Disclaimer: These are my views and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A New Year's Resolution

When I get back to the states, I'm going to be a full-fledged veghead. Here's why:

While once invoking the image of a person with a “holier than thou” attitude and a false sense of superiority, over the years, the word vegetarian has taken on new meanings for me. Now, I see vegetarianism as socially, ethically, and environmentally responsible behavior. To begin, I would like to cite, in part, the source of my conclusion, the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. After reading this book, I found it impossible to continue to eat meat with a clear conscience. In the following text, I will not attempt to do what Foer did in writing his book (I would suggest that everyone read the book). Instead, I would like to share some relevant information that led me to my decision.

The social impacts of an omnivorous diet are alarming. Given that, “upwards of 99 percent of all animals eaten in [the United States] come from ‘factory farms’” unless as consumers we are vigilant about knowing exactly where our meat comes from, we can safely assume that it was raised on a factory farm (Foer 12). Although we enjoy the nostalgic notion that the animals we eat are raised on farms, for the most part, this is sadly no longer the reality of the situation. When we eat meat, we support the processes that create that meat. In other words, “every time you make a decision about food… ‘you are farming by proxy’” (172). By purchasing meat, we support the factory farm system, for which, the bottom line is maximizing profit: “In the world of factory farming, expectations are turned upside down. Veterinarians don’t work toward optimal health, but optimal profitability. Drugs are not for curing diseases, but substitutes for destroyed immune systems. Farmers do not aim to produce healthy animals” (188). In other words, in order to make more money, animals’ welfare, and arguably, human welfare is disregarded. We’ve been eating sick animals, full of antibiotics, whose disease resistant strains of viruses are increasingly jumping the species barrier (Avian flu, H1N1, etc).

The day to day operations of the factory farming system raise two important ethical considerations, the proliferation of animal suffering and human sadism. Animal suffering is typically written off by two standardized responses, 1) they’re going to die anyway, and 2) they’re not us. Foer discusses the implications of eating dogs, which is relevant here, but seems a little outrageous in the States. I’ll admit that from an outside perspective, Americans, including myself, are weird about dogs. Although my relationship toward dogs has changed due to my life in Cambodia, I am more wary about petting them and have to be on constant guard while running, it still pains me to see a dog being beaten. With respect to the first response, I am unable to dismiss cruelty towards animals as just, even if I am told that the dog is being raised for food (not unlikely in some cases). The second response is telling of our disassociation with certain animals and fondness of others. Dogs are allowed just treatment, because they’re our pets, but what about pigs? We allow ourselves to disassociate from certain animals in order to justify the way they are treated. This is not based on reasoning. Pigs are arguably smarter than dogs and feel pain in the same way that dogs do. Fish are even harder to muster sympathy for: “We can recognize parts of ourselves in fish ¬¬–spines, nociceptors (pain receptors), endorphins (that relieve pain), all of the familiar pain responses – but then deny that these animal similarities matter, and thus equally deny important parts of our humanity. What we forget about animals we begin to forget about ourselves.” (37) As much as I have come to love sushi, the same profit driven lack of sympathy and environmental degradation is present in the fishing industry as well.

Illogically, a person with sympathy for eaten animals is generally regarded as a sentimental extremist while a person lacking the same sympathetic impulses for a dog would be looked at as damn-near sociopathic. Here are two telling questions posed by Foer: “Is caring to know about the treatment of farmed animals a confrontation with facts about the animals and ourselves or an avoidance of them? Is arguing that a sentiment of compassion should be given greater value than a cheaper burger (or having a burger at all) an expression of emotion and impulse or an engagement with reality and our moral intuitions?” (74) And yes, these are weighted questions, but worth considering none the less.

Although it is easy to forget about how animals get onto our plates, the reality of the factory farm is dismal: “At another farm, a yearlong investigation found systematic abuse of tens of thousands of pigs. The investigation documented workers extinguishing cigarettes on the animals’ bodies, beating them with rakes and shovels, strangling them, and throwing them into manure pits to drown. Workers also stuck electric prods in pigs’ ears, mouths, vaginas, and anuses. The investigation concluded that managers condoned these abuses, but authorities have refused to prosecute. Lack of prosecution is the norm, not the exception. We are not in a period of “lax” enforcement—there simply never has been a time when companies could expect serious punitive action if they were caught abusing farmed animals” (182). These are disturbing facts, here are some more: “animals are bled, skinned, and dismembered while conscious. It happens all the time, and the industry and the government know it. Several plants cited for bleeding or skinning or dismembering live animals have defended their actions as common in the industry and asked, perhaps rightly, why they were being singled out” (230). By picking these quotes, I left out some of the most egregious animal abuses mentioned in the book in favor of the ones that are common. It’s hard to think about these things. It’s uncomfortable. It’s especially hard to connect the purchase of a steak in a fluorescent lit supermarket for a family barbeque with the reality of the factory farm system. A telling quote by Frank Reese, a poultry farmer, accurately represents our dilemma: “People care about animals. I believe that. They just don’t want to know or to pay. A fourth of all chickens have stress fractures. It’s wrong. They’re packed body to body, and can’t escape their waste, and never see the sun. Their nails grow around the bars of their cages. It’s wrong. They feel their slaughters. It’s wrong, and people know it’s wrong. They don’t have to be convinced. They just have to act differently. I’m not better than anyone, and I’m not trying to convince people to live by my standards of what’s right. I’m trying to convince them to live by their own…How much suffering will you tolerate for your food?” (114-115)

