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Monday, November 5, 2012

On "Eating Animals"

I have just finished reading Jonathon Safron Foer's, "Eating Animals," and it has stirred up quite a few emotions and thoughts. The book is essentially a manifesto against factory farming and considers two possible moral solutions to the issue: selective omnivory or vegetarianism. I have participated in both of these eating philosophies in my lifetime. For a long time I was vegan, not because I felt that all animal products should necessarily be avoided, but that the good choices were so few and far between that it was easier to just say no to everything. This was especially true when eating at others' homes; it is much easier to say, "I eat vegan" than to say "your meat or eggs are not good enough for me." Recently, I have been much more of a selective omnivore; I have eaten New England lobster (one of the most sustainable fisheries in the U.S.), I have eaten local goat cheese, I have eaten a local chicken that I killed and butchered myself, and I am thinking about buying live turkeys for thanksgiving from a friend of the organic farm where I work. Foer argues that selective omnivory is romantic, unrealistic for most, not likely to change the current system, and still cruel in many ways. Obviously, Foer believes that vegetarianism is the only way to truly combat the factory farming system, but I am not sure that I agree with him. Despite doubting the necessity for strict vegetarianism, I agree with many of the points made throughout the book and the book has reinvigorated my commitment to obtaining food from reliable sources.

One point that Foer makes over and over again is best summed up in this excerpt: "Perhaps in the back of our minds we already understand... that something terribly wrong is happening. Our sustenance now comes from misery. We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film. We perhaps know more than we care to admit, keeping it down in the dark places of our memory - disavowed. When we eat factory-farmed meat we live, literally, on tortured flesh." When I read this I was reminded of many people's responses to me acclaiming "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Food, Inc.," which generally sounded like this "Is it another gross story that will make me not want to eat meat?" and while the answer is sort-of, the point is that they knew already. Most people really don't want to know where the food comes from (even though they already do), they just want to enjoy their bacon. And yes, bacon tastes really, really good, but is our culinary delight worth the effects it is having on animals and the environment and deep down, our conscience?

In the yoga community, vegetarianism is often seen as something that good or true yogis partake in. This belief is generally based on the teaching of "ahimsa" which means non-violence and gentleness and vegetarianism is believed to be a manifestation of ahimsa since one is not supporting the slaughter of animals. Personally, I feel that choosing vegetarianism alone does not mean that one is in the practice of ahimsa and that one must be non-violent and gentle in every aspect of their life to be honest in their claims of practicing ahimsa. For example, many people who are vegetarian consume a huge amount of soy products in the form of meat and dairy substitutes and processed foods; soy is planted as a monoculture in the U.S. and is destroying natural grasslands, using a large amount of fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides, and is contributing to the dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is greatly harming marine life. So, therefore, I would argue that this type of vegetarianism is violent towards the environment and has effects that spiral out through ecosystems near and far. In addition, I think it is a bit of a cop-out for most yogis to be vegetarians, believe they are practicing ahimsa, and then not think about it anymore. If you are a vegetarian but are not friendly to people you interact with, or litter, or do not take care of yourself (lack of exercise, smoking, drinking, excessive sugar intake), or drive a gas-guzzling vehicle, or eat non-organic foods shipped from far away, are you really being gentle and non-violent in all parts of your life? What if you ate animals you met, that you knew had a good life, ate vegetables that were grown organically, nearby, and were seasonal, if you made healthy choices, treated others well, and cared about the extended impact of your choices, would you be practicing ahimsa? Maybe and I would argue yes.

I presented this argument at my yoga teacher training this spring and my yoga instructor, who eats meat, responded with a story from his own teacher training. In trying to convince the students in his training that eating animals is cruel and violent, the instructors sat down the students and showed them a film of cows being killed in a large-scale slaughterhouse. It is common knowledge that cows are often abused in these facilities and sometimes are not unconscious at the beginning of the butchering process. The thought of cows being violated with electrified sticks or being skinned alive is jarring to think about and even more upsetting to see; but, we all know it happens, we just would rather not think about it or see it. My yoga instructor felt that his instructors were violating ahimsa and were being violent towards him by forcing him to watch this unsettling film. He felt offended and was obviously not converted to vegetarianism by the experience. When I first heard this story, I agreed that the instructors were being violent by forcing this experience on the students, but after reading "Eating Animals," I am reconsidering my opinion. I still believe that vegetarianism does not equal ahimsa, but perhaps my yoga teachers response was so defensive because he knew the cruelty was true and wrong, but he really wanted to keep eating meat. I think this is true for most people. They know that the meat bought in the grocery store cannot be consumed with a clear conscience, but they really want to eat it, so they deny the truth or pretend that they do not know it.

While reading the book, I often felt offended and upset by things described in the pages. The author continuously conjured up images of extreme cruelty that are disgusting and frighteningly sadistic. The treatment of pigs described in the book made me cringe and take a break from reading. I felt that the detailed descriptions were not necessary and were sensationalist. By responding in this way, I was essentially proving Foer's point. I did not want to think about the slaughterhouses. I did not want to think about the cruelty. I did not want to picture pigs noses being smashed in. And, I don't even eat meat from factory farms. I have, however, been eatings "organic" eggs that are not from small-scale local farms recently. Eggs are really one of my favorite foods and as soon as I can have my own chickens, I will, but right now my eggs are coming in my CSA from an organic cooperative called "Organic Valley." Organic does not mean that the chickens are treated well, and I am unable to see the conditions. Organic Valley seems like a good company based on their website, but I can't really know.

So, having considered this book, what should I do? What should anyone do. Foer says you must be a strict vegetarian. I understand his argument and I subscribed to it for a long time. It is easier to just say no to all animal food products than to pick and choose. And, once you start eating meat sometimes, you will inevitably eat some factory farmed meat at some point. Also, you don't eat alone; other people see your food choices and are affected by them and I have had friends say that they tried vegetarianism because I inspired them. If others see you making poor food choices occasionally, it is doubtful that you will be seen as inspirational. Foer also believes that there is not enough small well-run farms to provide meat for all at the volume we are used to consuming it, and certainly not at the price we are used to. Many people do not have access to good meat, or can't afford it. I certainly couldn't afford to eat quality meat three times a day. But, maybe that is a good thing too. What if instead of withholding our support, we supported family farmers that shared our values. They would be paid a fair wage and would be able to produce fewer animals, better. We would only be able to afford meat once or twice a week, and our health and the health of the planet would grow exponentially. Whether one chooses vegetarianism or selectively supporting animal farmers, it is important that we do not make the choice in secret. One vegetarian or selective omnivore will not affect the system; we need to share our feelings and opinions with others. The cruelty and repulsiveness of factory farms cannot be a taboo topic as to not offend our company eating bacon cheeseburgers, we need to acknowledge and respond to the tragedy. And then we need to make honest decisions based on that acknowledgement that we can personally make with a clear conscience.