Monday, October 6, 2008

Walk with the animals

On a recent trip to Genesee Country Village, for their Agricultural Fair (where the above cornucopia was on display), I got to thinking about the strange relationship that we humans have with non-human animals. On one hand, we romanticize them and turn them into cartoon characters. On the other hand, we shoot them down from airplanes or confine them in inhumane conditions so that we can eat them.

Those conditions led me to become a vegan, about 14 years ago. At that time I ate lots of processed (but vegan!) foods like soymilk, tofu "pups" and "burgers," protein bars, etc. My journey out of veganism came when I learned that film (back in the days before digital) couldn't be processed without some animal product (I don't remember what it was). I wasn't about to stop taking pictures of my little kids, and that's when I realized that these kinds of decisions are a little more nuanced than I had thought.

During that same time in my life, I would buy only vegan shoes. At first I'd get them at big chain stores, until I realized that who knows who made those shoes, and for what wage and in what working conditions. Then I got them from fair-trade/ethical companies like Pangea. Then I thought about the fact that probably a lot of chemicals go into making synthetic shoes. Again, not so clear-cut.

Who would have thought, back then, that I'd be excited to see this at the musem...

Inside there was a cacophony of roosters (and we thought the Billie's were bad!). I loved looking at the chickens, especially those that were the same breeds as ours. (And by the way, this is what a FEMALE white-crested Polish looks like...rather different than those that were a part of our lives for a short time.)

But there were also ducks and pheasants. I had a hard time with that. These were the same species of birds that we see in parks and fields, undomesticated, like wood ducks, teals, and ring-necked pheasants.

In my mind, there are animals that it's okay to domesticate, and these include cats, dogs, horses, chickens, sheep, llamas, and goats (of course, as long as they are kept humanely). Other animals I don't feel so comfortable with...animals normally found "in the wild," and pretty much any animals in a zoo. Then there are the animals where it depends upon their living conditions, like cows and turkeys. I myself don't eat meat, but if animals are managed in a humane and sustainable manner, I don't condemn those who farm or eat them. In my mind, eating animals from those farms is still preferable to eating the hyper-processed, world-travelled, pesticide-laden food that most Americans eat.

The bottom line is that there are no easy answers. For me, what works is to grow a lot of my own veggies, raise chickens for their eggs, eat whole foods grown as locally and organically as possible, and minimize processed foods. I'm very pleased that both my kids have grown up to embrace many of these values, although in their own ways. I bet these two young men, cranking a cider press, will have a little more appreciation for their apple cider, too...

That's the kind of "hands on" activity that we all need...what would our food culture be like if more of us had some kind of hand in the food we eat, even if it's just a small vegetable plot, a few chickens, an apple-picking and applesauce-making day? And for those who choose to eat flesh foods, what if you visited the farm that your meat comes from, maybe even witnessed the slaughter?

I'm not advocating that we all grow all our own food...we've gone well past the time when that is a viable option...but we must pay attention to our food choices, not only for ourselves as individuals, and for the animals we share this planet with, but also for the planet itself. According to Michael Pollan writing in The New York Times, "After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent."

There are ways to reduce that 19%, and Pollan argues in the above article that we will all benefit if we strive to do so.  I'm convinced that my way is not the only way, so please feel free to share in the comments what steps you take towards conscious eating...

p.s. More pictures from our museum visit at my Flickr set.

1 comment:

jody said...

We're terrible gardeners but we're trying to can and preserve what we do manage to grow. We try to avoid over processed foods and do more of our meals from scratch. I'm not talking growing our own wheat... we're terrible gardeners. Regarding eating meat... we do. But my dad is starting to raise grass-fed beef. I feel uncomfortable eating meat from the store because I know most all of it comes from factory farms and even most of those that qualify as free-range don't qualify in spirit. I feel better knowing for myself that the quality of the life of the animals is good.


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