Monday, December 22, 2008

The Racial and Colonial Politics of Meat-Eating (part 2)

Colonialism: Cattle, Class, and Hunger
Tragically, the genocidal imperialist policies of the United States did not cease at the end of the 19th century. David Nibert, who in Animal Rights/Human Rights (
2002) argues that human and animal rights cannot be fully achieved within consumer capitalism, notes that 20th century American agricultural interest in Guatemala and other Central American countries resulted in the deaths and disappearances of tens of thousands of people.[17] The United States supported and helped install dictators in order to secure land from which to extract agricultural resources, mostly fruit and beef. Communities of people were uprooted and displaced from their land as U.S. corporations and regional elite bought or leased it until only 3 per cent of Guatemalans owned 70 per cent of the arable land.[18] In the Amazon, competition over land has resulted in the cattle ranchers appropriating forest from the indigenous and forcing them into slavery.[19]

Cattle grazing, furthermore, is a terrible process in which to expose to the fragile rainforest soils. Not only do these intensive grazing operations entail slash-and-burn techniques, they also may deplete aquifers by requiring high rates of irrigation. Further, many of these lands are cultivated with monocultures of “cash crops” to be converted into animal feed; the conversion rate of protein into meat from plants for livestock can be anywhere between 1:8 – 1:24.[20] One would think that the locals would have sufficient food from these crops, but they can’t compete with Western consumers whose demand for beef which puts a higher price tag on the feed crops than they are able to afford.[13*]

Ironically, much of international agricultural policy promotes world trade as a means for development and eliminating hunger when sometimes trade only perpetuates hunger. Food activist Frances Moore Lappe, notes that “Two thirds of the agriculturally productive land in Central America is devoted to livestock production, yet the poor majority cannot afford meat, which is eaten by the well-to-do or exported.”[21] Tragically, this exportation of feed crops to wealthier (and Whiter) countries occurs throughout the world. For instance, in Tanzania 100,000 tons of Nile perch are exported a year to upper-class Europeans, who are able to offer more money for the fish than local peasants, while 2 million Tanzanians go starving.[22] In Bangladesh, the mangrove forests, buffers to tropical storms and commons for peasants, have been decimated to industrially farm shrimp for consumers in the North.[23]

According to Jeremy Rifkin, author of Beyond Beef (1992),

some 80% of the world's hungry children live in countries with actual food surpluses, much of which is in the form of feed fed to animals which will be consumed by only the well-to-do consumers. In the developing world, the share of grain fed to livestock has tripled since 1950 and now exceeds 21% of the total grain produced.[24]
Nibert succinctly summarizes the situation: People of the South “are no longer able to produce food for themselves, and they find it extremely difficult to afford food from countries like the United States. Modern agribusinesses produces food for those who can afford their products, nor for those who need them.”[25]

Although much of the information linking animal-based diets to world hunger have been relatively known since Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet (1971), intergovernmental justice organization have remained strikingly silent in regard to the relationship between meat and hunger. Amidst the record high food prices in early 2007, the UN's Jean Ziegler (in)famous condemnation of biofuels as a "crime against humanity" for diverting food from the mouth's of the hungry to the gas tanks of cars drew much international media and support,[14*] yet little attention was drawn to the elephant in the room:

"just one percent of the world's arable acreage is planted in crops for ethanol, compared to a third of global arable acreage (500 million hectares) used for milk and meat production - though milk and meat make up just 15 percent of our total food basket." [15*]
Note, however, that meat and milk are disproportionately consumed by (predominately affluent, white) Northerners. So not only do people of the South have to "compete" for food with people of the affluent North, they also must "compete" with the animals who are to become food for the North. However, since the privilege to eat "meat" is so associated with "humanity," it is hardly unsurprising that the record high consumption of animals was not similarly decried as a "crime against humanity."

