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?