The Politics/Ethics of Eating

Last night Joel and I attended an author led book discussion that explored the intelligence and sentience of animals. I’ve known since I was four-years old and we got our family dog, a rottweiler named Stilgar, that animals have deep and rich emotional lives. I think many pet owners would agree heartily with me. Although many scientists still disagree. I had looked up reviews online of the book and had read that is wasn’t “overly preachy” and that the author wasn’t “taking sides, just representing the facts” so I was excited to attend.

When we got there it was pretty uncomfortable. There was a lot of negativity towards animal farmers being expressed by the crowd with no hat tip to the environmental concerns (pesticides, herbicides, water run off, animal habitat destruction ect) involved with row cropping which brings vegetarians their much-loved soy,  no real distinction made between factory farms and small family farms, and a strong sense of self-righteousness. There were probably about twenty people in the room. The organizer of the event is someone who Joel and I considered partnering with on our farm. I am still sad that it didn’t work out. Our philosophies are just to different but  I very much admire her dedication to the farm animals of WI and I think she is a neat lady.

There were several teachers in the audience and they kept complaining that their respective schools were blocking them from teaching about animal rights. One teacher mentioned how emotionally difficult it was for her to go on the yearly field trips to the zoo and I definitely commiserate with her because I myself have vowed to not set foot in another zoo or circus because of animal welfare concerns (The zoo used to be one of my favorite places, even as an adult). I was very surprised to see how much bias the teachers were projecting. As someone with a teaching degree, who has taught for several years in and outside of public schools I feel like keeping our bias out of our teaching is important. Why not have students read an essay about why eating animals is acceptable and another essay about the evils of factory farming and then discuss them both? It is likely that you will open some hearts and minds but perhaps it will not seem so much like force feeding.  My very favorite teacher of all time, Brian Ott, taught me American history during a presidential election year. He refused to tell us who he voted for despite begging and pleading. It annoyed me then but looking back I think that is so admirable. The facts oftentimes speak for themselves.

There were a lot of things I wanted to say last night but I was somewhat nervous I was going to get beat up in the parking lot so I remained quite aside from a quick comment about how teachers should attempt to avoid bias. I woke up at 3AM this morning thinking about all the things I wish I could have politely discussed with the people attending the meeting. I tried to go back to sleep to no avail so I decided I would write it out and hopefully sleep easier tonight.

Before I progress further I feel like I need to be very clear about my own lifestyle and eating habits and why I have chosen them.  A little more than a  year ago I decided I wasn’t going to eat read meat or pork. I’d read books about factory farming and animal intelligence and was feeling thoroughly disgusted with the system. At the time Joel and I were living in the suburbs of Chicago and finding a local farmer to buy ethical meat from seemed daunting and nearly impossible. I had unsuccessfully tried to go vegetarian before so I was trying to take it slow. About eight months ago I stopped eating poultry. I have not ever stop eating fish although I have made efforts to eat fish that is thought to be somewhat more sustainable. My feelings here is that although over fishing and bycatch are huge problems they do not bother me on the emotional level of factory farms. Although there are issues with farmed fish I try to eat that when possible because it doesn’t involve bycatch. I realize that eating fish makes me a hypocrite in the eyes of some people.

The eating habit/life style that confuses people is this: I have never stopped eating animals that I can directly trace back to an ethical farmer. If I can inspect the animals living conditions and they meet my standards and I can meet the farmer and I feel s/he is an ethical person I am okay with purchasing and consuming the meat. Thus far that has topped out at four. I eat beef from our neighbors the Trautman’s, I have eaten chicken from my own flock, I’ve eaten chicken from Joel’s brother’s farm and once I bought some ground yak from a farmer in Green Bay.

So why does it matter? How am I able to draw the line between ethical and unethical meat? My guiding principle is this: it is not wrong to eat meat, but it wrong to torture it. I do not hate the coyotes running through our woods or the hawks swooping mice out of the fields. They do what they need to do, but they do it quickly. They don’t waste food and they are not gluttons. Since no other animal farms aside from human beings the waters are murky. Perhaps keeping an animal in a cage or a pen or a paddock is inherently dicey no matter the size of the enclosure. Even if this is true I do believe that animals became domesticated not through coercion from humans but because they made a pact with their care takers. Domesticated farm animals are all prey. When humans began to offer them predator protection and regular meals it must not have seemed like such a bad deal. My problem is that I firmly believe that many farmers and consumers are not holding up their side of the bargain. They are keeping animals chained and caged, taking away their natural abilities by ringing their noses, de-beaking, and feeding them grain which would actually kill them in the long-term if they ever made it that far. I am reading a book right now that I highly recommend called The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend. In the book she discusses her guiding philosophy which is: quality not quantity meaning simply that the quality of life of an animal raised for meat is more important than its actual life span.