To add injury to insult, the consumption habits of the North (read: mostly white middle- and upper-class people, especially Americans) are the root of global climate change, a process that will exacerbate food insecurity. Numerous studies have documented the contribution of agriculture to climate change, particularly livestock, which collectively is responsible for 18 per cent of anthropogenic gasses measure in units of carbon dioxide—40 per cent more than every sector of global transportation combined.[26] Mia MacDonald of Brighter Green reports that livestock's share of global anthropogenic GHG emissions may be even as high as between 38 to 52 per cent if factors such as respiration are factored in.[16*] The methane belched by cattle, the deforestation, and the land erosion behind a rapidly growing global market for beef are collectively the largest agricultural contributor to global climate change. The North, however, (with the notable exception of several Latin American countries including Argentina) consumes several times as much beef as the global average--US: 92lb/yr, World: 22lb/yr--, and thus is disproportionately responsible for global agriculture's carbon footprint. [17*] Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, recipient of a 2008 Nobel Prize for his work within the International Panel on Climate Change, has therefore recommended that people in the North reduce their meat consumption as a significant step toward mitigating global climate change.[27]

Climate change is not only an “environmental” concern after all, it is also a social and environmental justice concern. The people least responsible for catalyzing the process (i.e. the peasants of color in the South) are those who will face the greatest challenges of all. For instance, because (in part) of Western flesh-eating, Southeast Asian basins are more susceptible to flooding and severe tropical storms. Sub-Saharan Africa and Mexico will face even longer droughts. Both extremes will affect water quality, increasing the amounts of pollutants in addition to forcing people off their land because agriculture will have become impossible and food even scarcer than before.[28] In addition to intense droughts, experts also anticipate lower harvest due to crop failure from rising temperatures will further threaten food security in tropical and subtropical regions--regions populated mostly by people of color. [18*] In other words, not only have the lands of people of color been physically colonized by whites and their animals, they have also been indirectly assailed by the climatic consequences of the affluent Western diet to the point in which some may no longer be capable of supporting their people. And so we see how the privilege of white societies in the North directly and indirectly subordinate the well-being of those in the South specifically through the institution of flesh-eating.

Being Worked Like Animals and Treated Like Meat
Since the flesh-eating habits of Americans have doubled and global meat consumption has quintupled over the last fifty years, farmed animals must be (re)produced, grown, slaughtered, and processed at absurdly high rates. The mechanization of animal rearing and slaughter has also required the mechanization and sacrificing of laborers. While the previous sections described how White Westerners have colonized other people and their land, an inverse type of colonization is taking place today in American agriculture. Instead of outsourcing food production to Central America, much of American “food” production today entails the extraction of cheap labor from rural Central America—people whom have lost their land due to American agribusiness. While many Americans are opposed to a more liberal im/migration policy, they take for granted this cheap source of labor in lower food prices.

The migration of Latin American people into United States for better paying jobs may involve deliberative action on their part, however, once inside meat-packing and poultry-processing plants, these people of color are treated as if they were slaves.[29] In May of 2008, a raid on an Iowan kosher meat-packing plant uncovered 297 undocumetned workers, many children. One Guatemalan, Elmer, was working 17-hour shifts, six days a week at only 16 years old.[30]

Steve Striffler in his book Chicken (2005) explains that the

problem is that we now not only have a food system that is not only dependent on cheap labor, but also requires an easily exploitable workforce to produce and process unhealthy foods, and immigrants are destroying their bodies by producing those foods. [31]
The discourse cited in the Human Rights Watch report, Blood, Sweat and Fear (2005), suggests that these undocumented laborers are treated not so differently from the animals whom they “render.” For instance, one worker said that “Tyson processes job applicants like it processes poultry. The emphasis is on quantity not quality… Efficiency rules.”[32] Another worker explained that "They were obviously kids too young for the plant, but the company didn't care. They constantly needed bodies.”[32] Female employees are also “treated like meat” in that managers may sexually harass them and/or offer them more prestigious positions for sex.

