January 26, 2010

Eating Animals

[disclaimer: I know. It's loooonnng. I think I'm making up for several months of pictures without much written material. Think of all the time I've saved you (the seven of you who read this blog) by only posting pictures...now it will even out.]

Should I consume less meat? Should I only eat meat from reliable sources? Should I stop eating animals altogether?

These are just some of the questions spinning a tangled web through my mind after finishing Jonathon Safron Foyer's wonderful book Eating Animals. His research is thorough (he committed three years to the project), balanced (he used the most conservative statistics available) and about as unradical as a book about factory farms can get.

It wasn't just this book, or these past few weeks reading it, that got me thinking about my meat intake. This internal dispute has been going on since 2005 when I stumbled upon a copy of Fast Food Nation, and continued through the years with Michael Pollan and the recent documentary Food, Inc. And finally, I seem poised to take some sort of leap into a mysterious and foggy eat-less-meat place, a position that I couldn't even begin to imagine the implications. What do I order out? What happens when we eat at a friends place? If I decide to eat some meat, where do I get it from?

This book, along with myriad other sources, has challenged me on several fronts. Probably what eats at me the most in regard to eating animals is the entire food process that takes place from the animal's birth to slaughter to transport to my mouth. And since 80-99% of the meat we eat comes from a factory farm, it only makes matters worse. The amount of research and interviews and videotapes of the gross and inhumane treatment of animals that happens in factory farms is staggering (think workers abusing animals in the cruelest ways possible). And even when the animals aren't being abused by their caretakers, their very existence is a short and cruel means to an end (think battery cages and disease and famine). One example Foer gives is that of a pregnant sow (and this is only half of it):

"Consider the life of a pregnant sow. Her incredible fertility is the source of her particular hell. While a cow will give birth to only a single calf at a time, the modern factory sow will birth, nurse, and raise an average of nearly nine piglets. She will invariably be kept pregnant as much as possible, which will prove to be the majority of her life...After her piglets are weaned (14 days instead of the normal 14 weeks), a hormone injection makes the sow rapidly "cycle" so that she will be ready to be artificially inseminated again in only three weeks.

Four out of five times a sow will spend the sixteen weeks of her pregnancy confined in a "gestation crate" so small that she will be not be able to turn around. Her bone density will decrease because of the lack of movement. She will be given no bedding and often will develop quarter-sized, blackened, pus-filled sores from chafing in the crate.

To avoid excessive weight gain and to further reduce feed costs, the crated sow will be feed restricted and often hungry."

And when you think about the way we have CREATED these animals through genetic engineering (vs. animal husbandry), the meat we eat doesn't even seem like real food. Through great feats of science, we have engineered chickens, for example, to grow so rapidly that they are slaughtered after 42 days of life. They are so fat they can't fly and often can barely walk by the time slaughter day arrives. And the only way they can even survive those 42 miserable days (sometimes even 39 days) are because we have laced them with hormones and antibiotics. The hormones and chemicals keeping them alive are also coming into my body, which doesn't sit very well. And the kicker for me on this front is that we don't even know the physical implications all this meat eating is having on our bodies because factory farming is such a new trend. And the same goes for pork and beef and even fish, believe it or not.

Then there are the slaughterhouses. And the greedy factory farm owners who have literally put hundreds of thousands of family farms out of business (or hired them and paid them barely enough to get by). And the reports coming out now that livestock contribute more to global warming than anything else (think massive piles of shit that seep into our rivers and lakes and release toxins into our air -- a typical cattle feedlot produces 344 million pounds of manure annually).

Of course, it's not all bad news from Foer or any of the other factory farm critics. There are farmers out there who still care for their animals and feed them real food and let them roam freely and find more humane slaughterhouses. And more and more people are asking these questions and shifting away from eating factory farmed meat, or any meat at all.

I read and studied and watched because I'm curious. I care about these issues because I eat meat almost every single day and I pretty much cover every common animal during the week. If I care about where I shop and where I get my fruits and vegetables and where I eat out at, it only makes sense that I would care about the meat I eat.

I'm one of many who simply wanted to know where this meat is coming from and how it's processed along the way. What I have found haunts me enough to make some changes. I'm not exactly sure what these changes will look like, but I'm ready to find out. Step one is to find local sources of meat from farms that raise animals in an ethical and humane way, where the animals are hormone and antibiotic free. Step two is to stop eating meat from restaurants, unless I know where it's coming from. Step twelve will be to raise some chickens of my own for eggs, but that might take a few months. :)

More of this journey to come...


julie said...

