Friday, June 24, 2011

Eating Animals

I recently read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, as it interested me both from the food production perspective and also because my diet relies heavily on animal products.

Briefly, Eating Animals is a combination of personal narrative and investigation into the U.S. meat production system.  Foer wrote the book in response to his then soon-to-be-born child because he suddenly had the responsibility of deciding someone else's diet.  He writes in the context of our culture of meat eating, and focuses on our consumption of the main food animals - beef, pork, chicken, and salmon and tuna.  His exposé of our animal production system is not new, yet not well known.  Specifically, Foer documents the abhorrent treatment of the animals, and the environmental and public health consequences, caused by waste problems and systematic antibiotic use, respectively, that are driven by the demand for cheap meat by the consumers and profits for the producers.  While he does highlight the improved efforts of the "local" or "real" food movements, he concludes that while there may be a better way to produce meat, vegetarianism is the only morally sound means to rid ourselves of the consequences of meat production.

He provides a strong argument against factory farmed animals, which I strongly agree with, and does an important job of moving beyond beef production to describe the similarly loathsome production of pork, poultry, and fish.  Regardless of personal diet, the vast majority of people would agree that animals deserve much better treatment and a better life before slaughter than we currently provide.  But even from a merely human-centrist perspective, our current system that promotes grain monoculture and waste run-off, and the chronic administration of antibiotics, is beginning to and will ever increasingly damage the lives and health of human populations.  Clearly, our current system has to change.

More personally, this book gave me a much better understanding of vegetarianism.  I had at one time, like many others, seen vegetarianism as more of a cultural rebellion or purported health cause than a moral cause.  It's hard not to when the loudest voices are the most offensive (PETA - I could have chosen much worse) or blatantly self-centered (Skinny Bitch).  I have much respect for Foer's writing, and his ultimate conclusion to not eat meat or feed it to his family.  And as an individual, it could very well be the most efficacious way to improve the treatment of animals.  However, I disagree with his fundamental argument to absolutely avoid meat, as the complexity of diet, health, and our relationship with animals warrants a more complex behavior.

After reading the book, I am still unclear about his stance on eating any animal products - dairy and eggs - since he doesn't explicitly address this; but the same ethical reasons against factory farming also apply to dairy and egg production.  While meat production has additional ethical considerations such as higher slaughter rates and the fact that these animals have essentially been bred for meat and not for life (the size of conventionally produced chicken breasts are not ecologically favorable), it's hardly a home-run to choose industrial-based vegetarianism over being an industrial-based omnivore. However, if he is advocating a strictly vegan diet, then he should have further expanded his argument.

I agree with Foer that health and food production are often improperly conflated and often hinder any argument for one or the other.  For one, there is no a priori reason to believe that the optimal human diet, or even a sufficiently healthy one, is also the most sustainable; although health does apply restrictions to the argument of food production - man can't live on bread and water alone.  While there is no question that humans can do well on primarily vegetarian diets, vegan diets are undeniably trickier.  Strict veganism is not widely practiced, and almost assuredly requires supplementation of primarily animal derived nutrients - Vitamin B12, the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA - or the ones more easily attained in animal products - iron, choline, and iodine.  To reiterate, there are many peoples who live very well on vegetarian and nearly vegan diets, such as the Seventh-day Adventists, so it can be sufficiently healthy, but it is not necessarily so.  
The American Dietetic Association's position is that "well-planned vegetarian (including vegan) diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle", including infants and toddlers.  The operative word is well-planned.  Lacto-ovo vegetarians probably don't require much additional effort to attain sufficient nutrition over omnivorous diets, but vegan diets likely need much more.  Synthetic or naturally extracted sources of isolated nutrients add a considerable amount of nutrition to a strictly vegan diet.  But I am skeptical of how sure we are of this based on some basic observations: humans evolved eating animals and it likely permitted the development of our large brains, we have more than simple taste preferances for animal products, and while many cultures eat low amounts of animal products and even less meat, they probably don't avoid animal products at all cost, but instead eat them opportunistically. Furthermore, strict vegan cultures have established cultural traditions that optimize their diets, whereas American vegans can only operate in the available food system where there is no precent for a strong vegan culture.  We are obviously capable of more than our primitive desires, but I don't think we should ignore them for the sake of an absolutist argument.

And this is my major criticism of his argument: Foer attempts to produce a black and white argument where we should not eat any animals.  He seems to conclude that even the selective omnivore's diet, expressed in In Defense of Food, is not morally sound enough.  As an example, he describes our paradoxical relationships with pet animals (dogs and cats) and meat animals (pigs).  As a western culture, we are appalled by the notion of eating dogs but pay little attention to the misery of factory produced pork, which are much smarter and likely as empathetic as dogs.  As it goes, these relationships and selective omnivory are relativistic, and therefore fundamentally flawed.  But I think it's foolish to try and reduce the complexity of any aspect of the human experience down to simple and static, or black and white.  I would rather strive for a dynamic stability of sorts.  As an example of what I mean, high level fighting sports are a complex human phenomenon.  Rivals literally live and train for competition as tough going to battle, yet this mentality and violence is largely contained "within the ring" and does not spill over into a vendetta.  This is a dynamic stability between aggression and respect, and would fail if it was one or the other.  Why can't our relationship with animals be similarly dynamic?  We evolved eating animals and do well eating them, but we also evolved empathy with other humans, which easily extends to animals.  We don't need to forgo one evolutionary trait for the other. They can converge on an optimal solution where we still eat animals, but establish a unique relationship and respect for them, especially in light of their literal sacrifice.

I still hold that the selective omnivore approach is the most comprehensive solution to a complex problem.  It's not simple or black and white, but it is reasonable and addresses many issues.  An individual's choice to avoid meat could very well be more powerful.  I respect Foer's cause, and his writing offers a powerful perspective and additional inspiration for improving our current food system, particularly meat production.  Given my current financial situation and the situation of our food system, I will still eat factory farmed animals.  But that doesn't mean I won't try to improve.  At the end of the day, this change has to start somewhere.  Here's to meatless lunches.

Pinquito beans, rice and sautéed kale.  Butter from pastured cows.

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