This month marks my two year anniversary as a [cheating] vegetarian. Quite appropriately I have just finished reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. If I wasn’t a vegetarian I more than likely wouldn’t have been able to get through the first chapter. It reminds me of how I felt when I read White Lies by Nick Davies when I was a teenager. The racism, hatred and ignorance captured in Davies’ writings frustrated me to the point where the book was literally thrown to the floor – it took me several months the finish a book that would normally be read in one week. Similarly the treatment and disregard for animals displayed in Safran Foer’s book makes me want to yell. But will these feelings last?
I didn’t become a vegetarian because of a deep resolve regarding animal rights or disgust with the lack of animal welfare evident in the industry. It was just a point in my life where everything added up and it made perfect sense to wean off the meat. An image of a huge truck on the highway in China stacked high with cages with a pig packed tightly in each was etched into my consciousness. I was becoming increasingly interested in environmental issues hence increasingly aware of the environmental damages caused by factory farming and transporting. According to the UN FAO the livestock sector generates 18% of the greenhouse gases produced - more than the transport sector. Additionally livestock uses 30% of the earth’s entire land surface. And finally I visited a local farm in my hometown (not for interest in the animals but in search for their manure for a composting project) where I saw where the pigs lived. My original plan was to only eat local, free-range meat, as well as wild fish. But when I started this new diet I was home in the Bahamas where local, free-range meat wasn’t clearly advertised, so my free-range only diet became a veggie only diet and very quickly I was turned off the whole idea of eating meat at all. I don’t really understand why; I promise myself at least once a month I’ll eat less chocolate, but I can never find the willpower to stop. Maybe it’s because the moral aspect of vegetarianism is stronger than the image and health argument against chocolate?
Safran Foer’s book brilliantly captures this moral aspect through the portal of factory farming industry in the US – the inhumane, filthy, unhealthy and ‘adulterous’ practices of the trade. Safran Foer himself became a vegetarian during his research and his book advocates for vegetarianism but also for ‘another, wiser animal agriculture and more honourable omnivory’. While he mentions environmental as well as labour arguments for changing the industry, his main focus in on animal rights and/or welfare. A section of the book entitled The Life and Death of a Bird vividly captures the life and death of a chicken in a factory farm step by step – from the early days of unending light so they are tricked into thinking they can and should eat all as much as possible, to the diseases and deformities they live with (three out of four birds will have some degree of walking impairment, one out of four have significant trouble walking), to the way they are stuffed into crates to travel to the slaughter house (“30 percent of all live birds arriving at the slaughterhouse have freshly broken bones”), to the electricity shower that is supposed to render them unconscious but usually just immobilises them leaving them awake and aware (about four million birds each year in the US reach the scalding tank still alive and conscious), to the soaking of the chicken meat in a bath where the ‘faecal soup’ is absorbed into the meat (about 11% of the chicken meat sold in the US is essentially this faecal soup).
According to the Vegetarian Society there are about four million vegetarians in the UK – about 7 percent of the population. People become vegetarian for a handful of different reasons: health concerns (“vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and have higher levels of dietary fibre, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals”), religious restrictions (Hinduism and Buddhism hold vegetarianism as an ideal as well as Seven Day Adventists and Jains), environmental degradation (the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated that meat production accounts for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gases), and food safety (about 5,000 people die a year in the United States from food borne diseases like e.coli and salmonella). However, the main and most popular reason remains moral – vegetarians force themselves to “remember” as Safran Foer describes it.
A lot of what Safran Foer writes forces me to look at things that I normally consciously try to ‘not remember’. I have somewhat divorced the idea of me not eating meat from everything else in my life. My husband is a very active meat-eater and just last Sunday, in the middle of reading Eating Animals, I prepared a roast dinner of a lamb breast joint. It was surprisingly easy to just not think about it, unroll the baby sheep breast, stuff it, roll it up, and put it in the oven. I had no desire to eat it, but I had no problem cooking it. What does this mean for my conviction? We eat less meat in our household because we’ve compromised to cook two vegetarian meals weekly, but otherwise it’s eating as usual. Do I not remember enough?
During my two year journey I have always been a [cheating] vegetarian. I have never stopped eating fish or conch (a popular mollusc and dish in the Bahamas). When I am home most of the fish I eat is caught by someone I know, a lot of the time by my father who is the captain of a boat. I was or am able to justify it to myself by arguing that you can’t get any more local than that and the fish have a good life before… right? I have also been fishing since I was a toddler. And it struck me hard while reading Safran Foer’s book that I never really considered the suffering of the fish I pulled up. Of course I experienced a pang of guilt and turned my head when my dad was taking the hook out of the mouth, but it never really bothered me to the point that I would change the fact that the fish we caught were thrown into a bucket or the floor of the boat left to suffocate and suffer. How was I able to disconnect myself from that, even as a vegetarian? Is it because I’ve disassociated fish from feeling animals, or because I’ve always been around it and have become desensitised? I just don’t know.
I have somewhat come to the conclusion that I will stay away from fish while I’m living in the UK. But what about when I go home? Fish is a huge part of my diet, of my culture. Many Sundays my dad spends hours in the kitchen preparing his famous stew fish. It is tradition that every Boxing Day our extended family and friends come to our house for boiled grouper, stewed fish and chicken souse. Where would I stand if I didn’t share in this food companionship? Safran Foer focuses on this too and how eating meat together is a tradition, a form of familial companionship.
He suggests breaking this tradition of eating meat and making it into something better where eventually it will turn around completely and our kids will say ‘how did they eat that stuff?’
Will we remember enough?