So glad to read a written post! :) I was interested in your thoughts on Foer's book and grateful that you put them on here. I still need to read it, but I will asap! I've learned a lot about this issue in my environmental classes and have decreased my meat intake to some extents (fortunately for me I am not a huge meat lover, I hardly miss it). From an environmental standpoint, we save a lot of resources by choosing to consume at the producer level. This is important because of the human population that is growing at an exponential rate. We can sustain the lives of more humans by choosing not to eat meat. Can't wait to read more!

Jess said...

Thanks for the insight! I will put this on the "to read" list. I've liked other books I've read by him. Mark and I reduced our meat intake early in 2009, and I try to cook vegetarian about half the time (I used to eat meat every day too). It started from a cookbook I borrowed from a vegetarian friend who had some of that same info you mentioned in it. I would love to raise chickens someday as well (lots of people we know do), but my step 1 is to do a garden this summer :).

Josh Jackson said...

Thanks for the comments guys!

Julie - I seriously can't believe we haven't really discussed this topic. You'd think since we discuss everything else, this would surely come up. :) I'm totally with you on the world's population growth and should have included it in this piece. With the Chinese and Indians eating more and more eat, I keep wondering how were going to keep up? It seems dire...

Jess - Hey, nice to hear from you! That cookbook sounds really interesting - what is it called?? One of my fears in giving up meat (or almost giving it up) is that I'm not sure what I will fill the void with. I know so little about other options that all I keep thinking is, "Am I gonna have to eat Tofu??" :) One of our main reasons for wanting to buy a house is to be able to garden and raise chickens...maybe we can collaborate this summer (if we find a house by then!) :)

Gwen Jackson said...

Good read Josh! I found myself thinking about the Grubb farm the whole way through your post.

I'm not a big meat eater, but definitely something to think about. I could live on veggies, potatoes, and bread!

Jamie said...

Makes me feel a bit sick to read that stuff. I, too, have been reading through that info from books and cookbooks. We've definitely cut down on meat and portion sizes when we do eat meat in the last year and a half.

Good reminders - I've definitely drifted a bit in the last couple weeks of pregnancy. I need the reminder though since we are only 3 1/2 months! Thanks! Will be happy to read more from you on this...

Wendi said...

Love this post. Thanks for all the great info. It's a heavy subject, especially when I think of all that is going into the young bodies of my children. YIKES! Interested to hear/read what resolution you eventually come to.

Anonymous said...

So timely, Josh...just last night, Greg and i decided to make changes in our consumption of meat! We watched Oprah this week and one of her guests was M. Pollen and after watching, we were definitely swayed towards a more conscious effort to choose wisely and also to cut back on amount of meat consumption. Greg says this will take more time and effort, but since HE does grocery shopping and the cooking, I am on board (Kari, I'M the princess in our home!)! We'll see......Jo

Josh Jackson said...

Mom - I must have thought about Uncle Dennis 100 times while reading this book. We had some good conversations this summer about the new chickens he is raising, but I'd love to learn about his farm even more. It doesn't at all seem like the factory farms I read about...I'd be interested in hearing his opinion on the matter.

Jo - I think what you said makes a lot of sense - being more conscience of our food decisions takes time - at the grocery store, planning meals, searching for better quality foods, etc...

::athada:: said...

Surprised I hadn't seen this post earlier :) He's worth another mention if he wasn't a part of your myriad other sources: Michael Pollen. Omnivore's Dilemma, then In Defense of Food. Nerdy, comprehensive, and even-handed.

I would offer one word of caution - to be slow to criticize greedy farmers. Many of the "factory farmers" were in fact at one time "family farmers". Being the child of folks who grew up on the farm, I try to understand the farmers' situation. "Get big or get out" has been the mantra for agriculture during our transition to industrial and post-industrial societies. The market (us, consumers) gave them no choice. That said, it's the corporations that trouble me the most. Their job, by definition, is profit only (with PR spin).

Fun fact: about half the grain you see in the fields (corn, soy) is fed to animals.

Glad you are eating less / better meat. I will claim you as my diet-partner for carbon-neutrality b/c I'm eating meat 2x day now. Trying to eat my way into the culture. Not sure what the S. American foodprint looks like, but I'm sure they graze more. Milk is now up to US$0.70 / liter.

This is a 30% chance that I'll have chickens within a year.

Have I told you about Wendell Berry yet? He's next in line for you... and he's a master wordsmith.

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