The following is an interview with Maureen Ogle following the late 2013 publication of her book, “In Meat We Trust”. Maureen comes from a different place than much of the writing about agriculture or livestock production that you see today — because she is a historian more than a social critic.
K.M.: Your book, “In Meat We Trust” just came out a few months ago, and the ratings are looking extremely good over at Amazon. You got a big publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and I see that this is your second book, with the first one about beer. You call yourself a historian and you opted out of being a professor because you didn’t like playing that game. As someone who toys with the idea of writing a book from time to time, I can see firsthand that WHAT you choose to devote that much effort to –writing a book– would be a huge decision. How and why did you pick the subject of meat?
M.O.: IN MEAT WE TRUST is my fourth book, the second I’ve published with Andrea Schulz at (what is now) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And, yes, I’m a historian, not a “writer.” (BIG difference there. Big difference.) (And in my never-ending effort to help “the public” understand that J. K. Rowling is the exception, not the norm: the book, which has been out two months, has sold even worse than my previous book. Sold so few copies that most days, I wonder why I bothered. And that’s the normal Way of the Book for authors. We don’t get rich.)
As a historian, I’m interested in what it means to be an American, how our “Americanness” shapes the way we see and interact with the world around us. So that’s the thread that connects my four books (plumbing, Key West, beer, meat).
And yes, subject is key. I’ve got to be interested enough to stick with the topic for years. (I spent seven years working on the meat book. That’s a big chunk of life, you know?) But a topic also has to suit the form: Not every topic or idea is book-length.
But as to choosing the topic — well, my brain does the heavy lifting. The ideas for all four of my books simply . . . came to me. My brain presented the ideas and in amazingly fleshed-out detail.
For example, in the summer of 2006, the beer book had just gone to the printer and I had about six weeks before it came out. I wanted to use that short break to come up with a new book topic. A project that, cough, consisted mostly of laying around the house staring at the ceiling for absurd lengths of time.
But I knew that if I waited, my brain would give me an idea. Which, hooray!, it did — in the form of images of the western range. (I wrote about the weirdness here.)
I knew right away that meat was a great topic; a rich, productive way to think about American culture and Americanness. And it was.
I should add that I knew nothing about meat or its history. I prefer to write about topics about which I know nothing. Blank slate is better than fully-equipped-with-agenda. I also knew nothing, and I mean zero, about the “food debate” in the United States.
Also worth noting: the beer book came out the same time (fall 2006) as Michael Pollan’s OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA. I was busy promoting my book and thinking about the meat project and so knew nothing about the uproar his book caused. It wasn’t until about 2008 or so that I finally tuned into the “food debate.” (Remember: I’m a historian. I think about the past, not the present.)
K.M.: Have you lived in Iowa all of your life? Tell us how living in Iowa has influenced your perspective on food, meat, and the public’s attitudes about these things.
M.O.: I’ve lived here for all but two months of my sixty years, and I’ve always lived in a city (as do almost two-thirds of Iowans). And to the best of my recollection, I’ve never even been on a farm.
So when I started the meat book, I wasn’t thinking “Oh, I’m an Iowan. I know all this stuff.” I knew nada. But because I do live in Iowa, I’m probably a bit more aware than most Americans of agriculture as an industry, as a business. My mental image of a farm is not the little red barn and livestock gamboling about a pasture. It’s a business, pure and simple.
Which makes me a bit cranky when it comes to the commonly held view of farming and agriculture. Farmers don’t waste time wallowing in nostalgia for a past that never was. The only people who do are, well, city folks who live far from rural areas.
K.M.: My impression is that you are the kind of person who goes the extra ten miles in the amount of research you do when writing a book. Tell us a couple of things that you discovered in doing your research about the history of meat that you think would most surprise the average American.
M.O.: By definition, historians go not just the extra ten miles, but the extra zillion miles. We’re research animals, we historians. So, yes, I pride myself on my research, my attention to detail, my care with numbers, ideas, facts, etc.
I’d like to think that everything in the book would surprise readers. God knows I was surprised by what I learned.
