I grew up partly on my father’s hobby farm, and I’d seen plenty of animals slaughtered. They didn’t seem overly pleased with the process, whereas walnuts and soybeans just kind of acquiesced when you tried to eat them
If I’d lived on a balmy beach somewhere, with coconut palms swaying and avocados tumbling and other sources of plant-based protein and fat throwing themselves at me from trees and vines, I would be able to say, without hesitation, “this meal was produced without cruelty.” I could eat and be satisfied and do it again and nothing with a nervous system would be hurt in the process. But the only source of protein that throws itself at you on our beaches is capelin, and maybe a moose on the road on your way to a bonfire. And for those to be eaten, they most surely have to be dead.
So where does a strict vegetarian on this forbidding North Atlantic rock get their essential protein and enough fat that they don’t dry up and blow away? The grocery store: avocados, nuts, tasty coconut oil, plus your usual bean- and grain-based proteins, all shipped in from the mainland and often well beyond, usually from places about which most of us know very little.
How’s this for part of an ethical diet: the avocado industry in Mexico is so violent and corrupt that the buttery green fruits are increasingly referred to as a “blood” export. We’re all sick to death of the back-and-forth over how much California’s drought is affecting almonds, but any amount is too much. In India, women workers are suffering chemical burns to their hands from the corrosive juices they’re exposed to shelling cashews for export. And while the global producers of coconut oil claim their industry is sustainable, you can’t ship that much of anything around the world in plastic tubs without some kind of ecological, and eventually social, consequences.
Of course it’s not just the animal-avoiding shopper who enjoys these imported delicacies, but it is the animal-avoiding shopper who depends on them for nutrition. The more liberal vegetarian can get their hands on local eggs and milk and, increasingly easily, local cheese and other dairy products. If you’re willing to eat meat, your options for eating local increase massively, including your Thanksgiving turkey, salt-tinged lamb (some say the best in the world), and, if you know the right people, moose and caribou. Every year, local meats become more accessible. They’re not cheap, nor should they be: it costs a lot to make good meat.
Plenty of people find the idea of eating meat uncomfortable. And it should be, not because it’s somehow wrong, but because it’s significant. Knowing that you’re alive because another creature died is simultaneously comforting and disquieting. There’s a reason many cultures have rituals around meat; meat should be a big deal. It reminds us that we are, after all, animals, part of the food web and not something outside of it.
I don’t think people should eat more meat, necessarily. I think we should eat better meat: local, small-farmed or hunted, sustainable, minimally processed, respectfully prepared. If you have to eat protein and fat to live – and we all do – isn’t it more ethical to support a local farmer than to support appalling labour conditions overseas? Reserving compassion for chickens and cows while denying it to exploited human workers seems misanthropic at best.
We don’t need more factory farms; those establishments are ecologically disastrous and they degrade the nature of the animals they produce. But to say that we shouldn’t eat meat because of factory farms makes as much sense as to say that we shouldn’t wear pants because of sweatshops. It’s not the product that is the issue, it’s the mode of production. Small farms, backyard farms, well-managed hunts, and a varied small-scale fishery would put more food on our tables than most of us realize. We have a terrible food waste problem here in St. John’s, but our great-grandparents had an efficient way to convert food waste into new food: get a pig, feed it your leftovers, eat the pig. Repeat annually.
Small farms, backyard farms, well-managed hunts, and a varied small-scale fishery would put more food on our tables than most of us realize.
We would also do well to broaden our notion of what constitutes meat. Many writers have suggested that goat could be a sustainable alternative to beef on the western table, but few people around here have tried it (local goat is available at Taste East Inc on New Gower if you want to give it a go). In the US, heritage breeds of pigs, cattle, and sheep are on the verge of extinction because there is no market for their meat; if farmers can’t make money off them, there’s little incentive to raise them. And while seal isn’t everybody’s favourite dinner, it’s meat, and there’s a lot of it.
If you think meat is weird or eggs and cheese are gross, that’s okay. Personally, I don’t care if you eat three burgers a day or if you subsist on a steady diet of grass clippings and unbleached cardboard. What I care about is creating a stable food system based on local foods grown under dignified conditions. Until we move beyond our “out of sight, out of mind” approach to food, we are all complicit in dietary cruelty, and none of us gets to claim a position of ethical superiority in the grocery line-up.
Article by Andreae Callanan