to take that ultimate sacrifice and give up steaks?

bazu said...

Good point, Potato! There are so many hateful stereotypes jammed into that one little sentence. Abstemious (going back to Jen's comment) gives an impression of a life without sensuousness, without taste, without decadence, and using a young actress as *the* example of veganism gives an impression of flakiness, trendiness, etc.

And Emilie you are so right- this whole article strikes me with how much the science, the statistics, and the arguments have been stretched to fit the author's views. The more I see, the more I believe that Americans are more than willing to change their diets and experiment with new things- it so happens that our entire environment is stacked in the meat and dairy industries' favor.

textual bulldog said...

1). The title Vegans vs. Vegetarians turns what should be a serious discussion of the environmental impact of one's diet into a petty purity competition. The point is that both are better for the environment than consuming animal products, veganism is the best, and everybody should be striving towards limiting if not eliminating animal products from their diet. It's totally trivializing to turn it into a silly "contest" between two groups of people who are already doing a better job of enviro-eating than most of the rest of the world.

2). The part where he says:

"Your vegan acquaintance isn't necessarily some environmental saint. That's because direct carbon dioxide emissions are only part of the story when it comes to food's eco-impact. You also have to look at the issue of land use—specifically how much and what sort of land is required to sustain an agricultural enterprise. In a region with poor-to-mediocre soil, for example, it may be more efficient to operate a well-managed egg farm than to try growing vegetables that can't flourish under such conditions"

is awesome because it uses a hypothetical (there MAY be a region with poor-to-mediocre soil, it MAY be more efficient to operate a free-range egg farm there) to try to refute the actual, proven positive impact of veganism. Sure, there could, in theory, be a well-managed free-range egg farm on bad soil that would be a more environmentally efficient use of that land than growing squash or whatever, but where is that farm? Where are the eggs that are coming from it? Until all eggs that americans consume are coming from such farms, this hypothetical is NO REFUTATION to the positive environmental impact veganism!

3) The same paragraph talks about cattle grazing on unsuitable land. I would like to point out that a lot of such cattle grazing happens on federal land and is subsidized by the government. If we weren't paying for methane-farting cattle to graze our lands, maybe we could put those dollars to use in a way that would make a much more positive environmental impact than paying for greenhouse-producing herds to eat the grass on land that would do just fine if left ungrazed.

4) Last but not least, this article makes it seem as though cattle and other livestock ONLY eat grains that humans can't eat, and are therefore effective ways to convert inedible grains into food that humans can consume. Last time I checked, corn, oats, soy, etc. were all foods humans could eat. The Slate article gives the impression that cattle are primarily eating things humans cannot, but according to ecologist David Pimentel of Cornell university, 800 million people could be fed with the grain that livestock consume every year. Yup, 800 MILLION! (

Ok, I have done.

textual bulldog said...

P.S. Thanks for the homework assignment, bazu; that was fun ;)

Jody from VegChic said...

When I read the article the other day, the same sentence infuriated me "...forgo steak for the benefit of the planet".

What the fork? Giving up steak must be sacrilegious or maybe it is a difficult as donating a kidney. It is rough when American needs to forgo killing innocent animals when so many food alternatives exist.

As far as your fact finding misson.
"The savings mostly come about because of the disparity between the fossil fuel required to produce a calorie's worth of grain vs. that needed to make a calorie's worth of beef; grain is nearly a dozen times more efficient in this regard."

The figures I have read say grain takes 1/16 the amount fossil fuels as beef.

the little one said...

While many things bothered me about this article (several that have been detailed by Bazu and your educated commenters), I think what got me the most is that the general feel of the article was, "See us liberal environmentalists don't have to go vegan or even vegetarian because, you know, it is just too hard." How many of you have heard environmentalists say that to you? They point out all the wonderful things they do for the environment as if, therefore, they can keep eating animals regardless of the environmental impact. The "environmental saint" sentence really revealed this idea of "don't worry other environmentalists, those vegans really probably aren't any greener than you." Bullshit. Many (most?) of us who are vegan do not view our veganism as simply a diet. It is way of life that honors all sentient beings and the world we live in. It is a life of peace, which, unfortunately, is clearly threatening to some. Thanks for asking us to weigh in Bazu.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I am too late--Textual Bulldog stated all of my points MUCH better and more eloquently than I could have done! This article is crazy...


bazu said...

TB, thanks for your thoughtful response! (Yes, I guess the TA in me loves giving "homework" assignments!). You are right that the title is horribly misleading- this article is not about vegetarianism OR veganism, so much as it is about twisting the facts, as you observe. So many hypotheticals, and statistics that don't make sense in a real-world situation. And thanks for your figures- I did not know the 800 million one- wow!

Jody- thank you for your figure as well- this article seems to strain to find figures and statistics that would most help its case. Its argument rests on underestimating overconsumption and environmental degradation, after all. And I agree with you- what this and other blogs out there are trying to prove is that overall, it is SO not difficult to go veg! It simply is not an act of "saintly asceticism".

