Since mid-November, I’ve been eating less meat. After more than two months of a “less meat” (not “meat-less”) diet, I don’t think I am ready to be a total vegetarian. I cheated on Thanksgiving and Christmas (couldn’t miss the turkey) and I cheated when I was in Vegas (I just really wanted a steak). And I’ve been eating fish pretty often. Yet, for the most part, eating meat only every few days has been positive in a number of ways. My lovely wife has fixed some incredible new recipes, sans meat. I’ve begun eating mushrooms occasionally. (Those who know me best know this is remarkable.) And I’ve lost (a little) weight and generally feel better about the quality of food I’m eating.
I didn’t choose to eat less meat for any other reasons than I fundamentally knew I ate too much in general, and that eating less meat would help me pay attention to everything I eat. For me, it was about transitioning to a more healthful diet, as opposed to a diet heavy on gluttony.
Then I read “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Now more than ever, I’m feeling conflicted about my choice to eat meat. I’ve read lots of food literature—Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Marian Nestle and Anthony Bourdain are all on my bookshelves. But this book, more than any book I’ve read, left me uncertain.
“Eating Animals” is a memoir, and a tediously researched one at that, of a new father considering whether to raise his child a vegetarian. The author begins with a moral argument, asking if it is ok to eat a pig if it is not ok to eat a dog, given that the intellectual capacity of both are nearly equal. Then he considers the environmental argument: that meat production is responsible for global warming at a scale far larger than the ugly coal plant in West Virginia. And he ends with a primer on the worst animal welfare challenges facing the industry.
My feelings after reading the book were surprising because I’d read and considered many of these issues before. I didn’t learn much new, but I feel that Foer put this together in a way that made more sense than any other previous argument that I had considered. Foer visits some of the best run, sustainable, and animal friendly farms in the U.S. He also goes undercover in a factory chicken farm. And though he considers only eating meat from sustainable and humane sources, he ends up deciding that the only way to arrive at a comfortable and clear moral position is to refrain entirely and be a vegetarian. The book reminded me of the best ethics debates in Professor Giblin’s classes at Xavier.
Foer reminds us that “our decisions about food are complicated by the fact that we don’t eat alone.” Indeed. Even if I thought I would/should make a commitment to stop eating meat, how could I imagine Sunday dinner with Noni’s sauce but without meatballs? How could I go to my friend Paul’s house for football games and avoid his wings (which have been touched by the Lord himself)? How could I fondly remember Friday nights with my family without the pepperoni pizza? At 3am, after several beers, how could I conquer cravings for a Skyline three-way? And how could I explain to a colleague (and a farmer) over lunch that I was making a moral judgment of the product that feeds (literally and figuratively) their family? As it so happens, I’m not sure I could. I’m also not sure at the end of the day that I wanted to.
So maybe I’ll be a sometime vegetarian—eating meat when I can conclude it was sustainably produced and from a source that practices humane methods of production and slaughter. Or maybe I’ll just continue eating meat less frequently. Foer would chuckle at my naiveté and my loose morals. He would ask how I could accept any piece of beef and still be concerned about the morality of slaughtering animals at the scale we do today? He would press me on how I could eat a chicken wing given that some chicken producers treat chickens so poorly?
I guess for those concerned with true moral clarity, he might be right.
I am committed to being more conscious about what I eat and about where it comes from. Foer acknowledges that, more than anything, Americans should explore a conversation with themselves and their families about why they choose to or choose not to eat meat. Becky and I have been doing that for a few months now. I’m not 100% certain I’m making the best decision, but I think today, I’m making a better one. I’m not eating meat at every meal. I’m cognizant of the fact that when I eat, I’m “farming by proxy.” And I recognize that we do have a moral responsibility in how our society treats animals, even the ones we eat.
Look, I know there will be a lot to quibble with in this post. You can challenge my conclusion, or Foer’s, and you can challenge the facts he presents in his case against meat production. All that is fine. You can also challenge me the next time we have dinner and I have a steak. But I encourage you to read about this important topic and have the conversation with yourself and your family. To me (not to Foer) it’s quite all right if you arrive at a different conclusion than complete vegetarianism. Regardless of your conclusion, I think you will find the journey to be a rewarding one.