I spent a good part of the Christmas holidays bombarding my extended family with random quotes from a book about ethical meat-eating. While it now seems a topic far from current concerns, one quote in particular has come to feel prophetic: ‘At every turn, there sits the terrible spectre: the inevitable rise of the superbug.’
Covid-19 is not a superbug. It is not treatable with antibiotics, the overuse of which (in farming) was what the chapter I quoted from is about. But the fear in which that chapter was couched, of our unprecedented global connectivity laying a devastating pathway for the inevitable, unstoppable spread of new diseases and infections, has in the past few weeks proven very real. This isn’t paranoid hype, but the just-cresting peak of an emerging discipline that a recent Guardian article about the spread of Covid describes as examining ‘connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.’ (Another recent piece in the New Yorker, about rewilding in UK farming, also speaks to this trend.)
The future is an uncertain place right now. What we can count on is that the way we do many things, including farming, is likely to change, which makes right now a good moment to consider Australian food critic Matthew Evan’s On Eating Meat, a book which tries to summarise the landscape of farming today—or rather, yesterday—from feedlot to abattoir to supermarket, from sow crates to pest trapping to antibiotics, from China to the Netherlands to Australia, and advocates for a return to more sustainable, less industrialised farming.
As a committed omnivore, I picked up and put down On Eating Meat several times before I actually bought it and read it, perhaps already sensing the evangelical tone and erratic organisation which weaken the more solid arguments the book makes. Evans' distracted approach, in its attempt to sum up all the things he thinks about raising, caring for, and eating animals, results in a scattered narrative, full of snippets of information clustered in short chapters that read more like the notes for a project than the results of those notes. This overwhelms the vital argument at the book’s heart, which is that for the sake of our health and the planet’s, the intensive farming practices providing most of the world’s meat need to change, and that it’s not vegans and vegetarians who can affect this change, but meat-lovers.
Evans is a chef who became a farmer. He’s realistic about killing animals for food, acknowledging the violence and even the emotional impact of butchery, yet not in a squeamish way. In one of the stand-out chapters, ‘The View from the Killing Floor’, which focuses on David Stephens, a slaughterman who grew up on a dairy farm in New Zealand, he takes his readers unabashedly and humanely into the bloodshed. ‘What does it feel like… to work in an industry…where parts of society don’t just disagree with what you do, but actually disdain what you do, and actively try to disgrace your work?’ Evans asks.
It’s an excellent question, and one that hints at something Evan’s book can help toward. Namely, bridging the gap that’s grown up between farmers and consumers, and more broadly, between rural dwellers and urbanites. A gap that in coming months could be increasingly problematic.
Growing up in North Canterbury I was never very far from the source of my food, be it apples from the orchard, milk delivered to our gate in glass bottles each day, or the sausages we got at the butcher where, behind rows of hanging carcasses, I could watch the machine excrete them. When I was about ten, however, the efficiencies of mass-production, and the profits they could give rise to, began to change that. As with many mid-sized towns, Rangiora no longer has milk deliveries, or the easily sourced, cheaper-than-dirt tomato and fruit seconds that my father would turn into chutneys, soups, sauces and preserves for the winter. (Happily, there’s now a butcher sourcing local products on the High Street). But it does have three enormous supermarkets, and a Warehouse.
Unlike Evans, I don't harbour a nostalgia for the time of the village. I don't think it's realistic to wish everyone back to small, self-sustaining farms. But after becoming more familiar with some of the realities of modern farming, I can concede that at some point, in many farming practices, a balance has tipped from treating animals as sentient beings, albeit delicious ones, to regarding them more like carrots, their needs determined only by how fast and big they can be grown and how cheaply they can be ‘cropped’. This is problematic in so many ways, for people, for animals, for the land, for the economy, not a few of which Evans examines in depressing detail.
As a child, I also wanted to be a farmer. (I had very romantic notions of what that entailed). As an adult, I am more than happy to leave the demanding reality of the profession to others, but—and this is a point Evans makes well, if somewhat repetitively—being connected to those who provide the food on my family’s table, having some idea of what they do and how they do it, seems increasingly important. We are what we eat, but what exactly are we eating?
While at times there's a sense of having chosen the science to fit the 'facts', Evan's research is mostly thorough and the credible facts he does elucidate are compelling. Most significant, though, is his depiction of industrial farming practices and the distances they have put between producers and consumers. The book was motivated by his experience trying to film a documentary in Australia about intensive farming. As he described it, he was not operating in any sense as an animal right’s activist, or someone seeking to do some kind of exposé on farming, but as a farmer and chef himself, genuinely hoping to learn more about farming practices and make them more visible to the public. He didn’t expect to be shut out of almost every farm he approached, denied access to whatever was behind the locked gates, but that is what happened.
I can’t (yet) believe that Evans would experience the same reaction in New Zealand. I like to believe that should I go knocking on farmers’ doors, they would welcome my interest in their business, and my genuine desire to have a better understanding of what their lives and livlihoods are like, to be less of a prejudiced, urban know-it-all. I also like to think that, given the information and the choice, New Zealanders who could afford it would be happy to pay more for their meat to be sustainably and ethically raised, slaughtered and distributed. Perhaps now, more than ever (or at least more than last week), connectedness and transparency on such issues matter, and the discussion about the best way for us, our animals, our country, and the planet, to raise meat, can get more real. While not a satisfying read in terms of its writing, Evan’s book is an excellent jumping off point for a much-needed conversation.