Through much of my childhood, I was surrounded by farm animals. Goats, sheep, chickens. I played with kids, lambs, and chicks, but I also ate barbecued goat, and lamb chops, and roast chicken. And I knew that these things were connected: We weren’t buying meat in the store and pretending that it had nothing to do with the animals we lived with. We were slaughtering the animals we lived with, and dressing them, and eating them. We were hunting, and putting meat in the freezer for rainy days and cold winters.
I grew up with a relationship to animals that was different to that of many of my peers, and those differences only escalated when I went to college, and lived in the city, interacting with people who hadn’t even met farm animals, let alone considered the implications of eating meat. Many seemed shocked and horrified by the idea of raising a lamb and then killing it, totally alienated by the thought of watching a batch of chicks grow up and then killing the roosters on a long, tiring day filled with blood, feathers, tanks of boiling water.
But the fact is that some people raise animals for meat, and then they kill them, and then people eat them – sometimes the people who raised them, sometimes the people who buy that meat in stores miles away. And that meat is raised in a variety of conditions, from crowded, horrific CAFOs to spacious pastures. Our animals had big pastures and shelter and plenty of food and fresh water and affection, and we treated them kindly up to the moment of their deaths, which we made swift, merciful, and as non-traumatising as possible. We didn’t make the other animals watch, and we treated their bodies and lives with respect.
The great debate over whether to eat meat is a complicated one, and I respect people who have made the personal choice to refrain from meat consumption (and, in some cases, from all animal products), for whatever reason. It’s not my place to tell people how to eat, or to judge what they choose to consume. There are lots of sound arguments for eating a vegetarian diet, especially here in the West, and there are also lots of sound arguments against eating a diet that includes meat.
But, conversely, it’s not entirely fair to demonise meat eaters and those who raise meat animals, especially those who are pushing for a more sustainable and humane method of farming. Sadly, many vegetarians take the stance that meat is murder, and leave it at that. There’s no room for discussion or conversation there; you’re wrong, I’m right, end of story. There’s no wiggle room, and the CAFO operator who leaves chickens to drown in their own shit is morally equivalent to the hobby farmer who raises a few ducks and occasionally slaughters when the flock gets too big.
This is a mistake. It’s a mistake because we need to be talking about the culture of meat consumption, and agriculture in general – if you think people shouldn’t eat meat, that’s a valid thought, and I respect it, but if you can’t engage in a conversation about it, you’re not going to get anywhere. Conversely, of course, meat eaters who insist that vegetarians need to relax or just eat a burger and get over it aren’t doing any good either, because they’re being just as obstinate about the discussion. They, too, are claiming the moral high ground, insisting they know what’s right for other people’s diets and refusing to let people make personal choices.
Talking about animals raised for meat makes some people uncomfortable. Seeing those animals can increase that discomfort, even when they’re raised in humane, loving conditions. This makes it hard to have a functional discussion about meat eating and whether it’s possible to make it better – if you aren’t willing to see what pioneers in the field are doing, what kinds of alternatives are available to conventional agriculture, how can farmers meet you in the middle and talk about your concerns? How can they work with you to create a world that’s better for animals?
Maybe you think that the best world for animals is one in which none are eaten or raised for their products like dairy, wool, and eggs. I don’t like to be one to tell people that their ideal worlds are unrealistic and unachievable, because I have many goals for the world myself – like that it will be a place where all people are treated with humanity and dignity.
But I’m not so sure a universally vegetarian world is achievable, or even necessarily the healthiest and best route for the world. There are some communities where the raising and consumption of animals is an important cultural, historical, and dietary practice – as, for example, in Inuit communities (though there, it’s hunting). While I don’t believe that all cultural practices should last forever, I’m not convinced that telling people to abandon a crucial part of their dietary history is fair – especially when it comes from white Westerners dictating to the Global South.
And even if it is, we’re unlikely to globally stop eating meat tomorrow. And I’d rather see the suffering of animals reduced along the way, the consumption of meat shrunk down (because yes, I agree, large-scale meat production and consumption is bad for the environment in addition to animals), and we can’t accomplish these goals if no one is willing to talk to people who raise animals for food.
I don’t raise meat animals anymore – I’m not home enough. But I do interact with meat animals, and I help people slaughter, and I eat meat and animal products. These are conscious decisions I’ve sometimes struggled with, particularly in the context of larger issues of food politics. All I know is that I have to do the best I can – and keep hoping that I can get better.
Image: happy goat family, bagsgroove, Flickr.