12.27.2007

the omnivore's amnesia

I mentioned that I've started reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. When I picked it up, I said to Allan, "I'm dreading reading this book." He said, "Why? Because you want to continue to eat?"

Exactly.

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:
  • cruelty and suffering to animals,
  • ground water pollution,
  • soil erosion,
  • antibiotic resistance in humans (leading to fatal "superbugs"),
  • the poisoning of the food system with dangerous new forms of e Coli bacteria,
    and, at bottom,
  • an increased dependency on fossil fuels.

    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?
  • 14 comments:

    Idealistic Pragmatist said...

    For me, the answer has been farmers' markets and local meats sold directly and independently by the farmer. It's more environmentally sound, too. Is that a possibility for you?

    L-girl said...

    For me, the answer has been farmers' markets and local meats sold directly and independently by the farmer. It's more environmentally sound, too. Is that a possibility for you?

    Thanks, I/P. No, not really. The farmers' market in my area (a) only runs on weekends, while I'm working and (b) is only produce.

    We have been buying meat, as I mentioned, from an Ontario farm that bills itself as organic and sustainable. I have to look into that more closely, to see how "good" it really is.

    There is also the issue of restaurants. I only eat bacon, for example, when we go out for breakfast. I have no control over where that's from, and we have to assume it's not a good answer.

    Ferdzy said...

    Most organic farmers that I know of hold an open house at some point during the year. Usually on a weekend, of course, but they should be open to other visits, provided you schedule them. Often, for example, you could arrange to pick up your order from the farm. Talk to "your" farmer. Most organic farmers WANT there to be a direct connection between themselves and their customers.

    I tend to do a combination of "good" meat and factory farmed. Like you, I need meat. I was never a vegetarian, but when I was very poor and didn't eat much of it, I had perpetual problems with anemia that iron supplements just couldn't budge. So we buy a quarter beef and a lamb each year, as well as chickens in the summer.

    But I had a yen for some ham at Christmas, so I went to the farmers market and bought one. I'm sure it was "conventionally" raised. I feel mildly guilty, I have to admit; but at the same time I really enjoyed it.

    I did check with "Well Fed Food" (I have a link to them on my food blog or you can google them if you like) who are a local farm who also have a shop with a wide range of local meats for sale, but they only had fairly tiny hams in stock. That's the other difficulty with buying organic/from the farmer. It requires constant advance planning and stocking up.

    L-girl said...

    Thanks, Ferdzy.

    These are great ideas, but buying directly from a farmer will never work for me.

    It requires constant advance planning and stocking up.

    Advance planning for us is 2 or 3 meals ahead. I don't freeze meat at all. Plus we wouldn't travel to get it.

    There are organically raised meat options in my area, as I mentioned. I'm going to look into it to see what their practices are.

    Most organic farmers WANT there to be a direct connection between themselves and their customers.

    Oh, of course. One of the many interesting aspects of Pollan's investigations into the origins of his food is where he's welcomed and where he's not given access.

    In the industrial meat process, he can see absolutely everything, except the killing floor. No journalist is ever allowed in the slaughterhouse.

    The organic slaughter is done in a glass abattoir - transparently both literally and symbolically.

    The two main food processors, Archer Daniels Midlands and Cargill, allow no one in, at any point of the process. Ever.

    I did check with "Well Fed Food" (I have a link to them on my food blog or you can google them if you like) who are a local farm who also have a shop with a wide range of local meats for sale

    Thanks for this info, too. I'm going to click around for more info.

    L-girl said...

    Elmwood Meat Market in Port Credit - up the street from our old house - sells organically raised meat. I'm sure they would give me contact info for their farmers.

    The new Planet Organic opened next door to them, and they do business together.

    Highland Farms, the ridiculously oversized grocery store, also sells Ontario-raised organic beef and chicken. (Beware website if your computer's sound is on!)

    That's what we bought this spring and summer for grilling, and what I'm going to investigate more thoroughly. Their prices are great and they are not too inconvenient for us. So if it turns out to be well-raised meat, I'll be thrilled.

    None of this covers the eating-out issue, of course.

    M. Yass said...

    Vegetarians have a hard time with this, but not eating animal protein wasn't good for me in terms of health, nutrition, or lifestyle.

    It's even worse for me. A low-carb diet appears to be the silver bullet I've been looking for all of my life to get my weight under control.

    While it's not completely accurate to say that eating meat is therefore a matter of life and death, it's definitely the more healthy option in my case. The fact is, if I don't get the weight under control, I'm at greater risk of heart disease, type II diabetes and all kinds of other nasty conditions.

    Being overweight also contributes to my sleep apnea, which I've recently gotten under control - for the low, low price of around five thousand bucks. Thank god I live in The Greatest Nation On The Face Of The Earth, because if I'd lived in Canada or any of those other awful socialist hellhole countries, it would have been free.

    Incidentally, the reason I don't support gun control is because I will shoot anyone who tries to take my CPAP machine away from me. Think it's made a difference, eh?

    I do have some food boundaries, though. I won't eat veal, ever. Same goes for foie gras. I've lived under the delusion that crab and lobsters do not have well-developed nervous systems and therefore do not feel pain when I steam them. (I have a feeling I'm about to be disabused of this.)

    Since we've learned that squid are very intelligent animals and have nervous systems on par with vertebrates, I won't eat it either. I never liked it much anyway, too rubbery.

    Speaking of seafood, we're learning that at current rates of consumption, in about 50 years there will be no more. All of it will be fished out. Period. Gone. Nada mas. That, to me, would suck bigtime.

