A Meat Lover Says Yes to Meatless Monday

If the meat industry can't meet demand in a healthy, responsible way, then maybe we should be taking a day off from it

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I generally work on these columns on Monday morning before sending them in to my editors. And it’s rare that I do so without at least some bacon or sausage fueling my efforts. But today I am on straight coffee. I don’t know how long that’ll last, but as a thought experiment, I am going to try to make it through the day on cheese omelettes and Adderall.

Because I think Meatless Monday is a good idea.

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I love meat more than the next person. I founded Meatopia. I’ve written of my philosophy as a “carnist,” and generally done all one man could to impact cattle futures. But when the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently made a tepid, timid suggestion in an internal newsletter that Meatless Monday might be a good idea in their own cafeteria — you know, with a nightmarish drought going on and corn going for $8 a bushel — farm-state politicians went bonkers. Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa tweeted that even the suggestion of a Meatless Monday was “Heresy!” and he would have “double rib-eye Mondays instead.” Two legislators in the upper house went him one better, ordering up a photo-op feast from Washington’s Hill Country BBQ restaurant (which is where I would have done it too, by the way).

This political theater is enjoyable enough (it was an especially nice touch that the Senators chose Hill Country, whose barbecue is sold by the pound and served on brown butcher paper), but really, such meat pushing makes no sense even from the point of view of their constituents, not to mention their agribusiness contributors and lobbyists. The meat industry can’t meet demand as it is, which is why we see things like pink slime come into being. Every year it gets harder to feed the world American meat, especially at the rock-bottom prices we have come to expect. If demand would get just a little lighter, the production cycle might be able to catch up without resorting to unspeakable expedients like putting ethanol by-products and bonemeal into feed. And it’s not like we can keep up the supply indefinitely. There are twice as many people in the U.S. as there were in 1950, the period from which our current ideal of round-the-clock meatitude dates. (Meat was carefully rationed during the war, and the Depression was a time when steaks and chops were special occasions for most Americans.)

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Good meat — of the kind I really like — simply can’t be made in huge volumes. But cheap meat is not good for us, and it’s getting worse. Aside from sustainability issues, there are the invisible costs attached to it: exhausted soil, underpaid workers, the inevitable salmonella and E. coli recalls. (If you want to know more, Bryan Walsh wrote an excellent piece for TIME in 2009. He also has an interesting take on the subject here.)

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Critics of our food system like Walsh and the New York Times’ Mark Bittman feel that we, as a country, eat too much meat, but I think it’s more that we eat too much bad meat. So maybe it’s not so crazy to push down demand just a little bit. It’s not that the producers ought to lose money; if demand were artificially depressed for one day, wouldn’t it be possible for them to charge a couple of cents more and stamp a “We Support Meatless Monday” tag on their products? Or try to make meat in better ways, like avoiding antibiotics and stressful environments for animals?

The reality of the meat business, like the fish business, is that it can’t go on forever the way it is. There’s an old story from the bad old days of the USSR. It’s said that a Soviet functionary went to a productive dairy farmer and asked him if his cows could produce more milk. “Certainly, comrade,” he replied. “60% more?” “Yes, comrade.” “70%?” “Yes, comrade!” “What about 80%?” the apparatchik asked the farmer. “That would be too much. Then people would start to notice the water.”

If Meatless Monday brings us more meat and less water, I’m all for it.

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