Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about being an omnivore. It started when I rode with my friend David Snow from his farm in Coker to a hog processor in Buhl towing a trailer with five Tamworth pigs that he and his partner Margaret Ann had raised for the last nine months. I rode along not only because I’m making a film about this kind of stuff, but because half of one of those pigs was destined for our deep freezer. I got out to the farm early so I could photograph the pigs that last morning. It was cold and I watched them huddled together in their pin snorting at my intrusive camera. Even though they were raised to be slaughtered, that didn’t make it any easier on David and Margaret Ann. It’s difficult to be detached when you’re taking care of animals, especially clever and amusing animals like pigs. As we unloaded the pigs at the slaughterhouse, David shot me an uneasy look. I was merely an observer in all this – I hadn’t invested the time and the dedication and the countless moments with those animals. But even for me it was hard to see them go.
A few weeks later, after our portion of the pig was delivered in three huge paper bags, I had another occasion to consider the ethical repercussions of eating meat. This time I was sitting in a frigid hunting house in north Alabama trying to kill my first deer. I’d been talking about going hunting for quite some time. It seemed a natural, if not slightly illogical, way to consider the repercussions of a local food diet. Also, having grown up with a granddaddy and cousins who were avid hunters, it seemed part of my family tradition, too – a part I’d never fully acknowledged or cared to even think about. But after getting a taste for venison and reading about how there are almost 2 million deer in the state of Alabama (a little more than one deer for every three people), I decided it was time to give it a shot. No luck my first trip out, but I’m going back this weekend – the last weekend of the season. I’ll be sure to write a post when I return.
In the midst of these meat adventures, I’ve been reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s new nonfiction book about factory farming called “Eating Animals.” Foer’s argument throughout – that ideally we should stop eating animals altogether, and at the very least we should refuse to support the completely unethical and unsustainable system of factory farming – is compelling, wide-ranging, well researched, and mostly persuasive. He’s writing about the food system for an audience that, almost inexplicably, has never thought about where their food comes from. If you’re like the 98% of Americans who don’t live on a farm, chances are that you haven’t thought much about your food sources – especially the anatomically incorrect cuts of cow, pig, and chicken you see in the meat aisle of the grocery store. “Eating Animals” sets out to change all that in the most truthful and unappetizing way possible. While the book comes off a little too preachy at times, Foer does a commendable job marshaling a variety of rhetorical strategies to make his case. He opens the book with a Swiftian shot across the bow. After lovingly describing the dog nestled against his feet as he writes the very sentences you’re reading, he wonders aloud, and at some length, about why we refuse to eat dog in this country. There’s even a direct challenge to local food enthusiasts in this modest proposal:
The inefficient use of dogs – conveniently already in areas of high human population (take note, local-food advocates) – should make any good ecologist blush…If we let dogs be dogs, and breed without interference, we would create a sustainable, local meat supply with low energy inputs that would put even the most efficient grass-based farming to shame. For the ecologically minded it’s time to admit that dog is realistic food for realistic environmentalists.But we don’t eat dog because we don’t eat dog. It’s just accepted practice. Like lots of other cultural practices, if you interrogate it beyond mere custom and sentimentality, it doesn’t make logical sense. And that’s just Foer’s point. We eat animals out of tradition, sentimentality, and convenience, and we unquestionably eat factory-farmed meat because it’s what’s available to most Americans. Most of us don’t know anything about the system that produces it (nor do we care to know the former life of our Big Mac), and eating this stuff is just what we’ve always done. Simple as that. It’s what our parents have always done, it’s what our friends have always done, and it’s what our children will always do.
And that’s where this all begins for Foer. After straddling the line between committed and part-time vegetarian, Foer and his wife (the author Nicole Krauss) decided to have a baby, and he decided to figure out what that baby should eat. This journey took him over three years and it’s obvious from the scope of the book that he took his time and did his homework. What he lays out spans from personal memoir of food and family to measured journalistic inquiry. There are cameos from some heavy hitters in the world of sustainable food - Bill Niman, his wife Nicolette (who wrote this great oped for the NY Times late last year), the poultry farmer Frank Reese - and the facts here are daunting, surprising, and irrefutable. Basically, we’ve created an industrial meat production system that is completely unsustainable and irresponsible on ethical, environmental, scientific, and human grounds.
ETHICALLY: The horrors most animals face in this system are simply unpalatable. But in matters of animal cruelty we’ve often decided to causally turn a blind eye. There are more important things to worry about than the well being of the chicken that’s going to one day be part of my McNugget. But being faced with the egregious violations of the system is liable to make for an unhappy meal. For instance, most states have something called “Common Farming Exemptions,” which allow processors the legal berth to operate in essentially any way they choose – so long as they can justify that the practice is common in the industry. Foer writes, “If the industry adopts a practice – hacking off unwanted appendages with no painkillers, for example, but you can let your imagination run with this – it automatically becomes legal.”
