Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Foundation: A Desire to Eat Humanely

The author and a milk goat.
I was born in the midst of the stagflation of the 1970's.  My parents were young, under-employed, and just starting their life together. 

Mom was influenced by the back to the land movement and dad, raised in the post-war hunting culture of the Midwest, was able to take advantage of increased opportunities afforded by the rebounding whitetail deer population.

Consequently, my earliest experiences of food are intimately bound up with its provision.  My life started with lessons which fit the basic formula, "We owe respect and care for the animals which feed us."  More fervently than any other time in my life, I still believe this to be true.

In the decades that followed by parents prospered, our culinary opportunities expanded, and I gave the matter of food little thought.  In my early 30's, however, circumstances began to change.  The Omnivore's Dilemma and other works focused public attention on our food system.  My wife and I purchased our first home, housed on ten acres and I began to see opportunity in those acres.  Our first child was born and I began to reflect upon what lessons I wanted his home life to impart. 

I began to raise a few animals of my own and returned to the field as a hunter.  The more involved I became in the procurement of my own meat the more difficult it became to ignore the philosophical question, "Why spend money supporting farming practices which treat animals in a way fundamentally opposed to my own values?"

A cousin, feral food, and the author.
Cattle, chickens, pigs, they exist for our benefit and every aspect of their environment, and no small part of their genetics, is a consequences of human engineering.  We are as gods to them.  What remains to be asked is, "What kind of gods should we be?"

I evolved a desire to eat more humanely and began to implement practices which would lead me to fulfill that desire.  I measure my progress to that goal through two components: the economic impacts of my eating in the present and the character growth and addition of new skills which are the freedom which will fuel future choices.

Economically I aim to continually decrease my contribution to those aspects of the food system who in improving their profit margins by tactics which place undue stress on animals or otherwise restrain the animal from living according to its nature.  I accomplish this through informed commercial transactions with the industrial food system, raising or buying meat from local sources, and hunting.

This is the keystone to my approach: sheep need to be allowed to be sheep.  Cattle should be allowed to live as cattle.  Whitetail deer, bear, grouse, largemouth bass, lions, wolves, should be allowed an existence that comports with their basic natures and then dispatched as humanely as possible.  Some will become food for the masses, others will serve niche markets, and still others will be culled in trophy hunts or for population control.
Character growth is freedom.  I do not want to be a person so bound to his desires that I regularly fail to uphold the economic goal above.  From time to time I really want to bite into a Slim Jim or grab a Hardee's sandwich on the run.  I do not need them, I want them.  Strength of character is the freedom to resist desire.  In other words, I believe the ability to act according to one's convictions on any issue is a learned skill.  The learning requires the doing and I do that I might learn.

While I strongly believe in my values of animal husbandry, they are not the only values I possess and I am not yet willing to make them the values that rule all the others.

Three examples:

1.  I do not insist that my wife, children, or anyone else change their diets on the basis of my judgment.  Forbidding my children a ballpark hot dog or taking issue with my wife if she brings home a rotisserie chicken after a hard day will not, in the long run, further my goals. 

I am able to provide a year's worth of humanely raised meat so the family's annual consumption of industrial meat is far below the national average and decreasing.  If I were to attempt to force complete compliance, I doubt my family would be interested in carrying the experiment forward in their own time.

2.  Assuming I find it otherwise fit for consumption, I will eat any food that is about to be thrown in the garbage.  Food that is bound for the landfill has lost its economic impact and it is more honoring to the animal which was the source of that product to consume it than have it made into landfill.  This is about more than a co-worker's leftover pizza. 

My local meat cutters often have to pay for the disposal of excess fat trimmings.  I, however, can use those trimmings to make my own ground meat into sausage or render it into cooking lard, both are cost-free ways of expanding my culinary opportunities at minimal cost. 

3.  I find myself in agreement with Jesus about the importance of receiving the hospitality of others.  When he sent out the 70, he gave the command, "When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you" (Luke 10:8).  If a first-century Jew could put relationships over dietary rules, we should take seriously the question if we should too.

If someone cares enough for me to invite me into their home or to bring a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken to work, I am less interested in forcing them to constrict their hospitality to my values than I am in accepting their kindness.  The money has already been spent; my eating has minimal economic impact on the food system makes contact with another of my values: receiving hospitality with an accommodating spirit. 

Some of the author's Icelandic Sheep.
There have been improvements made in the direction of animal welfare over the last decade.  Cattle feed lots, or at least many of them are better than they once were.  Hog operations appear less distressing to hogs than they do to our human sense of comfort. 

Sometimes what is called progress, however is questionable.  Take for example the declining use of forced molting, a process which allows laying hens to produce eggs for a second year.  Without it layers become economically unviable after one year, cutting their life expectancy in half.  

Improvements have been made but more progress remains.  I still would not be able to bring myself to treat animals as they are treated in the industrial system.  If I would refuse to do a thing myself, what kind of man am I if I knowingly pay others to do for me that I might feign blamelessness? 

Two batches Mutton stock and a half jar of lard 
My alternatives have not been expensive, but they do require planning.  Some skills had lain dormant for decades and other skills were learned.  Equipment was acquired.  My character has grown so that I can joyfully eat as a vegetarian, or skip a meal or two when alternatives are lacking. 

Much of what I have done is within the reach of the vast majority of Americans, even those without access to agricultural land.  If have room for a $200 freezer and within driving distance of an agricultural area, you can take responsibility for knowing that your meat was raised humanely through simple visits to the farm on your way to pick up a side of beef at a locker plant.  I'm not talking about the farms who cater to organic, humane, gmo free crowd.  You can find a dairy whose practices approve, they will have beef available.  You can find a kid raising hogs for 4-H, he'll sell you a pig that won't make the fair.  If you pay for the processing, I am liable to give you my older laying hens.  My neighbor might do the same.  
The problem is not entirely with the industrial food system but how, as a population, we have allowed ourselves to become dependent upon it.

I don't think the biggest driver for change will be legislation or even producer guidelines but for eaters to be a little less lazy about the acquisition of their food. 

I do not claim perfection.  I don't even know what perfection might look like.  I can conceive, however, of positive changes.  I desire that my short existence on this globe be defined by my own perception of what it means to live in right relationship with the living things which surround us.  Anthropocene.

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