Eating Animals

Monday, February 08, 2010

I am a vegetarian. My entire life, I have been some form of a vegetarian. And if I am entirely truthful, as I strive to be, it was never a socially conscious decision. I grew up in a meat-and-potatoes family but did not enjoy meat. If my dad made me a ham sandwich, I asked for 1-2 slices of ham...and we bought the shaved ham from the deli so this was about 1 ounce of meat total. I became a "Pollovegetarian," that is, one that only consumes chicken, starting around age 13 and only stopped at 17 because of a horrible bout with food poisoning. I tell you this to stress that my decision to become a vegetarian was never driven by my disdain for the factory farm system, the ecological impact of raising animals for food, or the health benefits of a plant-based diet.

And yet. I was always appalled by the life of farmed animals. I read Fast Food Nation when it first hit the market. I have seen the documentaries. I know all about the work PETA does. And while there is absolute undeniable truth in their statements, I find it terribly important to remember that these groups have agendas as well. Sensationalization works both ways. There are animals treated cruelly, there are animals who live in as close to a utopia as possible. There are also animals living in the middle.

In the past few years I have changed. A lot. My views about the world, my views about myself...everything has changed as the result of a lot of searching, personal growth and education at a private liberal arts university. And I see the undeniable truth in how awful America's agricultural system is. Small farms ARE being eradicated, factory farms ARE de rigueur because America demanded it this way. We want more food for less cost. We want the cheapest prices possible. Which, in a recessionary economy hardly seems extreme. But when we demand lower prices something must go. We must compromise standards. Standards in farm size, standards in ecological impact. Standards in treatment of the animals we use or slaughter. I see the amount of land used for animal grazing, for raising crops being fed for animals. I know the statistics. And I also know reality. I know the world we live in, one that will never become vegetarian or vegan. One that feels entitled to a surplus of everything because we are the "great" America (we will save my views on THAT subject for another day).

My latest foray into this world of animal welfare was a contemporary one:

Foer began his project when his wife was pregnant with their first son. He had bounced back and forth as a vegetarian his entire life but with an impending responsibility wanted to decide once and for all. What I love about Foer is his insistence on making the issue fall into the gray area where it truly belongs. In an ideal world, yes, we would all turn vegetarian, stop relying on animal proteins, and build a better tomorrow. But we do not live in an ideal world. This result will never occur.

In THIS world meat is a part of life, culture, tradition. We gather around a turkey in the fall and a ham in the spring. We show our love for one another through the gift of food, a gift that often includes animal products. Foer as you may know also wrote "Everything is Illuminated." His grandmother survived the Holocaust by outrunning the Nazis, living in forests, and eating what others refused to -- refuse from garbage, spoiled vegetables, leaves. She nearly died. And yet when a farmer took pity on her and offered some pork, she refused. She kept Kosher even if it meant her livelihood.

Now she shows her love for her family through a chicken and carrot dish. If Foer decides on vegetarianism he will never eat this again. His son will never experience it. He risks losing an important ritual. He risks losing LOTS of important rituals -- sushi nights with his best friend, the smell of turkey burgers at the family's annual Fourth of July Barbecue, fish at Passover.

I say this because Foer knows, as I do, that the choices one makes regarding ideology are never easy. And they never affect us alone. But nothing in life is easy, nothing worth doing anyhow. And I find it increasingly more difficult to stay complacent when the cloud of injustices mushrooms into epic proportions with each passing day. And yet I also realize that I will NEVER be able to fix any of the issues I feel so strongly about, the ones I take an active stand for or against...even when it is uncomfortable, even when it is unpleasant. I am only one person, but sometimes all it takes is one person to make a small change, one that ripples into the world around them.

Foer makes thousands of points in the book, many of them hard and clear facts supported by irrefutable data collected by third-parties with no affiliation to either the factory farm industry or the activists. But his points made from a personal viewpoint, from the viewpoint of one human, a new father, trying to make the right decisions in a tumultuous world are often the most compelling.

"Whether we're talking about fish species, pigs, or some other eaten animal, is such suffering the most important thing in the world? Obviously not. But that's not the question. Is it more important than sushi, bacon, or chicken nuggets? That's the question."

I do not have all of the answers. I try not to pretend to. But more important than the answers I think are the questions. Can I justify this action? Can I truly say I have done what I could to leave the world a bit better than I found it? Did I minimize suffering in some way or did I inflict it? And where do I draw the line at having done enough? If my eggs came from free roaming, organic chickens but my jeans came from a sweatshop in Indonesia do we call it a wash? If I buy free trade coffee but buy tomatoes in the winter that have been shipped from Argentina do these "differences" cancel each other out? And how do we decide what is most important?

