Meatless Mondays can be patriotic, too

By Nancy Scola
August 10, 2012

Recently, the Texas commissioner of agriculture reacted with outrage to the fact that employees of the United States Department of Agriculture would dare suggest, in an internal newsletter on “greening” the Washington headquarters, that co-workers might consider practicing “Meatless Mondays” to reduce the environmental impact of their diet. “Last I checked,” blogged Commissioner Todd Staples, “USDA had a very specific duty to promote and champion American agriculture. Imagine Ford or Chevy discouraging the purchase of their pickup trucks. Anyone else see the absurdity? How about the betrayal?”

Staples went on to call the suggestion to forgo meat once in a while ”treasonous.” L’état, c’est boeuf. But there’s a bigger question: Is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s purpose, indeed, simply to promote the consumption of American commodities in the same way Ford tries to sell F-150s? Or is it instead to help agriculture work for the American public at large?

Staples’s response to Meatless Mondays captures a pervasive way of thinking in the world of modern American agriculture. Some of the soft spots in Staples’s argument are immediately obvious. For one thing, agriculture includes fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy, too. “We’re not saying ‘don’t eat,’” counters Bob Martin, a food policy expert at Johns Hopkins and an adviser to the Meatless Mondays campaign. “So we’re not anti-agriculture.”

As a branch of the United States government, the USDA was created in the mid-1800s to collect and distribute the best farming knowledge. Farmers were, as President Abraham Lincoln phrased it, “the most numerous class” in a young, largely agrarian nation. But the 16th president saw that it was a class that would bring the country better benefit if equipped with the best scientific and technological knowledge. In 1862, Congress passed a bill establishing a Department of Agriculture. Its mission was “to acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word.” That knowledge-centric founding vision is reflected in the USDA’s stated mission today: “We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management.”

In the interim, though, there’s inarguably been a shift toward production for the sake of production. “After World War Two was when it really started to change,” says Johns Hopkins’s Martin, “and it became a chest-thumping, ‘best agricultural system in the world,’ ‘let’s produce more and export it – don’t worry about it’ sort of thing.” One important era: the reign of Earl Butz, who served as agriculture secretary under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford until he was drummed out of the latter’s cabinet in 1976 over an especially crude racist joke. High food prices had become a political issue for Nixon, and in part to help drive them down Butz encouraged American farmers to plant “from fencerow to fencerow.” In the years that followed, laws were passed creating industrywide promotional programs on agricultural commodities overseen by USDA and funded by producer fees, such as the Beef Board, which was paid for by dollar-per-head fees and brought us “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” (Similarly, there’s “Pork. The Other White Meat” and “The Incredible, Edible Egg.”) “Get big or get out,” Butz told farmers. And today, big industrial livestock producers, scaled-up corporate farms and powerful industry groups have become the image of the American agricultural system.

In our early years, we were a hungry nation. It made sense to ramp up both production and consumption. But now we’re, well, overfed. “There was a time when the nation producing more food wasn’t contrary to its nutritional needs,” says Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “Undernutrition was a problem. Obesity wasn’t. But the situation has changed.”

And indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has long tried to figure out how to help Americans be better eaters. Since the 1980s, the USDA has issued dietary guidelines – think back to that food pyramid. (Meatless Mondays advocates point out that eating something other than meat for a day fits quite comfortably with what the USDA says about how we should be eating.) The department also administers the food stamp program, which shapes the way 46 million Americans eat.

But those two goals of promoting what American big agriculture produces and disseminating what science says about how Americans should eat “not infrequently come into conflict,” says Yale’s Brownell. “The Meatless Monday thing would be pretty uncontroversial among nutritional experts, so the fact that industry was able to turn it around” – Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack responded by agreeing that the posting was a mistake that would be erased – ”shows which of these competing missions usually wins.”

Usually. But from the perspective of large-scale agricultural interests, lately it hasn’t been enough. There’s no avoiding the political here; “food politics” in the United States is very much about both food and politics. And frankly, big producers are feeling a little unloved in Washington.

