Response to “The Myth of Sustainable Meat”

Is getting meat from local farms even sustainable? Most people have heard the arguments against industrialized foods, but is there a practical alternative?

James McWilliams wrote a very interesting op-ed in the New York Times that discusses some of the negatives aspects of non-industrial sources of food. More and more people have been buying products produced in smaller farms, but McWilliams claims that this is not exactly a sustainable solution.

He writes that an increase in grass-grazing cows and pastured chickens would contribute to global warming. Also, these animals would require a lot of land, which would not be practical. He cites the example that an area in the Amazons around the size of France was cut down for grazing cattle.

McWilliams also rejects the claim that these farms production methods are more natural because he says that the chickens used are of the industrial breed and they are made to fatten quickly, so they have leg problems when they have to walk around. Also, nose rings are put on pigs to prevent them from rooting.

Economically, he makes the argument that smaller farms will start to “cut corners” and utilize bad practices in order to compete with industrial competitors. The only way to prevent this is to have very strict regulations and subsidies, which is not very efficient.

Lastly, he claims that the “holistic farming” argument of not having to use fertilizers to grow crops because the animals fertilize the pastures is not truly holistic. In any step of the process (like feeding chickens), small farmers still buy products which usually come from industrial sources. Also, the natural cycle is interrupted when farmers slaughter animals for food because they do not have their full life time to fertilize the pastures.

I see the arguments that McWilliams make in his article, but they are not necessarily a valid reason to give up on local farming entirely. He makes the point that the “how” is not as important as the “if” we produce animal products, at all. It would be ridiculous to think that people would be willing to give up animal products entirely (maybe some would).

Local farms cannot grow animals perfectly because they already take on a high opportunity cost by not having these animals grown industrially. Perfect “holistic farming” may not be possible given the structure of the animal product industry, but that does not mean that the products that are coming from these local farms are adulterated. The products produced in these farms are still produced more humanely and are still healthier than the industrial products. There is certainly room for improvement in the processes and practices used in these local farms, but they still are important despite not being perfectly sustainable.