An Omnivore’s Torment

“It is not necessary to ransack the depths of every sea or to load our bellies with the meat of slaughtered creatures or to extract shellfish from unknown shores of the furthest sea”

– Seneca, from “Consolation To Helvia”

Books, Culture, Musings

Conflicted About Meat

“Paradise Locker Meats used to be located somewhat closer to Smithville Lake, in northwestern Missouri. The original plant burned down in 2002 when a fire broke out as a result of a ham smoking gone awry. In the new facility is a painting of the old plant, with the image of a cow running from the back. This is a depiction of an actual event. Four years before the fire, in the summer of ’98, a cow escaped the slaughterhouse. She ran for miles—which, if the story had ended there, would have been remarkable enough to justify its telling. But this was some cow. She managed to cross roads, trample or otherwise disregard fences, and elude the farmers who were searching for her. And when she came to Smithville’s shore, she didn’t test the water, think twice, or look back. She attempted to swim to safety wherever that might be. At the very least, she seemed to know what she was running from.”

– taken from the book “Eating Animlas’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

I don’t know exactly when it happened but sometime in the last decade or so I have come to be reasonably convinced (note the hedging) that consciousness is not like digital I/O that is either on or off but that it is in fact a continuum; and that all animals, and possibly all plants, share, along with all humans, a conscious awareness, of sorts. It’s probably easier to see the link with animals as scientists and animal lovers have since recognised that animals do have complex communication and survival systems that have nothing to do with pure “instinct”; that they have personalities and can compute rather complex spatial and communal challenges. It’s more difficult for me to say why I think the same applies to plants except to say that although we have different numbers of chromosones (we have 46, they can have more or fewer e.g. maize 20, tobacco 48) the underlying DNA in all our genes are of the same four nucleotides: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. We are not the same yet from the same. To some extent watching BBC nature programmes on plants have also shaped my view.

Being an omnivore who really likes meat it has lately become a cat and mouse affair when thinking about cutting down on red meat, at least. We are told white meat is ok but after reading Foer’s book one wonders. My usual excuses are that “It tastes good” and my favourite “But they eat each other and we have to eat too, so”. So what? Safran’s book elucidates in grim detail how fish/chickens/pigs are farmed, penned, drugged, genetically bred for fast reproduction and plumpness (interestingly never taste) and how these human-bred varieties cannot survive in open fields. Oftentimes unused to sunlight, deformed, living in faeces, artificially inseminated, dying from cramped conditions and stress etc.

Reading this (I’m halfway through the book) is leaving me quite conflicted about my own complicity in this sordid exploitation of our co-earth inhabitants and my duplicity, via uncritically patronising cheap foods, in abetting the appalling manner we slaughter these beasts. “Beasts”? Employing language is a good way to absolve one’s sin. Larger than just my guilt is the pandemic that some believe is waiting in the wings now that we have viruses crossing back and forth with impunity between birds, pigs and humans. Some people will say “but we’ve always had this, for at least 8000 years since the domestication of animals”. But never like this. Never like this with viruses that can cross continents in hours via modern human transportation. I leave you with a cheery story taken from Foer’s book:

“Generations of farmers have known that clever pigs will learn to undo the latches of their pens. Gilbert White, the British naturalist, wrote in 1789 of one such pig, a female, who after undoing her own latch used to open all the intervening gates, and march, by herself, up to a distant farm where a male was kept; and when her purpose was served would return home by the same means”. Clever girl 🙂