Jonathan Safran Foer and I hold nearly the same beliefs about eating meat. That said, I have a freezer full of goat necks, marrow bones, and pork belly, and he decidedly does not. You see, I eat meat and Jonathan doesn't.
There is a simple and true notion underlying Safran Foer's book Eating Animals: people should eat according to their values. Foer's argument basically goes like this: Everyone has values. Apply your values to the choices you make about food. Sure, everyone's values are different, but the truth is anyone's values will do. The problems with food and farming -- in particular farming and eating meat -- aren't caused by people holding the wrong values; they are caused by people not applying the values they hold. I agree with him.
The way I see it, people should know the story behind their food, and that story should be one they can be proud of. Foer sees it the same way. No one would be proud of the story behind fast food, or the story behind factory farms. The environmental degradation, the cruelty to animals, the labor abuses, even the smells would tip off anyone and everyone that this is a nasty story, a story that could not be accommodated by anyone's values.
That is why, incidentally, if you want to see that story, you have to sneak in. The authors of the fast food story want to sell food to us, and they know that that the average citizen won't buy it once their story is known. As Foer recently said on the Brian Lehrer show, "Any good farmer will let you see their farm." But if you want to see how the average calorie of meat is grown in the US, you have to sneak in to see it. The few factory farmers who do let people see the story behind industrial meat production are punished for their indiscretion. Not long after Carole Morrison, a chicken farmer for Purdue, showed her industrial chicken farm to the makers of the movie Food Inc., Purdue let her go. They did so for good reason: They want you to buy Purdue chicken, and once you see the footage, you don't want to any more.
If people ate their values, Foer argues, then the crises caused by our current food and farming would go away. I'm with him. The thing is, I have different values than he does, and when he starts to push for his values, I start to disagree.
I eat meat, though not excessively, and only from farms that are raising it humanely and sustainably. I go fishing, and I sometimes kill the fish I catch and eat them. I don't get into arguments about whether animals feel pain the same way we do -- not because I don't care -- but because I cannot imagine it is knowable. I like to think they don't, but I might be wrong. (As the journalist Heywood Broun once said: "They told me that the fish were cold-blooded and felt no pain. But they were not fish who told me.") I'm agnostic on the nature of animal pain. I feel there is a possibility that they feel pain like we do, and my own values still leave room for me to catch them, to kill them, and to eat them.
I believe it is okay to eat animals. It isn't something to be done with indifference and it should be done well. I have held lambs -- lambs I knew and raised -- apart from their moms' so they could be taken slaughter; I have also slaughtered. Even with intimate knowledge of the story behind meat, and perhaps because of it, my values can accommodate eating animals. That said, my values cannot accommodate confinement feedlots, cruelty, environmental destruction, and human abuse and that that is the story behind most of our meat.
Foer rightly points out that 99% of animal agriculture in the U.S. is "the bad kind." So when we speak generally about whether or not to eat meat, "no" is an easy and right answer. It is an answer I respect, though it isn't mine. Again nobody's values accommodate for 99% of the meat here. But that last one or two percent of meat in America, the alternative, is extremely important. For me, it represents hope.
Foer writes about Frank Reese in a chapter titled "The Last Farmer." Frank is a fantastic farmer and is a hero of mine. He is part of that one or two percent, but he is, by no means, The Last Farmer. Frank is part of a fast growing movement of small farmers raising animals the right way. It is a movement driven by people's desire to stop supporting factory farms, and start supporting humane, sustainable production. And this trend represents thousands of small producers, and millions of aspiring consumers all over the country. They have the knowledge and the passion to make the average meat calorie in this country something we could be proud of. And that is going to be important because lots of people, when they learn about how bad animal production is in the US, don't want to stop eating meat; they want to start eating meat that is produced responsibly, in a way that is in accordance with their values.
I'm that way. That's why I've got goat necks in my freezer. That said, when Jonathan comes to dinner I will gladly leave them there.