Friday, May 24, 2013

The Ethics of Food Choices - And Other No-Win Situations

Several folks have commented recently that my grocery challenges are making them very uncomfortable. My choice to consume factory farmed chicken as well as conventionally grown fruits and vegetables apparently strikes some people as unethical.

So, I want to start off by saying that I do think it's a valid concern. I am in NO WAY a fan of either conventional agricultural techniques nor the factory farming system. I think that the broad use of pesticides, herbicides, hormones, genetic modification, and sub par living conditions for farm animals leaves us all on very shaky moral ground, and is something that we all ought to be concerned about.

That being said, I have to say that I find it quite curious that in recent years, people seem to place the ethical and environmental implications of our food choices WAY above the ethical and environmental implications of virtually all other decisions that we make in our daily lives.

And for reasons that I don't completely understand, we seem to have decided that criticizing other people's food choices on ethical/environmental grounds is OK, whereas making similar criticisms of other choices would be unthinkable.

For example, if someone announces that they're going on vacation, our general response tends to be, "That's fantastic, have a wonderful time!"

But let's say someone were to respond with something like, "Gee, don't you think it's unethical to spew that amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere simply so you can have the pleasure of flying halfway around the world to sit on a manmade beach where there used to be a mangrove forest? Don't you have moral qualms about participating in the destruction of coastal habitats and contributing to global warming merely for your own frivolous entertainment?"

I mean we'd probably think that such a response was rude, inappropriate and extreme.

Similarly, if someone decides to have a child, we react with joy and are happy for them. You don't generally hear people calling that decision into question and pointing out that there are already 7 billion people on this planet, which is WAY more than the earth can sustainably support.

If someone gets a new job, we congratulate them. We don't tend to ask them to justify the decision to spend 40 hours per week working for a multinational corporation that may be engaged in any number of environmental and ethically questionable behaviors.

Neither do we tend to lambast people for choosing to take a job that involves a commute, or demands that they take regular business trips, or requires them to purchase business attire and thereby contribute to the horrendous conditions of garment workers throughout the world, or necessitates a bevy of electronic devices which are all filled with untold environmental toxins and will become completely obsolete in a few years time.

Now, I'm not making the argument that any of the above decisions is immoral, I'm just saying that we make a myriad of lifestyle choices day in and day out, all of which have significant ethical and environmental implications that we all seem to collectively accept as "unavoidable" or simply the "cost of doing business" in the modern world.

But for some reason, when you start talking about food choices, people literally come unhinged.

It all leaves me feeling quite puzzled. Why is it that we have such an emotional reaction to food choices as compared to other choices?

Is it because food is such a primal part of our existence? Is it because there have been so many "awareness raising" films etc produced on this topic recently? Is it because we're obsessed with topics like obesity and weight? Is it because on some level we're uncomfortable with our omnivore status and can't handle the idea of killing another being for food? Is it because we've all bought into the idea that through food we can simply shop our way out of our current societal mess?

Maybe it's all of the above, I really don't know.

In my darker moments I tend to think that we've glommed onto food choices as the be all and end all because it's a convenient way to blame poor people for all of our societal ills.

I mean it's all good and well to say that we ought to be willing to spend more money on food in order to support more sustainable and ethical practices - that's easy to say when your choices are things like "should I buy organic food, or spend a night out on the town?"

But when you're faced with decisions like "Do I pay the rent or eat?" I think the relative morality tends to get a bit more murky.

I dunno, I guess I just think that it's easier to judge people for not being willing or able to spend more for more ethical food, than it is to suggest that people should give up their vacations, or cars, or big houses, or manicured lawns, or large families, or designer jeans, or smart phones or... the list goes on...

I want to be clear that I don't think that either of the people who raised ethical concerns about my decision to eat factory farmed chicken are acting holier than thou or blaming the poor or anything like that. I just think it's an example of the "food wars" that seem to have taken center stage lately when it comes to questions of morality.

At any rate, I intended this discussion to be an introduction to a post about my own food decisions, but it seems to have taken on a life of its own. So I think I'll leave the topic of my own ethical compromises for another day.

But I'm curious to know what y'all think about this subject. Why do you think it is that people have such a visceral reaction to other people's food choices?


  1. Great post. I think the food morality topic is more prevalent because we all eat, and do it several times a day whereas maybe some of us don't vacation (or maybe it's just me??) and the fact that most people don't dig so deep as you have about the consequences of some of the other "immoral" lifestyle choices like the world travelling vacationer or the person who purchases clothing made by children in third world countries.

    People like to complain about simple things. It would take too much thought to complain about the others.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head with the "simple things" comment - people like to reduce moral questions to black and white, right and wrong. Somehow, I think the "eating categories" that we've come up with recently (vegetarian, vegan, locavore, etc.) have made it easier for people to take what is a very complicated issue and reduce it to a simple question of good vs. evil.

  2. I think that many of us are uncomfortable about modern lifestyles but too accustomed to our current way of living, or maybe too afraid of being labelled "extreme", to change. Personally I'm used to that accusation and it's water off a wild duck's back. ;o)

    1. That's a great point about being afraid to change or afraid of being labelled extreme. I think that for many people choosing to eat organic food seems like a simple no-brainer, you just buy one thing instead of the other, no real lifestyle change required. Unfortunately, those options aren't really available to all people.

