Expanding the Conversation Around the Meat We Eat | Civil Eats

Expanding the Conversation Around the Meat We Eat

The ethics of meat-eating, and vegetarianism in particular, have gained traction as memes in the press lately, showing that a shift is occurring in our cultural ideas around food. Heritage breed turkeys have been selling like mad for today’s feast, and last week, Martha Stewart was standing behind the stove on her set discussing the book Eating Animals with its author, Jonathan Safran Foer, while preparing a vegetarian casserole. The dish was part of a collection of recipes for her show on preparing a vegetarian Thanksgiving (watch it at that link), and she stated on air that her daughter’s Thanksgiving was going to be a vegetarian one. (She also interviewed Robert Kenner on the program, gushing about his film Food, Inc., and Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, who spoke about the state of farming in America with his usual wordsmithery). Foer had this to say to Martha’s audience:

There are things we’ve been doing for almost all of human history almost everywhere that we don’t want to do now…we kept other humans as slaves and we treated women as second class citizens, and we don’t do it anymore. We overcame it, and when we look back at those things that we did, we look back with shame… and I think the farming system we have now… the dominant kind of farming system, the kind that produces 99% of the animals we eat, is something that we are going to look back on with shame.

He got some other factoids out to the masses, too, like that 50 billion animals are being raised for meat in the world every year, and that as China increases its meat-eating, that number could double. He added that 99% of these animals are raised in factory-farmed conditions. Though Foer is a vegetarian, he said he didn’t think that absolutes were a productive way to produce change.

Foer’s book has been the focus of a lot of media attention for his in depth research and for the ethical questions it raises about the way we treat the animals we raise for meat. Two weeks ago he was on the television program Ellen (Ellen DeGeneres is also a famous vegetarian), and ended up starting a debate on the New York Times Green Inc. blog after he linked H1N1 to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) — the possibility of which the mainstream media has for the most part ignored.

Vegetarianism has even made a foray onto the op-ed pages of the New York Times of late. A couple weeks back, Nicolette Hahn Niman, a vegetarian, environmental lawyer, and rancher, penned an op-ed warning the food movement that condemning meat-eating could be overly simplistic, taking the view that asking people to decrease meat consumption would not be as effective as asking them to buy ethically raised meat. She promptly drew criticism at Treehugger and The Atlantic (to which she responded with a rebuttal). Another op-ed contributor this past Sunday in the Times focused in specifically on the politics of veganism. It seems this discussion, taken into such public forums, shows that the conversation around plant-based diets, and the ethics of eating meat — in an era when great trespasses in animal welfare are occuring — is coming into its own.

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Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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  1. Bill McCann
    Thank you for the nice overview of what seems to be going on in the debate. Right now I wish I were a writer instead of a butcher because I have a lot of thoughts going through my head that need a place to land. First off I must say that this mess that we are in with our food did not get that way because of some corporate conspiricy...those guys are just not really that smart. The meat business changed in a big way when I was just getting started in it, back in the 70's. It was not an idealic situation then either. The meat dept. of a grocery store might have six or so guys working as butchers, but if you were lucky, one might have been skilled at his trade. I don't know why this was so, but it was. That is a fact that made IBP what it became. There were also a lot of glaring, but not charming problems with raising animals that were different than what we have now. That and a few other circumstances left us open for the corporate takeover that has happened. We seem to be at long last, asking some of the right questions.
  2. Paula,
    I think most reasonable americans would consider comparing slavery and eating meat a bit of a stretch. I always find it interesting when we are more concerned about eating animals for meat than actually making sure humans are nourished and are fed. I believe that we need to make sure animals are treated properly but don't extend that into an ethical question of whether or not we should eat them. The turkey on Thanksgiving tasted to good to have that argument.
    • pcrossfield
      He is not comparing eating meat to slavery. He is saying that we will look back at the intense confinement of animals with shame. And the reason such an unsustainable system persists is because we eat meat three times per day. We can be more than well fed on less meat, and animals, too, can be treated right. Its not an either-or.
  3. Gerardo Tristan
    Shaun,

    i don't know what you mean by "reasonable americans" but i consider myself pretty rasonable and don't find this comparation a bit of strech..

    I always find interesting when people talk about consideration, compassion and respect as if they where a pie that needs to be just used on human concerns. Compassionate people are not more or less concerned but rather equally concerned about injustice,suffering and abuse no matter if this happen here or abroad or to one of our own species or a different one.

    "Injustice anywhere is a treat to justice everywhere"

    M.L.K

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