I am nearing the end of The Omnivore's Dilemma, having taken my time to really think about each section, and enjoying my leisurely way through the story that is so well-told in its pages. I am now well into the hunting & gathering section, and it has made me think (again, as I often have before) about my feelings about eating meat.
As you probably know by now, I am not a vegetarian, and don't intend to become one. However, you never know how your tastes may change, so I won't say it's out of the realm of possibility. If I ever do make such a change, it probably will be for one reason only. As you also probably know by now, I do see humans as omnivores, and (clean, naturally & sustainably raised) meat as a healthy thing to eat (in moderation). After all, humans from all cultures, areas of the globe, and walks of life have been eating meat for thousands of years.
While we may not have changed that much in a biological sense over the past few thousand years or so, however, spiritually I believe that we have. On a global scale, we have become more "civilized," and no longer accept certain things (e.g. raping, pillaging, killing each other in the streets) as acceptable behavior. We also have more of a moral and ethical approach to treating the animals that inhabit this planet with us - at least in theory. (As Pollan points out, there is quite a disconnect between how we treat the animals we live with, and the ones we eat - at least those raised in the industrial food system.)
If there ever comes a time when I choose to stop eating meat, I foresee the ethical implications as being the reason. Mind you, I'm not even talking about "animal suffering," as Pollan discusses. I currently choose to buy meat only from small local farms that raise their animals humanely, on the natural healthy foods the animal was made to eat (grass, bugs, worms, seeds, etc. depending on the animal).
Pollan delves a bit into the positions of animal rights philosophers (I didn't even know there was such a thing), and I won't get into that too far today, but I will briefly sum up the philosophy of one of the main ones that Pollan discusses - Peter Singer. Singer's contention is that, if we are going to treat human individuals of lesser intelligence as if they also have rights and dignities common to the rest of the human race, then we should offer the same courtesy to animals. If for example, a pig has the same intelligence level as a human baby, or severely mentally retarded person, therefore it should have the same right to life. In sum, "if possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?"
Pollan quickly finds ways to poke holes in this argument, as do I. After all, animals are not human. Period. They do bleed, breathe, feel pain, eat, procreate, etc. But they don't love, hate, plan for the future (other than so far as instincts tell them to), marry, cry, laugh, etc. Even the most severely mentally retarded person still does some of these, but animals do none. According to me, this makes us fundamentally different. According to Singer, this makes me a "speciesist."
The question then comes down to animal suffering, and on this account, Singer does not account for the differences in the ways food animals can be raised. Certainly animals raised in the current industrial method live (albeit short) lives of suffering. But what of animals raised the PolyFace Farms way? What of the animals I eat, which live out their days in health and well-being, enjoying their animal nature, and die quickly and as humanely as possible? If you only consider animals that are processed through the industrial food system then yes, you only have two choices, as Pollan mentions - "you either look away, or you stop eating animals." And indeed, that is what our country has done. The vast majority of us look away. A small but growing minority have stopped eating meat, which is what Pollan ultimately decided to do (temporarily) while he resolved this dilemma for himself.
During his journey, Pollan tackles many tough questions, and I highly recommend you read the book yourself to find both sides of the story, but he comes to the conclusion that the modern-day vegan or vegetarian lifestyle is really quite a new phenomenon, and not a very natural one. After all, this ideology "could only thrive in a world where people have lost contact with the natural world, where animals no longer pose any threat to us,...and our mastery of nature seems unchallenged."
In the end, Pollan asks Singer, himself, what his view is of the "good farm" model - "one where animals got to live according to their natures and to all appearances do not suffer." Singer replies that this doesn't make it any less wrong to kill and animal that "has a sense of its own existence over time" (e.g. an intelligent animal, such as a pig), and that he feels such a farm model is probably impractical on a large scale, but that "I would not be sufficiently confident of my argument to condemn someone who purchased meat from one of these farms." This is an important concession indeed, as it basically implies that "what's wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle." In other words, it's not so much the eating of meat that is the problem, but the treatment of the meat while it is alive. This is basically the conclusion that I came to, myself, previously, and is the reason why I have been able to continue to eat meat. (I've learned FAR too much over the past few years to be able to just "look away" anymore.)
However, once again, if I do one day choose to no longer eat meat, it will be for a more spiritual reason than mere health, or even animal suffering. It will be because I feel too connected to the living things in the world to eat sentient beings any longer. It will be because we have come to a place where "our moral enlightenment has advanced to the point where the practice of eating animals - like our former practices of keeping slaves or treating women as inferior beings - can now be seen for the barbarity it is, a relic of an ignorant past that very soon will fill us with shame."
And that day may well come, if it's true that "as a civilization we're groping towards a higher plane of consciousness." Until it does, I will continue to eat animals - animals that have lived healthy lives, outdoors where they are meant to be, eating things they were meant to eat, and enjoying their natural animal lives doing what they do best - not lives of sickness and suffering.
And I will continue to educate people on the importance of making this distinction when choosing to eat meat, if they do so.
For regardless of your position on animals as spiritual beings or not, looking away must no longer be a valid option, or we forgo the very humanity we so espouse.