But I think (hope?) that most readers will be surprised by a) the miraculous complexity that is the food system in an urban nation; and b) the fact that there’s not now and never has been a corporate plot to control agriculture. The mode of farming and food supply system that we Americans have was built over many, many decades and built by ordinary men and women making what were, for them, rational decisions about how to make a living from the land.
At least that’s my hope. Alas, it’s unlikely to remain a hope unfulfilled. The simple narrative outlined in Pollan’s OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA and the nostalgia-and-conspiracy driven view held by most food reformers is so much easier on the mind.
K.M.: When I observe farming methods and food prices (cheap) and our amazing modern grocery stores of abundance, I think how spoiled we all are, and then I see how dissatisfied so many consumers are about what their choices are in the grocery store. It seems to me that many of these voices have never set foot on a farm. I often suspect the word “hypocrisy” would fit the situation, whereas you seem more polite than that, saying “we can’t have it both ways”. Can you expound on this topic when discussing meat consumption?
M.O.: Heh. Been reading my mind much? Yes. And yes. I could write a doorstopper on your comments. But I won’t.
As I noted above, simplistic thinking and nostalgia shape the way many Americans view our food supply and especially the American way of meat. And only people who live in a society where food is both abundant and cheap (and the two go hand in hand) enjoy the luxury of being not just critical, but simplistically critical, of the complexities of feeding an urban society.
The critics tend to assume that their views are shared by the public as a whole, and so tend to assume that they know what the public as a whole wants.
But as near as I can tell (after seven years of research), what the public wants is meat, lots and lots of meat. Americans eat more meat than anyone else in the world. And as I noted in the book’s first chapter, when it comes to meat, we Americans have an extraordinarily well developed sense of entitlement. Access to an abundance of meat is and has long been a part of our identity.
Yes, making meat requires many resources — land, grain, water — but for four centuries Americans have chosen to use those resources to make meat. No one forced them to do so. That was a choice.
To now say “Hey! Meat’s evil. Stop eating it.” — well, that strikes me as a bit presumptuous (to say the least).
But the critics also (apparently) don’t understand that for four centuries, the American way of meat has been designed and structured in order to supply meat to a global market. This isn’t all about us, and to think that it is, well — that’s a short-sighted, provincial view.
If a consumer thinks meat is bad or too environmentally costly, okay! Great. Don’t eat meat. But at least try to see the big picture from the perspective of others.
Which leads to another matter that drives me batty: The critics rely heavily on victimization to make their point: They argue that corporations have driven small farmers off the land. They argue that corporations “control” our food supply and our kitchens.
That’s not what I found when I researched this book. Again, to repeat a point above, I uncovered a story of millions of people making rational decisions about their livelihoods, decisions that, yes, often meant that they decided to get out of farming and sell their land to a bigger farmer or to a corporation.
When critics blame corporations, in effect they’re painting themselves and the rest of us as witless dupes being steamrollered by the autonomous force of “capital.” I don’t buy that. Blaming corporations necessitates an embrace of victimization. No thanks. Not for me.
K.M.: I also have a big “beef” with the fact that people are so out of touch with food growing. To me, growing food keeps us real. In your conclusion, you point out that industrial agriculture, including industrialized meat production, has given us a huge gift, and it is a gift that is seldom mentioned and (I think) taken for granted. What is that very important gift that you’ve identified?
M.O.: Until I researched this book, I had no idea how complicated food supply systems are, whether local, national, or global. What I learned left me in awe.
But I also realized that industrial agriculture made it possible for me to write books. I don’t need to spend my days raising food, processing food, longing for food. Nor do I want to do that.
So I’m grateful that I live in a world where food is abundant, safe (because despite the flaws in the system, our food supply is remarkably safe), and available. That leaves me, and everyone else in the U. S., free to think big, to criticize, to imagine a future that’s different from the present. That’s a gift.
