May 14, 2009 by 8junebugs
I have never missed my grandparents’ farms as much as I do this week.
I am totally comfortable with the natural food chain. I grew up on and around farms, and I can look into a cow’s face, scratch it behind the ears, and eat it for dinner (I’ve only proven that with a rabbit, though). I know plenty of people go in the opposite direction — they can’t eat something with a face, they don’t believe in killing just so they can eat — and I can respect that (although there is an argument to be made that killing is killing and broccoli would scream if it could). It just had the opposite effect on me. I went in the direction of thanking an animal for converting all that grass into protein just for me.
I’m comfortable being a carnivore (omnivore, really) because I grew up on and around farms. It smelled like shit, but it taught me where food comes from and what it looks like. I understood from an early age that some animals were pets, and some animals were lunch…just as some plants were for looking pretty, and some were for salad.
So I don’t have any personal ethics preventing me from eating other living, sentient beings. It helps that virtually nothing grosses me out (also thanks to my farmy upbringing).
I do have a personal belief in nature, evolution, and balance, though, and that’s why Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma is getting to me. It’s not the first book I’ve read about the industrial food chain — nor will it be the last — but the perspective is hitting home in a very real way. It turns out being willing to benefit from murder (tasty, tasty murder) is not the same as not caring about the hamburger in question.
…I’m trying to reconcile a cow’s right to be a cow with my right to eat him…
…This may take a minute…
Ah! I’ve got it! The natural food chain supports predators and prey. In the hamburger scenario — in almost any food scenario — I get to be the predator. Hooray for opposable thumbs!
That the prey is prey, however, does not give me the right to tear down its habitat and re-engineer it to live more conveniently for me. I can live with penning cows up in pastures instead of letting them roam free — I have yet to meet a cow with desires reaching further than “eat grass, poop, nap, repeat,” and I am unlikely to go rope a steer myself.
What I don’t think I can live with is forcing a cow that has evolved a special stomach just for digesting grass to eat corn (and the waste of other animals, and anitbiotics, and bits and pieces of other cows…), just because our ass-backwards farm policy continues to support the overproduction of lower-quality corn. Ditto for salmon, which are generally carnivorous.
Where did we get the hubris to think our need to dispose of surplus grain trumps the balance nature has been working on since the beginning of time? This is what’s bothering me the most, coming to the end of Pollan’s book. Cows and chickens and pigs weren’t made incorrectly– they don’t really need improving, just for our convenience. Or, if they do, we’re doing it wrong. Instead of understanding and working with the animals, we’re working against their biological natures just because we can.
We like to think Sinclair’s The Jungle was the unappetizing expose that turned everything around, but it just changed the game. Sure, we put less horse hair in sausage, but we don’t look at animals any differently than we did then. We’ve turned them into beakless, tailless, bar-coded production units. If we benefit from their existence — I understand we don’t have to eat meat, but we are designed to do so and I, personally, love a good steak — don’t we owe them a little more respect?
Or, to put it another way, if we’re at the top of the food chain, can’t we afford a little decency to those on the other levels? That’d be more consistent with my bleeding-heart politics, anyway.
There are alternatives. Much like I stopped shopping at Wa1-Mart years ago (unless in Vermont, where TARGET. DOESN’T. EXIST. GAH!) because I didn’t want to tacitly support their policies and practices, I can stop buying meat at the giant grocery stores that support the Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where animal suffering is factored into the process.
I can make the effort to know where my meat is coming from. I’ve talked before about mindful eating — this is just an extension of that, with a side of “honoring my upbringing” and remembering that this kind of food has a face.
I can limit myself to meat from local and sustainable farms. It’s not as hard as you’d think (considering that I’m now a “city girl”) — most of the local farms have a presence at my weekly farmers markets and there’s a butcher right down the street who keeps pretty local. It’s more expensive, but I see it as paying the real cost of food up front, as opposed to all the hidden costs of eating mass-produced meat. Plus, we haven’t always eaten meat every single day — eating less meat, but better meat, won’t hurt me. At all.
I can continue to benefit from KidBrother’s late-blooming hunting skills. As I wound my way through Pollan’s book, I felt much better thawing out some ground venison from his deer last season than ordering take-out. From now on, that’s all I want for Christmas from KB — a freezer full of lean, grass-fed, Northeast-Kingdom Bambi.
I can be a resource without being an evangelist. (No, I will not lecture my friends. Yes, I will still eat out — did you know most good restaurants are already using local, sustainable meat?) By talking about it here, I can be more accountable for what I choose to eat.
I can live a little more lightly on this earth and choose to spend the money I earn in ways consistent with my own values. Which is kind of a big thing for me.