In the fall of 2008, I read a book that opened my eyes to the horrific treatment of animals at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). It was Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” The book is really about Kingsolver and her family’s year of growing most of their own food, eating only locally produced food (with a few exceptions), and raising heirloom turkeys (my favorite part). Her scientist husband, Steven Hopp, contributes with related sidebars revealing facts about the food industry and more. It was in one such sidebar, titled “The Price of Life,” that I first learned the wicked truth about CAFOs. It starts off as follows:
Industrial animal food production has one goal: to convert creatures into meat. These intensively managed factory farms are called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The animals are chosen for rapid growth, ability to withstand confinement (some literally don’t have room to turn around), and resistance to the pathogens that grow in these conditions. Advocates say it’s an efficient way to produce cheap, good-quality meat for consumers.
Hopp goes on to talk about the problems with CAFOs: inhumane treatment of animals, pollution, and health risks.
It was an eye-opener! A grim, shocking eye-opener. I had never stopped to ask people who didn’t eat meat, “Why?”. I just assumed they didn’t approve of slaughtering animals for food (which may be the case, but there’s so much more to it). I had no idea that E. coli 0157 is a product of CAFOs and feeding grain to cows (who are designed to eat grass and hay). And I definitely didn’t realize just how bad beef is for the environment.
During a subsequent visit to Sweden to celebrate Christmas with my family, I talked to several of my relatives who are vegetarians and decided that I would try it for a year. I already didn’t eat a whole lot of meat (I’m always worried it’s going to be undercooked), so it wasn’t really a big deal. I continued to eat eggs, dairy, and fish for protein. It was an act of protest. A boycott of sorts against the handful of companies who control the majority of the meat industry. You will not get my money!
Here are some observations from my year of no meat eating:
- It made me feel good. I made a commitment, and I stuck with it.
- It was a great conversation starter. When people ask why I decided to become a vegetarian, I simply say: “I don’t appreciate how the animals are treated. It’s a protest, really.”
- It complicated our family meals. I could no longer partake in meatballs and pasta bolognese. We started eating at different times due to laziness of coordinating multiple dishes.
- I felt a bit high-maintenance when visiting people. Having to ask for special food is not my thing.
So, on the last day of my committed pescatarianism, here is my go-forward approach:
- Eat meat only on occasion (it is more sustainable to eat “lower on the food chain”).
- Buy only meat raised humanely and sustainably by local farmers.
- Favor heirloom varieties, e.g. get a heirloom turkey for Thanksgiving.
- If a host offers meat and I am a guest, go with a modified “freegan” approach (if it’s free, eat it – it’s the polite thing to do).
- When eating out, eat meat only if I know for sure the meat has been humanely and sustainably raised (like T-Bocks in Decorah, IA).
This will allow me to enjoy family meals, support farmers who are doing the right thing, and still enable me to spread the word about our messed-up food industry.
If you are interested in more information about our food system, here are some great resources:
Super Size Me (2004 documentary about the ill-effects of fast food)
Food Inc. (2008 documentary about the food industry)
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (investigative journalism at its best)
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (a beautiful tribute to food)
The End of Overeating by David Kessler (tackling our national ailment)
Den Hemlige Kocken by Mats-Erik Nilsson (for my Swedish readers)
“At home I serve the kind of food I know the story behind.” ~Michael Pollan