First Do No Harm

My grandfather was a dairy farmer.  His whole life was adapted to the needs of his cows, planting and harvesting, milking twice a day.  I have ridden through the fields in the wagon behind his tractor as it filled with corn.  I remember the cows ambling into the barn at milking time, the smells of silage and clean manure, the fascination of watching the milking machines and following the course of the fresh milk up into the pipes and through to the warm, richly scented milk room from whence the Land O’ Lakes truck would come and pump it all away.  I saw newborn calves with their mothers in box stalls, and watched my Uncle Ed remove a milker from one teat and shoot milk into a cat’s mouth for my amusement.  I would giggle helplessly and beg, “Do it again!” and he would grin and say, “Go on and play now, just don’t get too close to their tails.”  The cows weren’t pets, but there was nothing going on in that barn that a little girl couldn’t see. 

I was discussing the book Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, with a coworker, and he said that a friend of his who read it went vegetarian as a result.  “Maybe I shouldn’t read it then,” I said, “Because I love meat!”  But I was intrigued by the reviews, and reading food books is what I do, so I put it on my library list.  It finally came last week. 

I didn’t really expect this book to change my mind or my behavior in any major way.  I’ve read Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan and plenty of books that address factory farming.  I already know that animals every bit as intelligent and capable of pain as our pet cats and dogs are living and dying in misery and filth.

I put a lot of effort into buying meat and eggs that are cruelty-free, healthful, and delicious.  But my resolve is full of holes.  I don’t hesitate to eat whatever meat is served in restaurants or at friend’s homes.  I’ve been known to pick up a carton of eggs at the regular grocery store in a pinch. 

I’ve been thinking for a while now about the meat I eat in restaurants.  I eat out a lot, and I love the pleasure of sitting down with a friend and catching up over drinks and dinner; I enjoy good service and good food.  Where did the chicken in my Tikka Masala come from?  I know where.  But I can’t imagine my life without Chicken Tikka Masala in it.  Or Gyros, or Pho, or three-star Chicken Pad Kee Mao.  I tell myself that at least I’ve reduced the amount of factory-farmed meat I eat.  But the unpalatable truth is that I simply can’t bear to let go of these beloved foods even though I know their true cost. 

And then there’s the meat my friends serve.  I enjoy their cooking and don’t want to spurn their hospitality.  Meals are about sharing and community and friendship.  I don’t want to reject that or declare myself an outsider.  I don’t want to be a self-righteous pain in the ass who requires a special meal.  And what do I even say?  Am I a vegetarian?  No.  I just find the particular meat you generously chose to buy and prepare on my behalf unacceptable.  Clearly that doesn’t work.  So I make the trade-off and I eat it. 

This is the mildly uncomfortable place where things stood until I read Eating Animals.  I don’t know why this particular book did it, except that it was in my hands at the right time.  We change when we’re ready to change.  The book was a well-written (although perhaps at times hyperbolic) and very personal account of the author’s investigations into the meat industry and his own moral reflections.  For him, vegetarian is the way to go. 

By the time I finished this book, I had to stop the swirl of conflicting thoughts in my head, and think about what I know for sure:

  • Factory farmed animals live miserable, painful, unnatural, crowded lives.
  • Commercial slaughterhouses are dirty places where inhumane treatment is the norm, and torturous deaths are common.
  • The American meat industry is designed to produce maximum profits, not high quality meat or acceptable living and dying conditions for animals.
  • Commercial meat is flavorless, and full of antibiotics, hormones, fecal matter and other contaminants, bleach, and food-borne pathogens.
  • The above conditions are not necessary to feed the world.  We’re not feeding the world as it is, and we could still effectively feed ourselves and also give chickens enough room to turn around, not make pigs live in wire pens over shit lagoons, nor dismember cows that are still alive.

And on a more personal level:

  • I believe that it is ethically acceptable to farm, kill, and eat animals as long as these are accomplished humanely. 
  • I want food that tastes good and is free of contaminants.
  • I love meat and don’t want to stop eating it.
  • I don’t want to make my friends and family uncomfortable.
  • I don’t judge other people’s decisions about food.  I am only accountable for myself.
  • I can no longer in good conscience eat meat from an animal that suffered throughout its life and died an unnaturally painful death for my meal.

So I decided to give up factory-farmed meat for lent.  During this time of sacrifice, we step out of our ordinary routines.  We slow down and reflect.  We strip away the inessential to make room in our lives for the transcendent.  I’m giving myself a timeout to become a truly ethical omnivore.  I know I don’t want to hurt any more animals.  The karmic debt stops accruing now, and I’ll figure the details out as I go.

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2 thoughts on “First Do No Harm

  1. summercushman

    Three cheers for your honest reflection! As you know I gave up eating any and all meat years ago, but have had an ambivalent relationship with dairy. I, too, am trying to figure out where I “draw the line” regarding this issue. Restaurants and the homes of others are certainly the trickiest part… I will be interested to hear what comes of your Lenten practice.

    PS-I love Jonathan Safran Foer!


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