I've already read large portions Omnivore's Dilemma in the form of magazine features, so I knew full well what I was getting into: an exercise in self-torture.
* * * *
Yesterday I blogged about "The Story Of Stuff," the little documentary about unchecked consumerism in a finite world. Thinking about the film on a personal level, I could place myself somewhere on the consumer continuum. On one end we have the most conspicuous consumer of crap - the person who shops for recreation, constantly buys things he doesn't need and mindlessly chucks away most of it - and on the other, the person who leads the most careful, ascetic, consciously low-consumption lifestyle possible. I'm closer to the left end of the scale than the right, but I'd like to be further down the consumption chain than I already am.
In a similar way, I read Michael Pollan's book, and I think about my own habits. But this is vastly more disturbing to me, because it cuts straight to the heart of a central problem in my life.
Call it cognitive dissonance, ethical quandary or simply call it conscience. I am deeply disturbed by how animals are treated in the industrial production of meat. I can't stand knowing that I contribute to that system. Yet I continue to contribute to it, by buying and eating that meat.
I'm one of those people who sees the disconnect between loving my dogs and eating a cow. I was a vegetarian for a few years (two and a half, to be precise), but it never worked for me. Vegetarians have a hard time with this, but not eating animal protein wasn't good for me in terms of health, nutrition, or lifestyle. I respect anyone who has made the choice to not eat animal products. But being a vegetarian is never going to be a sustainable option for my life.
In reading and thinking about animals as food, I discovered my own position on the continuum between blindly eating anything and a total commitment to conscious eating. (I already pay a lot of attention to what I eat in terms of my own health.) I don't have a problem with people eating animals. What I object to is how those animals are treated in their short times on earth.
If the cow that was ultimately going to become my steak lived a good cow life, with fresh air and sunshine, land to roam on and grass to eat, then was killed as quickly and painlessly as possible, I'd eat steak with a clear conscience. Same goes for the chicken, pig, lamb, fish, and so on.
But of course that is not where my steak comes from. My steak comes from a factory farm. And factory farms are horrible places where animals suffer.
I won't try to reproduce or explain what I've learned about factory farming. If these concepts are new to you, and if you're interested in learning more, I would recommend Michael Pollan's articles as a good place to start. Pollan is an omnivore; he doesn't object to meat-eating per se. So if you are also an omnivore, it might be a more comfortable place to get educated, compared with more militantly anti-meat sites. This page has his "greatest hits"; I especially recommend starting here.
There are so many reasons to shun the feedlot, the factories where animals bred for food live out their short, unhappy lives.The feedlot causes:
and, at bottom,
That means that factory farming is connected to the war in Iraq.
I tell myself that last bit to help me change my habits. I'm trying to make myself as uncomfortable as possible.
Of course, that works while I'm drinking my coffee on this gray December morning. Will it work on that beautiful June evening when we're grilling dinner in the backyard?
I have given up certain foods that are, in my view, produced with too much cruelty to overlook. I haven't eaten veal in decades, and a few years ago Allan and I both stopped eating lobster, thanks to David Foster Wallace. Lobster used to be my favourite food, but I've eaten enough of it in my life.
But is any food-processing practice more cruel than what is done to the pig? I've yet to give up bacon. And since we don't eat it at home, I can be virtually guaranteed that any bacon I eat has come from a factory-tortured pig.
So will I eventually add corn-fed beef and factory-farmed pork to the short list of foods I don't eat?
I don't know.
I already buy antibiotic-free chicken and beef whenever possible. We buy steaks from an organic Ontario farm. But I know these labels are squirrely and I haven't investigated what this designation really means.
One day, will our society look back on factory farms the way we look at the Victorians' workhouses and debtors prisons? Certainly the fight to dismantle the factory farm has already begun. But it has yet to enter mainstream discourse, and the extremely powerful interests at the heart of the system are thoroughly insulated.
* * * *
The central point of "The Story of Stuff" - something I say all the time, and I think needs to be a mantra for all of us - is that no one wants to pay the true price of what we buy.
Factory-farmed meat is the same way. For most of history, eating beef was a luxury. Now beef is so inexpensive that it's become a staple. But what are the true costs of this inexpensive meat?
None of us - the omnivores anyway - want to know the costs. For me sometimes the costs feel unbearable. And yet.
Pollan says: "Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing, or now, forgetting."
How much forgetting can I do?