Further, cleaners may themselves be killed by the very machines that killed cows just hours before:

nearly one hundred night shift cleaning workers in the state meatpacking industry suffered amputations and crushings of body parts in the period (1999-2003) reviewed by the investigative team. These severe injuries are just the tip of an iceberg of thousands of lacerations, contusions, burns, fractures, punctures and other forms of what the medical profession calls traumatic injuries, distinct from the endemic phenomenon in the industry of repetitive stress or musculoskeletal injury.[33]
Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation (2001) describes situations were workers were even decapitated by said machines.[34] As one worker mentions in an interview with Gail Eisnitz, author of Slaughterhouse (1997), after telling management that improperly stunned hogs were injuring the workers, the company made no response. “Might cost them a dime. Why protect workers when you can replace them?" (86). Like the animals they process, the workers are rendered as replaceable bodies on an assembly line of maximum profit; neither lived body is respected beyond their instrumental value.

Making a Killing: Malnutrition and the Corporation
The processed cows, pigs, and chickens who come out of these process plants eventually become part of what some have called a genocidal colonial diet imposed upon people of color—including Amerindians and the descendant of American slaves—through cultural hegemony, government subsidized support, and corporate marketing. Social justice and vegetarian advocate Dick Gregory wrote in Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat (1973) that

the quickest way to wipe out a group of people is to put them on a soul food diet. One of the tragedies is that the very folks in the black community who are most sophisticated in terms of the political realities in this country are nonetheless advocates of “soul food.” They will lay down a heavy rap on genocide in America with regard to black folks, then walk into a soul food restaurant and help the genocide along.[35]
Amy Breeze Harper explains that “A lot of the foods African Americans have been eating we were given as part of the slave system and colonialism...[T]he reason we are eating [this unhealthy food] is because we ourselves historically have been exploited as slaves.”[36]

People of color continue to suffer disproportionately from “diseases of affluence” than do whites—a result also related to class and geography.[37] Harper, after developing uterine fibroids—a disease common among black women in America—, is especially concerned about the reproductive health of women that is threatened by animal-based diets:

As women continue eating these eggs and flesh products, so high in hormones and other unhealthy substances, it makes estrogen levels in their bodies even higher. Our reproductive systems suffer because of the exploitation of the reproductive systems of chickens and cows.[36]
Some have suggested that those whose ancestors had not survived and adapted to diets higher in animal fats such as was the case in northern Europe that they have “thrifty genes,” which more rapidly store the nutrients as body fat.[38]

Whether such diets are “less natural” for certain people of color, however is controversial. What is for certain, however, is that, according to Greg Crister,

[f]ast food companies…have grown aggressive in their targeting of poor inter-city communities. One of every four hamburgers sold by the good folks at McDonald’s, for example, is now purchased by inner-city consumers who, disproportionately, are young black men.[39]
This makes sense, especially in the light of a recent study (2004) which found that “[p]redominantly black neighborhoods have 2.4 fast-food restaurants per square mile compared to 1.5 restaurants in predominantly white neighborhoods.” [40] Sadly, not only do people of color tend to be more bombarded by "junk food" than whites, they also have limited access to healthy food--fresh fruits and vegetables. Recent studies by Manuel Franco et al. indicate that, while "24 percent of the black participants lived in neighborhoods with a low availability of healthy food," only "5 percent of white participants" had low access. Even the grocery stores in predominately black neighborhoods had significantly less healthy food than the stores i wealthier and whiter neighborhoods.[19*] Tragically, many of those without access to wholesome food also do no not have any healthcare. The end result: further impoverishment and illness or a premature death.

Perhaps there is no clearer case of (neo)imperialism and white Northerner’s profiting off the death of people of color in the South than the infant formula industry. Naomi Baumslag and Dia Michels in their book Milk, Money, and Madness (1995) write about what a tragedy they believe the marketing of infant formula has had on the health of children, the mothers, and society at large. Tracing the history and cross-cultural differences in breastfeeding practices, Naomi and Michels link the popularization of formula with the rise of biopolitics, but particularly with the surpluses of the dairy industry:

The infant formula industry was created not because of problems with breastmilk but because of improvements in mechanization, transportation, and storage, which allowed the dairy industry to thrive. Faced with an increase in waste products, milk processesors sought out additional markets. Infant formula was seen as a lucrative outlet for altered waste products from the dairy industry. (xxix)
While the vast majority of mothers are able to supply sufficient breast milk for their child’s health, doctors have been silent on the incredible benefits of breastfeeding, Women Infants and Children [WIC] has remained at best neutral on formula, and corporations have been marketing formula as safer and more modern. This has, in part, resulted in halved breastfeeding rates among low-income and black women in America (110).