In addition to the massive amounts of suffering that the factory farm inflicts upon animals, humans suffer as well. Temple Grandin, who conducted an industry wide audit of cattle slaughterhouses, “has argued that ordinary people can become sadistic from the dehumanizing work of constant slaughter. This is a persistent problem, she reports, that management must guard against” (231) As a society, I feel it is wrong to support a system that breeds sadism. Additionally, from a global perspective, the factory farm system is an inefficient way to feed large numbers of people: “The world doesn’t, by the way, need to produce nearly as many animals as it’s currently producing. Factory farming wasn’t born or advanced out of a need to produce more food—to ‘feed the hungry’—but to produce it in a way that is profitable for agribusiness companies” (209). It produces cheap meat, but one of the externalized costs for this meat is a shortage of food, “the vast majority of what we grow in the United States is fed to animals…The UN special envoy on food called it a ‘crime against humanity’ to funnel 100 million tons of grain and corn to ethanol while almost a billion people are starving. So what kind of crime is animal agriculture, which uses 756 million tons of grain and corn per year, much more than to adequately feed the 1.4 billion humans who are living in dire poverty? And that 756 million tons doesn’t even include the fact that 98 percent of the 225-million-ton global soy crop is also fed to farmed animals” (211). Using this quote, I am not trying to say that all animal farming is complicit in this wastefulness as, “such data is inapplicable to grazing animals kept entirely on pasture, like grass-fed cattle, goats, sheep, and deer” (218). But, if the majority of animals raised for meat come from factory farms, as they do today, we must accept the fact that the system is inherently wasteful and somewhat gluttonous: “Americans eat 150 times as many chickens as we did only eighty years ago” (137). Associations between diet and problems like obesity and heart attacks lead me to believe that we are not becoming any healthier by increasing our consumption of meat.

Another problem caused by the factory farm system is widespread environmental degradation: “According to the UN, the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, around 40 percent more than the entire transport sector—cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships—combined…The most current data even quantifies the role of diet: omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do” (58). Beyond animal agriculture’s role in global warming, it “is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global… [Animal Agriculture] should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale”(59). It’s difficult for me to say that I care about the environment and continue to support “animal agriculture.”

In college when I stopped eating meat, I was confronted with the following question, “where will you get your protein?” This is usually followed by a story about a friend of a friend who was a vegetarian or a vegan and got sick. It’s easy to get worried about this because we all want to be healthy. Here are some facts about diet: 1) From the American Dietetic Association (ADA), “Well planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for all individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes” (144). 2)“Elsewhere the [ADA study] notes that vegetarians and vegans (including athletes) ‘meet and exceed requirements’ for protein. And to render the whole we-should-worry-about-getting-enough-protein-and-therefore-eat-meat idea even more useless, other data suggests that excess animal protein intake is linked with osteoporosis, kidney disease, calcium stones in the urinary tract, and some cancers” (144). 3) In Diet for a New America, the origination of the “protein myth” is debunked. It originated from experiments done on rats, but in the case of humans, “if people are getting enough calories they are virtually certain of getting enough protein.”

The trickiest part of my decision to refrain from eating meat, comes from the cultural context in which food is placed. As Foer puts it, “nothing—not a conversation, not a handshake or even a hug—establishes friendship so forcefully as eating together” (163). Given the previous points the following statement seems hypocritical; I cannot justify stopping eating meat here with my host family. My host mom here has never cooked anything remotely vegetarian besides rice. Every dish has some form of meat. The difference with this meat is that it doesn’t come from a factory farm. This fact, combined with the implications of what a rejection of their food would do to our relationship at this point, allows me to justify my decision. I do not believe that this decision goes against my belief that the factory farm system is wrong and needs to end, and the most effective way I can see to put a stop to it is to stop supporting it economically. As hyperbolic / cliched as it sounds, our day to day decisions as consumers truly have the power to change the world.

Happy New Years Everyone!

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