Over at the USDA, Vilsack is seen as having given them the cold shoulder during his tenure. Over at the White House, you’ve got Michelle Obama talking about going organic. And things are little better in Congress. The House of Representatives is wrangling over the Farm Bill, as Congress does every five years, and consensus is hard to find. With hundreds of billions of dollars on the line, Republican leaders seem to be less worried about backing their colleagues from farm districts than they were about getting on the wrong side of Tea Party members and others who aren’t eager to sign off on such federal government spending. Blue Dog Democrats, traditionally backers of agricultural spending, have seen their ranks severely reduced in recent years. And big agricultural producers are seeing their political power dwindle at a time that much of the U.S. is suffering through a rather epic drought.

Big producers and their industry groups are feeling “unmoored,” says Neil Conklin, president of Farm Foundation and a veteran of the USDA, “and when people get unmoored they get touchier.” In that environment, any suggestion that the U.S. Department of Agriculture thinks it’s fine if some of your three squares aren’t meat-based is enough to cause a conflagration.

Back to that drought. Despite Commissioner Staples’s argument that it’s proof that now is not the time for the USDA to hype vegetables, the drought is also a chance for the USDA to once again use science to improve the state of agriculture. The best research we know shows that producing meat is highly water- (not to mention fossil fuel-) intensive. “Resource use is something we should be talking about,” says Martin of Johns Hopkins. “This is the perfect time to talk about how we’re going to raise our food.”

At its core, the United States Department of Agriculture’s mission has always been to sustain the American way of life through food. Vegetables and fruits are food, too. Yes, tofu teriyaki is perfectly good food, too; not for nothing do American farms lead the world in the production of soybeans. For that matter, beef, pork and chicken produced on small, environmentally friendly farms and distributed to consumers through local networks are very much food, too. The outrage of Commissioner Staples and others aside, asking how the USDA could use the best knowledge out there to create a sustainable vision for a healthy, well-fed 21st century U.S. wouldn’t be veering off course or an abrogation of its mission. It would be – dare I say it – a perfectly organic next step.

PHOTO: A worker arranges slaughtered cattle in the freezing room in the Marfrig Group slaughter house in Promissao, 500 km northwest of Sao Paulo. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

 

54 comments

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Gordon, please stop meddling in things you know absolutely nothing about!

You’re not making sense. With “friends” like you, hubris and stagnation would be the meme of today. Plus you completely overlook the fact that consumers choose the smaller more efficient vehicles being produced in other nations while hubris and stagnation (your position) reigned supreme in America.

Nice of you to completely ignore the obesity facts and related costs by the way.

Over one-third of all Americans are obese. So go ahead and eat as much as you like by all means. Just don’t go to any doctors or hospitals when that excess takes a toll on your body which then winds up driving the costs up for everyone else. You see that’s entitlement, don’t kid yourself. Trying to have a rational discussion about the problems obesity and how to fight it, well we’ll I’m sure you’ll be nowhere to be found.

Furthermore, it’s the same crowd (which thinks it owns patriotism) that argues against affordable health care for the citizenry, crying out socialism! They don’t mind that the problems get worse, they also don’t want anyone else to do anything about it.

So only you know what is quasi-religious? That’s amusing because one could say the same thing about you. Advocating for not doing anything is still advocating, consequences either way. I could say you’re effectively advocating for obesity and mindless consumerism all disguised as patriotism. “The world revolves around me and my 10-foot radius only,” works both ways whereas the other at least tries to take into account a greater radius. Trying to have a rational discussion about issues however is impossible.

The fact that the previous administration and the current one (Republican and Democrat) are shredding civil liberties, that gets more of a yawn. They’re taking the meat away! Ridiculous notions like these have people up in arms and talking about principles of freedom, democracy and how govt should act. It’s pathetic.

As for ethics, it should be a part of any undertaking. That’s the problem today, a complete lack of morals and ethics coupled with short term thinking.

ENTITLEMENT RUNS DEEP in America, across the board.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

Gordon, please stop meddling in things you know absolutely nothing about!

You’re not making sense. With “friends” like you, hubris and stagnation would be the meme of today. Plus you completely overlook the fact that consumers choose the smaller more efficient vehicles being produced in other nations while hubris and stagnation (your position) reigned supreme in America.

