Friday, February 12, 2010

Does What We Eat Define Us?

I'd like to discuss this without a firestorm. I have questions.

The Judeo-Christian ethic teaches that the world and all its creatures are here for Man's use. Based on that logic, we have used this world's resources, abused and depleted them. Among the problems we have created is the factory farm.

I am a vegetarian. I'll tell you that up front because I'm not trying to do a sneak attack on those of you who aren't. From an animal rights perspective, I'm only part of the way there. To really practice what I believe, I should be vegan. So I understand that making a drastic lifestyle change is a huge and difficult step. Okay?

First, I want to know if there is a way to discuss this issue without the knee jerk hysteria that so often happens the minute you say, "Eating animal products is bad on a number of different levels and our modern livestock agriculture is inhumane."

It's blunt, but it's fact. You live longer if you don't eat meat. Here are some links if you want to study the numbers.

That's enough right there to start a fight, and I wonder why that is. Is it because it threatens our habits? Is it because it is seen as an implied criticism?

But wait until you start discussing the ethics of modern farming. We have a vision of the family farm, the peaceful cows in the field, the well cared for animals that are treated with respect, with care until the time comes for them to be slaughtered for meat. That's not reality. And we know it.

The book "Eating Animals" is a bestseller. It documents the horrific conditions under which today's animals life on factory farms. The movie "Peaceable Kingdom" is making the film festival rounds (and winning). It tells the stories of farmers, good, compassionate people who try to run humane livestock operations, who realize that their livelihood is based on a belief they can no longer support: they kill the animals they care for.

Our children's bodies are full of antibiotics from the food we feed them. Their hormone levels are artifically elevated. Our food is tainted, it makes us sick. Sometimes it kills us. The animals are kept in conditions that we could not abide if we witnessed it firsthand.

Scientists say the huge population of animals are contributing half the methane that's changing our climate.

Yet look at this article in a Missouri newspaper. Obviously, in a farm state the question of animal rights would be seen as threatening. What strikes me is the tone of the comments below it. It's a "war".

I don't want to fight. I want to know if it is possible to lay out the arguments, line them up against that "Man is the Earth's Master" chestnut and see if it's possible to get past the knee jerk denial to a place where the evidence can begin to be considered on its own merits.

The family farm, a beloved part of my background, is already dying, killed by big agriculture. A plant-based diet won't kill it. Creativity will, in fact, save the few that remain. Rather than eat the animals on farms, find ways to make money from our nostalgia for that way of life. Or switch to sustainable crops. Don't tell me I'm anti-farm; I'm not.

For me, the bottom line became that I couldn't justify the death of an animal to please my palate. I don't have that right. It was that simple. All the arguments are there to support my diet. The arguments for eating animal products don't stand up to scrutiny.

So it's a very personal choice, and perhaps that's why it's such an emotional one. But I can tell you that when I see a pig, a cow, a chicken at the county fair now, that disconnect between my fondness for them and what I eat is gone. And that's a huge relief.


heartinsanfrancisco said...

Excellent post, and I agree with you on every point. I am also a vegetarian, although not vegan, and have never understood the prevailing view that justifies man's dominion over the animals with Biblical verses. We are not the pinnacle of Creation, but a species of very large ego and weapons.

Conditions on factory farms are horrendous. How can we not ingest the suffering of animals who are tortured before showing up on our plate? A society is only as humane as its treatment of helpless beings.

Susan said...

Heart, thanks for the note.
I suspect this is a post that won't be too popular, but it's been on my mind.
Most vegetarians and vegans weren't always eating a plant-based diet, so it's not about judgement.
It's about being aware of what's really going on.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

If I sounded judgmental of carnivores, it was unintentional. But I deplore the inhumanity and greed of those who run meat farms where animals are crammed into filthy spaces so small they can't move and the stench is overwhelming.

Awareness is the only way to heal all the world's ills, including this one.

Susan said...

Nope, heart, you didn't sound judgmental in the least. But man, don't you just walk on tiptoe to avoid sounding that way?

Sometimes I just think, 'Man! It's just being willing to deny yourself something so something else can live. This isn't all that hard!"

But it is. And that, I guess, goes back to that basic "Crown of Creation" argument.

I don't feel much like anyone's proudest creation most days.

Ruth said...

Hi, Susan. Don and I, along with our son Peter, just went vegan a little over a month ago. For decades we've been troubled by the terrible use of land for raising cows. But it was Dr. Colin Campbell's book The China Study that convinced us just after Christmas to give up animal protein. As a premier protein researcher, he shows from hundreds of studies that animal protein is the cause of our main diseases. We haven't finished the book, but we feel so much better having left dairy and meat behind - AND we are enjoying food as if for the first time, we don't feel that we've sacrificed a thing.

There are so many reasons not to eat meat in this country, and no one will tell you not to eat vegetables!

Wish we could sit over coffee and talk about it.

Susan said...

Ruth, coffee and a chat with you would be absolutely delightful.
If you're ever near the Catskills, let me know!
It's strange - it's not dairy that keeps me from going vegan - it's the almost monastic strictness that it creates.
I've looked enough to know that in the regular grocery store, most everything I buy has some animal product in it - and I'm just not prepared to be so diligent in my label checking.
Again, my convenience before my conscience.
I need to think on that one, don't I?