Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why I Eat Meat

I hate controversy and I love cooking, but there are some instances when what I hate and what I love unavoidably intersect. Meat is one of these issues. I just have to say, it is with great reluctance that I write this post.

The advertisement below can be found on Toronto Subways. I've noticed it during my commute and I have to say, I find it emotionally manipulative. It creates some false comparisons and other fallacies. It is not a good argument for vegetarianism. It is simple sensationalism.

This is not to say that I'm writing this blog post to bash vegetarians. In fact quite the contrary; I pay them great respect for being thoughtful about the food they eat and the affect they have on living things and the environment around them.  They have a commitment, and this is certainly saying more than can be said about most average meat eaters.

I have often grappled with the problem of eating meat. I love animals. I grew up with many pets. The idea of slaughtering them and eating them, well, it seems distasteful to say the least. To go full vegetarian would absolve me from ever having to harm an animal...or would it? More on that in a moment.

Anyway, here's the reason why I eat meat. These are not arguments. They are reasons, but I think good reasons.

1. It tastes good - the canine teeth in my mouth and my saliva's ability to easily break down animal proteins indicates to me that my body was well designed to eat meat. This is probably why I crave it. 

2. It is healthy....in small amounts. Animal flesh contains protein, sugars, calories, fats, iron, vitamin B and many other essentials. Because of its density, meat can pack a lot into a small amount, which means in some ways, it is more efficient to eat a small amount of meat than a gigantic pile of greens. Meat in modest quantities is good for you.

3. I love animals. 

No, really. I love animals. That is why I do not eat feed-lot beef. I do not eat battery raised chickens. I do not eat factory farmed eggs. 

I certainly eat meat though. I do all this because I love animals.  Just think, what if, for whatever reason, vegetarianism become the universal approach to food on earth? (which for many vegetarians, is the ultimate goal).

Paradoxically, there would be a massive extinction event. All domesticated non-companion animals would simply disappear (set them free and they would either starve or be hunted to extinction by predators - ironically ending up as food anyway). There would be no reason or financial ability to sustain massive numbers of chickens, pigs, cows, turkeys and all their sub varieties.  The Hollywood actress, Alicia Silverstone suggests that we save the farm animals by creating sanctuaries for them. I am not a judgmental person, but my God, that is breathlessly naive; a 'feel good' exercise that doesn't really have a point or could never really make a difference. Yes, I get it, animals are cute. They're adorable. I love them. But I also don't want them to go extinct. If you love pigs, eat them - because they would not survive without a food industry. 

Here's the deal about domesticated farm animals: if it's done right, they have actually won the biological lottery. 

For 10,000 years humans and animals have had a symbiotic relationships. We removed animals from the wild and placed them in protected pastures, provided them shelter, food, clean water and aided in their reproduction. These animals no longer had to endure predation, the elements, or the never-ending and exhausting search for food and water. Over time, humans also learned to protect them from illness, injury and a host of other concerns that a wild animal must face. These animals settled into a life for which the natural stresses of living in the wild dissipated and they became gentle and docile.  The only draw back was that at a certain age, perhaps younger than the expected age, they would be slaughtered and eaten. In the case of egg-layers and dairy animals, they live much longer, however their male offspring would be turned into food. Stress-free animals, we also noticed, provide much tastier meat than a terrified animal ruthless hunted down in the wild.  To me, this is the most natural of arrangements, and up until the last 50 to 100 years, it was set up quite like this. Everything changed when we started industrializing meat production. 

