Sunday, November 29, 2009

On the Morality of Eating Animal Flesh

As we finish the last of the Thanksgiving feast leftovers, let us revisit the issue of the morality of eating animals. No, this isn’t going to be a holiday lecture on the virtues of veganism. Actually, I have been thinking about this for a few weeks, ever since I was told that a group of vegans were protesting in front of KPFA-FM in Berkeley, CA. I’m a member of the news department there, so I wrote to one of the protesters to find out what the gripe was. It seems that someone in their group was promised a time slot for a regular show on animal rights back in 2006, and it never happened. (The program council that allegedly promised them this time was disbanded  soon after). They also disagreed with a book that was offered as a fund drive premium.

I told the protester that we had a reporter who specialized in stories about animal rights, that if they disagreed with the book premium they should come forth with an author who could be interviewed during the next fund drive or on one of our book shows. I also said that while a regular show might not be forthcoming, they could ask that a documentary be played during one of the holidays when the news goes from an hour to a half-hour, or contact some of the public affairs producers to see if anyone was interested in interviewing one of their members. The vegans could also add their voices to the growing chorus of people who want to see more original programming on KPFB, a 100-watt adjunct station that serves largely as a local repeater and emergency back-up.

All of those suggestions were deemed totally unacceptable; KPFA was towing the pro-meat corporate line.

KPFA can be accused of many things, but being in the pockets of the meat-industry lobby is not one of them.
And I say unapologetically that I eat meat--mostly poultry, if you want to be technical—and I see nothing morally wrong with eating meat. Life on this earth is based on killing and eating. There are many other animal species on this planet who kill and eat other animals. Humans are animals. We can survive on this earth  the same way other species do.

Where immorality comes into play regarding the eating of meat is in the way we raise and slaughter our food animals. Most of us have never hunted, fished, or herded. (Some insects “herd” others, so our herding activity is not unique in the animal world). With regard to what modern humanity does with its food animals, I learned something useful from the animal rights activist I wrote to about protesting KPFA. He pointed me toward a film, narrated by Joaquin Phoenix, called Earthings. I have placed the video on my blog.

Earthlings vividly shows how we cruelly mistreat the animals we use for food, clothing, medical and military research, and recreation. It even showed how we can be cruel to pets, by buying them from puppy and kitten mills, not spaying or neutering them and then leaving the strays to a terrible life and death.

The film is a just indictment of human cruelty to animals, but not, in my mind, an indictment of eating meat, or even under certain circumstances, wearing their skins. (I don’t see why anyone in the lower 48 should wear fur. But the Native Peoples and even the whites who live in the circumpolar region might find it reasonable).

But I found that the film Earthlings makes a major mistake in conflating issues that don’t belong together. It opens by claiming that humans are guilty of the prejudice of species-ism, and in trying to show that species-ism is a prejudice, it brings forth examples of other prejudices. However, though its examples of racism were appropriate pictures of African slavery, Nazism, and the Ku Klux Klan, its example of sexism was early 20-century suffragettes marching for the vote. Marching for woman suffrage was putting women ahead of men and therefore a prejudice. At least, that is how it looked to me. I suppose it could have been the filmmakers intent to mean that because women did not have the vote they were not equal to men and THAT was prejudice. But their juxtaposition of Klansmen marching with a flag and suffragettes marching with a flag did not convey that idea to me.

Likewise, the film conflates the eating of animals per se with the corporate mistreatment of animals, the latter of which leads to all the perfidies of puppy mills, factory farming, rodeos, slaughterhouses, etc. Humans have consumed animal flesh for thousands of years, and in many cultures, give thanks to the animal’s spirit before consuming it. Modern day hunting cultures, such as the Inuit, know how to live off the land without depleting the animals or killing just for sport, rather than subsistence. Yes, humanity in olden times drove some species to extinction, to wit: the dodo. But it is industrial production that has driven the extremes of cruelty depicted in Earthlings.

I remember in the mid-60’s being taken by my parents to a turkey farm to select a live Thanksgiving turkey. This was a treat as a turkey so fresh was different from the prepackaged turkeys we usually got at the supermarket. The turkeys were in a crowded pen called the LBJ ranch, so named after our then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, but there was still room for them to walk around. They had brown feathers and normal-sized breasts, unlike the standard white-feathered, top-heavy, holiday turkeys of later decades. After we chose the one we wanted, a butcher picked it up and carried it upside down to the next room, just about 20 feet away, where he tied it to a counter and sliced off its neck with an electric blade. Soon the bird was plucked and wrapped for us to take home.  The kill was quick and clean and nothing like the conveyor belt method of killing many birds in a short time which prolongs their agony and makes then witness the death of others of their own kind before dying themselves.