K.M.: Although I don’t think it’s an ideal system, plus I am an animal lover, I look at industrial livestock production as being extremely efficient, all the way from the animal genetics to the processing plants. You made an interesting statement in your book, that there are different ways that people define efficiency. Please expound on those definitions.
M.O.: As I’ve said many times in interviews, given the demand, the American way of meat is incredibly efficient.
Let me repeat that: GIVEN THE DEMAND. As long as Americans eat more than two hundreds pounds of meat a year, as long as millions around the world, including the Chinese, rely on American meat supplies, the system we have, flaws and all, is both efficient and sustainable.
Critics argue that it only seems efficient because we ignore the environmental impacts: manure, tainted water and soil, etc. But I’d argue that given the system’s output, that degradation is relatively minimal. Moreover, during the past century, the entire meat-making infrastructure has relegated to specific locations — rural areas far from densely population areas. Anything that humans do — anything — causes some kind of environmental degradation. In the case of our meat system, we’ve effectively concentrated that degradation and in the process minimized its impact.
But the system is also efficient because it’s designed to function with limited labor. Critics argue that there are so few farmers in the US because corporations have destroyed family farms. Nonsense. Farmers leave the land because they’ve weighed the odds and decided that theirs are better elsewhere. (US agriculture has suffered a labor shortage ever since the late 1930s.) Moreover, farmers compete for land with developers, demand for houses and highways.
Historically, farmers have adapted to the lack of labor and land by adopting tools like confinement, which first emerged as a tool for managing livestock with minimal amounts of labor and land.
So “efficiency” and “sustainability” are in the eyes of the beholder. Again, as long as demand, both domestic and global, remains at current levels, I don’t see how we can eliminate the existing system of livestock and meat production. We can change the way we make livestock and meat, sure, but we’ll also have to make a fundamental change in the amount of meat we eat.
K.M.: Since I’ve also lived in the Midwest, I’ve seen the intertwined issues involved in the immigrant story as it relates to employment in rural packing plants. Did your research and book cover that issue and do you have any numbers for us?
M.O.: Any book, but especially non-fiction, consists, in the end, of decisions made by the author. What’s important? What’s not? What should I include? What should I omit?
In this case, I wanted to understand the culture of meat in America, so I decided early on to focus on that. But I also realized almost immediately that the topic of “meat in America” was enormous. I couldn’t possibly cover every angle.
So as I researched, I sifted through possible angles and sub-topics and eliminated many. Readers won’t find anything about cowboys (and only a smidge about Indians), for example. I also omitted any discussion of immigration in meatpacking/agriculture. There are plenty of other books and studies that examine those topics.
I also only briefly discuss unions and meatpacking. In that case, I explained how, after World War II, decline in demand for byproducts and the rising price of urban real estate drove up packers’ production costs and inspired a new model of meatpacking, one that depended less on human labor and more on machinery.
I hasten to add that, yes, I’m aware of the immigration issue, if only because of the Postville, Iowa, raid a few years ago. Frankly, I’d love to see employment in meatpacking drop to zero. The work is dangerous and unpleasant. No one ever has said “Gee, I wanna work in a packing plant.” Immigrants here in Iowa use the packinghouse as a starting point and get out of it as soon as they can. The towns near packing plants here in Iowa are hotbeds of immigrant-driven entrepreneurial activity: stores, restaurants, and other services.
So I say: let’s turn our immense creativity and our smarts to a project aimed at fully automating slaughterhouses. Let’s get humans out of them altogether. Yes, ethicists like Peter Singer argue that eliminating the human equation from slaughter contributes to disregard for animal rights and distance us from the reality of slaughter.
To which I say: we’re already distant from our food supplies. We’ve already decided that animals are for eating. To eat meat is to decide not to think about it.
K.M.: Personally, given the amount of commodity overproduction that we have which is also environmentally damaging to our soil and water, I’d love to see a huge expansion of grass-fed beef in this country. You wisely comment in your book that it cannot compete with the profit opportunities for growing the monoculture crops on farmland. Do you have any ideas about how policy might support this? Or, did you come to a different conclusion about optimal meat production?