    It's sad that I'm faced with a Hobson's choice. Choice one is to eat meat and fish produced under circumstances that are at best ethically and environmentally sustainable. Choice two is to become a vegetarian and eat produce that is fertilized and pesticided with lead, cadmium, PCBs and other tasty vittles. Choice three is to eat processed, high-sugar garbage that the human body is not set up to deal with.

    I swear, it was so much easier to go through life as an ignorant wingnut with no social conscience . . .

    L-girl said...

    It's even worse for me. A low-carb diet appears to be the silver bullet I've been looking for all of my life to get my weight under control.

    It's similar for me, except I have never had a silver bullet. I do need to eat more protein and fewer carbs in order to maintain a healthy-ish weight.

    I say that because I'm not thin and never will be, but I am in good cardiovascular health and am very muscular.

    While it's not completely accurate to say that eating meat is therefore a matter of life and death, it's definitely the more healthy option in my case.

    Me too.

    I'm interested in your sleep apnea, we should email about it sometime. I have wondered if Allan has it. But we'll save that for email... :)

    I do have some food boundaries, though. I won't eat veal, ever. Same goes for foie gras.

    Same here.

    I've lived under the delusion that crab and lobsters do not have well-developed nervous systems and therefore do not feel pain when I steam them.

    Well, I used to think so, too. It's just not so. All evidence points to that they feel pain, and boiling alive is not a good way to go.

    Since we've learned that squid are very intelligent animals and have nervous systems on par with vertebrates, I won't eat it either. I never liked it much anyway, too rubbery.

    Allan and I both adore calamari and eat it whenever possible. If you find squid rubbery, chances are you've never had it prepared properly. It should be very light and not at all chewy.

    Choice one is to eat meat and fish produced under circumstances that are at best ethically and environmentally sustainable. Choice two is to become a vegetarian and eat produce that is fertilized and pesticided with lead, cadmium, PCBs and other tasty vittles. Choice three is to eat processed, high-sugar garbage that the human body is not set up to deal with.

    There are certainly more choices than that. Leaving out choice three, which I do, there are many variations and degrees of the first two. There's a lot of middle ground.

    To some extent, we all face the same inadequate choices, except the few of us who are willing and able to spend an enormous amount of time shopping and preparing food.

    I have a niece and a nephew who enjoy that. One of them will (we hope) eventually open a restaurant based on farm-to-table practices, working with local organic farmers and such.

    Because of their open and helpful attitudes (very non-preachy and not-guilt-inducing), they've helped me eat more healthfully and make better environmental choices. But the full-scale conscious eating that they strive for would be impossible for me.

    L-girl said...

    There are certainly more choices than that. . . . There's a lot of middle ground.

    I should clarify.

    I mean middle ground in terms of what we eat. Like Ferdzy mentioned mostly buying organically raised meat, but sometimes not. Or if I find a good way to buy only organically raised meat and fish, but still sometimes eat bacon when I'm out.

    There's no middle ground when it comes to the ethics or the sustainability. But there are moderate choices for our own lives, and whatever we can is worth doing.

    redsock said...

    (I have a feeling I'm about to be disabused of this.)

    The DFW PDF L linked to in the main post will do the work of that.

    In a nutshell, they feel a shitload of pain and make a lot of noise as they are being boiled alive. Wallace reports that some chefs have to leave the kitchen so as not to hear it.

    Enjoy!

    redsock said...

    What is amazing is that the story appeared in Gourmet magazine.

    It really is a fantastic article. Wallace is one of my favourite writers and in that piece he goes struggles with some of the same personal issues Laura is writing about.

    Amy said...

    Sorry I am late coming to this (I was away), but it is an issue that I have long cared deeply about and have struggled with. Back in college I decided to stop eating all red meat---beef, veal, lamb, pork---all mammal meat really. I continued to eat fish and fowl to get the protein I needed, but just could not bring myself to eat mammals. I had met someone who worked on a farm who said he had decided that he could not eat what he could not slaughter himself, and so that's where I also drew the line. Though I have never had to kill a chicken or even a fish, I somehow think I could, if I had to. It's not a rational line, but it's my own compromise.

    Later, after I married, I also became kosher in a moderate way and have given up all shellfish and non-kosher turkey and chicken. Although I know there is controversy about kosher slaughter, at least the intention is to treat the animals humanely. That controversy has led me to minimize even the amount of poultry that I eat.

    So...I am left with fish, dairy, and vegetables and fruit and grains for about 90% of my food intake. My cholesterol and heart health are excellent, and for the most part, my conscience is somewhat clear. Never completely, but somewhat.

    L-girl said...

    Thank you for your comment, Amy. I'm sure you know just where I'm coming from, although we've drawn that line in different places.

    I'm certain I could kill all my own food if I lived on a farm and was trained to. I doubt I'd feel bad about it if I knew the animal was treated well in its lifetime. But...

    There's the but.

    Amy said...

    This is just one of those issues I consider one of personal choice and never pass judgement on what other people choose to eat. In fact, the rest of my family---including my kids---eat meat all the time, and I never tried to push my views on any of them.

    It is far more important to me how people treat animals while they are alive. Although I don't care what people eat, if I saw someone mistreating any animal, I would act in whatever way necessary to protect the animal. On that issue, I do not believe in personal choice.

    Thanks for writing about this issue.

    L-girl said...

    This is just one of those issues I consider one of personal choice and never pass judgement on what other people choose to eat.

    I'm the same way when it comes people's eating habits. I've been all over the map myself. And I've been really turned off by other people's hectoring me about the "right" way to eat. I also consider it personal choice.

    It is far more important to me how people treat animals while they are alive.

    That's for sure. That is not personal choice, as you said. No more than child abuse or rape.

    And that's why my own meat-eating bothers me, because of the cruelty of the factory farm.

    Amy, thanks again for your thoughts. Please feel free to continue to comment on this thread, even though it's not the most current one.