ENVIRONMENTALLY: Simply put, the way we farm animals now – in huge monocultures where their waste isn’t distributed in a helpful way by putting nitrogen back into the soil – is the greatest worldwide contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Greater than transportation, greater than pollution, greater than every unrecycled plastic water bottle in every landfill across the earth. A recent report from the World Watch Institute shows that fully 51% of greenhouse gas emissions are from livestock and their byproducts. To talk about the issues surrounding a warming planet, to be concerned about your carbon footprint, to try and take steps to curb your consumption, and to not talk about eating animals? That’s like trying to teach someone to swim from shore while they’re in the water drowning and you’re holding a life jacket.
SCIENTIFICALLY: In addition to the grave environmental consequences of factory farming – not just green house gas emissions, but ground water contamination around hog farms, pollution from factory farms, etc – there are other troubling scientific repercussions of this system. One of the most egregious is the widespread use of antibiotics in farmed animals. Foer reports that about 3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans each year in the US, but 17.8 million pounds are fed to livestock. The Union of Concerned Scientists thinks this industry generated figure is far too low – they estimated the figure is closer to 24.6 million pounds. And, like the old adage of "you are what you eat," we’re ingesting those antibiotics with disastrous effects. Take this recent article from the AP describing the effects of this over medication, and you’ll begin to see the relationship between what we eat and the rise of drug-resistant infections.
HUMANELY: But, while the industrial meat system we’ve created in this country in the last 60 years is increasingly illogical, immoral, and fundamentally broken, it does bring us cheap cuts of meat to the grocery store down the street and only seldom puts us in the hospital or confines us to a wheelchair for the rest of our lives. And as long as you don’t live near a hog farm, or make your living raising animals or fishing, chances are you’re probably pretty happy about how cheap your meat is. In fact, one of the ways that the sustainable food movement has been demonized is to make it an elitist’s cause – something that only yuppies can afford, not something that real Americans should pay attention to. But the truth is that the hidden costs make our food system enormously expensive. The toll on the environment, rising health care costs, the mass exodus from rural America – all of these have a cost. And if food is so cheap, how come the Goliath multinationals have such insane profit margins? Tyson, the worlds largest processor of chicken, beef, and pork, which controls nearly a quarter of all US sales, took in almost $27 billion last year – but it paid average wages of less than $25,000 a year per worker. Perhaps most importantly, the system isn’t just broken for animals and for the environment – it’s broken for the people and the workers, too.
So what’s to be done? For starters Foer suggests (and I would agree with him) to stop eating factory farmed meat altogether. That means pretty much no meat in restaurants, no meat from the grocery store, and instead tracking down farmers and producers who grow locally with diversified practices and smaller operations. It means eating a lot less meat, and paying a lot more for what you do eat. It means more vegetarian meals. It means being uncomfortable in front of friends, colleagues, family. None of these are easy, but they're the right thing to do. Check out our farm locator or email us if you want some suggestions of suppliers. I can’t say that I’ve been true on this path (there was a bacon cheeseburger when we were in Wyoming a few weeks ago – I know better than this), but I’m trying to make a concerted effort. We haven’t purchased factory-farmed meat from a grocery store since March of 2008, and I’m proud to say that our freezer is stocked with ethically raised animals (beef, pork, venison, quail, duck). We eat a lot less meat than we did before we started this project, but in the lean times of winter when there aren’t that many fresh vegetables we rely a little more heavily on protein from meat.
But beyond your individual choices, I think it’s also time for a fundamental change of attitude about eating. Why don't we consider our food choices as ethical decisions just like every other part of our ethical lives? I’ve noticed in the past few years that my eating choices are scrutinized much more closely than any other belief system in my life - and they have the power to drive away friends and family unlike any other set of beliefs. I can talk politics with my conservative friends, religion with my evangelical friends, and football with my Auburn friends. But if we share a meal and I give an opinion about the food? That's a deal breaker. Somehow, it’s okay to be a “picky eater” where you don’t like to eat your vegetables, or you can’t stand okra, or you don’t eat fish. But if you make food choices based on ethical considerations – the treatment of animals, the wages of farmers, the environmental toll of that banana from Brazil – you’re demonized and ostracized. It's an interesting double standard, and it says a lot about how much meaning we place onto the food we eat. We're forced to make decisions (or not) all the time about our belief systems, but food is one place where we typically all agree - we all like to eat. To bring these tough decisions and conversations to the dinner table - a realm of our lives that's so associated with comfort, with tradition, with sustenance, with memories of the family table - that's crossing a line. But I think it's time to cross that line. That doesn't mean turning every dinner conversation into an annoying fount of troubling statistics (see previous ten paragraphs...), but it does mean finding ways to talk about why food matters.
Because, as Foer makes clear, if we don't start talking seriously about this stuff soon, it might be too late.