Toad in the Hole

August 24, 2005


Joe and I wrote a piece for the recent-but-one issue of Earth Island Journal about Heifer International, formerly known as The Heifer Project. It was basically a totally sincere puff piece; they knocked our socks off.

I suspect that might have been partly because we went to their conference in Little Rock a couple of weeks into a month-long driving trip to Arkansas, in the month before last years' election. After dealing with the godbotherers for rather too long, we were both relieved to hear somebody say that what their Christianity moves them to do is not to prosyletize, let alone condemn, but to love their neighbors in concrete ways.

In fact, they have rules about cultural sensitivity, which they integrate in most interesting ways with matters like women's rights. They consciously give women power; gender justice and equity is one of their principles. This from a denomination that's the next thing to Mennonites, who are the next thing to Amish.

Anyway, when you write something for EIJ that mentions livestock and eating meat, you know you'll get some veggie-sermons. Chris said there were only two letters, which was a surprise, though we'd specifically handled many possible objections, briefly, in the article. EIJ repeated a bit of the original piece by way of reply, but I want to add to it here.

I've been farting around with this, hoping I could just import the letter from EIJ online, but the recent issue's not up yet. (Come on Matthew!) So I'll just have to type bits of the letter here, with my sore and bleeding fingers, and intersperse my reply.

Someone named Warren Jones, of San Francisco, wrote this:

I was very disappointed to see the article about Heifer International, a well-intentioned group that provides animals to impoverished people.

OK, two buzzwords in the very first sentence. Ever notice how people use "disappointed" to establish their moral superiority when they have none? It's the written equivalent of steepling. And there's the devastating "well-intentioned." Judith Larner Lowry handled that one well in writing about people who took her group to task for uprooting the pwetty widdle nastily invasive broom bushes along roads in Marin County. (Those people actually analogized what Judith was doing to racism.) Read her Gardening with a Wild Heart for some inspiring fun.

The problem is that what these people really need are tools and education on how to grow organic fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. These are the foods that will keep them healthy.

It's hard to know where to begin with this one.

What the fuck does this guy think these people are eating? Whopperburgers? Twinkies? White bread? Eeeevilll white sugar??

And what the fuck does he think they're growing them with? ConAgra's latest formula?? Vigoro??

They're eating organic foods already, just not enough of them! They're trying to scratch a living out of too little, too depleted soil, in some plot they've been driven to by the forces we in the USA subsidize no matter what we eat or how pious we are.

They aren't suffering from the ills of plenty, from arteriosclerosis or obesity or any such thing. They're fucking starving, they're poor, and it's not like US inner-city or even most rural poverty, marked by trans-fatty fat. They are not getting enough to eat.

They are not getting the means to wear enough clothing to keep themselves warm when it's cold. They are losing teeth to diseases of undernutrition, to calcium deficiencies, not sugar-fostered caries. When they suffer from vitamin deficiencies, it's because they aren't getting enough quantity or enough variety in their diets, not because they're stuffing themselves with junk food!

Has this guy ever worked on an "organic" farm? Where does he think all that nice manure fertilizer comes from? Does he know what a luxury it is to have enough land to grow the nitrogen your soil needs as "green manure"? Does he have a fantasy that all the human-inhabited land on Earth is deep humusy bottomland, in which one can grow "organic" fruits and vegetables for more than a year or two without adding some serious nitrogen? Has he ever looked at, let alone tried to grow food in, the thin soils of mountain Peru, Nepal, the rockier parts of Appalachia? Has he ever grown his own living, rather than buying it at a store?

Does he really think he's smarter than these people, who tell Heifer what they need? Does he think they're poor because they're dumb?

Did he miss the part where Heifer workers pass ideas along from one group to another, ideas about how to get the most nutrition out of the least land with the smallest possible environmental impact? You know, that stuff that sounds suspiciously like permaculture. That stuff that uses knowledge that people who have made their livings and their lives in the places Heifer reaches, for generations and have some idea of what the local soils can offer, and what their limitations are?

Does he know that tropical soils are often equally thin of nutrients, because tropical ecosystems keep most of their biomass aboveground in the greenery? Does he know what red soil means??

Does he know that one good reason humans started keeping livestock is because grazing animals, seemingly by a miracle, convert the biomass of grasses that we can't digest into meat that we can digest? Does he know that furthermore, decent grazing is less disruptive to ecosystems -- you know, the lives we don't see unless we sit quietly and look for them -- than digging up the land for plants we can eat? That grass thrives under the right kind of grazing? That browsing has gone on in forests for millennia without harming them? That this all matters because screwing up ecosystems has real consequences, and kills animals as well as plants?

