Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thoughts on Eating Animals

I really want to be a vegetarian. The main reason I am not one at the moment is not that I can't bear the thought of giving up bacon (believe it or not), but it's rather a matter of convenience. Lifestyle changes don't come easy. I'm not a very experienced cook already, so this just adds another layer onto any cooking anxieties I have. Not only would I need to find a recipe for dinner, but it needs to be meatless while still being something that this picky eater won't turn her nose up at...while also being relatively well-balanced and healthy. Right, that's a cinch. Another thing that makes me less likely to try new vegetarian recipes is that they tend to include some rather intimidating ingredients (nutritional yeast?), or at least ingredients that I don't tend to keep in stock and am somewhat unsure of where to locate.

Then there's the whole fake-meat thing. If I read one more "Go veggie—it's easy!" article that recommends fake-meat hot dogs, fake-meat hamburgers, chicken-less nuggets, fake cheese, fake cream cheese, fake sour cream, etc., I'm going to scream. First of all, I don't really eat those things anyway (with the exception of cheese) and thus am not seeking replacements for them. Secondly, I really doubt "you can't tell the difference!" Thirdly: um, hello? Eating nasty fake processed foods is what I'm trying to avoid by changing my diet.

Obviously my motivations for limiting the consumption of animal products aren't really those of most vegetarians, or at least the ones who write how-to sites.

Is the main motivation for vegetarians really that cows are so cuddly, and even fish feel pain, and stuff like that? I sure hope not, but that's the impression I get. Let me set one thing straight: I do not have a moral problem (well, I have a few faint twinges, but they're at a level I'm prepared to ignore) with killing animals for food. I do not think animals are worth just as much as people (hell, half the time I don't even feel like people are worth as much as people). I do (at least to some extent) think that the fact that we're bigger and stronger and smarter gives us a right to eat the smaller, weaker, dumber species. (Yes, if a polar bear or an tiger or a shark eats me, that's my own stupid fault for not being better prepared. May the best beast win.)

That being said, I do have a problem with killing for the fun of it, inflicting unnecessary levels of pain, killing more than we need, and treating animals entirely like products (while they're alive). Animals aren't humans, but they are life, and we do owe them some degree of respect. We need to be good stewards, I guess, for lack of a better word. Yes, we can raise animals for food, but just because we brought them into this world and plan to take them out of it does not mean we can treat them inhumanely while they're here. Now, I don't mean we should avoid doing anything that hurts their delicate little selves in the slightest or read them stories at bedtime or whatever PETA people think we should do, but we should try to treat them at least somewhat naturally.

Animals that evolved to eat grass should not be force-fed corn they can't properly digest until we kill them shortly before they would have died anyway. No animal should be kept in a cage or pen where it cannot move and especially where the bars bite into its skin for its entire life. Why? Partially because, yes, they can feel pain and pain is generally a bad thing to inflict on anything, but mostly because it's horribly unnatural, bad for the animal, and bad for the person consuming the animal. (The stress hormones that are constantly coursing through confinement operation animals' bodies actually affect the nutritional impact of the meat on the consumer. Similarly, corn-fed beef has bad ratios of omega-6s to omega-3s, has more saturated fats than grass-fed, and so forth.) Just as you can't expect a Dalmatian to be a good pet for a third-floor apartment with no yard, you can't expect livestock to live in the dark in super-cramped cages, wallowing in their own excrement. If we're going to say that we're in charge of the planet, we have a responsibility to at least try to keep the rest of the planet in healthy, decent working order.

The part that really scares me about confinement operations, though, is that in addition to the unhealthy meat exacerbating our obesity epidemic and rates of cardiovascular disease, there are the germs. Since they live in close quarters, in their own feces, and eating foods their systems aren't really equipped to best handle, obviously livestock tend to get sick pretty often. No problemo, right? Just shove antibiotics down their throats. (Seventy percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are used in livestock.) Only one problem: haven't we learned yet that overusing antibiotics is a great recipe for trouble? All we're doing is encouraging bacteria to evolve to be resistant. Then what will we do, when some resistant strain spreads (like wildfire, due to the close quarters) through our food supply?

Oh, but antibiotics aren't all we have to worry about. I mean, there's e coli and salmonella and stuff, but that's beneath my radar. The really, really, really disturbing thing? The swine flu that we're all panicking about (well, nobody's really panicking anymore/yet, but whatever—it is a big public health issue). I mean, this one is kind of a big deal and all, but there's nothing keeping a much, much worse influenza virus from developing in swine because of—you guessed it—confinement swine operations.

See, pigs can get viruses from humans, and pigs can get viruses from poultry, and then pig cells are just fantastic at mixing up and recombining little bits of RNA—voila, a new virus that can pass back to humans. (See this Newsweek article—it starts getting relevant about halfway throught the second page.) So, since we have these "four-legged viral mixing vessels" living in close proximity to each other and often to poultry and humans, we're all set for more viruses to emerge from confinement operations to sweep the globe. Sure, most of them may not be particularly harmful, but it's really just a matter of time until one is. For instance, if the kind of flu that kills people but isn't easily transmitted combines with the kind of flu that's easily transmissible but not particularly deadly and the kind of flu that's resistant to Tamiflu...we're all doomed. (Doomed, I say!)

On the plus side, if we all get wiped out by a new super–swine flu, we won't have to worry about global warming, which is where I was headed next before I got so caught up with superbugs. You know, farts, land use, methane, inefficiencies in growing food to feed to food instead of just eating food, blah, blah, blah.

Basically, I'm just pretty damn sure that our food supply system is going to kill us all, but since I can't really control the entire system, I'll just try to eat lots of whole grains and veggies, which are considerably less likely to kill me and destroy the planet. Plus, you know, I like being in whiny minorities that hold the high moral ground.