Reconsidering Meat

Eating Animals bookcoverI’m struggling. Last night I finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, which isn’t so much a treatise against eating meat, as it is a thoughtful exploration of why we still tear into that bacon double cheeseburger despite knowing

  • There is now a scientific consensus that animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to global warming—outstripping even the transportation industry in its production of greenhouse gases;
  • Factory farming’s industrial slaughterhouses have created worker conditions that Human Rights Watch describes as “systematic human rights abuses“;
  • Farm animals are genetic mutants. Broiler chickens, for example, are so heavy that their bones cannot support their weight, making it difficult for them to stand. The birds reach their market weight of 3 1/2 pounds in seven weeks.
  • A typical hog factory farm produces 7.2 million tons of untreated manure annually;
  • Overuse of antibiotics in animals is causing more strains of
    drug-resistant bacteria, which is affecting the treatment of various
    life-threatening diseases in humans. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, between 5 and 10 percent of all hospital patients develop an infection, leading to an increase of about $5 billion in annual U.S. healthcare costs.

For some, those facts alone are compelling enough to make them put down that drumstick. But for many of us, myself included, giving up meat is hard because meat represents more than a craving or basic sustenance. As a Shelf Awareness review of Eating Animals noted, “giving up meat is difficult because of the stories we build around the food we eat and the culture and tradition built through these stories.”

I’m thinking of my Aunt Kathy’s meatballs. As a child, I was a picky eater and a majority of what my aunt served me at family get togethers would remain on the plate. Squid salad. Yuck. Dark turkey meat with gravy? No way. Spinach? Are you kidding?! But when she served spaghetti and meatballs, my stomach growled and I ate every bite.

“I dream about your meatballs, Aunt Kathy,” I told her.

“You hear that, Joe Pace?” my aunt turned her husband and squawked. “She dreams about my meatballs!”

What if I went to see my aunt in Arizona and she placed a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in front of me? Suddenly, I’m not just refusing meat: I’m refusing to be a part of an integral story from my childhood. I’m refusing the joy we shared over the one thing I would eat.

Perhaps that disappointment would be fleeting; however, I imagine that being a vegetarian forces you to confront the stories you tell about yourself. I consider myself a compassionate, thoughtful person, but can I still be that person and eat meat, knowing what I know?

For now, I’ve resolved to drastically cut back on my meat consumption and to eat more conscientiously. That means seeking out farmer’s markets and local producers. It’s a small step, but perhaps it will lead to another. And another.