Nice of you to completely ignore the obesity facts and related costs by the way.

Over one-third of all Americans are obese. So go ahead and eat as much as you like by all means. Just don’t go to any doctors or hospitals when that excess takes a toll on your body which then winds up driving the costs up for everyone else. You see that’s entitlement, don’t kid yourself. Trying to have a rational discussion about the problems obesity and how to fight it, well we’ll I’m sure you’ll be nowhere to be found.

Furthermore, it’s the same crowd (which thinks it owns patriotism) that argues against affordable health care for the citizenry, crying out socialism! They don’t mind that the problems get worse, they also don’t want anyone else to do anything about it.

So only you know what is quasi-religious? That’s amusing because one could say the same thing about you. Advocating for not doing anything is still advocating, consequences either way. I could say you’re effectively advocating for obesity and mindless consumerism all disguised as patriotism. “The world revolves around me and my 10-foot radius only,” works both ways whereas the other at least tries to take into account a greater radius.

Trying to have a rational discussion about issues is impossible. It’s ‘we’ the people, not just ‘you’ the people. Tired of people thinking they own what it means to be an American or what patriotism means. Many in this crowd cheered and played along to the march of the drumbeat towards war in Iraq for example, waving the flag thinking they owned what patriotism meant. Good one.

The fact that the previous administration and the current one (Republican and Democrat) are shredding civil liberties, that gets more of a yawn. They’re taking the meat away! Ridiculous notions like these have people up in arms and talking about principles of freedom, democracy and how govt should act. Well done.

As for ethics, it should be a part of any undertaking. That’s the problem today, a complete lack of morals and ethics coupled with short term thinking.

ENTITLEMENT RUNS DEEP in America, across the board.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

It’s a welcome surprise to see Reuters running intelligent articles for a change!

Those people who, often with a quasi-religious fervor, attempt to push meat-eating as if it were some kind of ‘right’ forget two things.

First, these animals are usually raised and killed under extremely cruel conditions. Anybody buying meat is supporting and condoning this vile trade.

Second, these animals are fed on grain. Good quality plant protein is converted into a very much smaller amount of poor quality animal protein. This waste comes, effectively, from the mouths of the poorest and hungriest people in the world, who cannot afford to feed themselves because the grain has gone to feed chickens and cattle for human consumption.

Posted by PAndrews | Report as abusive

Gordon, “please stop meddling in things you know absolutely nothing about!” You’re not making sense.

With “friends” like you, hubris and stagnation would be the meme of today. Plus you completely overlook the fact that consumers choose the smaller more efficient vehicles being produced in other nations while hubris and stagnation (your position) reigned supreme in America.

Nice of you to completely ignore the obesity facts and related costs by the way.

Over one-third of all Americans are obese. So go ahead and eat as much as you like by all means. Just don’t go to any doctors or hospitals when that excess takes a toll on your body which then winds up driving the costs up for the rest of us. You see that’s entitlement, don’t kid yourself.

Trying to have a rational discussion about the problems obesity and how to fight it, well we’ll I’m sure you’ll be nowhere to be found.

What it’s interesting, there is an overlap of sentiment where the same crowd (which thinks it owns patriotism) would argue against affordable health care for the citizenry, crying out socialism! They don’t mind that the problems get worse, they also don’t want anyone else to do anything about it.

So what is quasi-religious? Is it only your definition? One could say the same thing about your stance. Advocating for not doing anything is still advocating, there are consequences either way. I could say you’re effectively advocating for obesity and mindless consumerism all disguised as patriotism. “The world revolves around me and my 10-foot radius only,” works both ways. Trying to have a rational discussion about issues is impossible.

It’s ‘we’ the people, not just ‘you’ the people. Tired of people thinking they own what it means to be an American or what patriotism means. I remember when the crowds cheered and marched along to the drumbeat towards war in Iraq for example, waving they’re flags high and accusing those who protested the war, those who argued against it, as being unpatriotic. Thinking they owned what patriotism meant. Good one.

