I am still making my way through Michael Pollan’s fascinating book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I think should be required reading for everyone. This morning I completed the section where he discusses the moral implications of eating meat and vegetarianism, and I just had to comment.
The argument Pollan presents is one I have heard before, but he gives it so eloquently, thoughtfully and cogently. Pollan takes a systemic, holistic viewpoint of nature, the ecosystem, and the animals, plants and humans that live within that system. In the system, everything has a purpose, even death. Predation is a natural part of the system that keeps animal populations to a reasonable size so that they won’t decimate the plants they depend on for food. The relationship between people and their domestic animals is a symbiotic one, in which the animal depends on the human for protection, food and shelter, and in return, the human gets meat, milk, eggs, work and companionship (in the case of pets). This is not a power struggle in which people dominate animals; it is a beneficial relationship, which the animal would not survive without.
For Pollan, the issue of morality comes down to not whether the individual animal is slaughtered for food, but whether the animal’s life was free of suffering. For anything in nature, their overriding desire is to be what they are. A cow wants to wander around and eat grass. A chicken wants to peck in the dirt and do chicken things. A dog wants to be a member of the pack (so don’t confine your dogs to the yard, please! sorry, tangent) and often to have a meaningful job to do. The question of morality comes down to whether the animal was deprived of a life in which it can express its essential animalness, or whether it lived a life of confinement, mutilation, needless disease and suffering before slaughter.
If you are wondering whether or not to become a vegetarian or questioning the morality of using animals for any purposes, I urge you to read this book and consider these arguments carefully. Pollan doesn’t condemn those individuals who choose vegetarianism on moral grounds. But he argues, and I agree, that the higher morality would come from choosing to eat meat, eggs and dairy that comes from animals that have been humanely raised and slaughtered, that have been given a life in which they could express their essential cow-nature or chicken-nature or pig-nature. Only as a consumer of animal products can you wield the power of the marketplace to effect change. The true sin, then, would be to consume meat but turn away from the inhumane practices of the factory farm and the industrial slaughterhouse.
As Pollan says:
The industrialization–and brutalization–of animals in America is a relatively new, evitable and local phenomenon. No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill and eat animals the way we do. Tail docking and sow crates and beak clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering four hundred head of cattle an hour would promptly come to an end–for who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We’d probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals, we’d eat them with the consciousness, ceremony and respect they deserve.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was a vegetarian for many years. Over the past few years, I have returned to eating seafood and poultry. I still don’t eat beef and pork–although if bacon or prosciutto finds its way into my food, I won’t eschew it–but that’s only because I never regained the taste for eating a big hunk of meat. Especially when it comes to chicken and eggs, I seek out and try to buy products from the most humanely raised birds I can find. And I’ll tell you a secret–the eggs of a happy chicken taste a whole lot better. Once I got over the shock of paying $3.00 a carton, I rediscovered the egg–the extra money is well worth it. After reading this book, I hope I’ll work a little harder to seek out and buy humane animal products, perhaps try to find a local farmer like the farmer Joel Salatin described in the book, a farmer who lives in real symbiosis with his animals, crops and ecosystem.
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