Thursday, March 29, 2007

Reason, Reason Everywhere

When Dolly the sheep's life was announced in 1997, few thought of her as the Brave New World of meat consumption (itself a small cause for hope I guess). But many interesting posts to the blog recently on eating meat and responding to climate change have had me thinking about just how complicated being an omnivore is in our culture--and how much more complicated it is about to become. Companies like ViaGen have been arguing for years that cloning livestock might eliminate major sources of uncertainty in animal production and thereby reduce the moral and environmental costs that mass animal agriculture represents. For example, hatching only the chickens that are able to thrive in the confinement houses Pilgrim's Pride, Tyson, and the others maintain may be a way to reduce cruelty (it may even be the most profitable way). From my own experience with the Clean Water Act in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I can attest that making the use of phosphorous- and nitrogen-reducing chickens feasible for growers can be a big positive for a watershed.

But it is experiences like that which have me worried lately. I may have just enabled a bad industry to last longer. Americans don't seem to understand it is their very existence that equals environmental and moral tradeoffs. You want to begrudge Al Gore a 10,000 square foot house? It smells a little envious to me. If you don't eat meat (and I don't either, for 12 years), how much fossil energy does it take to bring you avocados or apples in January? If you've ever eaten locally for a winter (and I did so once), how many Americans do you see doing it long term? How many could afford to? Should you feed your infant only locally grown food? If the answer is yes to all of those, does that make ending subsidies to energy-intensive agriculture into a moral issue? I think so, but I'll bet there is someone reading this blog who could convince me it is not. Of the few people I know personally who are within, say, 200% of the poverty line, none of them are vegan. We have complicated modes of being good citizens and respecting nature here: we buy Priuses and point out hypocrites--but usually only hypocrites who are richer.

When FDA found at the end of 2006 that, from its research, it had no basis for requiring the labelling of cloned meat, bloggers and others dwelled on the question for a few minutes. Lots of high rhetoric flew and people pontificated about the morality or efficiency of cloning, disclosure, and the spectrum of issues in between. Nobody I read came right out and admitted they were befuddled by the number of variables that were beginning to intertwine in our talk about "sustainability" and cruelty-free food.

Of course, FDA never said it was "safe" to shift US livestock markets to cloned subjects. And the truth is, our ability to manipulate genetic events at the molecular level is dwarfed by our ambitions to do so. It seems that clones, at least for now, have serious health problems and die prematurely at much higher rates than real offspring. Should these problems be worked out by an eventual "perfection" of cloning technology, how should the ethical omnivore respond? Is buying cloned meat an incentive for (or reward for having conducted) such lethal research or is it the support of a potentially more sustainable form of mass agriculture that reduces cruelty? In my view, practical reason may be losing its bite in the face of these dilemmas.