Knowing Your Food


The Meat-Eating Goat Rescuer

A few months ago, I was working with the pigs at Poplar Spring during the Montgomery County Farm Tour. The farm tour brings in a lot of people that not only aren’t vegetarian, but don’t have any concept of an animal sanctuary or why a farm with animals would exist if not to make money. That event is an interesting opportunity to interact with meat-eaters and tell them things about food production they never knew.

While in the pig area on that particular day, one woman came up with her completely bored-looking husband. After I talked a little bit about the pigs’ history and how they got to the farm, she mentioned that she did goat rescue and brought the newest goat to Poplar Spring a few weeks earlier. She went on to discuss the goat slaughter industry and how it was tied to consumption of goat milk. I figured, ah, good, a visitor who “gets it.” Then, she said, “I guess you’re vegetarian?”

I replied, “Yes, vegan. You?”

She replied, “No. I probably should be, but I like the taste of meat too much.”

I had to pick my jaw up off the ground.  Not only was I hearing the most annoying (but also the most truthful) reason, but I was hearing it from someone who should know better. It’s like hearing that someone that runs a farm sanctuary still eats meat: it just doesn’t add up.

She continued, “Plus, I could never get him to go for it,” pointing to her husband, who was leaning against a wall. A few seconds later, he asked, “Can we go yet?”

I decided to pretend I was Gary and turn this into an outreach opportunity. I told her, “There are so many great fake meats out there, it’s incredibly easy to transition to vegetarianism these days.”

She countered with, “Well, we know where our meat comes from. We had a cow that we raised for the meat, so when we look at our hamburger, we know where it’s from.”

At this point, I gave up. You see, it can be headache-inducing to deal with an omni that refuses to consider your position. But even worse, I think, is dealing with a person who announces that they “know where [their] meat comes from.” Like that’s some kind of good excuse for not being vegetarian despite knowing all the facts. I look at a person who “knows where [their] meat comes from” more critically than I do someone who buys the packaged stuff.

The “Pig Mother”

A couple of weeks ago, there was a frustrating article printed in my CSA’s newsletter. The brief piece was written by a woman on an “eco-friendly” farm that raises animals for meat. She starts the article off discussing how she was wished a “Happy mother’s day!” when a co-worker pointed out how her chickens and pigs were like her children.

The author also discusses her time at a farm where both meat animals and vegetables were raised. This, she explains, was where she became an “ex-vegetarian”…

… after spending a season helping raise animals from little ones, some from birth, to observing and some participating in the slaughtering, which took place on the farm, and with the knowledge of the good life they led and their importance in the farming system.

After discussing how she believes in naming the animals she raises and how she can tell them apart because of their individual personalities, she ends the article with an astoundingly heartless turn (emphasis mine):

I’m not a pig mother but a pig raiser who cares deeply for the pigs. It’s been an amazing and challenging experience from devising crazy tactics to get the pigs to stay out of their water trough or to get feed into their feed trough, worrying when a pig was not eating or acting a bit down, trying to stay standing as the pigs use me as a scratching post, and learning to always wear pants that can get dirty or are already dirty. I’ve loved raising them and will also love to eat them.

Here we have someone who names animals, recognizes their individuality, and was an ethical vegetarian, yet now feels just fine about killing an animal and eating it after it’s outlived its usefulness to the “farming system.” Pigs, to her, have become nothing more than edible cogs in a wheel.

To me, the cognitive dissonance here is even greater than with someone who buys their meat in styrofoam packages. To look into the eyes of an sentient being every day for months and then to have no qualms about killing her takes a special knack for rationalization. It’s a level of mental disconnect that I have a lot of trouble understanding.

Animals as Property

My CSA has also started a practice recently that really bothers me. For a while now, they’ve been selling the eggs from chickens that are kept on the farm. At the end of the season, these chickens were then sold off for meat. Now, though, they’re selling the chickens for meat throughout the season, increasing the number of chickens that are killed each year. The chickens are sold primarily to Vietnamese and Hispanic immigrant communities.