The film showed an allegedly kosher slaughterhouse violating the kosher rules. Once again, we had an industrial mass production slaughterhouse, the kind that did not exist when the kosher rules were invented thousand of years ago.

The cruelty to animals that occurs in factory farming and slaughtering reflects the cruelty to humans working in that  same system. Workers are poorly paid, subject to psychological stress (which they often take out on the animals) and possible physical injury. That cruelty is also passed to consumers who are more and more often the victims of food-borne illnesses. Earthlings and videos like it that depict extreme animal cruelty show is a system of mass production and profit motive, in which animals are simply units to be processed. Gone is the reverence for the mystery of life using death to sustain itself. This system alienates humans from the rest of nature and from their own humanity. They become cogs in the great machine, unable to contemplate the cruelty of skinning an animal alive, or castrating it without anesthetic.

The way to end this cruelty is not to abandon eating animal flesh but to abandon the industrial, profit-driven system that engenders this cruelty by seeking the fastest and cheapest way of processing meat. Those who choose to eat animal flesh should seek out organic small farms and real kosher (halal in Islam) butchers and others, like the old “LBJ ranch” who are working in non-industrial settings where they can observe religious or secular rules for humane butchering. The factory farms that produce tons of animal waste that pollute local land and streams should be disbanded.

A major difficulty in achieving such a redesign of our food system is the fact that the family farm has been all but driven out of existence by the corporate system. Only about 1% of the American population works in agriculture today. Relocalization of food production would reduce if not eliminate centralized factory farming where certain areas (often inhabited by the poor) bear a disproportionate burden of pollution so that the rest of us can have our meat. (Much as the poor in Appalachia bear a disproportionate burden of pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining so that people in other regions can have the energy.

Those of us who eat animals and use their skins for clothing can take great steps to eliminate gratuitous cruelty to animals by doing such things as getting our pets from shelters, reputable breeders or friends and neighbors whose own pets have had litters; pass on the pet shop whose animals were probably gotten from a “mill”. We  can turn the capitalist system against the people who mistreat animals for profit by making the venture unprofitable. And we can spay or neuter our pets to prevent the births of unwanted animals. We can refrain from attending circuses that use animals, dog and horse races, bullfights and other events where animal are forced into sport for our amusement. If we are hunters or fishers, when should eat, give away or sell what we take for food. We should not kill animals for trophies or engage on “catch and release” fishing for sport. (How sporting would you think it would be if someone put a hook in your mouth and made you fight for your life?) We should ask ourselves if it is necessary to wear fur, and look for signs that “faux fur” is actually real. (Tapered ends and linings made of skin are tell-tell indicators of real fur).  We can also make it known to our universities and elected officials that we object to the dubious experiments carried out on animals in the names of medicine and national security. Ask your candidates for public office where they stand on the issue.

As for the ecology of meat—how we treat the earth is also a moral issue—we should choose, when we can, the meats that come from animals that have been fed their natural diet, e.g., grass-fed beef. The feeding of grain to animals to fatten them for market faster wastes energy. And we should ask the sellers of meats from naturally-fed animals why it costs more to buy that type of meat than the conventional meat. Why is grass more expensive than grain? (Whole Foods Markets, are you listening?)

I think that if we are doing what we can to eliminate gratuitous cruelty to animals we can eat animal flesh with a clear conscience. We are predators and we are omnivores.
We can choose to be vegan or vegetarian but for some people, that will not work physically. Meat helps me control my high blood sugar; it is something filling to eat that is not a carbohydrate. it also helps a friend who suffers from low blood sugar; he tried to be vegan, but a vegan diet put his blood sugar on a roller coaster.

Vegans and vegetarians also have moral, ecological and health issues to face: GMOs, destruction of of the forests and farmlands of indigenous communities for monocrop plantations, biopiracy through the use of patents to steal the knowledge of indigneous farmers for corporate profit, and the premature harvesting of crops so that they have longer shelf life in the store. (Think bananas!) The loss in nutrition from this practice is the price we pay so that the producer does not lose profit.  The profit motive is also behind the misuse and overuse of certain plants, such as the corn used to produce high-fructose corn syrup, unfermented soy and the oversweetening  or oversalting of many products today. There are also various chemicals used to promote shelf life or enhance the look of the food. Heavily processed vegetables and fruits are just as bad for you heavily processed meats. Once again, it is the industrial way of agriculture that is the real culprit.