The horror stories you hear from vegetarian activists, awful photographs and clandestinely video-taped footage of massive feedlots, battery chicken farms and factory egg-laying warehouses are all true. In North America, large industrial meat farmers do not like photography of their facilities, and do not like to discuss them. There is no pride in the way they produce this meat; it is done behind corrugated aluminum walls, away from prying eyes. Most people, when they see a whole carcass hanging in butcher shop or the feet or head of an animal will usually crinkle their noses and say 'ewww'. You can thank the meat industry for that attitude. Our meat is cut into neat little shapes, drained and cleaned of blood, had it's skin removed and is neatly packaged in cling wrap - no evidence that it was an animal to begin with. And that's the way the meat producers like it - you don't ask questions, and they just keep shipping the ground meat. It never used to be this way. We used to be a lot more in touch with the realities of a dead animal and all its associative parts. Industrial meat production is a tragedy that should never have happened. It is the very definition of cruelty and it completely upsets that natural symbiotic relationship we had with domestic animals for thousands of years. These animals are even more stressed out then the ruthlessly hunted wild animals that we 'rescued' 10,000 years ago. 

But it's not an all-or-nothing situation. Take away the vegetarians' arguments centered around the horrors of industrial farming and show them a small farm for which the cattle are pastured and allowed to grow slowly and naturally or a chicken farm for which the chickens are not only cage-free, but allowed outdoors to scratch and peck the dirt like their nature requires them to do. These animals are then dispatched in a quick and painless way and their entire carcass treated with the respect it deserves by using all of its parts. Then tell them that you don't eat massive quantities of meat and that you have several meat-free days a week. What would a vegetarian say to that? Where's your argument now? It's now reduced to a simple concept: do we have a right to take that animal's life? 

Well of course we do. Does a lion have a right to kill and eat a zebra? (which I'll add, they do in a horribly cruel and painful way, quite often they are eating the animal well before it actually dies) 'That lion is doing what comes naturally' you might say. It can't help itself. Okay, well then there is an exception to the rule; you will allow that zebra to die a horrible death because somehow it is natural, and we as humans, with all our cleverness, do not need to do this. What about swatting a mosquito? What about killing a roach with a rolled up newspaper? When is it okay to kill something and when is it not? Why does a cute little piglet get a pass, but that infestation of rats is a-okay to completely decimate via horrifically cruel poison traps. Does the animal have to be cute? Is that what it really boils down to? And is that why the most effective ways to spread your message is to show an adorable puppy next to an adorable bit of veal? 

Here's what I think; animals do not have a right to life. They do however have a right to be free from human cruelty, especially if they are domesticated animals that are under out stewardship. 10,000 years ago, we took on the responsibility to care for these animals and in return they provided us with meat, milk, eggs and even companionship - we owe it to them.

Either way, we still need vegetarians and vegans. A lot of them, in fact. I think they bring a balance to the conversation, they provide a sort of consciousness-raising to our eating habits. Sure they can sometimes be preachy and a bit righteous, but then again, I'm certainly not innocent of those things either. It's all part of a larger conversation that I think we need to have with ourselves. The days of super cheap meat are going to be winding down. The growing cost of gasoline and other petroleum based products as well as the effect of climate change on our crops (including feed for animals) will start to affect the ways we farm and how much we pay for food. This is why I think there is more urgency to these issues now than in the past.  

We simply eat too much meat in this country. If meat wasn't so cheap and plentiful, maybe we would eat less of it, waste less of it and revere it for it's inherent specialness. How quickly we forget that an animal died for our hamburgers. 

I'm not afraid to discuss these facts with my children. I teach my kids animal anatomy using the very bones we're gnawing on. My youngest daughter's favourite toy is a little plush lamb, and yet I don't hide from her the fact that she is eating lamb when I feed it to her. Kids aren't easily grossed out and it's not that abstract a concept for them that we are eating meat that came from something that was alive. Why do we protect them from these realities? It leads back to my discussion a few posts previously regarding our 'relationship' with food. I think it's best to be fully cognizant of what we're eating. It just feels more right to embrace meat for what it is: a dead animal. A delicious, juicy and tender dead animal.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Bob:

    Thought this was a great piece. I can even enjoy my steaks a liitle more now.

    Just hope no one tells me that it hurts the bottle when I twist the cap off my next beer.

    There's always someone out there whose trying to ruin everything.