M.O.: Grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork are profitable high-end market niches for livestock producers. But it’s unlikely that every producer can or will go that route.
The problems with switching to grass/pasture, and eliminating confinement and “industrial” modes of livestock production, are the ones I mentioned above: Land and labor. Confinement and the industrial mode of agriculture emerged as solutions to soaring land prices and chronic shortages of labor. Ban CAFOs, switch to grass — but those structural factors will still be there.
For example, switching to grass/pasture would increase the demand for both land and labor. Where will those two “inputs” come from? (Here’s a good place to note that I’m not volunteering to move to the countryside and farm. And I doubt many other Americans want to either.)
K.M.: Why is it that the farmer, or the cattle rancher, or the cattle finisher always seems to struggle to make ends meet? Isn’t this a fundamental problem in our “efficiency” model?
M.O.: No. It’s the fundamental conundrum of agriculture in an urban society. Or, as farmers phrase it, the pain of plenty.
Here’s the deal: By definition, city folks are people who rely on others to make their food (the mania for urban gardens notwithstanding). They rely on farmers. And what they want from farmers is low-cost food. Elected officials also want that from farmers because they don’t want pissed off urbanites voting them out of office. Period. End of story.
But when farmers maximize their output to satisfy the twin demands of quantity and low cost, the result is seasonal gluts of food supplies. City folks spend little; farmers earn little. (This is simple supply/demand: the bigger the supply to meet demand X, the lower the cost to buyers.)
That pain of plenty is why, back in the 1920s, many farmers urged Congress to help them achieve income parity with urbanites. Urbanites were consistently enjoying more disposable income than farmers, in part because they spent so little on food, and farmers were consistently going broke trying to give urbanites what they wanted. So farmers urged Congress to, in effect, uncouple agriculture from the “free market” and instead anchor it to programs aimed at ensuring that farmers earned incomes on par with urbanites. The other term for this, of course, is subsidies.
K.M.: I notice, in all of my Ag news reading, how much the British tend to blame their grocery stores for everything surrounding food. My impression is that here in the U.S., our grocery stores are actually operating under very thin profit margins because the industry is so competitive. Did you find out any interesting connections about our meat system within our grocery stores here in America?
M.O.: Oh, yes. Indeed, the history and significance of the grocery chains surprised me more than anything else that I learned during the seven years I worked on this book.
Grocers’ power emerged at the same moment — the 1920s — that urbanites became a statistical majority and so Americans were trying to figure out how to manage agriculture in a society where urbanites dominated. Congress held a series of hearings and investigations aimed at analyzing the entire food system, from farm to table. The goal was to identify and eliminate the efficiencies that drove up food prices.
It turned out that the bottleneck lay in distribution and delivery. At the time, the majority of food retail outlets — butcher shop, dry goods store, produce markets — were small, mom-and-pop shops, temples of inefficiency. The then-handful of chain grocers, most notably A&P, were perceive as highly efficient alternatives. During the 20s and 30s, states and Congress developed statutes and policies that intentionally and unintentionally eased the path of grocery chains, and turned those chains into power players in the food system.
But it quickly became apparent that the chains could serve another purpose: They functioned as translators of consumer desires, conveying information about those desires to food manufacturers. By the early twentieth century, food had become, in this country, a consumer good rather than, say a basic commodity (packaged, branded crackers, rather than barrels of no-name crackers). Consumers expressed desire through purchases made or not made, and the chains passed that information along to food makers.
And in the late twentieth century, when the American consumer market fragmented into a host of niche markets, grocery stores pressured all food processors, all meatpackers, and all farmers to streamline and specialize so as to meet those niche markets.
Put another way, grocery retailing, which encompasses distribution, delivery, storage, etc., plays a crucial role in keeping food costs low. But its other and powerful role is as a translator of consumer demand to food makers.
K.M.: Only in the past few years has our per capita meat consumption headed downward here in America. And, we’re eating more poultry. This site loves to speculate on future trends. What do you think the future of meat will look like in our nation in 2030?