  3. Um, actually I do react much the same way to all of those decisions. Well, maybe not having babies - I figure my ethical concerns aren't going to stand much chance against the biological imperative. Come to think of it, they probably don't stand much chance in any of the other cases, either. I'm just not good at keeping my mouth shut!

    It's nice to hear that you think about these decisions. From reading your recent posts it felt as if you'd abandoned all other concerns apart from saving money, and that's what made me uncomfortable. It felt as if I didn't know you any more. I make moral compromises, too, as you know. Just the other day I booked a flight to Spain for a trip I could very easily not take. Whether the cost could be considered 'worth it' in any sense, I don't know, but 'greener than green' is beyond me, and sometimes I'm going to fall further short of the mark than others.

    That said, I'm intrigued about the way people talk about food, too. I think it changes in society over time. I heard a comment in some documentary or other that moral concerns about purity, which used to focus on sex, now focus on food. That rang a bell the other day when I was reading a Victorian novel and one of the characters, who was a 'holier than thou' Christian, forever trying to convert everyone with her pamphlets, reminded me of a raw-food enthusiast of my acquaintance. The character in the novel was far less attractive, but there were similarities.

    1. Ooooo... that's a very interesting idea - that the societal ideal of moral purity has somehow switched from being about sex to being about food. I can think of LOTS of examples of that one.

      And you are correct that I've been more focused on money lately as opposed to other concerns. My already meager income took a real hit earlier this year when Google changed the way its image search functioned and my web page impressions sunk to about a third of their former levels. I sorta felt like it all just took the wind right out of my proverbial sails, and I kinda went into panic mode for a bit there.

      I've been able to make a few changes to my sites that have mitigated the damage, but ultimately I'm gonna have to bite the bullet and do some real work to ensure that I'm not drawing down my savings too much.

      But somehow, with Sputnik being sick, I just haven't been able to make myself focus enough to deal with the income side of the equation, so I've been focusing on the expense side. But I should have the mortgage paid off by the end of the year, and that will give me a bit more financial breathing room, so hopefully other things can rise to the top again soon.

    2. Oh gosh... strong health reasons for eating meat fighting ethical reasons for not, major blow to your income, major emotional (and financial, I guess) drain of sick kitty... I knew all these things and completely failed to take account of them when I reacted to your posts about buying cheap food. I'm really sorry! I'd probably make exactly the same decisions that you're making and even if I wouldn't, I totally respect the fact that something has to give.

    3. No worries! As I said, I do think it's a valid concern, and I'm not immune from getting emotionally worked up about this sort of thing! :-)

      I also think that perhaps I should have explained more about why I'm doing all of these challenges in the first place. Some of it is my own personal situation, but it's also a political thing for me, since I live in a very poverty stricken area and see it up close and personal on a day to day basis. But you know me - jump right into the middle of things!

      Anyhow, I'm working on a series of posts examining some of these issues - poverty, food politics, food labeling etc. So thanks for bringing the issue to the forefront, because I really do think it's worth exploring and discussing.


  4. While I completely agree with this post of yours, the issue of factory farming makes me very uncomfortable, and I'm unsure if I can explain why.

    As an animal lover, I do my best to treat each and every animal with the respect it deserves, be this by ensuring no product I buy has been tested on animals, making sure the animals around my area are treated correctly, and eating animal products from an ethical source. I'm a meat eater. Many people I discuss animal rights with can't understand, but my way of reasoning is that I know where all my food comes from. My eggs are from my aunt's house and I know her hens are treated well. My meat is from a farm a couple hundred miles away and was raised with lots of grass to eat and room to roam. Factory farming is not done in Ireland as it is illegal. Yes some would say it's still unethical to take another life for my consumption, but that's their opinion and while they're entitled to it, I can't help but disagree. As long as an animal has had a good and comfortable life, I don't lose sleep over the life cycle.

    I don't know, I guess what I'm trying to say is that the cruelty of animals is what gets me far more than what they're being used for.

    And just fyi, I am one of those people who gives out that people need to stop having so many children because they're wrecking the planet! My eldest brother has five boys and while I love each and every one of them to bits, I still give out to him for having so many! Which is slightly funny as I'm the youngest of six and wouldn't have it any other way!

    Very well written piece and I enjoyed how much it made me think. :)

    1. Well, factory farming makes me very uncomfortable too. Actually, I'm not completely comfortable with my decision to start eating meat again - but my body is much happier.

      I think you are very fortunate to live in a country where factory farming does not exist, and even more fortunate to be able to get your animal products from local sources that you know and respect.

    2. Give it time, I guarantee Ireland will allow factory farming as other countries start making it illegal. We aren't ahead of the clan with issues, we're so far behind that it comes nearly full circle before anything is done!

      Also the joys of having farming relatives! :)

    3. That's a sad thought... it would be nice to think that those who are "behind the curve" would learn from the mistakes of those who went first!

  5. Your post brings up a lot of things that I think about frequently. There are compromises we all have to make to follow what we think is right and each one of us decides what those will be. Every person has a unique set of circumstances that no one else can totally understand or make a judgement on. However, I do think the better off one is whether it be financially, health-wise or emotionally gives them the opportunity for more choices. I don't know if food is judged more than your mode of transportation or use of cleaning product, etc. I seem to hear a lot discussion/judgement about all of these. I think we all need to educate ourselves(which is a whole other topic in itself. There's a lot of misinformation out there that is hard to sort through). And then do what we think is right for us and remember what is the right thing for us is not necessarily the right thing for everyone else.

    1. Well said. I have such mixed feelings about the way the "green movement" has developed. It used to be that environmentalism was largely focused on trying to get our government to enact better legislation to protect our planet and our health.

      But somehow the equation has changed in recent years, and the focus seems to have been put largely on individual purchasing decisions. I'm not saying that people can't "vote with their dollars," but somehow we seem to have decided that ethical and environmental concerns are purely an individual responsibility - leaving corporations to do pretty much as they please.

  6. Criticizing one's food "ethicalness" is such a slippery slope. If someone who eats free range chicken lectures you on the consumption of factory raised that means that I, as a vegetarian, could bash them for eating meat at all. Then a vegan would be mad at me for eating eggs -- yes, free-range organic eggs, but inherently unethical as are all animal products. Then a forager would be mad at the vegan for eating agricultural products, because yes, even in organic farming bugs and critters are killed as means of pest control. Unless you're one of those monks who live off sunlight, some of your food is bound to be "unethical". People must learn to live with it and stop patronizing and preaching their food choices to others.

    P.S.: Can you tell this topic makes me mad? Ha, I just hate it when someone judges any of my choices without acknowledging my situation or my fucking free will!

    1. It's a slippery slope indeed! I mean, on some level the mere fact of our existence is gonna have an impact on the planet and the beings that we share it with. Ultimately, life is unfair, and suffering is unavoidable - so every decision we make is gonna involve moral compromise of one sort or another.

      I think we just need to focus on finding ways to deal with the contradictions of our existence in a more compassionate way.

  7. My food choices are my decision, not the worlds. Its funny, but I live smack dab in the middle of farm country, and in a rural setting, but my food choices are very limited as far as organic, ethical food. The only ethical, organic food I get is the produce I grow myself or when our farmer's market gets going in June sometime. We do not have a lot of choice where I am here.
    I have spoken of this before, I think that since the internet has taken a form of its own, it has now produce internet bullies, people who can hide behind a computer and spew out filth, and hate. We all live in different parts of the country and the world, and we all do not have the same things others have. I am amazed that others are intolerant of others cultures and lifestyles. I personally do not have an answer or can figure it out.

    1. Oh, you said a mouthful there! I often feel like I'm trapped between a multitude of bad choices, and my job is to somehow chart a path through the confusion that does the least possible damage to myself, the planet, and the creatures around me. It's like trying to choose the lesser of a million evils!

      On some level it really bothers me that we aren't given better options to choose from, and that we seem to have all been pitted against each other. I guess it's just easier for people to throw rocks at one another than it is to try to take on the wealthy and powerful interests that are controlling all of the options in the first place!

    2. denimflyz, you made two points with which I completely agree. I too am rather limited in organic choices where I live -- organic meat simply does not exist around here! And the whole "green bullying" makes me so sad, I actually had to quit a vegan forum where I got recipes because users would harass vegetarians.

      Cat, you're so right on the rock throwing. Attacking other small guys is always easier than going for the big guns, and I suppose it makes some people think they're making a "difference".

      People don't seem to understand that trying to force their view on others usually has the opposite effect. I, for one, tend to ignore everything spoken to me in a prechy tone, even if it's the best advice in the universe (it never is, though).

    3. Agreed - preaching generally just pisses people off (myself included.) I tend to think that much of this finger pointing stuff is the result of our broken political system - in this country at least. People feel so powerless against the entrenched governmental and corporate forces, that we turn it all against each other instead.

  8. Food its so deeply personal, and our choices are often driven by many factors, time, money, kids, what we know. I'm definitely guilty of some non ethical eating, and would not like to go pointing out others wrongs. Mind you I think its good to discuss what we eat, there are things I am happy to have had pointed out to me that I simply did not know. Like that soy might be not all its cracked up to be, or that palm oil is killing orang-outangs. The line between sharing information and telling others how to live is a fine one. I've got a few friends off pre grated cheese because of the anti caking ingredients used, when their is a simple alternative its easy to make small changes. The stuff I eat from the garden is my favourite.

    1. OK... that's not really how you spell orangutan is it? :-)

      Anyhow, I agree that information is crucial, and with all of the political "interests" out there, getting real information about health and nutrition is, um.... well, let's say it's challenging to separate the wheat from the chaff in that department!

      So, tell me about anti-caking ingredients... are these the same things used with salt?

  9. I have been concerned about your recent posts putting food prices ahead of quality but I did not comment as I do not know your circumstances.I know what it is like when the money is finished while there are still items on the grocery list.However I do think you have been making mostly good food choices especially all the fruits you buy...much better than the processed crap that most folks consume.
    We all walk our own path and are responsible for our own choices.I can afford to buy local food and I feel I should, to encourage and assist local producers to survive and grow.
    As another poster stated I think we latch onto the food issue because everyone buys food and eats, everyday.Though after the fire in Bangladesh recently I now find myself commenting when someone trills about their latest cheap clothing find( unless of course it was from a thrift store) and when someone offers me a beverage from those infernal one serving machines I have no qualms about giving my opinion about them.
    I'm afraid I never congratulate anyone on an upcoming vacation especially the folk who seem to go on continual vacations but I've never got into a discussion about the resources wasted..... at least not yet anyway.
    I find the deeper I get into an awarness of just how much we're harming our environment the more outspoken I'm becoming.....but it's a thin line between giving helpful information or becoming evangelical and turning them off completly


    1. Yes... I fear it's pretty much impossible to chart a path through all of the damaging practices that are just accepted as "a given" in this crazy society of ours.

      Plus, being "green" in one area often requires that we make "green sacrifices" in another (local vs. organic, plastic wrapped organic vs. bulk conventional, drive 20 miles to the farmer's market or walk a few blocks to the corner grocery store, etc.)

      Anyhow, I think it's important to raise awareness and to try to make the best decisions we can in our personal lives, but these are complicated issues. I also think that what often gets lost in the "fog of ethical warfare" is that the real problem is the "system." There are forces out there with a vested interest in the status quo, and they have WAY more power and money than we have.

      I think sometimes it's easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we can solve our problems by just buying product A instead of product B, but making "greener" personal choices is not necessarily the only way (or even the best way) to effect change on a large scale - which is ultimately what needs to happen.

  10. I became a vegetarian in 1990, for ethical reasons. At the time I was hanging out with a group of women friends. Besides shopping & hitting bars on the weekends, we often went out to eat. I didn't insist we avoid our regular restaurants and my choices were generally quite limited on the menus. I didn't proselytize on vegetarianism, but my friends obviously felt guilty about their choices & constantly gave me a hard time about mine. If they would ask me questions (which they frequently did on lots of different topics), I would answer them. For a variety of topics, we eventually drifted apart, but I think the die was cast when I became vegetarian & got involved in animal rights issues.

    My feeling about the vegetarian/vegan/ethical eating folks adopting a "scolding" tone is that none of us have much control or power to change things. There is little that 1 or 5 or 20 can do to make this world a better place. Once our eyes are opened to the inequities and often the horrors around the world, we can't not see it. As caring people we want things to change & the one thing an individual can do is change their food choices. It's the quickest and easiest thing we can do. In the current economy, most people can't manage to quit a job that compromises their ethics, so that generally isn't an option. I try not to judge or scold others because I have my own flaws, but sometimes, on some issues, I find it difficult to keep my mouth shut. Outright misogyny is one of those issues. And if someone chooses to get in my face about something, I have no problem returning "the favor." If someone wants to evangelize about god or anti-abortion issues, I won't keep quiet. But I think I've learned over the years to moderate myself better & avoid criticizing many of the choices people make.

    I won't lie, I was disappointed when you became an omnivore. It saddened me, however your health trumped my sadness. I would prefer to have you alive and healthy and writing your wonderful posts and caring for your darling kitties than constantly being ill, not feeling well or being unable to function in the world. I think it's terribly short-sighted on anyone to criticize people's choices until they find themselves in the same or similar circumstances. Personally I cannot imagine a life without cats, but I know many people who are horribly allergic to cats & cannot be around them, or any place they've been without getting deathly ill. However, I don't suffer from allergies, but if I had from an early age then I probably would never have had cats & wouldn't feel the same way I do now. Instead of being "angry" with those folks, it just saddens me that they will never experience the joy of holding a cat & listen to them purr so loud it fills one's entire body.

    1. Well, to be honest, it saddened me to become an omnivore again too. I hate the idea of eating animals, but I do have to say that the difference in my health is undeniable. For the first week or two of this month's challenge I found myself eating very little meat (largely because I was too lazy to deal with defrosting the 10 pound block of chicken in the freezer) and I REALLY noticed that I was starting to feel crappy again.

      But I think you're right that people tend to assume that what is a simple and easy change for them, is a simple and easy change for everyone. I also think that when it comes to dietary needs, we are all remarkably different. I mean, everybody seems to be on the "salt is evil" bandwagon, but for me with my chronic low blood pressure, if I don't get enough salt in my diet I risk passing out every time I stand up!

      Anyhow, I look forward to a time when we can all have better options to choose from, although to be honest, I'm not holding my breath! :-)

  11. Hey ecl! I hope you didn't consider my comments on a prior blog "criticism.". I live I a very glass house, so that would be very hypocritical of me. I buy canned cat food for my cats and have no clue where the meat ingredients came from, and often bipuy them store bought chicken. Although, I don't buy meat for myself to cook at home (I sometimes eat chicken when eating out, and i know most often it is factory farmed) but I've long since given up eating cows or pigs and eat only wild caught salmon. So, I am putting it out there that I myself am struggling with the ethics of food, and am not in a position to criticize.

    Having put my glass house out there for all to read, I want to say: challenging the ethics of eating meat from standard farming practices is very much different than many other ethical/ environmental dilemmas, as the way animals are treated involves suffering and cruelty that even the average, not-particularly-animal-centric person would find horrifying, repulsive, and unacceptable if forced to face the reality of it. To the extent that I have changed my diet -- no longer eating cows, pigs, and significantly reducing consumption of both chicken and dairy -- it has been for entirely ethical reasons, it has nothing to do with concern for my own health. Lol. With that said, admittedly, the economics of buying pastures chicken (the real deal, not the deceptive free range labeling) make it's purchase impractical for most of us. When I am feeling lime I have money, yes, I do buy "Level 5" chicken from Whole Paycheck, and once in a while order chicken from a local farm that has free roaming pastures chickens, which I cook and feed to my cats but don't feel guilty about stealing a bite of or using the carcass for soup. I posted about this before here to share with you and your readers that there IS in fact, real pasture raised chicken available to many people if they can afford to pay the price -- here it is $3.99 a pound. I am moving toward veganism and I admit that I am ashamed it is so hard for me to give up chicken. Other people find it so easy. I feel no compulsion to give up my occasional wild caught salmon as my primary concern is how they are raised and treated.

    Soi want to make clear that I do not judge anyone who is at least thinking about, considering these issues. I have to work on myself first, and even then -- I don't think you win people over by attacking and judging because this only makes people defensive. I share my life with obligate carnivores, so even if I make it to a vegan diet in the future, buying more humanely treated animal flesh will remain an issue as long as I have cats.

    I do think, however, that tha way animals raised and slaughtered for food is the number 1 ethical issue of our time -- since the advent of CAFOs and industrial, intensive confinement farming. others may feel the same and that may be why you hear more on this issue than other ethical dilemmas related to environmentalism. They are thinking, feeling beings treated awfully. The more of us who can give our business to the farms providing more humane treatment, whenever we can afford to, the better these businesses will do and the prices will come down some, giving people for whom economics is also a major consideration a true choice, an option. I know right now $3.99 chicken is just not possible for most people.

    1. No worries... as I said, I do think these are all valid concerns and they are well worth discussing.

      While I would certainly agree that factory farming is an ethical concern, I'd be hard pressed to define it as the number one ethical issue of our time, especially since so many of the issues we face are so deeply intertwined.

      I mean it's all good and well for a few relatively wealthy people to opt out of our agricultural system, but when a huge percentage of the population can barely afford to eat, let alone to pay 10 times more for their food in order to buy organic/ethical items, it sort of strikes me as spitting into the wind.

      So where do you start? Minimum wage? Farm subsidies? Better government regulations? And I haven't even touched on the bigger issues like our ever increasing human population, massive corporate power, ocean acidification and climate change. I mean, at the rate we're going, most of this will be a moot point in a few generation's time, because the planet will barely be capable of supporting life at all!

      I dunno... I'm not saying that we should just throw up our hands in frustration and give up, but I do think that the issue of factory farming is just one symptom of a horribly dysfunctional society. And I don't really think it's possible to address it in isolation without considering the bigger picture of the forces that have allowed it to exist and flourish in the first place.

    2. Where do you start? Great question, as yes, it is all intertwined. The burgeoning human population, yup, ok, I stand corrected, maybe that is the most fundamental since it drives all the others. As an animal lover, I do tend to differentially focus on the animal issues, and I don't feel bad about that since most people really don't care much about animals, they need every advocate they can get. Although I am very used to being attacked, even by friends and family, for focusing on animal issues when there are so many issues affecting humans. And the harshest criticism comes from people who sit o their asses and don't help anyone. on the topic of why your readership might comment on animal issues ore than others, it's probably the "cat lady" part of your blog title!

    3. Well, animal issues are huge for me too... and I don't mean to minimize it at all, and I'm not saying that I won't try to focus more on ethical food issues in the future when finances permit.

      But it's all just such a balancing act - if doubling or tripling (or more) my food budget requires me to participate more fully in this economy of ours in order to make more money, to drive further and more frequently in order to find said food, to accept more packaging and waste... etc, etc... I have to ask myself if the increased environmental impact of those activities isn't sacrificing one type of animal (ie those whose habitats are being destroyed by climate change) for another.

    4. This is a very good topic for this blog, actually I think. This question hasn't left my mind since you first blogged on it. I struggle with this one too. And I think since your blog is essentially an invitation to engage in a critical assessment of our cultural values -- it reflects your own philosophical musings about our cultural values and how you are trying to live authentically rather than reflexively -- the dialogue really does invite musings on this question as much as any other. Because as you have said (or I paraphrase), our American culture tells us to value materialism, money and things over other (higher) values and ethical considerations. In most cases, this is reflected by the pursuit of money and things. But, when we value a cheap price over other ethical considerations, we have to admit that we are doing the same thing, in a way. Valuing money over some other value. Fact is, many of us are pained that we are forced to do this, and food isn't the only example. Every day, people who adore their pets face horrible choices with veterinary care they can't afford. Put $3,000+ on a credit card last week when one of my cats became critically ill. The details are quite painful, but $3,000 later I had to put her down. It wasn't because I ran out of credit, it was because she suffering and couldn't handle further diagnostics, wouldn't have survived into treatment. Had she been treatable though, eventually I would have hit a wall where I did not have access to funds to continue care. It is really disturbing when finances force a person to sacrifice a more closely held value. That is why each of us has a vested interest in more humane treatment of farm animals, because I think even the average person isn't totally dismissive of animal suffering, let alone the kind of people who are drawn to your blog, who I doubt are "average" in the sense of culturally normative.

    5. Hey Stefani, Thanks so much for this comment.

      First of all, I am so, so sorry about your cat. I've been in that situation myself, and understand it all too well - which is why I now carry insurance for all of my animals. But even that has its limits.

      Anyhow, you have my deepest and most sincere condolences. It's just heartbreaking to lose them no matter the circumstances.

      So I've been trying to find a source for actual pasture raised chicken without much luck. So far the only thing I've found was through the farmer's market for $13/lb. Holy Moly! But I was chatting with a neighbor about it and she gave me a new tip that I'll follow up on. It will require a drive, but perhaps it will work. I was actually having visions last night of rotting in hell (I don't actually believe in hell, but you know what I mean) for my transgressions against chicken-kind.

      Anyhow, the more I think about this topic, the more I realize that part of what drives me crazy is just the fact that our systems are so screwed up in the first place. I mean it's not like our society couldn't afford to produce food in a more ethical and environmental manner if we chose to. But instead we hand billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to these mega corporations who both don't need the money and only use it to further rape and pillage the land. Meanwhile, we charge extra fees to those farmers who actually want to grow organically.

      And then I start to get pissed off at the whole environmental movement because in recent years they seem to have decided that the one and only tool is convincing consumers to "opt out" of the system and swim upstream on their own. And while I think that it's great that people care enough and have enough resources to do that, I also think that it's not really a recipe for broad based change.

      I mean, what happened to the movement that got the clean air act passed? And the clean water act, and created the EPA? It's like we're all much more focused on judging each other than on the political systems that allow the factory farms to exist in the first place. It all just makes me so mad that I want to scream.

      I dunno. I'm not saying that encouraging better personal choices is a bad thing. I just wish that there was the same zeal and urgency placed on getting people involved in the political process, because it seems to me that's the only way we're ever going to see the kind of change that we really need.

  12. With my income, it's difficult to buy organic. I do buy cheaper cuts of organic meat (like chicken drumsticks) when I can, but the thing that annoys me the most is that a lot of the cheaper cuts are not available as organic. I don't know what they do with the offal of the organically-raised lambs and chickens, but they just don't seem to be on sale.

    So faced with the choice of buying organic steaks for $25 a kilo or non-organic beef cheeks or lamb off-cuts for $4 a kilo, I'm going to choose the non-organic every time.

    I do think that people tend to get defensive about their food choices. I don't eat many processed foods, which involves a big chunk of time in the kitchen each week. I am totally happy about that because I love food and eating so much.

    However, when I tell people, they often react and make excuses for why they eat processed food. I honestly don't care - I think everyone makes their own choices, but I think people tend to feel guilty about food more than anything else.

    1. I have noticed the same thing about the organic meat - the cheaper cuts just aren't available. I'm sure that's largely because there just isn't a big market for them... I guess people who can afford to eat organic aren't interested in the cheaper cuts.

      It's also really hard to find organic chicken that isn't boneless & skinless - the only thing I've been able to find is whole chickens, which, aside from the fact that they're sort of a pain to cook, means I'm stuck with a bunch of white meat that I really don't like. Anyhow, it makes me wonder what they do with it all... one can hope that it's used for organic pet food or something and not simply thrown out.

      I think you're right about the guilt & defensiveness stuff too. On some level the whole thing just pisses me off. It's like somehow we've all bought into the idea that healthy and ethical food is merely an issue of personal responsibility as opposed to corporate responsibility.

      It's like the whole "Keep America Beautiful" campaign back in the 1970's. Come to think of it, you're probably not familiar with that one. It used to be that most of the bottles and cans in this country had a five or ten cent deposit, and when you returned them to the store you got the deposit back, and the bottle or can was either reused or recycled.

      But, corporations didn't like this, so they fought the "bottle laws" tooth & nail. And one of the ways they did it was to launch a massive "litter awareness" campaign called Keep America Beautiful. The main gist of it all was to convince people that litter was an issue of personal responsibility, and to conveniently let the corporations off the hook with any sort of responsibility for the disposable products they were creating.

      I suppose the campaign did help the litter problem, but it also firmly cemented the idea in the American psyche that the ethical and environmental impact of all our products is the responsibility of the consumer not the company that produced it in the first place.

      So now we have this situation where people equate environmentalism with a lot of finger pointing and preaching, meanwhile the corporate fat cats are laughing all the way to the bank!

      OK... rant over (for the moment anyhow) :-)

    2. Keep the rant going, girl. The current meme is blame the people for everything that is wrong & give the corporations the right to rape, pillage & plunder at will. No corporate responsibility or liability. Ignore the fact that these corporations are filling the planet and everything on it with toxic substances.

    3. Oh, but don't you know... corporations ARE people (she says with a heavy dose of sarcasm.) I think this little saying pretty much sums it up for me: "I won't believe that corporations are people until Texas executes one!"

  13. Why is genetic engineering on the list? I'm not a fan of the way it's used, especially by Mansanto, and the way it's marketed and enforced, especially of suing every farmer who they think breaks it's patent, but really the adding of genes or traits as done today is far, far, less of a change than what conventional breeding and selection has done on current crops (see the ancestors of corn, soybeans, and even cattle or fowl.)

    1. Agreed - It's on the list because taking the time to split out what is and isn't OK about it (as you have done) would probably have sidetracked me into a whole different topic! :-)

  14. Oh, I loved this post. I don't really understand why so many people are self-righteous about their food. I do buy local/organic/"whatever may be healthier in my own opinion at the moment", when I am able to and can afford those choices. (Let's not discuss the Fritos and a brownie that I may have just eaten for lunch.) I'd hate to ever be seen as self-righteous about my choices.

    As a food blogger, I see so many recipes that specify "organic" or "grass-fed" or "local" ingredients. Does this imply that if an item isn't those things or if I can not afford to purchase those things I shouldn't make the recipe? I just don't understand that. It feels like food-snobbery and it makes my skin crawl.

    I can't deny that when a recipe includes multiple ingredients that are dumped from a package, a tub, a box or a can, I'm probably not going to be interested in it. But I would never call attention to that fact with rude comments.

    Also, I have found that the less expensive cuts of beef are available at my local farmer's market, IF and only IF I arrive super early. However, those "less expensive cuts" are still crazy pricey compared to the grocery stores. I buy grass fed ground beef several pounds at a time in order to get a price-break from the rancher that sells it and I do have to arrive early to buy it. Chicken? I just can't stomach the prices! And you are right, what on earth am I going to do with all that white meat?!

    1. I think I'm gonna have to check out the farmer's market. The only one close to me doesn't carry produce because it's sponsored by a shopping center that includes a Whole Foods and I guess they thought it was too much competition - so it's really more like a craft fair. The next closest was a drive across town... but it's been a few years since I checked, so maybe there's something closer now.

      And I'm heartened to learn that I'm not the only one who isn't terribly fond of white meat. I never understand why people want to pay sooo much more for the part of the chicken that is mealy and tasteless!

  15. Thanks for this post. I agree with you - I think food has become symbolic of consumer choice and its environment impact - maybe because it's easy to visualize food and farmers. I recently read and posted about "The Locavore's Dilemma" - disputing the value of locally grown food - yikes! I often think about these issues - for example, why don't we care about all of the plastics and rare metals our electronics are made of, and how they are disposed of?

    1. I think you're right about the visualization thing. The ethical and environmental impact of food is pretty direct and it's an easy link for us to make, whereas things like ocean acidification, desertification, habitat destruction and heavy metal contamination are a bit harder to wrap our brains around.

  16. I think this is my very favorite post ever, not just here but on any I've ever read. You are the best! I won't go into my reasons but I just think you totally rock :)

    1. Gosh, that's high praise, of which I'm quite sure that I'm not worthy! But I'm so glad you liked it!

      And I think you rock too! :-)

    2. You are SO that worthy! I wish I could even come nearly as close to expressing myself in the way you do - instead, I generally just stay away from controversial subjects.

  17. I applaud you for writing this. Too often food politics become a singular dilemma in the eco-debates... but you point out a number of (dare I say) uncomfortable issues people would never think to bring up. Over-population, for instance.

    I could write a tome on the go-rounds and aggravations I have had with this debate locally, but I've decided to stop beating my head against the wall arguing with people on the topic.

    My philosophy is simple, a much like Mark Bittman's. Eat less meat, but don't cut it out entirely. Eat what's fresh and local when in season. Eat plenty of fruits and veggies, and if conventional is what you can afford buy them and eat them which is better than not eating them at all. When people eat simpler and further down the food chain tastes change. So tonight, for instance, I'm having a grilled portobello mushroom burger. Not because I don't eat meat. Not because I'm trying to make a political statement. Not because I'm trying to convert others to vegetarianism. But because that is what my body craves and enjoys. At its most basic level food is meant to be savored and enjoyed, and politicizing it leaves a bad taste in my mouth (pun intended).

    1. Thanks so much for the vote of confidence. I totally agree that people should eat what their bodies need - all of the politics surrounding this issue just makes me crazy.

      I've seen Mark Bittman interviewed a few times and liked what he had to say, but I've never read any of his books. I'm also a big fan of Michael Pollan.

      It just seems to me that somehow people have glommed on to personal choice as the be all and end all in terms of making societal change. But I kinda think that if we're counting on some sort of "do-gooder" impulse to save the planet... well, I guess I just don't think that's very realistic.

      I also think that this whole idea that we can just change the world through shopping is sort of um... well, sorta naive. I'm not saying that personal choices don't matter, but I think in the broad scheme of things there might be more effective ways to exact societal change.

  18. This is a very wise paragraph and I hope to quote it:

    "Anyhow, the more I think about this topic, the more I realize that part of what drives me crazy is just the fact that our systems are so screwed up in the first place. I mean it's not like our society couldn't afford to produce food in a more ethical and environmental manner if we chose to. But instead we hand billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to these mega corporations who both don't need the money and only use it to further rape and pillage the land. Meanwhile, we charge extra fees to those farmers who actually want to grow organically."

    Re: Your observation about environmental movement and "opting out" etc. Actually, this is the one argument against veganism that to some extent holds appeal to me (since I'm holding fast to my lousy excuses) -- any individual or large groups of individuals may "opt out" of meat eating, and that's a laudable choice. But realistically, not everyone is going to do this. So, which creates less animal suffering -- for some small percentage of the population to go vegan, or for all of us to demand better treatment of farm animals? Or some combination of both? Because if purchasing "meat" products from more humane farming remains only a "boutique" option that few can afford, there will never be enough critical mass in the demand market to change how 99+% of animals raised and slaughtered are treated. I don't think therefore, that a total abolitionist movement (without any alternative pressure for a more humane alternative for omnivores and carnivores [like my cats] is going to do the greatest good for the greatest number.

    I truly lament that you have so few options. Living in the DC area, there are many places with $3.99/lb (albeit still wayy too expensive to meet my needs) "Level 5" (pastured) chicken. I can never buy enough at that price to feed my remaining cats.

    Thank you for the condolences. It actually was a horrible circumstance. My kitty, Miracle, who was 13 and who I have had since she was 6 weeks old (along with her sister JuJu) turned out to have died with, and likely from, FELV. I did not know she had it and all the cats in the house, including her sister, are (testing negative but) still at risk. I am very terrified of losing her sister now since they did a lot of mutual grooming and the two of them were the cats I am closest to. Terribly sad, stressful, and more than a little mysterious.

    1. First of all, I'm so sorry about Miracle. Did you get a confirmation of the FELV diagnosis or was it just a best guess? When I first brought Princess inside I was just sure that she was gonna have it because there was this mean alleycat who kept harassing her and he ended up being put down because of FELV. So I had her tested twice, 6 weeks apart just to be sure before I integrated her with my other cats.