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  • STINA6584
    Great blog. Very thought provoking. I've never been a vegetarian, and I probably never will be. However, recently I've spent a lot of time considering the social, ethical, and environmental impact of eating meat (and food in general). The idea of "when is it enough" has always been what I've struggled with. I've asked all those same questions, but I suppose, at the same time, something is better than nothing is it not?

    I'm definitely going to check out the book.
    3537 days ago
    I completely agree with you Rachel, on how education, experiences and exposure change our views on what appears to be our doomed existence. I've contemplated the same thoughts for years, and still there doesn't seem to be a clear cut answer. The more we evolve, the more gray areas we seem to accumulate.

    On a personal level, I believe if we have to eat meat, then at the very least we can make the animals life comfortable while its alive., and to make its end as easy as possible. Its just respect for life in general, because I am not convinced yet that we humans are more special than any other living being. To hurt as little as possible, basically.

    I had an eye opening experience recently, when I studied food hypersensitivity; some individuals need to eat meat, because they can be allergic to certain enzymes and proteins in plants. I myself, had to switch diets recently, after being a vegetarian for many years, because I couldn't afford a plant based lifestyle and I was becoming anemic.

    Unfortunately, its one of those two sided arguments, for every pro, there's a con.
    3537 days ago
  • LAINE21
    Meat is bad for your health when eaten too often. People could eat it 2 or 3 times a week and it would be better for them.

    But it is also bad for the environnement.
    Meat industry uses lots of water, lands (for which trees are cut) and oil of course (1 kilo of veal in your plate is like doing a 220 km trip by car!!). People who care a bit about our environnment should read papers about that, they would probably eat less meat!
    3538 days ago
    Thought provoking- thanks Rachel. I'm starting to feel like balance is always the answer. Any extreme can be too much. I don't think the world becoming vegetarian is the answer, I don't think the world eating meat with every meal is the answer either. Balance is the key- the way I see it, meat (if your body can handle it) is a good source of protein and can be included in your diet... but just as anything else, it's not something you should go overboard with.

    I wish I could do more influential things as well (free trade coffee, local produce, clothing that I KNOW comes from fair trade...) but as you mentioned... it is, and can be expensive... until we can get control of the expenses, I suppose those of us without unlimited resources will have to choose our battles.
    3538 days ago
  • SHASTA11
    What thought provoking ideas. You are so right in all that you say. I would never knowingly hurt an animal, yet I do love my meat. I try not to think about how we get the meat we eat. And, I don't think I'll ever give it up. My daughter will not eat lamb. Hasn't in 19 and a half years. She was pregnant with her oldest child and we went to a place that had sheep, lambs, and cows. Up until she saw a lamb and realized what she had been eating it was OK. She turned to me and asked "is that what I've been eating?" I told her, yes, and she hasn't eaten it since. She still eats all other meat and I don't think she'll stop either.

    I may be wrong, but hasn't man eaten meat since the beginning; along with of course grains, vegetables, nuts, etc? I am, in no way trying to change your mind I'm just asking the question.

    I'm sure the time will come, if we don't destroy the Earth first, that there will be too many of us and we will take up so much room that there will no longer be animals to eat. There will be no where to raise them. I wonder about the rest of what we eat. There probably won't be any place to grow it either. That's a scary thought all around.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and listening to mine.
    3538 days ago
    Interesting blog! I've struggled with wanting/not-wanting to become a vegetarian before...I know the facts about the farm factories too, but I think it's easy for me to go into denial when I'm at Publix and all the meats are so organized and easy for me to just choose one to put in my cart. All that animal cruelty stuff just escapes my mind since I don't actually have to see it with my own eyes, ya know? I know that sounds bad, but it's true. Plus part of me is like...well that's just the manner of the food chain, right? I dunno, I still feel bad sometimes eating other things that were once alive :-\ If I were to become vegetarian, I think it would ultimately be mainly for health reasons...I do try to eat chicken more than the other meats, since it's one of the leaner ones. Although I love my cheeseburgers and ham and cheese sandwiches :-X If I'm gonna eat "healthy" protein, I guess I should eat more turkey and fish. I don't know what the answer is...I wish I just didn't have an appetite for meat like you bc that would be a lot easier lol. hmmm...well thanks for a good read and for making me think :)
    3538 days ago
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