The fact that the previous administration and the current one (Republican and Democrat) are shredding civil liberties, that gets more of a yawn today. They’re taking the meat away! Ridiculous notions like these have people up in arms and talking about principles of freedom, democracy and how govt should act. Quite the priorities.

As for ethics, it should be a part of any undertaking. That’s a great deal of the problem today, a complete lack of morals and ethics coupled with short term thinking.

But ENTITLEMENT RUNS DEEP in America, across the board.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

TheUSofA

I’m not defending every subsidy for agriculture, esp. not the cotton subsidy. But to say that export subsidies are the main problem in Africa and other places where farmers are struggling is bologna. The reason farmers aren’t doing well in those places is they aren’t productive, and the reason they aren’t productive is they don’t have the tools and infrastructure they need. I read chunks of the WaPo articles you refer to, btw, and they are sadly one-sided.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

It’s a welcome surprise to see Reuters running intelligent articles for a change!

Those people who, often with a quasi-religious fervor, attempt to push meat-eating as if it were some kind of ‘right’ forget two things.

First, these animals are usually raised and killed under extremely cruel conditions. Anybody buying meat is supporting and condoning this vile trade.

Second, these animals are fed on grain. Good quality plant protein is converted into a very much smaller amount of poor quality animal protein. This waste comes, effectively, from the mouths of the poorest and hungriest people in the world, who cannot afford to feed themselves because the grain has gone to feed chickens and cattle for human consumption.

Posted by PAndrews | Report as abusive

I love how a simple suggestion about how America might better manage her agricultural resources turns into a govt mandate telling you what to eat. You people are daft in the extreme. It’s about as spurious as complaining that the First Lady suggests kids should eat more veggies instead of junk food.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

I love how a simple suggestion about how America might better manage her agricultural resources turns into a govt mandate telling you what to eat. You people are daft in the extreme. It’s about as spurious as complaining that the First Lady suggests kids should eat more veggies instead of junk food.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Gordon, “please stop meddling in things you know absolutely nothing about!” You’re not making sense.

With “friends” like you, hubris and stagnation would be the meme of today. Plus you completely overlook the fact that consumers choose the smaller more efficient vehicles being produced in other nations while hubris and stagnation (your position) reigned supreme in America.

Nice of you to completely ignore the obesity facts and related costs by the way.

Over one-third of all Americans are obese. So go ahead and eat as much as you like by all means. Just don’t go to any doctors or hospitals when that excess takes a toll on your body which then winds up driving the costs up for the rest of us. You see that’s entitlement, don’t kid yourself.

Trying to have a rational discussion about the problems obesity and how to fight it, well we’ll I’m sure you’ll be nowhere to be found.

What it’s interesting, there is an overlap of sentiment where the same crowd (which thinks it owns patriotism) would argue against affordable health care for the citizenry, crying out socialism! They don’t mind that the problems get worse, they also don’t want anyone else to do anything about it.
So what is quasi-religious? Is it only your definition? One could say the same thing about your stance. Advocating for not doing anything is still advocating, there are consequences either way depending on the issue at hand. I could say you’re effectively advocating for obesity and mindless consumerism all disguised as patriotism. “The world revolves around me and my 10-foot radius only,” works both ways. Trying to have a rational discussion about issues in a dysfunctional America is near impossible.

Also, it’s ‘we’ the people, not just ‘you’ the people. Tired of people thinking they own what it means to be an American or what patriotism means. I remember when the crowds cheered and marched along to the drumbeat towards war in Iraq for example, waving they’re flags high and accusing those who protested the war, those who argued against it, as being unpatriotic. Thinking they owned what patriotism meant. Good one.

The fact that the previous administration and the current one (Republican and Democrat) are shredding civil liberties, that gets more of a yawn today. They’re taking the meat away! Ridiculous exaggerations like these though have people up in arms, talking about principles of freedom, democracy and how govt should act. Quite the priorities.

As for ethics, it should be a part of any undertaking. That’s a great deal of the problem today, a complete lack of morals and ethics coupled with short term thinking.

But ENTITLEMENT RUNS DEEP in America, across the board.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

Gordon, “please stop meddling in things you know absolutely nothing about!” You’re not making sense.