The marketing and sales of infant formula by Nestle and other companies is most devastating in the South, where poverty is even more rampant and children are more likely to die from (preventable) dehydration and diarrhea which is the leading cause of infant mortality. Though breast milk is 88 per cent water and can fully hydrates an infant, formulas require added water which may be either contaminated with bacteria and/or difficult to access, thus putting the child at greater risk (80-81). Despite this, multi-national corporations have sent down salespeople, sometimes dressed as nurses during visits to mothers in hospitals, to persuade women that they need these products (which also cost a lot more than the literally priceless milk form the breast). Even hospital staff give away free samples after payment from these companies. In Nigeria, 87 per cent of women said they used the formula because hospital staff advised them to (150). Bottle-feeding is also promoted as a mean of conspicuous consumption to show that one is more modern than the breastfeeding peasant (149). While the brunt of these issues occurred before the 1980s, there is still considerable controversy around the promotion of formula.

Finally, the USDA still promotes dairy as a legitimate “food group” for all Americans to consume despite a previous law suit by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s [PCRM] lawsuit several years ago.[41] Because nearly 75 per cent of the world is lactose intolerant, the vast majority being people of color, especially those of East Asian, Australian, and American descent, PCRM argued that promoting the consumption of milk in the racially and culturally diverse United States was nutritional racism based off ethnocentric dietary practices.[42] Only the descendants of human cultures where cow’s and goat’s milk were consumed for many generations continue to produce the enzyme lactase which is able to breakdown the sugar in milk, lactose. Not surprisingly, the National Dairy Council has advised people of color to adopt to northern European standards and consume dairy in small doses until one builds up a tolerance.[43] Worst of all, people of color, who are disproportionately affected by poverty, may be provided with food stamps that privilege surplus cholesterol-laden cheeses and whole milk instead of providing the option to purchase milk alternatives. Together, the policies and marketing campaigns which target poor communities of color work to produce major profits for corporations at the cost of their consumers' health.

I have done my best to lay out the systemic intersections of oppression between the exploitation and death of nonhuman animals and the exploitation and death of people of color. These two systems have been integral to historically defining the human as White and superior to the sub-human of color. As people of color have been depicted as closer to animal being through their plant-based diets, they have been treated as such, and their colonization has been justified as natural and appropriate. Over the last hundred and fifty years, the White supremacist culture of the North needn’t rely upon identity politics to subordinate people of color. Lately, it has been global capitalism that has facilitated the further appropriation and colonization of non-European and American lands. The situation of many impoverished and undereducated people of color has also made it easier for corporations to exploit their labor and demand for accessible food. Both these jobs and foods, however, treat bodies of color as means to profits, and thus their bodies are as expendable as those of the animals the North eats and kills.

I’d finally like to address that the racial and colonial politics of food are not solely connected with the production and consumption of nonhuman animal bodies. Sugar, Chocolate, Coffee, vegetable oils (i.e. palm, soy, etc), and fruits (i.e. bananas, pineapples, tomatoes, etc) often also involve terrible exploitation of people of color. Certainly, abstaining from animal-products is only, albeit a major, first step in denouncing oppression and “cruelty’ everywhere. In the future, look forward to a post analyzing the morality of vegan desserts and raw food diets heavy on fruit. Until then, you may want to check out this pretty cool 30-minute documentary “Agribusiness and Hunger in the Third World” and other educational videos in the sidebar.

UPDATED on 02/23/09: added more commentary on climate change and food security

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