ethics lesson

Dan Barber: ‘You Have Blood on Your Hands When You Eat Vegetarian’

Last month Dan Barber took the stage at the Beth-El Zedeck synagogue in Indianapolis for over an hour of back-and-forth with Krista Tippett. The conversation ran on her radio show this past weekend, and if you want to see Barber rocking a yarmulke, there’s an 81-minute extended video on her site. The most confessional moment comes, surprisingly, when someone lobs a softball and asks whether food tastes better if it’s cooked with love. “I’m a very, like, angry cook in my kitchen,” Barber offers. “I yell a lot and I’m very disciplining with the cooks, and a little bit abusive.” Well, now we know. Barber defends the locavore movement against accusations of elitism by paraphrasing Michael Pollan (“A lot of great movements in this country, including women’s suffrage, including the civil rights movement, started with elites and ended up becoming mass movements through powerful ideas”) and gets big applause when he defends the expense of “the real cost of growing food” by pointing out that 25 years ago, no one would’ve imagined willingly paying another $250 per month for television and telephone use: “Can we excite this issue around food and pleasure to the extent that people feel the same way about dinner?” Perhaps best of all, here’s his answer to the question, “Why aren’t you a vegetarian?”

My wife is not a strict vegetarian, but she loves vegetables and would just be happy eating vegetables every meal we eat together, and I’m also fine with that. But why am I not standing up here and saying "eat less meat"? The answer is that I come from the lower Hudson Valley [New England] and my ecological conditions are dictating that we eat a lot of meat, because we’re grassland. What we grow best besides those carrots is an amazing diversity of healthful grass for animals. Now if you are in the game of feeding, say, a lamb, as I mentioned before, instead of on grain from Hoosier ecology but on the great grasslands (a diversity of grasslands from the New England landscape — the grasslands, by the way, that built New England, that built the dairy industry.

It’s no surprise this is the iconic landscape that I referenced with my grandmother — that wasn’t just about building beauty; that was about building what they were taking advantage of, which was cows grazing on great grass to produce great milk. That same ecology holds true today — those iconic open-pasture lands that I talk about produce the best-tasting meat in the world.

And so for me to be a vegetarian, and be a strict advocate of it, wouldn’t be listening to the ecology that the land is telling us it wants to grow. So I think one of the futures (dialing back to the young 11-year-old chef in the making) … one of the requirements of the chef for the future is not to propose a cuisine on the landscape, it’s going to have to be listening to the landscape to determine what kind of chef and what kind of eater we want to be. And if you are in southern Los Angeles and San Diego and you want to be a vegetarian, God bless you. You should be. You should be. But if you want to be in New England and you want to improve the ecological conditions of where you are, you’re eating meat. There’s no question about it. There is no healthy ecological system that I’ve ever seen that doesn’t include animals — there just doesn’t. Because the manure from the animals is a free, free ecological resource that amends the soil that gives you better-tasting and healthful vegetables. That’s been around since the beginning of time. So to say that vegetarians live on this higher plane of ethics (and I’m not here to argue that slaughtering animals doesn’t carry with it some weight), but you have blood on your hands when you eat vegetarian as well, especially if you’re in the northeast. Because your food is coming from somewhere, and your calories are coming from somewhere in the winter, and if they’re traveling hundreds of miles, and in many cases thousands of miles, you are burning fossil fuels to get them there, and generally they’re produced in monocultures, and that has a huge cost on natural living systems. They might not be animals that you and I can identify with, but they’re insects and bugs and whole types of flora and fauna that are dying to produce those vegetables. That’s not an ethical way to eat, I don’t think, in the future.

Driven by Flavor [American Public Media]

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