Sunday, March 15, 2009

thoughts on vegetarianism and our relationship to animals

I've been reading a book that has raised many questions for me about some of the foods I eat.

I know it's more polite for people who make certain choices to keep quiet and not judge those who don't act similarly. I certainly don't think that I would have responded well to any pressure from guilt-tripping vegans or vegetarians or radical environmentalists or global poverty activists or other viewpoint pushers. I'm thankful I had the opportunity for my views to develop naturally and gradually, and I don't really want to put that pressure on anyone else. However, I have been thinking about this, and the writer in me needs to write in order to process these ideas. So please don't be offended.

I'm not one of those people who became vegetarian as a child when they realized they were eating animals. I knew very well where my meat came from. I saw a cow that was to be killed when I was maybe 5 years old, and I don't know if I heard it killed or just imagine that I heard it. I saw carcasses hanging in the markets in Bolivia. When we moved to rural Illinois I saw cows and pigs being raised in small and large farms. I saw the dairies. It didn't really bother me; I actually enjoyed learning about farming. (One exception: I do recall once being appalled when I saw the tiny pen that a sow was kept in when she was having piglets. It was only a bit larger than she was. She could move less than a foot in any direction, and couldn't turn around.)

I gradually transitioned to a less-meat diet because I was obsessed with cutting my expenses so I could save money and quit the job I was no longer able to believe in. Lentils are much more affordable than meat.

It wasn't squeamishness about eating animal flesh. It's been some time since I ate meat, I don't know yet if I would rule it out permanently. Yet some questions have come up as we think more and more seriously about becoming self-reliant, and looking closely at what is involved in "producing" our own eggs and milk (which we still consume at this point).

Then recently, I've been reading "The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter" by Peter Singer. And I'm learning about how the majority of meat, eggs and milk are raised: on enormous factory farms. I understand the market constraints that push good people to take on these huge operations. I know some of these people personally and I believe that it may have been the only way they saw to make a living at farming.

The entire efficiency and profit obsessed food industry is flawed, and blaming any individual without examining the root of the problem is unfair (and that would be a whole other essay). Finding the sources of the problem and crafting a solution is an enormous task. My overly simplistic anti-capitalist position may not be the right way, although it sure is tempting to just run away from the whole greedy profit driven mess.

After thinking this over more, I'm realizing that my objections with commercial milk, egg, or meat production is that besides being cruel, wasteful, and enviromentally dangerous, it's just so far away from what the natural life cycle of the animal would be.

A few examples:

Egg farmers either dump or kill and sell male chicks after they hatch. They are the offspring of a bird that is bred to produce large numbers of eggs. The males are not considered financially worth raising to sell as meat. Other birds are bred for the kind of body that is considered desirable for meat.

Dairy farmers must keep their cows producing milk almost constantly, which requires them to get the cow pregnant 4-6 weeks after it gives birth to a cow. A cow's gestation period is like a human's, 9 months. By getting the cow pregnant shortly after birth, they ensure that the cow will resume milk production shortly after its milk supply dries up from the previous pregnancy. The strain of being pregnant and maintaining unnaturally high levels of milk production takes it toll on a cow. While a cow living a natural life could live to be 15 to 25 years old, the average dairy cow only lives 3-4 years before it fails to produce the level of milk that is profitable to the farm. It then is killed for meat.

What about the calves that are born to these cows? The females may be raised to become dairy cattle. The males are either killed young as veal, or raised to become beef.


I think that there is such a thing as ethically raising animals. However, I would prefer to let the animal be part of a system of life, rather than just used as a food production unit.

A chicken that wanders around a yard, eating insects, creating poo/fertilizer, and laying eggs, some of which actually hatch and are nurtured to become chickens...that chicken is living a whole life. [We've read that ducks are a little more pleasant to have around than chickens. I always thought chickens were too high strung and cranky. Ducks have gentle, musical voices, and their beaks aren't pointy.]

I don't have a problem with eating the eggs of birds. I don't really see myself having the guts to kill a duck to roast, though. Especially once I knew its unique personality. And this raises the dilemma, what do you do about the males? Do you just let them be a part of your menagerie? For now, I think I would. Apparently ducks do well foraging for themselves, so they aren't an expense to feed. And I'd build a coop or shelter from scraps of wood, if necessary.

If we raised ducks for eggs, I'd like part of our plan to be to take advantage of their propensity to eat slugs and bugs that are hungry for the garden plants.


In the same way, I don't think I'd want to have cows on a farm, unless they had a "job" other than producing milk and offspring. Making them get pregnant all the time, just so that we can have milk, seems unnatural. And what to do with the calves? Wouldn't the mother want to have its calf around for a while? I can't imagine it not being sad if it was separated from its calf. I would rather let it nurse the calf, and then take the rest of the milk, rather than separating the mother from its calf.

What do you do when your herd grows? Sell the cows to be butchered? It's something you'd have to be ok with. I think it would be cool to use the cows to plow a field or pull a cart. That way the male cows could earn their keep, too.

We could raise sheep for their wool. Then we could shear them and they'd be earning their keep without needing to be killed. They fertilize pastures, too. And I'd have to learn to spin yarn and take up knitting in the winter.


Where does all this lead to? I want to know what is a natural relationship between humans and "our" animals. What is a balanced, natural way to raise animals kindly, to allow them to live full, healthy lives. How can we as humans benefit from the animals, but care for them at the same time.

I think I need to spend more time learning about this. But I know that the meat, milk, and eggs sold in our stores does not represent the type of relationship that I am looking for.

Which is why I'm really longing to get some land, even just a bit, for a few ducks and sheep to roam on.


Beth said...

dang girl. i know i need to read this, but i'm going to bed so it'l have to wait.

Wordsmyth said...

Once again, you give me much to think about. I've thought about some of these issues before and after meeting my wife, a farmer's daughter. Of course, I find myself thinking about them more because my in-laws are dairy farmers, and they've expressed a desire for us to build a house on their land. I want to be closer to the land, have a more rich/fulfilling life, and enjoy working with my hands on a daily basis.

Sheep and ducks seem like an excellent choice. You guys should go for it!