This really bothers me because I love my CSA and I love what it stands for. The people that run it are friendly and generous and the recipes they print in their newsletters are 98% vegetarian. But, there’s still this deeply ingrained view of animals as property to be bought, raised, sold, and killed for human use rather than as sentient beings with self-interest and a will to live. It’s frustrating, and I really don’t know the way around it. In one sense, they promote the eating of fresh, locally grown vegetables in such a way that probably reduces the amount of meat being eaten, yet they still benefit directly from the use and death of animals.

What to Do

I’m continually baffled by how to proceed with people who should understand (and generally do) about veganism and should logically embrace it, but don’t. Hearing phrases like “it’s all part of the natural cycle of things” ring in my ears as a giant cop-out and reading articles like the one mentioned above really dishearten me. It’s painful knowing that there are people that love spending time with the animals and appreciate their individuality, but still kill them. These are the people that should be our allies. But instead, they wear even thicker blinders than most.

I’d love to hear about your similar experiences and how you’ve dealt with them. What does it take to push someone that has all the information they need and exhibits the necessary level of compassion, yet still doesn’t take that simple, final step of actual action?

12 Responses to “Knowing Your Food”

  1. Derek

    I have thought a lot about this. I have this intuition that the reason most people are not vegetarians is that there is something that they do not know — either that they don’t know the conditions animals are raised in or they don’t know that animals have a relatively complex mental life. However this does not seem to be the case. People may not know the details of modern farming, but they have a decent idea and they do know that it involves killing. Further they know from their pets that animals are capable of thought and emotion. So the intuition is wrong. It is not that people are not informed, it is rather that they just believe different things. They think that it is not a universal truth that it is wrong to abuse or kill something with a rich mental life. They think that there is a fundamental difference between us and them. Arguments from the natural order also come down to this.
    So if you want to convince someone with the requisite knowledge and compassion that they should be vegetarian I think you have to convince them that there is no morally significant difference between us and them and the same considerations given to people should be given to other animals.
    Of course a lot of people are just callous. You can convince someone that they can save a life by giving a small amount money to a charity and they most often won’t do it. People are not as motivated by their morals as they pretend to be.

  2. Tom

    I’ve been struggling with this myself lately. I was a vegetarian for 13 years, and recently (for the past year or so) started eating meat once in a while, maybe a few times a month. I mainly wanted to make sure I still really believed in being vegetarian – I’ve never been militant about it or tried to convince other people to stop eating meat, and I got to the point where I wasn’t sure if I was just being vegetarian out of habit or if it was still something I really felt strongly about. I’m still not sure how I really feel about it, or what I’ll do long-term. I’ll feel like I want to go back to being vegetarian one day, and then feel differently the next.

    The whole “fake meat” thing is actually one reason why I’m questioning it. Sure, you can get substitute meat products, but they’re almost all full of artificial flavors and are heavily processed. Is that really more natural than eating meat from animals that were raised naturally? (and here I mean cage free, grass fed, wild caught, etc; from local family farms if possible; and I know that you need to take these labels with a grain of salt but it’s the best you can really do short of running a farm yourself) I definitely oppose factory farming, feedlots, and things like that, but I think there might be a place for animals raised for meat in smaller farms that practice biodynamic farming; and sustainable wild-caught seafood.

    I’m starting to feel like a mostly vegetarian diet with some carefully chosen meat occasionally is the right choice for me. The main thing I keep getting hung up on is what makes it ok to eat some animals, but not others? It’s not like it’s a law of nature, each culture has different rules. But then again, so many cultures have meat as such a central part of their diet that there must be some core (evolutionary?) reason. The “I like the taste” argument might actually have something to it, would so many people find it appetizing if it wasn’t natural to eat meat?

    Sorry for the long-ish post, I’m still confused about this and where I stand, but that’s been my thought process, since you asked :-)

  3. Joseph

    The fact that you started eating meat again seems like you weren’t veg for ethical reasons. In the Western World at the very least, there is no reason to consume animal products aside from the desire to continue doing so. When is arbitrary killing ever justifiable?

