Maureen Ogle’s latest book, In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America, is a comprehensive history of the American meat industry. Through lively prose and rigorous research, Ogle delivers a usable past that’s equally empowering and sobering. Her thesis boils down to this: when it comes to meat, consumers have traditionally gotten what we’ve asked for.
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And what we’ve asked for, with a few notable exceptions, has been an abundance of cheap and readily accessible animal flesh. Since colonial settlement, Americans have worked diligently to ensure this steady supply. For the most part, we’ve succeeded. Today, Americans slaughter 10 billion animals every year and eat hundreds of pounds of them annually. Gluttony has become the new normal.
These are especially remarkable numbers in light of the shifting demographics of farming. Historically, Americans farmed when they had to farm. They generally did it well. But the moment the opportunity presented itself, they beat a path to the city, ceding the burden of agriculture to others. Nearly every American family worked the soil in 1800. Less than 1 percent do so today.
That 99 percent, moreover, has demanded that the 1 percent do a single task exceedingly well: keep our burgers safe and affordable. More than we recognize (pink slime and mad cow disease notwithstanding), that 1 percent has met this goal. Beef is half the price it was a generation ago. There has never been more of it. And the vast majority of consumers get to keep our hands clean of the gruesome mess involved in making it.
Ogle tells this important story with admirable objectivity–no mean feat with meat at the center of a culture war. But in a recent interview she pulled few punches about the consequences of her work and how they impact contemporary food debates.
Topping Ogle’s list of interest groups who might benefit from a hard dose of historical reality is the so-called sustainable food movement—the movement that insists our food should be local, organic, slow, sourced from small farms, and humanely produced.
“It’s easy to say ‘let’s have local farmers and food’,” she said. “But it’s clear that people have no grasp of the logistics of food production.” There are, she added, “so many people wasting so much time pursuing this elusive goal.”
Sure, she admits, we could theoretically decentralize agriculture, return to the land, and start closing the gap between rural producers and urban consumers. And, in many ways, she admires those who aim to reform the excesses of agribusiness through personal acts of defiance, such as starting small farms or raising their own food for the purposes of self-sufficiency.
But, despite the popularity of these ideas among earnest foodies, such a move would not only mean sacrificing America’s economic role as the world’s breadbasket. It would also entail the mass adoption of the backbreaking work of farming. One imagines that Ogle is hardly alone in her refreshingly honest reaction to the prospect of pursuing such labor:
“I’m not volunteering,” she said.
Another popular assessment of agribusiness that Ogle’s historical perspective illuminates is the idea that corporations are solely to blame for the intensely consolidated state of our food system—a consolidation manifested in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the dominance of companies such as Monsanto (dubbed by food reformers as “Monsatan”).
“Maybe this makes me stupid,” she explained, “but I do not buy the claim that evil [food] corporations are to blame for everything.”
Instead, as her book demonstrates, the forces that inspired the industry’s consolidation were diffuse historical trends—trends such as wartime labor shortages, loss of agricultural land, and urbanization—that food companies responded to in order to give city dwellers and suburbanites cut-rate beef at decent prices.
In this respect, the consolidation that angers so many critics of the food system was, in Ogle’s view, more of an unthinking decision driven by inertia than a conspiracy of capitalists inspired by greed. In developing this point, Ogle essentially disavows the inherent victimhood central to the current anti-corporate narrative and, in turn, highlights the importance of personal initiative.
“Corporations don’t control my kitchen,” she said. “I control it.”
Not surprisingly, the beef industry is thrilled with Ogle’s work. Chuck Jolley, writing in Drovers Cattle Network, explained, “If justice is served and the American public really wants to know the truth about the ‘history of meat in America’ . . . this book will sell at least as many copies as some of the best-selling books of fiction about the industry.”
Read closely, though, Ogle’s book, in its emphasis on consumer power, also offers indirect hope for a more radical agenda–namely that of vegetarians and vegans who want to fundamentally reshape the American way of eating. After all, as Ogle convincingly demonstrates, it’s not just the burger than the average American holds in his hands. It’s also the food system that produced it.
Put the meat down and we might finally get the food system we all deserve.
Follow me on Twitter @the_pitchfork and visit my blog at james-mcwilliams.com.
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