M.O.: Oh, boy. I wish I knew. 2030 isn’t that far away, so frankly, I won’t be surprised if the consumption picture looks the same.
And there’s a chicken-egg thing working here (no pun intended): On one hand, we have an efficient infrastructure for making livestock and meat, so consumers at any price range can eat as much meat as they want. As long as demand remains high, the infrastructure will remain in place. And as long as the infrastructure is in place, demand will remain high. And on and on.
My guess, however, is that producers will continue to respond to activist pressure — they’ll use bigger or fewer chicken cages or fewer antibiotics. (Indeed, I’ll fall over in a dead heap if antibiotics are still being used on farms in five years.)
The poultry part of the equation is interesting: In 1976, demand for beef began dropping. By the end of the century, it had plunged by more than a third. But Americans substituted poultry (I think it was 1987 when poultry overtook beef as the nation’s most popular meat). So I doubt the rankings will change: poultry, beef, pork.
But let me reiterate a point I made earlier: at present, the US infrastructure is designed to accommodate both domestic and global demand. But that will likely change soon because of China. Yes, meat consumption is soaring in that country. But in recent years, the Chinese government has embarked on a long-term project to move rural people into cities so as to nurture the nation’s manufacturing sector.
That means fewer farmers will supply a larger number of consumers. And that, in turn, means that China must modernize its agricultural system and do it fast. And by fast I mean they’re going to do in about ten years what it took Americans to do in about a hundred.
The fastest way for them to do that is by buying ready-made technologies and systems. That’s why Shuanghui bought Smithfield last year: Not because Shuanghui wants to dominate the American meat supply but because it wants to ramp up Chinese production (and, presumably, in the process dominate that country’s meat supply). Tyson has also transferred its poultry production systems to China.
The point is that once China gears up, and once it manages to meet its own needs, it will be positioned to supply global consumers in the way that American companies do now. And those American companies, well, they may not be American companies anymore.
These days, that’s on my mind: Between the “let’s save the family farmer” critics and the lure of the yuan, we Americans are in the process of demolishing four centuries of agricultural supremacy. (To say nothing of ag’s role in our national identity.)
We’ve already conceded manufacturing and education and, so it seems, leadership in science. Do we really want to give away agriculture, too?
K.M.: Yesterday in my local paper, there was a full page ad by Consumer’s Union, urging readers to call Trader Joe’s and ask them to get their meat off antibiotics. Please comment.
M.O.: The CU project to wean Trader Joe’s off antibiotics is interesting. TJ’s is a smallish chain, at least by comparison to the big grocery chains like Safeway and Publix. And most of the stuff it sells is high-priced, heavily processed foods. So it’s, well, curious that this project is aimed at it rather than a more mainstream chain. Presumably TJ’s shoppers fit the demographic that contribute money to food reform non-profits?
Although I’ll finish with this thought: I knew nothing about the food reform movement (or project or whatever it’s called) when I started the book. So I investigated its historical roots and was fascinated by what I learned about the rise of consumer activism and about the rise of the non-profit sector of the economy.
And make no mistake: consumer/public interest/non-profit is a big big industry. It’s in a non-profit’s interest to keep coming up with “issues.” The Humane Society of the United States, to name one obvious example, has latched on to livestock welfare as a cash cow (no pun intended). So no matter how much the reformers get, no matter how many battles they win, there will always be another one. That’s how the public interest sector keeps itself alive. That’s not a bad thing, but no one should operate under the illusion that non-profits and public interest advocates are in it for the nobility of the cause. Those causes represent money.
K.M.: In ending this interview, do you have a favorite quote — either something by yourself or someone else — that is a life’s guiding principle?
M.O.: Quotations… These three have guided my life and work:
“ … in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Anne Frank
“It is only with the heart hat one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” THE LITTLE PRINCE, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
“The main thing in life is not to be afraid of being human.” — Pablo Casals
And perhaps I should say: Those quotes inform my life, which means they inform my work, which means they inform IN MEAT WE TRUST.
K.M.: Thank-you for your time, Maureen!