Monday, October 27, 2008

Food ethics

Lisa's wonderful post on sport hunting, and the dialogue in the comments has really had me thinking. It doesn't help that I recently read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. (I highly recommend the book to any nonfiction reader, any foodie, any gardener or any environmentalist. Everyone in Kingsolver's immediate family contributed in some way to the book, and as a family tale, it's interesting in that aspect as well.)

What are my food ethics? One of the oldest cliches that I can think of is "You are what you eat." Follow the implications of my food choices, and what does that really mean. Every woman who's ever put dinner on the table for more than herself knows that food choices can be complicated, but it also speaks reams about how we are as citizens and stewards of the world.

There is more than one ignored elephant in every dining room, but the biggest issue of all is that for anything to become food for our bodies, it has to die. Vegetarians, that applies to your food too. That bowl of rice is no longer absorbing sunlight and water in a field or paddy. That organic tomato isn't sucking down nutrients while someone carefully picks aphids of its vine. When I told this to my vegetarian daughter, she said, "...but plants don't have feelings." My response was that we really don't know now, do we. It's still a life, and it's still ended. I know that argument slides way out onto the ridiculous fringe. I'm not going to worry about cutting short the cozily nestled underground life of my carrots and not allowing them to fulfill their true carrothood.

Here is where the other elephants start trumpeting though. I will be concerned about the chemicals they've absorbed meant to kill weeds and insects, the genetic alterations used to make them more marketable, not necessarily more nutritious or tasteful, the fairness of the treatment the labor involved received, the cleanliness of the plant used to process them, and how much energy was consumed to get those carrots from the field to my home. I'll wonder about how the companies stand on Fair Trade. All that happens before I dig the glasses out of my purse to read the label and see just how many preservatives, and how much high fructose corn syrup and sodium have been added to the can in my hand. That's a whole lot of concern over a can of sliced carrots, and it all has to happen in the rush hour between leaving work and someone asks, "What's for dinner?"

It's even harder for carnivores. We ignore our big dead elephant in the room even harder, carefully and literally washing the blood from our hands. This is our choice. I love meat and won't give it up as a part of my diet. I once had the opportunity to professionally visit a meat processing plant. I was given an extremely limited tour of the facility, and it wasn't one of the nightmares described in Fast Food Nation, another gripping read about the food industry (that is definitely not for the weak stomached). I know there was a lot that I didn't see, and quite frankly, I saw enough to be grateful that I didn't see more. I do know that I want the meat I consume to have died a humane death. I want it to have lived as an animal should, not in a contained environment that does not allow for movement, fed an unnatural diet (cows are not cannibals and other than the occasional bug or worm, aren't even carnivores), and essentially trapped in its own excrement. The deer killed on some hunter's fun, mindless weekend excursion led a better life than that poor trapped cow.

After reading Kingsolver's book, I did ask the butchers at three of the grocery stores I use what they could tell me about the meat. At one, it just came from the warehouse. The butcher was essentially a very polite and wanting to be helpful stock person, not a true butcher. He didn't know if any of the meat was free range or not. It just came in on the truck. At the next, the answer was basically, our company does its best to purchase from the safest and cleanest suppliers. They couldn't tell me if the hamburger originated in a feedlot cage or every body's mental image of a farm. It was only at the truly local store that the butcher who cut his own chops and steaks and made his own sausage could tell me the source of most of the meat he sold. Some of it was truly locally raised by people he knew. Some came from CAFO (contained area feeding operations) meat suppliers. It was only by consuming on the most local level that I even had the choice to try to eat with respect for my ethics and principles. It's also important to note that organic or free range meat is also more expensive. For some people, a cruelty free meal isn't a realistic financial option.

I've made conscious choices to shop my ethics on other things. It's not easy. I quit a gym I really liked because their corporate parent is heavily committed to funding anti-choice groups. I look for union labels in clothing, but almost everything I see comes from a country where sweat shop labor is the norm. I refuse to use a certain delivery pizza chain. I do feel guilty every time I walk into Wal-Mart. Some people say I'm oversensitive. I think I'm just trying to be responsible and make my dollars count. If everyone refused to eat CAFO raised meat, it would fade from the marketplace.

Sometimes I just want to eat without thinking about it. I don't want to always take the time to express my gratitude, figure out how many miles were driven to get the hot dog and bun together and determine how deep my carbon footstep is for each meal. I just want to eat. I'm getting to the point where I just can't ignore the elephants anymore.


Lisa :-] said...

As this dialogue has progressed, I've realized that I, too, would like to be more careful about the pork chop, chicken breast or hamburger I put on my plate. Here in Oregon, we have many places where natural, cruelty-free meat can be purchased. I understand now that I don't want the cow I eat to suffer any more than the goose peppered with shotgun pellets.

In this respect, hunting one's own meat can be a solution. It can be an act of reverence and purpose. It's just that I don't think it is for 85% of the people out there taking potshots at game animals...

In a perfect world, perhaps we would figure out how to go back to growing and butchering our own protein. Industrialization has de-personalized the process way too much.

Kathy said...

In my home we eat primarily organic fruits and veggies and naturally raised meats. Have you ever tasted an organic free range chicken? Or had an organic hotdog?

It is not inexpensive, nor is it always easy to find what you are looking for, but eventually over a period of time you begin to know the stores that carry the best product for the best price.

Can I do this 100% of the time? No. Some things just don't come organic or natural. But when they hit the shelf I add them to the grocery list.

For me it isn't just about humane treatment of animals or the carbon footprint I'll leave behind. Those two thoughts enter the process but not nearly as much as -- Why do I want to put any chemical into my body that I don't really have to? And why would I do that to my family?

The weight of a niece's MS and her treatment of the disease process through a completely organic life style -- raising and growing her own food -- has shown me what we've all known all along.

Chemicals are bad for us. For that reason alone, it makes sense to 'go organic' whenever possible.

Kathy said...
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