James E. McWilliams wrote in a recent NYT Op-Ed, “The Myth of Sustainable Meat,” that consuming animal products can never be sustainable, even when approached with an eye toward ecology. He breaks out his calculator, multiplying the number of cows that Americans currently eat by the number of acres required to farm them responsibly. The result: an impossible amount of grazing land, among other problems. I normally expect this tone from guardians of the status quo who dismiss organic farming as inefficient or naive. What I didn’t expect was McWilliams’s suggestion: Stop creating animal products. He pits sustainability-minded omnivores not just against industrial farming, but against herbivores. His argument is so snide and riddled with flaws that it distracts us from his conclusions. It also points to a rift within the sustainable food movement. Can omnivores and herbivores talk to each other about food issues? And can a Jewish perspective help us through this seemingly intractable conflict?
McWilliams has a bad premise: that meat could only be “sustainable” if it could be eaten in the same quantity as Americans eat it now, but farmed in a humane way. However, I have never heard a “locavore” argue that meat should be abundant. Michael Pollan, the torchbearer of the local food movement, sums up the “locavore” ethos: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” McWilliams uses spurious gotcha facts to show that “holistic” animal farming is unrealistic. He cites a few mysterious figures, like “Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming,” but doesn’t say what this means or how it was measured. His numbers are there not to make things clearer, rather, to intimidate. It’s also a common rhetorical error to judge something’s sustainability only by its so-called logical conclusion, assuming that the word “sustainable” means a practice that could work forever in the exact same way, and could be scaled up to seven billion people. That probably unachievable standard is not what most of us mean when talk about sustainability. We look for systems that are more healthy, lower in impact, encouraging of future learning and improvements.
For centuries, the system of kashrut helped us to decide whether food was “fit” for us to eat, but contemporary food issues are raising a whole new set of questions about what food we should and shouldn’t eat, which kashrut may or may not be able to answer.
Last May, Siach: An Environment & Social Justice Conversation brought together social justice leaders from across the United States, Israel, and Europe, including those who are developing the idea of Kashrut, to consider such factors as where food come from, who’s serving it, and how are those people treated.
Bring over 300+ foodies, chefs, nutritionists and rabbis together to talk about food… and you better have a good plan for what to feed them! Planning food for the Hazon Food Conference is a delightful challenge. We have a list of food values which we try to meet at all Hazon events — and yet the values themselves sometimes conflict with each other. Add the fact that we’re not throwing a dinner party for 12, and the decisions get a lot more complicated. Food procurement and institutional cooking is an area that has a long way to go in terms of sustainability, and we’re proud of our efforts to nudge us along on that route — but we’re far from there yet. Here are some of the values we try to meet, and the choices we made to get there at this year’s Hazon Food Conference at UC Davis.
1. Local & Seasonal: Should feature fruits and vegetables that are in season in August. Ideally they are grown in Yolo County (where UC Davis is), or at least, in Northern California or California.
2. Natural, whole grain, unprocessed: In general we favor whole wheat breads over white; granola or oatmeal over sugar cereals; yogurts, jams and peanut butters without preservatives, white sugar & white flour, artificial flavorings, or hydrogenated oils.
3. Fair Trade: Especially chocolate, coffee, tea.
4. Kosher: Any processed foods (that come in a package) should be certified kosher with a ‘kosher seal’ on the packaging.
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