Whether you agree with me or not on my ethics here are some facts for us to ponder together…(Although I have seen these ideas and stats in many different books since I am reading and have readily available The Compassionate Carnivore I’m using it as my main reference)

1. “In 1900, 60 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms and produced food. Farmers were 38 percent of the labor force. There were 5.7 million farms, with an average size of 147 acres. By 1990 farmers comprised 2.6 of the labor force. The number of farms dropped to 2.1 million, with an average size of 461 acres. By 1990 less than 2 percent of the population farmed. Today that figure is .7 percent.” TCC

This figure includes vegetable farms as well as meat and dairy. When the population keeps going up how can the number of farmers still be going down? Don’t we need to eat? Whether you are meat-eater, vegetarian, or a vegan I hope we can all agree that it is very scary that so much of our food is grown, harvested, slaughtered and packaged by huge corporations. Factory farms are terrible but what I think people sometimes forget is that the growing of corn, wheat and soybeans is also very destructive. How many buffalo do you see roaming around in Illinois? How much native tall grass prairies? When corn, wheat and soybeans are sowed in huge plots 100s of acres in every direction they contribute to the habitat loss of native animals.

2. A 2004 publication from the Farm Bureau entitled Farm Facts gleefully describes that the United States spends 10% of their disposable income on food as compared to Finland at 16%, France at 18%, New Zealand at 20%, Germany at 21%, Australia at 21%, the UK at 22%, Italy at 23%, Spain at 25%, Japan at 26%, Israel at 26%, South Africa at 28%, Mexico at 33% and India at 51%.

How can people in the United States not look at this figures and scratch their heads? How can we possibly pay so very, very little for our food and still receive a quality, safe, healthy product? We simply can not.

“Thanks to the ability of factory farms to push some of the costs of production off onto the animals, the environment, and the people, we’ve been paying prices for meat that are below the actual costs of producing it. You’re not paying for the externalities…someone else is.” TCC

Externalities that involve herbicide and pesticide run off into our water system which creates dead zones like the one in the Gulf of Mexico, animals pumped full of hormones that are still present in the edible products of the animals, antibiotic resistance ect.

Many people look at the prices of organic foods and they are shocked but is a few more dollars for eggs really so much when compared with the prices that the environment and people’s health are paying? Are a few more dollars really too much to pay for clean drinking water, and food not sprayed with known carcinogens?

So before we get firmly entrenched in a doom and gloom mindset let me give you what I see as possible solutions.

For vegetarians and vegans – Understand the inherent problems with row crops especially in un-organic situations. Plant your own vegetables and fruits if possible and if you have the room look into constructing or purchasing a cold frame to get your season going earlier. Grow things like onions, winter squash and potatoes that will keep through the winter. If planting your own veggies isn’t possible research CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) in your region and buy a share after inspecting the farm and interviewing the farmer. Consider buying two shares and learning to preserve food so you have something to eat during the winter. There are even CSAs in Alaska so with a bit of research I am confident one can be found in your area.

For omnivores – Look into CSA shares or grow your own vegetables and fruits as described above. Try to avoid eating meat in restaurants and/or talk to restaurant owners about serving local, ethical meat, dairy and eggs. Do google searches for farmers in your area and ask them questions about their farms. Ask to arrange a visit and if they have an on farm store patronize it if it meets your ethical standards. Inquire as to if they sell to grocery stores or restaurants and then give those establishments your business. You can vote for ethical meat, dairy and eggs with your dollars but make sure you also let the managers know that you appreciate their decision to sell local, ethical meat.

To all food consumers – Try to think about prices realistically and understand that low prices at the check out can mean devastating externalities else where. Think very hard about what matters to you. Can you afford to pay a farmer $5 for a dozen eggs because you know they have a small enough flock that the chicken manure fertilizes their soil instead of creating toxic water run-off. Can you maybe rent a movie on Netflix instead of going out to the movies to cover this cost?