With “friends” like you, hubris and stagnation would be the meme of today. Plus you completely overlook the fact that consumers choose the smaller more efficient vehicles being produced in other nations while hubris and stagnation (your position) reigned supreme in America.

Nice of you to completely ignore the obesity facts and related costs by the way.

Over one-third of all Americans are obese. So go ahead and eat as much as you like by all means. Just don’t go to any doctors or hospitals when that excess takes a toll on your body which then winds up driving the costs up for the rest of us. You see that’s entitlement, don’t kid yourself.

Trying to have a rational discussion about the problems obesity and how to fight it, well we’ll I’m sure you’ll be nowhere to be found.

What it’s interesting, there is an overlap of sentiment where the same crowd (which thinks it owns patriotism) would argue against affordable health care for the citizenry, crying out socialism! They don’t mind that the problems get worse, they also don’t want anyone else to do anything about it.
As for quasi-religious, you’re the only one that decides what qualifies as quasi-religious? Is it only your definition? One could say the same thing about you. Advocating for not doing anything is still advocating, there are consequences either way depending on the issue at hand. If your ignorance/religion takes a toll on me and others, then sorry, we’re gonna have to talk about it. Trying to have a rational discussion about issues in a dysfunctional America is near impossible. Quasi-religious, what a joke. Look in the mirror when you talk about quasi-religious.

The “world only revolves around me and my 10-foot radius only,” works both ways.

Also, it’s ‘we’ the people, not just ‘you’ the people. Tired of people thinking they own what it means to be an American or what patriotism means. I remember when the crowds cheered and marched along to the drumbeat towards war in Iraq for example, waving they’re flags high and accusing those who protested the war, those who argued against it, as being unpatriotic. Thinking they owned what patriotism meant. Good one.

The fact that the previous administration and the current one (Republican and Democrat) are shredding civil liberties, that gets more of a yawn today. They’re taking the meat away! Ridiculous exaggerations like these though have people up in arms, talking about principles of freedom, democracy and how govt should act. Quite the priorities.

As for ethics, you have got to be joking. Ethics should be a part of any undertaking. That’s a great deal of the problem today, a complete lack of morals and ethics coupled with short term thinking. Everything is me, me, me.

Then again, entitlement does run deep in America.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

It’s a welcome surprise to see Reuters running intelligent articles for a change!

Those people who, often with a quasi-religious fervor, attempt to push meat-eating as if it were some kind of ‘right’ forget two things.

First, these animals are usually raised and killed under extremely cruel conditions. Anybody buying meat is supporting and condoning this vile trade.

Second, these animals are fed on grain. Good quality plant protein is converted into a very much smaller amount of poor quality animal protein. This waste comes, effectively, from the mouths of the poorest and hungriest people in the world, who cannot afford to feed themselves because the grain has gone to feed chickens and cattle for human consumption.

Posted by PAndrews | Report as abusive

Go ahead, keep logging the forest so y’all can have another hog-roast, yee-haw!

Posted by Neil_McGowan | Report as abusive

It’s a welcome surprise to see Reuters running intelligent articles for a change!

Those people who, often with a quasi-religious fervor, attempt to push meat-eating as if it were some kind of ‘right’ forget two things.

First, these animals are usually raised and killed under extremely cruel conditions. Anybody buying meat is supporting and condoning this vile trade.

Second, these animals are fed on grain. Good quality plant protein is converted into a very much smaller amount of poor quality animal protein. This waste comes, effectively, from the mouths of the poorest and hungriest people in the world, who cannot afford to feed themselves because the grain has gone to feed chickens and cattle for human consumption.

Posted by PAndrews | Report as abusive

Let’s not forget that most US beef contains hormones and anti-biotics, which have been proven to increase autism (US has highest rate in the world, hormones banned in most countries) and lead to early puberty for girls.

Eating vegetarian 2 days a week, and eating local, grass fed beef and other meats will not only lead to lower healthcare, healthier people, but will reduce our carbon footprint and support local, sustainable small farmers instead of large agri-businesses.
Seems like a no-brainer for the country, but obviously the large big bucks producers disagree at the expense of our health and small businesses

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive