The Ethics of Eating

One of the more childish decisions I’ve made lately is to avoid watching documentaries like Food Inc., which promises “an unflattering look inside America’s corporate food industry.”

I’ve avoided it and similar films because, well, it’s a more passive version of closing my eyes, covering my ears and yelling, “Lalalalalalalalala” as loudly as I can. I know the American food industry engages in inhumane and arguably repulsive practices in the care and slaughter of the animals we eat, but I like meat too much to confront this fact head on.

That needs to change.

I’m increasingly convicted that one of the ways in which I should be living out the call of Christ on my life is through the choices I make – and that goes beyond simply choosing to be a faithful husband, a present and loving father, a truthful and hard-working employee and an active church member.

It involves the kinds of practices I support with my money.

I don’t believe I should support financially companies that subject animals to heinous treatment, inhumane living conditions or cruel slaughter practices. I believe God hates it, that it is an abuse of our power as the stewards of this planet, and that we should treat all of his creation with the love and respect he has for it.

But it’s not as easy as simply not eating meat or going organic.

The first is, at the moment, out of the question. I can’t prove this scientifically, but I might die if I stop eating meat. I’m not much of a veggie person to start with, and if you start taking away things like bacon, sausage and steak, I might shrivel into a husk. I’m not ready to make that leap. At least, not yet.

The second is trickier.

We have a monthly grocery budget, as most of you probably do, and a certain amount of that is usually spent on meat. It seems simple enough to say we should spend the same amount but buy products that claim to be from humanely treated animals (one never really knows, of course, but at some point you’ve got to trust the packaging or you’ll never eat anything). That would reduce the amount of meat we eat, probably not the unhealthiest choice we could make, and it would shift our support to practices we find more ethical, moral, even Christian.

Which sounds simple, but let me give an example of how this runs up against another issue about which I’ve been feeling convicted.

We have $100 budgeted for Thanksgiving this year. We could spend that on a free-range, humanely treated turkey, organic food, gluten-free bread, etc. It would be healthier, it would be thoughtful for those members of the family who shouldn’t be eating certain foods, and it would be more in line with the Christian principals I want to live out.

But if we simply buy the cheapest food we can, we would be able to buy Thanksgiving dinner for two families. A local drive is raising money in $45 increments to provide Thanksgiving dinners to needy families in the area who otherwise could not afford one this year. If we can cut our Thanksgiving budget in half – which would involve buying the cheapest food we can, regardless of how it was raised, grown or slaughtered – we can provide a meal for someone in need.

In this case, the choice was easy; we’re eating as cheaply as we can this Thanksgiving so someone else can have a Thanksgiving, too.

But in the long run, choosing to go organic and focus on eating meat that has been treated humanely means either spending more money or buying less food with the money we have, which in either case means we’re choosing not to spend that money on the poor and needy. It’s a tension, one I’m not entirely sure how to resolve adequately.

In an ideal world, American consumers would rise up against the barbaric practices of the food industry and demand reform and regulation, as they did in the early 1900s. But if that’s happening at all, and I’m not sure it is, it’s happening very slowly. In the meantime, those of us who care about animals and care about the poor face this dilemma of how our resources can both support the ethical treatment of the former while providing for the needs of the latter.

4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Eating”

  1. “But if we simply buy the cheapest food we can, we would be able to buy Thanksgiving dinner for two families.”

    This is why there’s a link between low incomes and obesity. Cheap food — from junk to soda to overly processed lunch meats — are terrible for you, but they’re also more affordable for many people than the healthy alternative. Part of the change meant re-examining the household budget and looking not just at how much we spent on food, but on what types of food. The process wasn’t without its bumps (in my single life, I lived on cereal and waffles, so just bringing in anything green was an adjustment), but it’s been worth it.

    My impact on the world around me, and how it squared with my faith, led me to become a vegetarian about a year ago. (I also read Andrew Linzey’s “Animal Theology,” among other texts.) I, like you, was accustomed to plugging my ears and ignoring what I knew to be true about the way animals were being treated before they got to my plate. I could no longer justify subsidizing those practices in any way.

    1. Haha, no worries. Your second comment reminded me that I wanted to ask about how the transition from carnivore to herbivore went for you. Were you much of a meat eater beforehand? What was the hardest part of transitioning? What have been particularly effective substitutes?

      1. I was a huge meat-eater before I switched, which was actually part of the problem. It’s not good to have that much meat. It wasn’t uncommon for me to have meat for breakfast (usually something fatty like bacon), processed meat on a sandwich for lunch, and another helping (chicken, beef) for dinner.

        Transitioning wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought it would be, and that’s because I’d decided to eliminate meat for moral reasons, not (strictly) dietary ones. Cutting out food or drink items as part of a diet is always a battle because the underlying thought is, “I want this, but I have to go without it.” But my reading and praying and thinking led me to a place where I didn’t want meat. It was a lot easier to let it go because I knew I’d come to a resolution that I just didn’t want to consume something that had come from a sentient being that was put here in my care. The uncomfortable transition period wasn’t because I wanted to keep eating meat; it was because I knew I didn’t want to, and like everyone else, I often have to drag myself to action even after my spirit has decided for me.

        In terms of substitutes, I’ve found that there are great products out there to fill what your brain thinks is the void left by meat, but that there also tons of great things to eat outside of those. I like tofu a great deal, and though it gets a bad rap as a cheap meat substitute here in the U.S., there are parts of the world where it’s just considered something else to eat. There’s also a great company called Field Roast — — that makes grain-based meat substitutes with a taste and texture that is, I’m not kidding, so close to meat it can fool meat-eaters. Great meatless meatballs, franks, etc. Another great “fake” product is Quorn’s brand of chik’n patties. Again, great taste and texture. I like these because I still enjoy the feel and weight of these foods I grew up with, but I can’t stomach knowing that the other versions come from animals. So much of what we (meaning the developed U.S.) think of as concrete morals in the animal realm are really just culturally determined. (e.g., We love dogs and eat cows, but some parts of the world revere cows and others eat dogs. They think it’s normal just like we think our ways are normal. It’s all about where and when you’re born.)

        I’ve also broadened my culinary horizons (thanks largely to my wife). There are a ton of hearty Indian dishes that don’t rely on meat, and I’m finding more and more that there are great meals to be had in the arenas I grew up on (Mexican, Italian, etc.) that don’t use meat. Instead of a bacon and egg breakfast taco, I’ll get potato and egg. Instead of spaghetti with meatballs, I’ll get spinach ravioli. Etc., etc.

        Anyway, as you can see, I can talk about this at length. Apologies for the information overload. I just like talking about it because it was a major thing for me to work through last year.

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