01/29/2014 12:01 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2014

We Need to Make Local Meat More Broadly Affordable

JM Talbott via Getty Images

Usually when I make the argument that we should find ways to make local-regional meat more broadly affordable, someone will make an argument against my position by pointing out that local-regional meat, even at its current high prices, is already affordable. They argue that it is already affordable in two ways. 1) There are always cheap cuts that go for just a few dollars a pound. If you are a person of limited means, just forgo the expensive chops and steaks and go for the cheap cuts. And 2) Expensive local-regional meat can be made more affordable by eating less of it. If you are a person of limited means, just cut, substantially, your meat consumption.

I am a person in a situation that I think provides a worthwhile perspective on this argument. The position that I am in is that I want to see us make important cultural changes that will radically change the face of our farm and food systems, yet I myself find it difficult, or even impossible, to make the very cultural changes I call for. While some might call this hypocrisy, I call it admitting to being subject to the very real forces of culture.

You see, we are bound to our culture(s) in a fundamental, identitarian, way. In a very powerful way, we are our culture(s). Americans, for example, are meat eaters, heavy meat eaters. We eat a lot of meat. And, beyond that, we like the high end cuts, which industrial agriculture has made broadly affordable -- center cut pork chops, for example, often go on sale at supermarkets for $2.00/lb or less. Ninety-nine percent of us approach meat consumption this way, though it is true that many of us cannot afford the high end cuts of even industrial meat. Those of us who can't get our half pound per day from places like McDonald's.

I argue regularly that we, as a culture, should eat less meat. But, at the same time, I continue to eat my normal share. Again, is this hypocrisy? Yes and no. Yes because I should act how I argue we should act. No because in making the argument I am imploring us, including myself, to act against our cultural impulses, that is, to act in direct opposition to our very identities; put simply, to be counter cultural.

Counter culturalism has a long history. People have been acting against the grain of their cultural impulses for eons. However, one thing about counter culturalism has remained consistent through the ages -- only a tiny minority of any given cultural population acts counter culturally. Occasionally, this tiny minority, or at least the ideas of this tiny minority, catch the imaginations of the vast majority, and, over time, or quite suddenly, the dominant, majority culture shifts, adopting the attitudes and behaviors of the counter culture, in effect making what was a minority counter culture, the majority dominant culture.

However, this is exceedingly rare. Take (western) vegetarianism as an example. Western vegetarianism has a centuries-long tradition (note: not veganism, which is new). Yet, today, after literally centuries of counter cultural arguments in favor of vegetarianism, often made by some very famous and charismatic people, only about 5 percent of the population is vegetarian (a fraction of that 5 percent are vegan).

Why is that? Because culture dominates us. It makes us who we are. And, we are meat eaters. We want to see our chops, our steaks, our burgers, and our birds taking up most of our plates.

I wish this weren't the case, and I will continue to argue that we should be otherwise, that we should change our dominant culture. I will continue to implore myself to be otherwise. And, it appears, at least for the near term, though I do feel some fissures forming, I will continue to disappoint myself.

How is it that someone that feels as strongly as I do about the importance of eating less meat -- for so many powerful reasons -- cannot eat less meat?

It is simple, really. Counter culturalism takes firm determination and stamina. That is, it takes sustained willfulness. It takes forcefulness to say no to the ideas in one's head, to the face in the mirror. And, such sustained willfulness in the face of the power of one's dominant culture is terribly rare. I wish it weren't the case. If it weren't so rare, change, positive change, would be so much easier to enact, but, then again, so would negative change.

The argument, therefore, that local-regional meat can easily be made affordable by choosing cheap cuts and/or eating less meat is specious. It is in fact deeply regressive as it takes as its driving principle forced counter culturalism. It demands of people, in an unfair, and unwarranted way that they, by dint of the fact of their limited means, act against the grain of their dominant culture, against their very identities -- not because they themselves have arrived at a determined, invested counter cultural impulse, but because they are poor. While perhaps well-intentioned, people making such arguments are in fact being oppressive.

While I, too, am likely to be accidentally oppressive in other ways, when it comes to the affordability of local-regional meat, I am not, I refuse to be. It is not incumbent on the person of limited means to be Herculean, to act in counter cultural ways to make local-regional meat affordable. It is incumbent on us, the producers, processors, distributors, and more well off consumers of local-regional meat to find ways to make local-regional meat more affordable within our dominant cultural paradigm. (At the same time, however, we need to continue to act to change the dominant culture)

The ways to do so are pretty straightforward on paper, but will take a lot of work in practice. They are primarily infrastructural: We need to build local-regional production, processing, and distribution infrastructures that, once in place, will substantially cut the costs of local-regional meat. But, they are also cultural: For example, we absolutely do need to eat less meat, and we need more of us to become vegetarian -- nevertheless, we need to reject forced counter culturalism as an answer to the problem of the high price of local-regional meat.

The movement is in motion. It is, for the most part as I see it, heading in the right direction. It is time now to take the next step, to move beyond the face-to-face interactions of farmers markets, CSAs, and on farm sales (which are themselves counter cultural, but that is another post) to markets that are more broadly cultural, like supermarkets, to markets -- faceless though they might be -- with infrastructures already underlying them that are capable of jump starting the shift towards broadly affordable local-regional meat.