September 21st, 2006


Food ethics

The first time I considered becoming a vegetarian was in high school, but I was loathe to give up my favorite dishes at the local Chinese restaurant, which was the height of cuisine in NW Wyoming. No shredded pork in garlic sauce? I don't think this will work for me.

Since then, I've toyed with the idea a couple of times a year, but the truth is, I don't want to be a vegetarian. I like meat, and I don't have a problem with animals dying for me to eat. When I was little, we raised chickens and pigs, so I learned pretty early on where meat came from and what it was about.

What I do have a problem with, and have for years, is the meat INDUSTRY. The massive scale of meat- (and egg- and milk-) raising operations leads to a perversion of what I think of as a natural system, and this has been the biggest prod for me to consider vegetarianism for a long time.

But I still don't want to be a vegetarian. I still like meat, and it's important to me not to limit myself, both from an enjoyment point of view and from a social one. I certainly don't mind accomodating others' food needs, but it's important to me to keep my particularities very limited, especially because I plan to live in cultures where not eating meat would force me to do the unthinkable and turn down hospitality, which I'm utterly unwilling to do.

Additionally, it feels right to me to eat meat. We coevolved with all the animals we've domesticated (for food and otherwise), which means that we have a symbiotic evolutionary relationship, at least in overarching terms, though not, obviously, in individual ones.

Reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I haven't quite finished, has reraised a lot of my thinking about this, though, and that, paired with the thinking I've been doing since the permaculture institute last spring has really clarified for me where I'd like to be on this front.

One of my highest values, on which I've come to clarity recently, is understanding and being conscious of my place in natural systems. It's easy for us to make the distinction between "natural" and "man-made", as though we were somehow outside of the natural world. We certainly do a lot that removes us from natural systems, but to think that "we" and "they" are unconnected is a dangerous conceit.

One of the ways that we're most tightly tied to natural systems, whether we're conscious of it or not, is in the food we eat. Our food comes out of the ground, or eats something that comes out of the ground, and that's all there is to it. So when we put filth into the ground where we're growing food, guess where it ends up?

But this isn't really a rant about organic vs. nonorganic, because I don't actually think that's a very interesting discussion anymore. Organic agriculture is certainly preferable in terms of sustainability and the healthfulness of foods, but it's so vastly incomplete, and what Michael Pollan calls "industrial organic" isn't really that great in terms of natural systems.

So, in my ethics, monocultures are bad. Functioning sustainable systems are good. Part of functioning sustainable systems are animals. Okay, good.

The problem, of course, is that eating within my ethical system could very well turn into a full-time endeavor, and one that makes it more difficult for me to accept people's hospitality than simple vegetarianism. And it's just not realistic for me to say that I'm going to opt out of the unsustainable food chain, because, well, I'm just not that fanatical, much as I might like to be.

I can, however, work in that direction. This will be an ongoing project for me, but I'm planning to try to find a local polyculture farm where I can buy goods, especially meat, milk and eggs. I don't think I have the time to put up a lot of local produce this fall, but I can take advantage of small local farms having done so, too.

I sure hope that over the years, this becomes increasingly easy to do, and not the reverse.