    Also, one doesn’t have to consume faux meat when one is veg*n. Those products can be seen as helping people make a transition to veg*nism. I for one rarely buy Tofurky and the like.

  4. Marcy

    I would agree that particular scenario comes down to a deeply-inset “Us vs them” mentality meaning “we are human and they are not” but really meaning a la “Animal Farm” that we are “MORE EQUAL” than our supposed equals and friends in the animal kingdom. Frankly I think learning to kill and be around killing at a young age (farming and hunting are usual routes) take care of most of the desensistization.

  5. Kris

    I’m honestly quite shocked that you feel it’s okay to eat meat under any circumstances, Tom. To me setting parameters such as “grass fed, locally farmed if possible” to justify the unneccesary growing and killing of animals for consumption, is as baffling as saying “I would rape someone if the location was comfortable, I was freshly showered, it was on a nice warm night and if it looked like the girl has been having a good night up to that point.” Do you look more kindly on a man that beats his children but provides nice clothing and big house to them over a man who beats his kids and is poor? A beating’s still a beating.

    When you have to set ground rules to justify doing something, you know in your heart of heart’s that it’s wrong. When I make lentil stew I don’t have to tell justify eating it, I can just make it.

    Perhaps your real problems lies in not knowing how to cook. I don’t know you, but if you’re relying on faux meats, you may just be replicating omni meals and therefore it’s easy to crave something that you are in the habit of eating. There is a whole realm of food out there to explore. Once you get past Gardenburger not only does veg food taste better, but your palate (and hopefully your perspective) will change and the meat you crave will taste like what it truly is: death. Free-range death is still death.

  6. Tom

    Kris – Ok, I hadn’t heard or thought of that analogy before :( That’s definitely something to think about. Yikes.

    I do know how to cook, and enjoy cooking; most of the time when I cook I don’t use “fake” meat except when I just want something quick. Just tonight I made eggplant parmesan with eggplant from our local farmer’s market, it came out pretty good. (Joseph – Tofurkey is *nasty*, I made the mistake of trying it once, several years ago :) )

    As far as what’s natural or not, animals kill other animals for food all the time, I don’t see how that’s not part of how things work in nature. Regardless of how special we think we are, we humans are still animals, and as much as some people dislike it, and seem to want to deny it by living in cities, we’re still part of nature. What I’m trying to figure out for myself is if it’s really unnatural and wrong for humans to kill animals for food, or if it’s just that the way we do it has become so perverted and removed from anything that happens in nature that it’s become wrong. Where’s the line between repressing some behavior is wrong and repressing something that we’ve just convinced ourselves we should be ashamed of?

    My reason for choosing wild caught/grass fed isn’t to make it “comfortable”, it’s choosing to eat meat in a way that (I feel) is less harmful to our environment and more in line with how humans have interacted with nature for centuries.

    Honestly, the first time I had meat after over a decade of being vegetarian it was more of a test of myself, and my boundaries, than any kind of craving for it. Maybe it was a mistake, I don’t know. I still can’t say that I really “crave” meat, that’s why I rarely eat it, but I was somewhat surprised to not find that it tasted like death, I really expected to be disgusted and be reassured that I’d been making the right choice all of these years.

    Sorry if my comment seemed offensive – Ryan was expressing disbelief over something that’s been on my mind a lot lately and I thought I’d share my perspective.

  7. Tom

    One other thing I meant to add – one thing I keep coming back to is why are some animals lucky enough to be “pets”, while other animals are “food”? That’s what keeps popping up in my head when I think of eating meat. But then I wonder about the other side, where even most vegetarians I know think nothing of swatting at flies or mosquitoes, killing ants in their house, catching yellowjackets, etc. Where are these lines drawn, and why? Sure, there are some people that are fully consistent and never knowingly kill any other living thing, some Buddhists practice this, but I think they are really the exception.