      But in my reading/obsessing through that process I read that the FIV test looks for antibodies, which is why there's controversy about vaccinating for FIV because they will then test positive which could put their lives at risk if they fall into the wrong hands, and they will also take 6 weeks to develop antibodies after exposure. But the FELV test on the other hand works differently. I can't remember the details, but it apparently looks for something else, not antibodies, so vaccinated cats still test negative, and there is no meaningful waiting period for when an exposed cat will test positive - if they've been exposed they'll test positive within a matter of hours. I also think that FELV is one of those things that some cats can actually fight off and be cured of.

      Anyhow, I can't remember the details, but you might want to do some further research. If I can find the stuff that I read I'll get it to you.

      In terms of the meat options... I'm sure that part of the problem is that I live in such an impoverished neighborhood. All of the stores in my immediate vicinity cater to the food stamp crowd. I've checked in all 4 neighborhood stores and all I could find was one (yes ONE) package of organic chicken breasts for $8.99/lb! They just don't stock the stuff because nobody here can afford to buy it. I think I'm gonna have to drive to other neighborhoods in order to find any meaningful selection.

      But there is more exploring to be done, and I think I have a new challenge brewing for July that you'll like! :-)

  19. Thanks. Yeh, she was tested for FELV when she was dying and positive. She had some classic symptoms that, if we had been looking for it before, we would have noticed. One eye bigger than the other, but she had almost no white or red blood cells when I took her in the last time. Here I was thinking she just had a bad URI because she and her sister have herpes and miracles sinuses had been ravaged by it, she jettisoned snot everywhere all the time. But URI can be a sign og general immune suppression from the virus. Now her sister is starting to have URI symptoms and I'm just hoping it's stress. No point testing her again quite yet.

    As for the test, the most popular test, called a SNAP or Elisa test, tests for antigens. I do t think it's the same as antibodies, but it's not usually detectable immediately, I think I read 1 to 3 weeks. There is another test called the PCR test that tests for viral DNA and can show up positive on cats even before they test positive on SNAP, but it's more expensive and less frequently done. I will probably have itrun on her sister, JuJu though especially if she starts getting sicker. You are right, some cats just throw the virus off, I read about 30% do. I think another 30% get sick and die, and another significant percentage become latent carriers who can even test negative while harboring it in bone marrow where it can resurge. JuJu is sounding pretty snotty right now and I'm quite concerned. Since she has herpes, I doubt her system is strong enough to throw it off, although it would also be very unusual for her to die from it very soon after contracting it. This cat business is very very hard on the heart. I think I have some bad luck or something. I had to go through something horrible with my "firstborn" (see for details) and JuJu and Miracle (who I rescued from the streets of Italy) are my closest sweeties since my Toonces left. Not sure how much more my heart can take. Think this generation of pets is going to need to be my last. Then again, many have probably said this ...

    1. Oh Stefani, I am so sorry for you and for poor little Toonces. I mean it's hard enough to care for a sick animal even with the best of veterinary care, but that is just unbelievable!

      Well, actually, I say "unbelievable" but unfortunately I find it all too easy to believe. I don't have a lot of trust for vets myself, and even less for some of the people they employ.

      I have a dear friend who took a bunny to the vet because it wasn't eating, and someone at their office (who obviously didn't know how to handle a rabbit) dropped it, broke it's back and little Bunny came home paralyzed. The vet told her to have him put to sleep, but my friend said "no way!" She cared for that little guy for 9, yes NINE more years. It was rather amazing, and she sacrificed a good portion of her life to take care of Bunny.

      Anyhow, the vet apparently turned into an alcoholic and ended up killing himself. Don't know if it was related to what he'd done to Bunny or if karma just caught up to him.

      But I've had all sorts of frightening experiences with vets where different people on the staff tell you completely different things about the diagnosis and treatment etc. I'm happy with my current vet, but his staff scares me to death. A friend of mine took her dog there once - it was one of those situations where she dropped him off in the morning to have a bunch of things done. Anyhow, this dog had had vaccine reactions before so she specifically requested numerous times that he not receive a rabies vaccine, but sure enough, when she went to pick him up they'd given him one!

      At this rate, I'm real leery of letting any vet work on my animals when I'm not there supervising and checking to be sure that they're not fucking up.

      And I can totally relate to the whole "this will be my last generation of pets" thing too. I've had some real dark moments during Sputnik's illness.. thoughts like "why did I ever get cats in the first place... maybe I should just give them all away now while they're healthy so I won't have to watch them get sick and die." Of course I would never do that, but it all just hurts so much. I've been through it twice before as an adult, and after Sputty there's three more - I'm just not sure I've got the emotional fortitude for too much more of this!

      In a very real sense, I sorta think that having a pet is like adopting a terminally ill child. I mean you know pretty much without a doubt that you're gonna outlive them... it's just sooo hard.

  20. loved this post.It's nice to hear that you think about these decisions. From reading your recent posts it felt as if you'd abandoned all other concerns apart from saving money, and that's what made me uncomfortable. It felt as if I didn't know you any more. I make moral compromises, too, as you know. Just the other day I booked a flight to Spain for a trip I could very easily not take. Whether the cost could be considered 'worth it' in any sense, I don't know, but 'greener than green' is beyond me, and sometimes I'm going to fall further short of the mark than others.


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