Monday, November 16, 2009

My Little Friend, the 10-year old Vegetarian

As I was transporting my little friend to basketball practice yesterday, she inquired about my line of work. I told her about providing food and medicine for animals.

In a rapid burst, she exclaimed, " I don't think it's right! I don't think that we should be able to put a hundred chickens in a room and then kill them! I don't eat meat! Look at me, I'm fine!" ( Mind you, she's been a vegetarian for at least 5 years. It was her very independent choice as her family was eating lean meats at the time.) She did get me thinking, once again, about our food systems in the US and world.

She does have a point. Industrial agriculture has put a premium on bottom line pricing for protein (and this is because that's what the customer wants: cheap, quality food). What doesn't get used for meat, gets put into textiles, cosmetics, medicine and other sundries. Factory farming/ranching is not glamorous and often lacks the dignity and care of small farm/ranch operations.

It's not that human omnivores "like" a factory system of food production--most people are repulsed by the process or size of the carbon footprint it leaves. But to provide the quality of protein that the acquired taste likes, more than grass is needed: grain for texture and marbling, grain for finishing (getting animals to the desired weight at the desired time), medicines to keep herd health in tact, trucks for transportation, people and other livestock (horses and dogs) to move and care for the animals and of course the processing plants and the electricity, water, chemicals, and people and further transportation, butchers and packaging needed to give us an edible food product.

Massive meat production is the result of specialization and consolidation of services across the planet. This exists everywhere. Most people can't or won't farm, make their own clothes, soap, furniture, electronics, houses, vehicles, makeup and the like. We pay others to do it. We can do our preferred activities to make a living and pay or barter for the rest. In the Western, developed world, some would say we're just so well-fed, we can choose to be very specific eaters.

Generally speaking, however, the planet cannot currently meet the demands of the population if they exclusively are to survive on plant matter. Not that it lacks nutrition, (although too many carbohydrates and not enough protein has wreaked havoc on sub-Saharan Africa) and certainly the argument can be made that 10 pounds of plant matter can be made for the same price as 1 pound of meat. The sheer amount of land that we'd have to convert out of forest, plains, urbanization and desert to support the amount of plant matter we need isn't available, mostly due to geographical and water variations.

Animals (domesticated and wild) do what we cannot: they take indigestible (for humans) plant matter, fodder, and microbes and make long amino acid chains that build muscle mass. They do this in environments where humans cannot often grow plant matter year around: deep oceans, windy tundra and desert, and cold alpine and northern/southern latitudes. Humans then harvest this mass as meat (or often get secondary products first: milk, eggs, fur /wool and feathers) to feed and clothe their members.

Perhaps there's a middle ground on the issue: not all herbivore or omnivore, but small scale food production for all. I thought this article was intriguing and inspiring, albeit unconventional. Let me know what you think!

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