In the past few years I’ve read several books about food and meat production, Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan), Grub (Anna Lappe & Bryant Terry), watched the film, Food Inc. I reached a tipping point recently while reading Eating Animals (Jonathan Safran Foer). A perfect storm of revelation and repulsion happened. I guess you could call it reflection, my wide-eyed, middle of the night omnivoric mortification over the wretchedness of industrial animal farming and its product, a lot of iffy meat. CAFO, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, euphemism for an horrific practice that has become our norm; and CFE, Common Farming Exemptions make it all legal. (Lappe, Grub).
It’s not like I didn’t already know about this stuff – I haven’t been living in a cave – but there’s a proverbial tipping point, different for each of us, where something else kicks in.
I don’t think of myself as a killer of animals. I doubt that many of us meat-eaters do. I just cook them, put them on my plate and eat them. I recognize the irony in that, but raised on a ranch, I accepted the reality of animals as food (for many of us) a long time ago – though I’ve never thought of them as animal units as is their tag in the CAFO industry. The new reality of industrialized factory-farmed meat is a whole different animal, and I mean that literally, though it’s not a bad pun. Industrialized farming got started by accident in the 1920s and in the past fifty years has gradually – now emphatically – become our domestic norm (99% of available meat is industrialized). Upside is that there’s a lot more cheap meat available, downside, it’s a really bad life for the animals, the hygiene of the meat is compromised (an understatement!), environmental and public health undermined.
Anna Moore Lappe states that it’s very difficult to find meat these days that isn’t factory farmed. Jonathan Safran Foer further defines difficult with specific percentages. Up to 99% of all available meat in the U.S. comes to us via industrialized factory farming: 78% of available beef, 95% and 97% respectively of pigs and turkeys, 99% of chickens. The photos in this piece are what we like to imagine is the truth, but the truth is that small farming operations like Plum Forest Farm and Sea Breeze Farm on Vashon Island, Skagit River Ranch, among others, provide a minuscule amount of our available meat.
You have to really want it, go out of your way to find it, pay more upfront for meat and fish that isn’t contaminating both the planet and our bodies via its production. Europe banned the importation of U.S. hormone-raised beef in 1985, and the European Union continues the ban.
I was eight or nine when my dad thought I should learn how to shoot a gun. It was a -22 I think. He showed me how to aim and shoot at soaring clay pigeons slung into the air with a slingshot gizmo. I was a haphazard shooter and my Annie Oakley career as a gunman was short-lived, but in those few days I practiced and aimed as carefully as I could at Jack Rabbits inhabiting the back pastures of our cattle ranch. I remember feeling appalled at the possibility that I might actually have hurt one of them. Three days of a killing spree – if indeed I hit anything at all – were enough for me. My dad apparently came to the same conclusion years later when, living in Alaska, he would hike for hours, indeed half the night in summer, with a camera and never again a gun. We never gave up eating meat. Funny how that is in our culture, except for dogs and cats, that we think about animals as plates of food and not as creatures with lives to live in spite of their destiny to be eaten.
But this isn’t about the kill of the conscientious hunter, but revelations in print and film – and reality! – that give new meaning to those meaty plates of food we omnivores buy at the store.
I’d read the books I’ve mentioned, seen the film and begun wee hours’ musings about it all when I discovered this article on the Gourmet site, Carbon 101. I thought it worth sharing. Though I recommend the reading and watching the film, this brief article provides succinct, relatively non-judgmental information about what is required/recommended to put meat on our plates. Go ahead and buy your meat they say, but be aware of a few things as you do. For me it means less meat, carefully chosen.
Even then, from what I’ve read there are no guarantees that what I think I’m buying is what I’m actually getting.
I think I trust PCC (Pacific Consumer Coop). They seem to be conscientious about their sources. But I must admit my confidence has been shaken. Meat from small farmers at Farmers’ Markets is more costly, another reason to consume less of it, but at the same time it’s decidedly cleaner food. We’ll say that it’s too expensive. But if the *cost of fuel, transportation, environmental degradation and subsidies that corporate farms receive are factored in, in balance it’s a lot better deal for all of us.
Can we omnivores get by with eating significantly less meat raised on reliable small farms when most of the earth’s environmental degradation is related to the raising of domesticated animals for food? And aside from the moral, environmental, ethical issues of factory farming we do need to figure out ways to feed a burgeoning world population. How to accomplish that with integrity in regard to our own bodies, the animals and the planet? Many of us are rethinking our meat eating habits and finding ways to moderate.
I’ve consciously chosen not to include graphic details of the industrial farming processes – this is a family show and the specifics are readily available. I do hope you’re inspired to reassess your appetite, but not to lose it entirely. (And then there’s the decimation of our oceans’ fish. More lost sleep.)