Meat Puppets

Eat your greens: chewing over the history and politics of vegetarianism

Two announcements regarding food sailed quietly by in December 2006: The FDA endorsed meat and milk from cloned cows, ignoring concerns raised about its safety by scientists; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture appointed representatives from General Mills and Campbell's Soup, among others, to fill seats on the National Organic Standards Board—seats meant for a scientist, consumer advocate, and environmentalist.

Whether you're a vegetarian or carnivore, these pieces of information up the ante on the age-old dilemma: What should we eat? Once you get past the basics, the questions get thorny. How much pollution from large-scale agribusiness can the environment (and thus our bodies) absorb? What type of farming yields healthier food for more people? How much animal suffering, if any, are we willing to accept?

Historically, one solution to these dilemmas was to become vegetarian. Tristram Stuart, a Cambridge-educated deer hunter and veteran dumpster-diver, makes an ecological argument in The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times. Stuart argues that the affluent West (and increasingly China) must reduce consumption of meat to conserve resources for future generations—in particular to preserve forests and water and emit fewer greenhouse gases.

Bean there, done that: Tristram Stuart
Alice Albinia
Bean there, done that: Tristram Stuart

It's a strong argument for eating more vegetables with your fresh venison. Stuart devotes most of his book, however, to meticulously detailing the varieties of vegetarian experience in Europe over the last 400 years. War made 17th- and 18th-century Europeans question the necessity of meat-eating in the face of oppression and food shortages. And when travelers to India returned with accounts of a nation of pacifist vegetarians, the European belief in human dominance came under scrutiny. When Sir Isaac Newton saw that gravity united the universe, he wondered if there might be a moral law to unite creatures as well. As Stuart notes throughout the book, the battle lines were drawn and are still more or less in place today. Scholarly and at times colorful, The Bloodless Revolution follows the tides of vegetarian thought as one generation influences the next, but it also gets at what it means to be human, part of something larger than oneself.

The book sometimes reads like a cross between the New York Review of Books —pinpointing the intellectual fissures of the vegetarians versus meat-eaters debate—and a People magazine for the 17th and 18th centuries. It's a vegetarian "Who's Who" of the last 400 years (Stuart stops at 1945): Descartes, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Gandhi, Hitler, Kafka. Colorful evangelizers made influential arguments on behalf of vegetarianism: 17th-century Roger Crab, a hat-maker/soldier turned hermit made the economic argument (meat-eating equals wealth equals inequality) and the religious one (at the time of Adam and Eve, God provided a fruit, herb, and vegetable diet; after Noah's flood meat-eating plunged mankind into violence; to purify oneself meant returning to the diet of Eden). 18th-century George Cheyne, "a drunken fatso" who had a falling-out with Newton, embraced vegetarianism and slimmed down. A "celebrity doctor," he prescribed a form of bulimia and then mercury, poisoning his clients until they adopted a milk-and-vegetable diet.

Bloodless Revolution chronicles a European veggie history over an American one and fortunately for Stuart, the latest wrinkle in the eater's dilemma—genetically modified (GM) foods—has been mostly banned by the European Union, where they have been dubbed "Frankenfoods." In the U.S., GM products entered the food chain circa 1994, having been altered genetically by scientists to have desirable features— say an internal pesticide. About 80 percent of American supermarket foods now contain GM ingredients. But what happens when a laboratory-created gene for antibiotic resistance enters the human gut?

Heralded as safe by agrichemical corporations like Monsanto—makers, once upon a time, of Agent Orange and DDT—GM foods are not required to be labeled, despite a 2003 ABC News poll in which 92 percent of Americans said they desired such information. "The motivation of biotechnology companies for opposing labeling is obvious," writes nutritionist and NYU professor Marion Nestle in her recent book What To Eat. "You might choose not to buy them." The medical argument in support of vegetarianism, as Nestle puts it, is "the meat industry's big public relations problem" because vegetarians have a lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers. But today some staple foods in a vegetarian diet—like soy and corn—are large-scale GM crops. And with the jury still out (or silenced depending upon your perspective), their safety remains questionable.

Jeffrey M. Smith, director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, makes one of the stronger cases against GM foods in his book Seeds of Deception.He points out that in one study, rats fed GM tomatoes developed stomach lesions; cows, when given a choice to eat GM or non-GM grain, choose non; in the early '90s when documents were submitted to the FDA urging long-term safety tests on rBGH (a synthetic hormone) in milk, the request was rejected by Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for policy and a former attorney for Monsanto, who later became one of its vice presidents.

The long-running bloodless revolution Stuart details continues, fueled by figures like Jeffrey M. Smith, an evangelizer against GM foods who stands on a soapbox decrying the toxins that course through our veins, invisible until they take the form of cancer or some as yet unnamed disease.

 
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