Appreciating animals while eating animals poses an ironic challenge in an industrial food system. When most animals arrive from afar as a convenient mystery product, how can consumers truly respect the privilege of meat consumption?
Mark Zuckerberg just announced his new diet of eating only animals he has personally killed
, a decision gaining popularity among online audiences. While reflecting on the costs of his food, he says people should "take responsibility and be thankful for what they eat" rather than ignoring meat's origins.
As ugly as it sounds, such hands-on meat preparation far predates grocery store fillets. Now, after post-war consolidation of farming, the small farmers still remaining have difficulty communicating the importance of such transparency to those seeking cheap and convenient meat. Karen Christiansen of Macbrook Farm in Argyle, N.Y., raises grass-fed cows in hopes of showing the benefits of responsible meat production.
"People ask me how I can stand to eat or sell the cows we raise," says Karen. "But I just tell them that these are the happiest cows you've ever seen up until that point. They have great lives here, and it feels much more humane compared to some beef you find at the store."
Karen and her husband Kevin must charge almost three times more than conventional grocery stores when selling their meat. "That's the real cost," she explains. "People don't usually recognize what real meat really costs."
Spiritual connection to the meat we eat
Down the road, Argyle's Longview Farm farmers began meat and cheese production largely based on their spiritual beliefs. They produce artisan cheese from goats while selling hens and hogs for meat, giving their beloved animals space to roam and holistic medical care. The farm is their "personal reaction to the unspiritual methods of industrial food production," explains owner David Porter.
The role of spirituality in food choice was a constant theme during my visit to Saratoga Country, NY. While spending time with both Abenaki and Mohawk Native American communities, I met several people who associated a cultural reverence for animals with family traditions of obtaining meat.
Jim Bruscac, an acclaimed author of Abenaki heritage, runs the Ndakinna Wilderness Education Center in Saratoga Springs to teach visitors about his ancestors' devout appreciation for land and animals. Jim carries this respect during his occasional deer hunting in the woods surrounding Ndakinna.
Jim believes his hunting for food is inextricably linked to his spirituality, although he also acknowledges the additional environmental benefits. "You want organic meat?" he jokes. "This is about as organic as it gets."
When Jim hunts deer for food, he describes his hunting as "taking an animal." "Take" implies a great deal. Most consumers "eat" animals, but "take" indicates connections to a "what" and a "whom." While hunting, Jim readily accepts responsibility for separating an animal from its ecosystem and its spirit.
Jim proceeds to thank the animal with a short prayer, acknowledging it has given its life to provide sustenance for him and his family. This prayer is not an elaborate ceremony, but rather a brief and sincere show of gratitude to the animal's spirit. The entire process takes about 30 seconds, but its implications are far-reaching.
When meat production is shrouded in corporate secrecy, the value of the animals we eat is hard to acknowledge. It would feel rather strange to "thank" a chicken salad sandwich from the food court for sacrificing itself. This disconnect also hides the role of consumers in creating demand for cheap meat that threatens animal dignity.
The importance of meat appreciation
Most people do not have the means to raise or kill their own meat, but this is not the only way to assume personal responsibility. To start, consumers must acknowledge their role in "taking" an animal and increasing meat demand rather than relocating all blame to industrial manufacturers. Then there's education. When consumers make purchases based on knowledge of a company's production methods, these consumers fuel responsible production. Visiting local farms can also garner respect for the animal lives given in exchange for food.
Above all, being thankful for meat means recognizing that meat at every meal is unsustainable. This could mean buying occasional, high-quality meat rather than frequent, low-quality meat. One of this generation's greatest challenges is adapting the meat industry to a world with too many people, too much toxicity, and limited land and inputs.
Appreciation of animals can take many forms. Whether it's by choosing not to eat them, taking a hands-on approach, or simply doing a bit of research and reflection, understanding meat production and its costs can transform the intimate experience of eating animals.