Does he really have this fantasy that if These People only knew what he knew, they would suddenly have enough land to grow the scenes he sees on the labels in his pantry, on the shelftags in his market? Does he have any remote idea of what their lives are actually like, of what they actually have to work with? Does he suppose that people who don't have the means to go buy a goat can somehow acquire precious acres? Does he think Heifer has a magic wand to expand the continents, and give them this land? Does he think there's such a thing anywhere as "empty land"?

In addition, the animals are not treated humanely. Their web site and brochures feature photos of people hugging and holding animals. They don't show them slitting their throats. They don't show the animals writhing in pain.

Evidently the only way one can treat an animal "humanely" by the writer's lights is to keep him or her as a pet. And he has never seen a kosher or halal slaughter, or even a merely skillful one. If you can't kill an animal painlessly, learn how. North American slaughterhouses are not the standard of the world, and their methods are recently invented. "Writhing in pain" happens in fevered imaginations or industrial settings, but is wasteful if you're actually living on the edge where that bit of protein matters. Does he think that farm kids aren't genuinely affectionate towards the animals who will pay for their college educations? Does he think the people in the photos are any less grateful, or that their affection doesn't translate into decent living conditions for their animals? Maybe he should look again at the economic base that supports him.

OK, I won't go for the cheap line that "this is why people get contemptuous about vegetarians" -- because in fact I'm not contemptuous of vegetarians -- or even vegetarian prosyletizers. I do wonder if things like this mis-aimed sermonette aren't why some people are contemptuous of First World prescriptivists. Or preachers.

Posted at August 24, 2005 05:28 AM


Well, here I was, having a nice peaceful morning, and now I'm all riled up.

I keep thinking about Kingsolver's absolutely magnificent description about protein starvation in the Poisonwood Bible. It's something we can't imagine, or at least I can't (you did a pretty good job there, though, Ron.)

I do think, though, that you get to be contemptuous about ignorant nitwits, most especially when they are trying to convince you of their superiority...

Posted by: Pica at August 24, 2005 03:20 PM

Wishing to impose your dietary choices on undernourished people without knowing a thing about their circumstances is beyond hubris.

This on-and-off-for-20-years-vegetarian says bravo to your excellent rant. I'm a long time tired of having to explain that, no, just because I choose to eat this way doesn't mean that I think you're a bad person for eating meat. I'm also tired of arguing with people who think that the only possible ethical diet option is veganism. Um, no. Where your food comes from and how it was produced makes a much bigger difference than what it is (and I'm not talking about just grabbing the stuff that says "Organic" on the package, either.)

Posted by: Stephanie at August 24, 2005 06:35 PM

Excellent rant, as I expected.

And I'll email you the letter in question. Matthew's adding value to i at the moment, and we have him doing about a jillion other things as well.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 25, 2005 03:50 AM

I just discovered this blog (and Creek Running North) today after doing a search on Ellen Meloy (I just found out yesterday that she had died). I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed the last hour of reading through your stuff. I just got a call from Heifer last night and had to beg off sending my yearly donation early because I have to scrounge together something to send for Gulf Coast flood relief. But I feel considerably better, having read through your rant. I was a vegetarian for fourteen years, not because I think its immoral to kill animals for food, but because since I couldn't kill them, I didn't think I had a right to eat them. And while I still couldn't do it, I have since discovered the existence of humanely-run abbatoirs and humanely-raised animals. One of the reasons I don't have much money to send to causes like Heifer, however, is because it (absurdly enough) costs a lot more money to raise and kill animals kindly than not. I'm not sure what that says about humankind (whatever it is isn't good), but thank you for countering the self-righteous carrot-killer so eloquently.

Posted by: Candace at September 2, 2005 09:52 PM

"Self-righteous carrot-killer." Heh, thanks for that phrase. We don't have a lot of money either, but I figure we can serve our purposes and our favorite groups by spreading the word. From what I hear, Heifer gets a lot of contributors by word of mouth. Someone mentioned Heifer last year on, of all sites, Mother-in-Law Stories, and suddenly posts were popping up all over: "I 'give' my sister a goat every year!" "Oh, I 'gave' my niece a pair of guinea pigs! Now she 'gives' her friends bees and rabbits."

Posted by: Ron at September 4, 2005 04:12 PM