Mark Bittman tackles the pet/farm animal divide in his column today, pointing out the ridiculousness of protecting animals from cruelty when they’re pets, but allowing prolonged torture and abuse if they’re farm animals who are being “processed” for food (warning on that link: it has some pretty graphic descriptions of animal cruelty).
[I]n New York (and there are similar laws in other states) if you kick a dog or cat or hamster or, I suppose, a guppy, enough to “cause extreme physical pain” or do so “in an especially depraved or sadistic manner” you may be guilty of aggravated cruelty to animals, as long as you do this “with no justifiable purpose.”
But thanks to Common Farming Exemptions, as long as I “raise” animals for food and it’s done by my fellow “farmers” (in this case, manufacturers might be a better word), I can put around 200 million male chicks a year through grinders (graphic video here), castrate — mostly without anesthetic — 65 million calves and piglets a year, breed sick animals (don’t forget: more than half a billion eggs were recalled last summer, from just two Iowa farms) who in turn breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, allow those sick animals to die without individual veterinary care, imprison animals in cages so small they cannot turn around, skin live animals, or kill animals en masse to stem disease outbreaks.
All of this is legal, because we will eat them.
We have “justifiable purposes”: pleasure (or, at this point, habit, because eating is hardly a pleasure if you do it in your car, or in 10 minutes), convenience — there are few things more filling per dollar than a cheeseburger — and of course corporate profits. We should be treating animals better and raising fewer of them; this would naturally reduce our consumption. All in all, a better situation for us, the animals, the world.
Yes. And that doesn’t even touch on how cruel the industry is to its human workers.
I’m not a vegetarian, and I don’t plan on going fully vegetarian any time soon (although I was pescatarian for about 10 years). Instructing people to go full veggie isn’t going to work — a lot of people don’t know how to prepare vegetarian-centered food, a lot of people want to eat the foods they grew up eating, and a lot of people like the taste of meat (or are at least used to it). A lot of people also (and this is my personal reason) view food as a fundamental pleasure, and see it as something to be experimented with and shared and tried and tasted in all of its forms. The idea of removing a major source of food from the list of options isn’t going to fly if you believe that food is for something more than just to fill you up. But that pleasure-centered view of food — that it’s not just fuel, but also something that should nourish your body well and should be variable and exciting — actually lends itself pretty well to reduced meat consumption, because it inherently requires you to eat and cook outside of your comfort zone which, for a lot of people, means non-meat dishes.
Bittman isn’t saying that we have to forgo meat completely. Just that eating meat every day is not the greatest, for animals or the environment (or, frankly, for your body). And that if you’re going to eat meat, paying the actual cost of that meat is crucial — that is, getting your meat from sustainable farms that aren’t wildly subsidized by both the U.S. government and their own irresponsible and cruel practices.
All of these things, of course, are not possible for everyone. Cheap meat is cheap for a reason, but it’s all a lot of people can afford; if there are five mouths at the table, a larger quantity of cheap meat makes more sense than a small bit of sustainably-farmed meat. Cooking takes time and clean-up takes time, so sometimes take-out or fast food is easier. Fresh fruits and vegetables are often pricey or not available. Etc etc. There are barriers.
But every time these conversations around food happen at places like Feministe, there seem to be two camps: the People Must Revamp Their Lives camp (who suggest, for example, that it’s totally easy for an entire family to go vegan) and the People Cannot Do Anything More camp (who suggest that everyone is trying as hard as they can and any suggestion that people should make incremental changes is shaming and harmful). And I think both of those views are kind of ridiculous. Are there very real barriers in the way of people being able to eat healthy? Yes, absolutely. Is it possible for every individual to be a perfect eater at all times? No, of course not. But are there small changes that most people can reasonably make, if they are given the tools to make them? Yes. Many of those tools have to come from something bigger than the individual — we need the time to cook and clean up (not possibly in a culture that values Work Work Work and demands that low-wage workers work two or three jobs to stay afloat); access to healthy foods (often not the case if you live in a place where the local stores just don’t carry fresh fruits and vegetables); and access to affordable foods (which doesn’t happen when the government subsidizes the worst agro-businesses, which artificially lower the cost of the unhealthiest, most over-processed “food” out there, and when big corporate food entities have a lot of political sway).
But I want to push back on the “no individual changes can be made” argument a little, because I think it’s both wrong and condescending. There’s rarely nothing that we can do on an individual level (and sometimes there really is nothing; if that’s the case, then ok). Usually the things we can do are very small, but small isn’t nothing. One thing I’ve found particularly helpful, since I’m single, is cooking with friends. I teach P how to make mussels, she teaches me how to make beans and spicy quinoa, we both learn something new and get a good meal out of it. I also go to the Times Recipes for Health and Bittman’s own Minimalist column to get food ideas, often based around whatever I have in my kitchen. And the more I cook based on recipes, the more I understand how to cook without them, and the easier it is for me to just throw some things in my kitchen together and make it taste good.
Cooking more also illustrates how much easier it is, a lot of the time, to make vegetarian food. So I eat vegetarian most days of the week, and don’t have to make a conscious effort to do “meatless mondays” — a meat-based meal is the unusual one. It’s healthier, and a lot cheaper.
Again, the eating habits of a single 20-something Brooklynite are obviously not translatable to everyone (or even most people). I’m not suggesting that everyone eat like me (or even that I’m a near-perfect eater most of the time. I’ve been known to eat a block of cheese and a bottle of wine for dinner. Yesterday I had a cheeseburger, a taco and a cupcake for lunch. I’m not a perfect eater by any stretch). But crucial for me in developing as someone who tries to be somewhat health- and socially-conscious about what they purchase and put in their body has been information-sharing. It’s been reading about the industrial food industry and its cruelty and its environmental and human devastation, and also gathering recipes that allow me to use healthy ingredients, and also choosing restaurants that ethically source their meat, and also pooling knowledge with friends and learning how to cook hands-on. It’s little things — it’s having Monday TV and cooking-dinner nights with friends instead of going out or ordering in. It’s cooking dinner together on Friday and then just going out for drinks. It’s going through my kitchen and seeing what I have and what I can make from it rather than hitting the grocery store or the deli. It’s getting an apple when I’m hungry instead of a cookie. It’s walking a few extra blocks to the green market for my vegetables. These are things that a lot of people already do; for me, they’re small shifts that are manageable in my daily life.
So, my question is: What do you do? How do you negotiate being a socially conscious person (which I assume you are if you’re reading this blog) with the very real day-to-day need to feed yourself and perhaps your family on a set income in a particular place? The point isn’t to say that because you do something, everyone else can, too; it’s to recognize that we all make efforts and we make them in particular contexts, and perhaps by sharing our best practices, we can learn and adopt some new ones.