After being vegetarian for almost five years and vegan for ten months, I feel like I’ve read most of what there is to read when it comes to animal rights literature as related to veganism. I’ve read Slaughterhouse, I’ve read Fast Food Nation, I’ve read Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, I’ve read The Food Revolution. But when I got Erik Marcus’ wonderfully written and impeccably-researched and -reasoned second book, Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money, I realized that there are a lot of new ideas floating around worth thinking about.
The first three chapters cover material that will be familiar to long-time AR activists. But even so, there are still some worthwhile nuggets in there that will surprise you. Erik starts off by talking about the economics of animal agriculture and how dramatically the farming landscape has changed over the last fifty years. Long gone are the days when small farms ruled and you knew where your eggs were coming from. Now animals are grown more quickly, forced to produce a higher output (whether it be meat, eggs, or dairy), and are killed at an earlier age. One fact that struck me: in 1950, it took 70 days before a chicken reached slaughter weight. Now, it’s down to 47 days. And on that 47th day, the chicken is 2/3rds larger than a 70-day old chicken from 1950. Even if the argument that “eating meat is ‘natural'” is true, that kind of physiological change in an animal is anything but.
The “Farmed Animal Lives” chapter summarizes the pain and suffering animals go through throughout the meat/dairy/egg production process. Not too much new ground here, but the ethical argument for not eating meat is summed up so succinctly here, I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this as the one chapter to show to meat-eating friends and relatives. The facts are presented in such a straightforward way with just enough detachment that it’s powerful and moving without being preachy. This chapter made an impression on me, causing me think very differently about eggs. Erik contends, and it seems correctly, that egg-laying hens are the more tortured animals in all of food production. The pain and suffering they endure goes beyond even what veal calves endure. Clearly, it’s not a walk in the park for any animal subject to such a life, but if you’re a lacto-ovo vegetarian considering veganism, this might be the chapter that helps push you the rest of the way. I got this book just before I completely gave up eggs and dairy, and it was definitely one of the deciding factors in nudging me the rest of the way.
In the “Possibilities for Reform in Animal Agriculture” section, Erik discusses how it’s technically possible to provide slaughter-free eggs and dairy, but it is economically unfeasible in our current climate (it would cost about a dollar an egg). I always thought about how one could perhaps ethically eat eggs since hens will lay unfertilized eggs, but finding a place to get such eggs proves to be an extremely difficult task. Free-range and organic labels are intended to make consumers feel better about their purchases, but truly, the difference is miniscule, if anything, to the animals. Eggs are a torturous business, no way around it.
The main focus of the book comes in part two which talks about “dismantlement.” Sure, you’ve heard of animal rights, animal welfare, and vegetarianism as approaches to reducing animal suffering, but Erik introduces this idea of dismantlement as the ideal fourth movement that all animal activists can get behind. It’s a lofty goal: bring down the industry systematically not by telling people “You need to change your diet!” but by introducing them to the cruelties of factory farm life. “Animal agriculture takes a small hit whenever somebody becomes vegetarian or vegan,” Erik writes, “but the loss of one customer is something the industry can live with. What the industry won’t be able to endure is a steady stream of new activists [from the general public] seeking to put an end to animal agriculture.”
The argument for dismantlement is a strong one, and Erik does a very good job of outlining the problems the animal rights movements have had in the past and how they can be avoided. Everything from poor use of money to hostiliy towards hierarchy has hurt the movement, and these organizational issues need to be addressed before the dismantlement movement can really get off the ground.
It can be frustrating for an activist to look at the animal rights/protection movements over the last 20 years and see that while there have been incremental gains, public awareness of the issues isn’t really noticeably higher. Or, at the very least, the number of people that have converted to veganism has only increased slightly. Whether or not the idea of dismantlement is the answer remains to be seen. But perhaps the most valuable thing that Meat Market will do is cause activists to talk and consider new ideas. Erik wants his idea critically examined, just as he wants every other aspect of animal rights and protectionism examined. As a movement, it behooves us to make sure we have not only rock-solid science behind health and environmental claims, but a firm, clearly stated argument about the misery caused by factory farming.
Erik argues that the movement has been split evenly between health, ethical, and environmental issues and that it needs to shift primarily towards ethical issues in order to be most effective. I’m not completely convinced this is the best route to take. Perhaps it’s because I’m becoming a bitter old man when it comes to my view of humanity. I feel like people, in general, care more about taste and their “right” to eat what they please a lot more than they care about how animals are treated. Sure, organic and free range meats have gained in popularity, but I’m convinced it’s more for taste and health reasons than anything resembling a true and honest concern for the animals.
That said, I think that what Erik suggests as a new direction and focus can be true. What we have to do first, though, is help the average person not cringe when they hear the phrase “animal rights.” We have to show them that for every goofy PR stunt PETA pulls, they do a world of good that doesn’t get reported helping farmed animals. We have to remind people that there really isn’t a difference between their dog and a pig other than that one winds up on their plate in a particularly heinous fashion. I think that once we can shift public perception of the animal rights/protection movement, we’ll be able to drum up a lot more support for fighting the factory farm machine. We’ve begun to see this shift on the vegetarian side of the movement, where even though not significantly more people are becoming full-fledged vegetarians, more people are becoming aware of vegetarian foods and don’t automatically think of someone eating tofu raw out of the carton. I’m not completely sure how we can cause similar change in perception on the AR side of things, especially on a large scale, but I think it can be done. And once it is, then the concept of dismantlement will be ready to roll full-force.
The next section of the book features guest essays from activists on topics such as leafleting, working for school lunch reform, and promoting vegetarian diets as a nutrition expert. There’s a lot of inspiration in these brief essays and everyone will find something here that will encourage them to get up and make a difference in their own way.
Meat Market closes out with a set of appendices that take a critical look at the facts behind the arguments the movement uses, like the difficult question of hunting and how it’s not as black-or-white of an issue as either the traditional AR stance nor the hunter’s party line. This is what makes Meat Market a successful endeavor: it has a crossover appeal and it doesn’t lay everything out as “this is the only thing that is true and the other side is totally wrong about everything.” It’s a refreshing take on the issue and one that we have to consider, debate, pick apart, and act on in the coming years in order to keep our movement from stagnating and losing its true focus.