If anyone made it this far I commend you. I certainly don’t have all the answers and I am still struggling with a lot of this myself. It bothers me that my dog and cat’s food has fish in it of unknown origin. It bothers me that my fruit comes from California, Florida and Mexico. I still eat cheese. I try to eat it locally but have not yet visited the local WI goat dairies, although, I am hoping to do so this spring. A ton of other things about the food I eat and how it gets to my plate still bothers me too. I have so much more to learn about food production, food preservation ect but I am hoping we can continue to learn together.

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6 responses to “The Politics/Ethics of Eating

  1. Christine Solis

    This was a well-thought, beautifully constructed and heartfelt piece. Your ethical stance is admired in this Solis camp. While reading I felt emotional but did not see this as an emotional appeal–the primary thoughts I found entering my consciousness were related to justice, compassion and economics. As you know I am a vegetarian. I eat eggs (always cage-free and local if available) and cheese. I have a difficult time making good food choices, the more I learn the more difficult it seems to even know what a good choice even is.

    I don’t know how we will reach a place where economic and educational experiences can converge to put more of us in this state of confusion I find myself in. I think it is the only hope we have to change–to realize we must–and to take the steps necessary to correct the damage we continue to do to our environment and to the other animals we treat less ethically than we treat vegetable crops and the rivers we pollute with pesticides and run-off.

    When food deserts exist that are empty of nutrients necessary for strong development–and I do think this is both a reality and a metaphor for how we denigrate and make sick those in our cities–how can average people even see a way beyond McDonalds, frozen “entrees,” and empty calories? When so many are unemployed, underemployed, or unable to see a way beyond a minimum wage job, how can we talk about spending more on food? How can those in poverty visit healthy farms or even compare farming practices? How can we beat “two beef patties, special sauce….” when it is so cheap, so addicting, and temporarily satisfies hunger? We have become feed and slaughter animals ourselves, Erica. Caged (in our cities and through economic chokeholds) fed unhealthy food (physically, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally), given substandard care for our health, used in whatever way the powerful see fit, and ultimately left to the final predators–after the best and most valuable “cuts” of who we are or could become are stripped away.

    Your questions are good. Your thinking is sound. Your quest for justice is admirable. I thank you for an early morning read that is thought-provoking. Glad you didn’t get beat up:)

  2. It is scary how hard it is to make good food choices. And once you start making good food choices, if it is possible you start thinking about other things. All the clothes I am wearing right now are made in some Asian country.Under what type of conditions? I shudder to think. I would love to buy locally made, organic cotton clothes but they are hard to find. And since I am picky and awkwardly shaped buying of the internet is a struggle.

    You are so right. Everything in our culture is expensive. Housing, good food, health care ect. Those that truly lose out are the poor and underprivileged, whom are also very often the ones that bear the brunt of the run-off and dangerous agricultural jobs. I agree, it is so upsetting and I would have liked to mention it but it took me three hours to write and edit what I did. I think I would like to think more about this and write another piece on it soon.

    Another thing I did not mention that is talked about in the Compassionate Carnivore is how much meat our culture eats in one setting. Nutritionists say 4oz of meat about the size of a deck of cards is a good portion for a meal. Most people eat 2-3 times more than that in a setting. In so many places in the world meat is still a luxury. I wonder sometimes how much more affordable meat would seem if we simply did not eat as much?

    Thank you so much for your comments, Chris. You are so encouraging, even when you point out things I forgot:)

  3. You just got me thinking, Erica. I wasn’t in any way pointing out things you missed–you just got my brain firing. I can’t tell you how hard it is for me to figure out what to eat–and when I try to teach others it can become even more difficult (my students…) my latest lipid profile shows higher “bad cholesterol” and less “good” than I should have. It is scary because I count on eggs and cheese for my protien as well as nuts…and now I am lost and not sure what to eat. No medications, flax oil is what the doctor has me using (yuck) but I really am a bit lost on how to eat:( I know I eat a lot of empty calories (soda, chips, etc.) but my personal surprise last week in regard to lipids put me in this sort of confused state…I can’t thank you enough for your piece, it made my day into a good day of critical thought.

    • It is so hard when so much yummy food is so terrible for us. I think its awesome that you are trying to figure out what works for you. I hope you can find a way to get the cholesterol under control. The good news is that farm fresh eggs have been clinically proven to have less bad fat and more Omega 3s then store bought eggs. And you have a good supplier for those.

  4. Allison Schier

    Beautiful post Erica! Thank you for the book recommendation and statistics. I wish I were more educated to discuss this topic with you. I feel though I have more questions than anything.
    Personally, I’m just hoping we can learn to embrace the technology we’ve developed but also swing back to small ethical farms.

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