I’ve been vegetarian for most of my life. And while I can’t speak about the specifics of meat production in other countries, I can speak with a semblance of knowledge about how it goes down in the ole U-S-of-A.* In America, the vast majority of meat comes from factory “farms,” where animals are commodities: means to an end. As such, their lives are spent in space-efficient pens, and they’re fed what’s cheap: byproducts of subsidies like soy and corn, or worse: recycled parts of their fallen comrades. (If you think I’m exaggerating, check out the documentary “Food, Inc.”) They are given antibiotics and hormones to ensure their meat stays juicy despite unnatural diet and unnatural living conditions.
More than this, factory farms contribute about 10% of our carbon emissions, and the number is growing as natural habitats–from rainforest to desert–are converted into pastures.** What’s more, consuming meat from these animals posits dangers to our own health. Of course, large government subsidies to these farms means their affairs are kept largely hush-hush, a whisper drowned in boisterous campaigns advocating Meat! It’s What’s for Dinner, Goddammit! [Emphasis my own.] In fact, compared to every other world nation, American meat consumption ranks highest or second highest across the board (in the categories poultry, pork, veal, and beef).*** That’s more than the [former] European Union combined. Thanks, propaganda!
But I digress. Believe it or not, the purpose of this post is NOT to mount my soap box nor to scold the omnivores in the house. My mission is quite the opposite, actually…
A week ago I arrived in Lombok, an island in Indonesia that gets largely overshadowed by its neighbor, Bali. Especially in the coastal towns and offshore islands, the native people have a distinct cuisine based on native crops: coconut, spicy pepper (and I mean spicy), tropical fruits, green beans, rice and, of course, the sea. I visited several markets where fish and seafood is brought in daily and offered to customers, charged per 100 grams and barbecued over a fire pit for you to eat on the spot–often whole. But instead of recoiling from such a display (as I might in America, scurrying past the meat aisle as though the butcher had her wily eye on me, next), I found it inspiring (aside from the Giardia I’m still coping with). Without the ocean, the locals wouldn’t be able to survive, period. They rely on it for food, transport, supplies, diversion and livelihood. Though Muslim, they still show gratitude towards the gods of the sea and the creatures within it. And although they are grateful for the sea, they don’t hesitate to consume its inhabitants. It would be a foreign concept.
A big disconnect in American culture is lack of appreciation for our food. In Japan, too, (where I was a few weeks ago, and where eating from the sea is like breathing air), food and the ocean and nature at large are shown respect–a bow before and after eating, before and after swimming, climbing a mountain, et cetera. In America, there seems to be a sense of entitlement for food, potentially due to a disconnect from our food sources. Have you ever seen an animal carcass at the grocery store? What about even a picture of the animal on the label of a meat package? Don’t think, just do.
I wouldn’t argue when someone says humans are “designed” to eat meat. Our ability to eat widely is what helped us to the top of the food chain. And, when animals are treated with respect, killed with compassion, and consumed for subsistence rather than desire, it becomes a very natural process. All things in moderation, of course.
Humans, however, are capable of subsisting without meat. We also are endowed with a conscience which allows us to choose what we will and will not eat. Such has been the practice of Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, Jews, and many other religions around the world for centuries. Ultimately this is the choice that I’ve made, too. So no, I did not eat the market meats, but only because years of vegetarianism-for-a-cause has lent me sympathy for the critters who happen to sit below us on the food chain. It was a personal choice more than a boycott-the-man one. Because despite my emotions, the process in these Indonesian markets feels very…natural.
To reiterate, I’m not preaching vegetarianism. Everyone has the right to choose what they eat and how they live. But until America in particular cleans up its act and learns some respect (which I believe will come hand in hand), I can only hope more people will cut back–in any small way–in their support of a tasteless industry. That, or move to Indonesia.
*Experience gained from extensive book-reading, documentary-watching and lecture-listening on the subject.
**Statistics from EPA 2015 official report.
***Statistics from OCED 2016 official report.