The Little One, yes, this article does take on a very defensive and dismissive tone, doesn't it?

Courtney, I'm really grateful for you and all the other commenters who are picking this article apart more thoroughly than I ever could alone!

Calimaryn said...

This line boggles my mind.
"But there are important caveats to the Cornell study: First, its calculations assume that all meat is raised locally, rather than frozen and trucked cross-country"

Now, just where does he think his beloved curry goat is coming from? The house next door? Now, I did look in my area and found this web site that lists 7 'goat meat' farms in 6 states. Thats not local unless you live next to the farm Lantern! Which essentially breaks from the point of that study, nullifying his whole point of using said study to support his claims.

Oh, and meat cattle are not just allowed to graze. They are also fed grains. If they are living on soil that is "poor-to-mediocre soil", where exactly is their "low-quality grain that isn't necessarily fit for human consumption" coming from?

Now, I am trying not to get all distraught over the thought of cute little goats and cows being labeled 'meat' so I will end this here. Thanks for the homework. :)

The Little Vegan said...

Oh-my-gosh, you were at Vegfest?! Me too! But I didn't see you :o(
I was there earlier. Hope you had as much fun as I did!

Jackie said...

Thanks for the post Bazu and great to see all the interesting comments.

I sit here in Africa and see the impact the US has on our weather by the high pollution levels due to factory farming and excessive use of gas (petrol). Sadly even though my country sees what harm is being done they also continue to eat meat three times a day, cruelly slaughter animals at every event and Vegans are treated like non-desirables. This week someone picked on a Vegan friend in a letter to a newspaper calling her evil as he said the Bible supports eating meat.

What a World we live in.

dreamy said...

Ah! so this was the article u were talking about! No matter what crooked logic they come up with, they can't change the fact.

Coppe said...

I'm going to rip into the Cornell study argument.

"In fact, a recent Cornell University study concluded that modest carnivorousness may actually be better for the environment than outright vegetarianism, since cattle can graze on inferior land not suitable for crops. Squeezing more calories out of the land means that less food needs be imported from elsewhere, thereby reducing the burning of fossil fuels."

Wrong. The conclusions of the Cornell study were as follows:
- For the State of New York, if all food is produced locally, 0.44 acres of land are needed to sustain a low-fat vegan diet. 0.6 acres are needed to sustain a modest carnivorous diet.
- However, such an omnivorous diet would use more low-quality land, of which there is more, so it could feed more people than some vegetarian diets. That's right. The study doesn't even say the optimal omnivorous diet is better than the optimal vegan diet.

Concretely, the study actually only claims this:
"Surprisingly, however, a vegetarian diet is not necessarily the most efficient in terms of land use."

"It appears that while meat increases land-use requirements, diets including modest amounts of meat can feed more people than some higher fat vegetarian diets."

"In order to reach the efficiency in land use of moderate-fat, vegetarian diets, our study suggests that New Yorkers would need to limit their annual meat and egg intake to about 2 cooked ounces a day."

Regardless, the study only looks at the state of New York. The reality of the situation right now is an entirely different matter. In the food industry as we see it today, tonnes of agricultural land are used incredibly inefficiently to sustain an extremely rapid rotation of slaughter animals.

The observation that in a given hypothetical a cautiously omnivorous diet could feed more people than some vegetarian (not even necessarily vegan) diets does nothing to change the fact that, right now, a vegan diet, and even a vegetarian diet, are much, much more sustainable.

Coppe said...

Actually, it's even worse than I thought. In the original study, the low-fat vegetarian diet that uses 0.44 acres of land still incorporates dairy products. Veganism doesn't enter into the comparison. In fact, to the extent that the study demonstrates anything, it undermines his own point. It suggests a vegetarian diet isn't always better than an omnivorous diet.

KathyF said...

The first word I objected to was "few": "Since few Americans have followed Alicia Silverstone's abstemious lead and renounced animal products altogether, there aren't many data available on the environmental consequences of veganism. Somewhere between 2 percent and 5 percent of the nation's eaters classify themselves as vegetarians; of that number, perhaps 5 percent are strict vegans."

Wrong. In a 2006 poll, 1.4% of the all Americans claimed to eat no animal products. My calculations work that out to almost 5 million people, in the U.S. alone. Since when is 5 million considered "few"?

I also object to "there aren't many data" on grammatical grounds.

I'm so glad I got away from the internet for a few days; stuff like this makes me turn red and start to sputter!

laura jesser said...

"Your vegan acquaintance isn't necessarily an environmental saint."

I never claimed to be, nor did any of the rest of us. But isn't it a good start? Isn't it a better start than spouting off all kinds of rhetoric about "going green," yet continuing to eat like you don't give a damn? And I've grown so tired of the argument that some meat consumption might be better for the environment than none at all--because the people who use that argument, in general, only use it to justify their meat-eating ways. People often quote that very thing to me, yet what are they doing about their own meat consumption? Nada.

I know I haven't said anything new, but the article so enraged me that I had to re-state the very thing that gets us all riled up. Thanks for the forum.