Eating Animals

During my flight to India I read a book called ‘Eating Animals’ by the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s an analysis of eating meat, the customs and traditions around meat, and the methods of modern meat production – mainly focusing on the USA.

Though it sounds like a vegetarian manifesto, and the author is indeed vegetarian, he makes an effort to interview ranchers and people from the meat production industry. He even extends admiration to many of them, those who have tried to remember that the meat they are selling comes from animals who deserve some sort of life before death – rather than being considered nothing more than production units.

It made me sit and think a lot about my own vegetarianism.

I haven’t eaten meat for over twenty years now – including fish. And though I started off on that journey through distaste for meat, I matured into having stronger views on the welfare of animals that are bred for food. In particular, the fast food industry has bothered me for a long time because the concept that a McNugget was once a sentient animal is still quite remote.

Like Safran Foer, I’m not a dogmatic vegetarian. I accept that most people eat meat and probably won’t stop just because of people like me. I used to buy meat for my dog, it was the only meat I would ever have in the house. But I would need to be overly strict to enforce vegetarianism on my dog – and I made sure that it was ethically sourced meat direct from a farm producer. My wife eats meat and we have an easy arrangement where we don’t eat meat at home, but she is free to order it whenever we are eating out – it works pretty well for us both, as she doesn’t insist on meat with every meal anyway.

But reading this book made me wonder if it is enough to just refrain from eating meat.

People want cheap food and the food production industry has responded by continuously reducing the cost of food, especially meat. This process has gone so far that animals are no longer treated as living beings anymore. There is no farmer driving cattle to market or tending the flock, caring for their health before taking them to market. Food production has become an intensive industry where animals are born, raised, and killed in a factory environment – usually restrained, with artificial light, and with death coming before adolescence is complete.

Meat production has become entirely removed from any natural idea of farming. As Safran Foer points out, anyone who knows how his or her food is produced would want to change behaviour. They might not want to be a vegetarian because they either like meat too much, or they consider it culturally too much of a change to their life, or they might not be able to afford to choose more ethically sourced meat.

But anyone who sees images of how their meat is produced would almost certainly want to change something about the industry.

There are some small changes we can all make that would humanise the industry – introducing measures that at least allow the animals bred for food to enjoy some kind of life before they end up as burgers or chops. How about the major retailers insisting on an end to battery-farmed eggs? Or huge consumers of low cost meat – such as KFC or McDonald’s – taking over much of the production and slaughter process to ensure industry standards are raised?

Pressure groups like PETA are never going to get the world to go vegan, and this aim is only viable in wealthy developed countries anyway, but if the general population gets more educated about how their food is produced then some small changes could make a big difference. Not only to the lives of the animals, but also improving the food quality and reducing risk to those who eat meat.

Has anyone yet to consider the long-term effect of animals being pre-emptively medicated against disease? In the old days of farms, a sick animal would be treated. Now, all animals are fed antibiotic drugs on a daily basis so they get the drugs before becoming ill. If they do get ill then they are usually discarded. Over a period of decades, these drugs are becoming less and less effective at fighting disease because they are now in the human food chain.

Issues such as this go far beyond the cries of the animal rights activists. There is a crisis in food production waiting to happen. As more people have demanded the right to access good food, prices have dropped and production has increased, but at what point will the general meat-eating public start listening to the vegetarian movement, because their concerns start becoming aligned?

Even if their eating habits are never aligned, I’m guessing their concerns about food provenance will be fairly soon. Safran Foer’s book is a good start because it doesn’t advocate that you need to be vegetarian or concerned about animal rights to want something to change. If the public knew what was happening then surely they would all want it to change… maybe?

Meat is Murder - Lisbon

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2 responses to “Eating Animals

  1. Awsome post Mark!
    It is a shame that the trend in the UK seems to be moving towards an even bigger disconect with consumers and their meat and animals having even more limited lives.

    June 25, 2010 – Revealed: How ‘zero-grazing’ is set to bring US-style factory farming to Britain
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/new-battle-of-britain-as-plans-for-factory-farm-revolution-looms-2010107.html

    January 11, 2011 – Opposition mounts against Lincolnshire ‘mega-dairy’
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jan/11/lincolnshire-mega-dairy

    38 Degrees – Let’s stop cow factory farms
    http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/factoryfarm

  2. Great synopsis of the challenges both industry and consumers face in our endeavor to fix a broken food system. We’re of the mind that transparency and technology will trump a lot of the traditionally minded methods of changing behavior on both sides of the conversation. There’s no question that a problem at this scale requires lots of little contributions to fuel larger trends, and there are certainly trends in both directions…although we’re encouraged at the uprise in conversations around food provenance and sourcing. Granted, some regulatory decisions and large established processed food businesses’ moves are moving us in the wrong direction, but overall it seems food buyers are caring more about quality, health, source info, and generally wanting more information around their purchases.

    It seems the shift from past years’ focus on eating styles and narrow health verticals took the focus off of everyone’s basic connection to and understanding of their food system. Increasingly the conversation seems to be less about vegetarianism/carnivores or organic/standard, and more about a general level of knowledge around our food decisions…where is it from, what happened to it before we got it, and how might knowing that empower us in even the smallest way to feel good about our decisions. That’s exciting, because in the end the more information we have (and demand) from our food suppliers, the more power we have as consumers and citizens of the planet.

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