  8. johanna

    Re: the CSA thing–yeah, that kind of thing upsets me w/our CSA too. In our first CSA, I volunteered to help w/the newsletter & got assigned to come up w/recipes to print every week. I made sure they were all vegan. A small thing, but given that, when someone is confronted w/an unfamiliar vegetable when they pick up their share, the first place they tend to look for recipes is in the newsletter (especially if they are older & less prone to use the internet, like in the first CSA we were in)…

  9. Joseph

    Tom, the fact that some animals are pets and some are food says a lot about or culture and the way we’ve been raised. We’re taught from a young age that dogs and cats are our friends but cows are good with a bun. How many of us truly question the efficacy of such statements?

    Of course humans are animals, but humans have the capacity to make moral decisions. To simply adhere to the “other animals do it” ideology is a fallacy, as other animals rape each other, eat their own feces, etc. We know better than to do such things, and that entails eating other animals when there is absolutely no reason to.

    Have you ever read Gary Francione? He deconstructs our relationship to our nonhuman animals as good as anyone.

    I’ve never tried the Tofurky ‘turkey’, but I have enjoyed the ‘cold cuts’. I’m more of a rice and beans kind of guy.

  10. Kris

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Tom. It is very brave of you to put yourself out on a limb in a place like this and I think these kinds of dialogues are important. I hope I didn’t appear too harsh in my last post.

    For me, the “we are animals” argument is one that I really struggle to discuss with people. Yes, most definitely we are animals. But to use that argument is to use it selectively. How separate are we from being animals in our daily lives, driving in cars, living in houses, using computers? Humans, in evolving, have done everything they can to distance themselves from nature, from their innate animalness, to “rise above” it and be “civilized”. But how similar are we in our core? The important things in life- safety, being with our loved ones, these are things all creatures share.

    We evolved into omnivores because we had to survive in the wild, during times of starvation. The pudge around my waistline, and the waistline of most Americans, the glutton, variety and availability of any food under the sun at stores and drive thrus is surely evidence that we are not in times of strife. Most people I know wouldn’t eat something that fell out of their hands and on to the street, much less hunt.

    We have the extreme luxury of even being able to have this conversation. We live in a society where we can eat soley because it tastes good, not because we are starving or struggling to survive.* We can take pictures of food, talk about food, linger over large displays at grocery stores. Most people eat so often that they don’t actually know how to feel hunger, for at the slightest twinge in the gut they start munching on a snack. We are all guilty of this to a degree.

    So why still eat animals? Why have we let every other aspect of our being evolve except our food sources? Sure, people fancy up a plate of meat with some parsley and a fancy sauce, but in reality it’s caveman food in a modern world. If you don’t feel the instinct to wring a squirrel’s neck and eat it when you’re walking down the street on your way to dinner, you’ve evolved out of searching for animals to eat. It doesn’t mean that your habits have evolved, though. You have to do that. If you do feel the instinct to catch a squirrel for dinner, than you have other issues that exceed this conversation. :)

    We are animals, but we have progressed to a point of cognizance where we can rationalize and empathize. We are lucky to have these gifts. They are gifts, gifts that we can extend to help and aid our animal brethren. We are connected to eachother, undeniably, and we can use our stance as humans to help other species.

    There is a huge disconnect between animals as pets and animals as food. I think the divide just continues to deepen, as people actually cook less and less and are less aware of what even goes into food. I had a coworker ask me the other day whether or not the dry cereal I was eating had eggs in it. Clearly not, as it was a vegan cereal, but also since when has there been egg in dried cereal?

    These disconnects only exist because we allow them to. We allow ourselves to see cats as friends and cows as hamburgers. We allow ourselves to feel contempt rather than pity for a homeless person, because we don’t want to face the reality of the situation. We allow ourselves to shut the window when we over hear a neighbor questionably disciplining their child in their backyard. We read articles about racism, homophobia and violence in our newspapers, turn the page to read the funnies and then go back to work. We are taught these things, to put blinders up, the same way some people are taught to hate and others to love. It can sometimes make people feel like they are turning their backs on their roots, they way they were raised.

    The truth hurts. It’s hard. It can make the world seem like a damn miserable place to be. But there are people fighting to make it better. And by taking responsibility for the disconnect we can help do our part.

