In 2006, a book was published that sought to give the reader a better understanding of where their food comes from. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan followed three major tracks, or sourcing, of food. The public reaction to this book was significant and varied, and it evoked discussion from vegetarians and meat-lovers alike. The main premise of the title is discussed in chapter 17 of the book (among other places) and presents the idea that we have a particular dilemma facing us (humans): we have a choice (perhaps even moral and ethical in front of us) because we can eat anything. So what do we choose to eat? I appreciate Michael Pollan’s exposure of the true nature of the environments in which most of the food that we purchase is raised. I also agree with him (and many others) that there is a weightiness to our position as meat-eaters. It is this weight that I want to talk about today. I believe it’s important to realize the weight of death. I think it helps us. I don’t think the act of eating meat is immoral or unethical. But I do think that eating without a thought of responsibility is wrong. Except for the last hundred years, humans have been completely connected to the food (animal or plant) that they ate. They either had to raise, hunt, gather or cultivate their food. They took responsibility for caring for the plants and animals that were to become their food because they understood that these things were connected to their own life and health. Now, with mass production and commercialization, we have become removed from this natural responsibility and awareness. That being said, we can still make conscious choices about the food we purchase: we can make sure we know where it comes from and how it was treated. But I think we have the potential to lose something if we are that removed from food. Something big and underlying. When I say “we” I am talking about the collective “we” of our modern culture. And I know there are many discussions we could have in relation to food about toxins, hormones, antibiotics, nutrient density, and animal treatment. And although these are important, that’s not what I would like to discuss today. Today I want to discuss what I think are some of the moral and ethical implications of being removed from raising and killing our own food. As I said earlier, I think that being exposed to and understanding the weight of death is important. I think it strengthens our idea of responsibility, and gives us an attitude of soberness about death, which causes us to put a value on life.
LET ME EXPLAIN WITH SOME EXAMPLES:
When I was growing up I learned the responsibility of caring for animals on our “hobby farm.” My parents taught me the importance of putting the needs of the animals in our care before my own. As these animals were domesticated and confined, they were unable to provide for themselves. They depended on us to give them what they needed to live. I understood (and experienced) that a lack of care or attention on my part could lead to an unintended death.
Lesson: Growing up in this environment taught me that it’s my responsibility to care for things that are weaker. When we believe that it is our responsibility to care for those who, in that moment at least, are not able to do what we can, we will not bully and abuse them. This is true not only for how we treat animals, but also for how we treat people.
As an adult, I have had some opportunity to keep the chickens, ducks, geese, and pigs. The lives of these animals were then fully in my hands, and even unintentional mistakes or omissions could and did have life or death consequences. Awareness of that responsibility would get me out of bed in the middle the night, or cause me to carry water down a steep hill in freezing temperatures so my animals could drink.
Lesson:Increased responsibility taught me that I could be depended on, and that there are consequences for my actions. Learning how to shoulder responsibility, be dependable, and take responsibility for actions are all admirable and desirable character qualities that will help any person succeed in their life.
When the time came for these animals to be in the freezer, I did not send them to a processing plant, but did the slaughtering and butchering myself. In this way I allowed my animals to die the same way that they lived, happy and without fear. While it cost me emotionally to do the killing myself, it was something I was glad to do. I had accepted responsibility for these animals, and I wanted to fulfill that responsibility to the end of their life.
Lesson: Processing my own animals for meat helped me to put others before myself. When we think of others first, we learn to treat people with kindness, and we can develop good, lasting relationships.
The last few years I have attempted (with some success) to obtain my meat through hunting—true wild-caught, grass feed meat! In case you’ve never been hunting before I’ll let you in on a little secret… the animals have a HUGE advantage. Their natural instincts give them the ability to hear or smell us and leave the area often without us even being aware of their presence. When I am successful in my hunt (which doesn’t happen every year—including this one), I am excited and sobered. Excited at the prospect of good quality, delicious meat (I love elk!). But sobered because there is a weight to death—all death—even that of a wild animal.
Lesson: Soberness is a correct and helpful emotion to have in regard to death. It’s an important experience for everyone to have (in one way or another) because it helps us remember the value of life. It’s vital to regard life as precious, and something to be guarded and cared for, not thrown away carelessly.
To summarize, I believe that having a correct understanding of the soberness of death has significant implications. It will cause us to treat all living things with care and love (preventing bullying and animal cruelty). It is a way we can learn and practice responsibility and accept consequences. It teaches us to put others first. It motivates us to spend quality time with those we love (because we remember that they won’t be there forever). And it causes us to reflect on our own mortality (which is a good thing to think about sometimes). Now I’m not saying that you have to live on a farm for you and your kids to learn responsibility and soberness about death! There are multiple ways to teach responsibility and soberness that don’t include raising and killing your own animals. You can teach your child the responsibility of care with a pet, or even through simple chores. You can take responsibility in knowing where your food comes from, and invite your children to be part of your decisions. You can tell them that you expect them to treat every living creature with gentleness and care, and give consequences if they don’t obey. You can explain to them your convictions about animal treatment and talk about food quality on a regular basis. There are many opportunities for you to show your child the precious gift that is life, and teach them about responsibility and kindness. My point is that it’s maybe just a little bit harder, and takes a little more effort to pass on these things in our modern world. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing. The good things are always worth fighting for. That’s why I believe that it’s a blessing to be an omnivore. There is a loss of life so we can eat, but that creates opportunities to experience deep life lessons when we face the weightiness of death. So there you have it, the silver lining to being an omnivore!
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