Animal agriculture makes a 40-percent greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the No. 1 cause of climate change.”
Now that most Lent-observing Catholics are abstaining from meat on Fridays, let’s go beyond the ritual and be inspired by a different book besides the Bible: Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals.”
It took me two years to finish reading it. It’s not long (only 368 pages) or boring (it’s very engaging), but I kept putting it off because, like the author, I waver between being a vegetarian and an omnivore.
After seeing the author featured on “Ellen,” I took to Foer’s non-preachy, non-judgmental manner and his honest inquiries about our relationship with food. And sure enough, the same tone resonated in his book.
I was already two weeks into being vegetarian and halfway through the book when my early pregnancy had me crave for what my body had been denied: meat. My foundation was weak, so I succumbed; and I could not continue to read something that made me ashamed about myself.
Only after my breastfeeding days were over was I able to focus again on finishing the book. Foer’s voice is insightful and informative. Even in his interviews, there is no trace of condemnation, as he understands people’s cultural connection with food.
I quote Foer at length, as he offers his ideas more eloquently.
“Everything is possible again.”
What woke Foer up to the choice he had to make was the birth of his child. He foresaw his child’s possible question on why we eat some animals and not others. I never had such thoughts as a kid; I just accepted what was food and what was not.
But as a new parent, I have to be prepared to face why it is deemed horrible to eat dogs but not pigs, cows, chicken or fish. Foer discusses facts about each of these animals and how our logic behind why it’s okay to eat them and not our pets does not hold water.
“Ironically, the utterly unselective omnivore—‘I’m easy, I’ll eat anything’—can appear more socially sensitive than the individual who tries to eat in a way that is good for society,” he writes.
I have a few vegetarian friends, and they’ve never made me feel bad about what I ate. I end up observing what is similar in what we ate, and realize that I can just have more of what we both eat and less, if not none, of the meat.
“Factory farming is a mind-set: reduce production costs to the absolute minimum and systematically ignore or ‘externalize’ such costs as environmental degradation, human disease and animal suffering. For thousands of years, farmers took their cues from natural processes. Factory farming considers nature an obstacle to be overcome.”
A couple of movies illustrate this best: “Home” (2009), a beautifully shot documentary by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, and “Earthlings” (2005), a graphic film about how we use animals as pets, food, clothing, entertainment and for scientific study.
While “Home” takes its time to drive its point home through a meaningful visual montage of our world before and after industrialization, “Earthlings” is more in-your-face, with actual footage of animal cruelty; it’s impossible not to be moved or react.
But the message is the same: “Silently, the animal catches our glance. The animal looks at us, and whether we look away (from the animal, our plate, our concern, ourselves) or not, we are exposed. Whether we change our lives or do nothing, we have responded. To do nothing is to do something.”
In promoting his book, Foer said he doesn’t care how his message gets spread (how the contents of his book get distributed) so long as it does get spread. Bertrand made his documentary available for free downloading online, because the message he wants to put across is more important than a copyright (regardless of his sponsors).
Lent is a time for reflection. During these 40 days, we Catholics usually give up something we like as a sacrifice to commiserate with or be reminded of Christ’s suffering.
During Holy Week, TV stations air family-friendly shows or religious classics. Do include these documentaries and/or read “Eating Animals” with your personal contemplation, and see how acting on this new knowledge can bring about real change in the world.
“It’s a classic dilemma: How much do I value creating a socially comfortable situation, and how much do I value acting socially responsible?”
His question, too, is just like a Christian conundrum: In your thoughts and actions, who do you want to please more—others or your God? Foer tackles each argument we have for eating animals with factual openness, and it all boils down to: We like how animals taste.
“Perhaps in the back of our minds we already understand, without all the science I’ve discussed, that something terribly wrong is happening. Our sustenance now comes from misery. We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film. We perhaps know more than we care to admit, keeping it down in the dark places of our memory—disavowed. When we eat factory-farmed meat we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own.”
More diseases come from having a meat-heavy diet than from a plant-based one. Meat is also more expensive and more prone to contamination. And yet we favor it daily, meal after meal.
A roasted, skewered pig is the centerpiece of a typical celebration. Steak or endangered fish is a staple for a fancy meal. We endure the troubles of getting them on our plates only because they taste good.
“We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?”
Will our celebrations really be incomplete without an animal carcass on our dining table? How long can you try going without? Watch your grocery bill drop when you stop shopping in the animal morgue, as well as your weight and cholesterol.
Borrowing from WildAid, “When the buying stops, the killing stops, too.”
Think your choices don’t matter as an individual? Foer says this: “How effective would [a bus boycott] be if protesters use the bus when it became inconvenient not to? How effective would a strike be if workers announced they would go back to work as soon as it became difficult to strike?”
Abstaining from meat and fish will be the best way we can literally save the world.
If you can’t go hardcore vegetarian or vegan just yet, one meatless day a week is a good start. Add more days as you get more comfortable; treat meat as a garnish instead of the main course.
“We know, at least, that this decision will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural [areas], decrease human-rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history.”
Instead of, or even on top of, our sacrificial offerings of self-denial this Lenten season, let’s try to commit to a kind diet; one that is free of cruelty and full of love, not only during these 40 days but also beyond.
I’m still not a vegetarian, but I’m slowly getting there. I’ve been eating less meat for most meals, and for occasions like my son’s birthday party, we served only one meat dish. Our Valentine’s spread was meat-free. It hasn’t been difficult getting my 2-year-old to eat his veggies because he’s been used to it.
I’ve happily discovered that a brand of almond milk (also in chocolate!) that I really like is even cheaper than regular cow’s milk, and it tastes good, too (same calcium content, just not a good protein source, but that’s what other veggies are for).
We cook at home more, and we are eating better, even more frequently, but weighing less. Interacting more with how our food is prepared makes us more aware and in touch with what we put in our bodies.
“It might sound fantastic, but when we bother to look, it’s hard to deny that our day-to-day choices shape the world. One of the greatest opportunities to live our values—or betray them—lies in the food we put on our plates. Sometimes we simply have to make a decision because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”—Martin Luther King
And what is Christianity all about, anyway, but a way of living like Christ, to be kind and compassionate, to do what is right?
“If nothing matters, there is nothing to save.”