The past few weeks have been filled with some serious thinking about the way I eat. In reality, it's actually a long-time casual topic of reflection that has been put at the forefront of my mind since I read "Omnivore's Dilemma," a widely read by Michael Pollan book about the modern food system.
The book has made me realize several things about the way we eat. For one thing, I'm more acutely aware of how often food is advertised and marketed as being "real," "made from real ingredients," or "all natural" (and variations thereof). What does it say about us that we are meant to be excited and pleased to see our food be real or natural? Shouldn't ALL our food be real and natural--shouldn't we expect our food to be real and natural? Additionally, I have a more complicated and nuanced understanding of what "organic" is. The word has lost much of its meaning and is actually not a serious guarantee of anything better than non-organic. I've never bought into the craze that organic is by necessity better, but now I am clearer on when and why organic is and isn't better.
Then there's the issue of how much corn we consume in the various food products. I have known this for some time, but I'm more concerned about it, as well as the impact that it has on the economy and health of the state I grew up in--one of the leading U.S. growers of the crop.
But the issue most important to my life, and the thing I've been reflecting on the most, is the issue of how we use and consume animal products...meat. I've read several articles about the atrocious living conditions of animals in the modern meat production industry. I've also seen first-hand the cramped quarters these animals live in--you don't live in the Midwest without seeing confinement facilities for hogs, cows, and poultry. I've long had an uneasiness about the process of raising animals for meat, but reading "Omnivore's Dilemma" has pushed me past the point of uneasiness.
I hope that I'm an ethical person, and I want to be a person who is humane not only to my fellow humans but also to the animals who are part of this world. I do not see a moral problem with eating meat, but I'm increasingly convinced that my sense of justice and morality cannot, and should not, include participating in a food system that allows animals to be confined in too-small spaces, fed foods (i.e., corn) that their bodies aren't meant to process, and given hormones (along with the fatty corn diet) that forces them to grow faster than their bodies are able to sustain. The reason those chicken breasts you buy are so enormous? Because of hormones and corn...the chicken it came from probably spent most of its life unable to walk on legs that were not meant to carry so much weight.
These animals are living short, miserable lives so that we can eat meat cheaply. The low cost of meat has a very high cost in our moral obligation toward other creatures. If I want to be the moral and ethical person I know I want to be, I have to make the decision to eat accordingly. And so, I have decided that I will only purchase meat from animals that I can trust were treated humanely, allowed an opportunity to experience a life that is in line with their natural desires to be outside and eat a healthy diet (i.e., not just corn). I also want to eat meat from animals that were not subjected to growth hormones that force growth that outpaces their skeletal ability to support it. It's less about my health and more about their basic right to a decent life.
This means a fairly radical change. Buying meat is now more expensive (which means eating far less of it). It also means scanning restaurant menus for vegetarian options because most won't serve meat that isn't from the industrial food chain. This means a very challenging dilemma when going to visit family and friends. I'm not sure how I am going to deal with all of that, but it's something I'm going to have to figure out. I don't want to be complicit in a cycle that is so unfair.
On a side note, there's also the issue of how the industrialized meat is processed by people working in terrible conditions at great risk to their well being. That's an issue that merits an even longer discussion.