    It can be hard to stand up for anything in the world, especially when you’re standing up against a strong current of tradition, habits, cravings, societal “norm”, etc. But if we don’t ask these hard questions and hold up these hard truths, what’s the point?

    You do have to draw a line. My husband and I do not kill bugs in our home, except by accident. We take them outside. This is extreme to some, not enough to others. You just have to decide what’s acceptable for you. There are plenty of fine points to debate, but those are side issues, distracting from the focal point of this post: people eating meat even when they know hard cold truths about it.

    I don’t even know if I said anything of substance in this post, as my mind is flooded with concepts and dialogue, but I am struggling to structure it. Thanks for reading.

    *This conversation is really meant to address the middle class folks who can afford food regularly, etc. The distribution and access to food debates are for another time. There are so many “what if”s that can be posed for so many situations, I’m trying to keep my argument clear. And also, when I say “you” I mean you in a general sense, regarding humanity. I’m not singling you out, Tom, or anyone else reading this, I’m just rambling.

  11. Tom

    First of all, thanks for reading and responding and not attacking…

    @Joseph – I haven’t read Gary Francione but his blog looks interesting, I’ll definitely have a look. I wasn’t trying to adhere to any ideology, right now I’m trying to make sure I think critically about both sides and decide what makes sense. A lot of society’s rules that separate us from animals (don’t eat your own feces, don’t rape each other) developed because the majority of people agreed those things are wrong and harmful, and most of these rules are pretty consistent across cultures. I don’t want to say it’s ok to eat meat because “everyone else does”, but if there was really some deep wrongfulness to it, then why aren’t there more cultures that are traditionally vegetarian or vegan?

    @Kris – you made the point that we’ve evolved past the need to do a lot of things, which is true, but I’m not convinced it’s necessarily always a good thing. We drive cars – but look how out of shape we’ve gotten, and how much pollution it causes. We live in houses and cities – but look how isolating this can be. We use computers – but look at how many people struggle with basic math and grammar these days because they rely on calculators and spellcheckers. We isolate ourselves from so much, and I’m wondering if veg*nism is just isolating ourselves from one more piece of nature that we aren’t comfortable with and would like to think we’ve moved past, when it’s really something that’s a part of life, that will end up being a mistake to lose in the long run.

    I know this is a risky thing to say here but I sort of find myself agreeing with some hunters that I’ve heard about, who refuse to eat store bought packaged meat, but will hunt for food. The idea is that if you’re not comfortable killing an animal yourself, then you shouldn’t eat it. (And since I’m definitely not comfortable doing that, and never have been, I shouldn’t eat any meat, so maybe there’s my answer :) )

    For what it’s worth, my wife (who is not vegetarian but respects my choices) and I also usually try to make bugs go outside rather than killing them, so I don’t think that’s extreme at all. Except for flies or mosquitoes, which can’t seem to take a hint.

  12. Joseph

    Hey Tom,
    There is certainly an ideological component to Francione’s writing, but at the very least he provokes people into actually thinking about their lives and the lives of those around them (human and non-human).

    To me, there aren’t more vegans out there has to do with culture. Again, we’re constantly taught to veg*nism is wrong, misguided or even dangerous, so only a handful of people actually contemplate the consequences of their food choices. As for the actual killing of animals for food (and bringing them under our overall domination), we as humans do so, mostly because we can. We disregard the similarities that we share with out non-humans brethren and merely focus on our cognitive differences. That is what makes us specieists. Just like racism, sexism and other destructive isms, out there, the perpetrators (i.e. speciesists) ignore the inherent rights of their victims.

    Hunting is always a very dicey subject, even though hunters comprise less than 10% of the population (at least here in America). I agree that hunting for food is more ethical than purchasing food that came from a slaughterhouse, but there are several questions one should ask themselves about the hunters in question. For instance, how many of them merely hunt for food? Do they mount their game and show it off to visiters in the homes? Do they get a rush when they shoot their kill? Also, hunting, is it really natural how humans do it? Is it really natural for a person to hide in a bush with a weapon yards and yards away? Perhaps the people should be fighting with their bare hands?

    Oopsy, gtg for now. Work awaits!

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