This will be as confusing for you as it is for me.
There is so very much talk around meat and sustainability and ethics and and and.... I want to put it out there all the twists and turns of where I stand on this very complex, so NOT black and white issue, so here goes. Better put the kettle on, I'm going to try to break it down...
Meat is Murder
OK, yes. Sure. Any time you kill something for any other reason than compassion, I suppose, it's murder. Meat eaters are guilty of causing animals to die. We can't deny it.
There is No Such Thing as "Ethical Meat"
Well, I guess that comes down to how you define "ethical". If you are just simply and completely opposed to killing...period...then yes, there is no such thing. But, if you are fundamentally okay with the notion that killing animals to eat them is normal, natural, and fine, then I believe there is such a thing as "ethical meat".
What is "Ethical Meat"?
I feel "ethical meat" means a few things. Animals that are raised to be eaten deserve to live as natural and happy a life as any animal. That means, farmers should provide a comfortable place to live: clean, warm, with plenty of room to move about and do natural things, such as rooting or rolling or scratching and pecking and taking sun- and dust-baths...proper free range or pastured in other words.
Murray's girls. Photo: Laura Berman
It means that the folks who work with the animals on a day to day basis should treat them with care, respect and sensitivity. Just because an animal is born to die (aren't we all?) it doesn't mean they are without value. In fact, we should value them more, as they are making the ultimate sacrifice for us.
Ethically-raised also must mean, ethically killed. The animal's life must be good and so must its death. It should be done as close to home as possible to avoid a hellish transport in extreme heat or cold. "Ethically slaughtered" should mean that enough time and care is taken with each individual animal to ensure death or complete unconsciousness is swift or instantaneous, that the animal doesn't know what's coming - that comes down to abattoir design - and handled with compassion right to the very end. And that can only happen when the process is slowed down. Big Ag's all consuming commitment to growing the bottom line won't allow for that.
Do I Eat Meat?
Yup. Sometimes. Not often; once a week for sure, perhaps more if I'm developing some recipes for work. Do I eat factory meat. No way! Now ask me how I feel about animals.... I love them. I've yet to meet a critter I didn't. And yes, I like them better alive than on my plate. Are there some critters I just won't or can't bring myself to eat? Indeed; as hypocritical as it is...yes. It's getting harder and harder to eat chicken (for obvious reasons) when I have to for work.
Me and Romeo Roo. Photo: Diane Walton
I won't touch foie gras. Veal makes me very uncomfortable, and it's just not that interesting as a meat, anyway. Suckling pig? Can't do it. And of course, eating from the sea is a very delicate business. I choose carefully, in other words.When I crave meat - and I do every once in a while - it's a bloody, blue-rare, grass-fed, pasture-raised bit of beef I be wantin'!
If I had a Magic Wand...
If I could wave my hand, all the factory farms in the world would be gone. Today. Right now. It makes me sick and hurts my heart. It's very bad for the environment and it's an exploitative business built on the backs of the powerless and marginalized - animal and human.
This is a modern pig "farm"...factory, and it's wrong. It's just so very wrong on so many levels.
This is how real farmers, such as Murray here with his charges, do it.
Factory farming is making the planet sick with its use and wasting of water, it's polluting, it's fuel-guzzling, and all the anti-biotics used are creating a world where we can't fight infections any more. It's killing us. (Give this a listen.)
But, the reality is, I can't do that, and most humans want to eat meat and don't want to spend a penny more than they have to on it. So, until the factory farming system collapses in on itself under its own weight - and I do believe it will, sooner than we think - the best I can do is help local farmers who are doing it right and try to educate factory meat-buyers and eaters about the realities of what they're putting into their bodies and how their choices impact the planet now and in the future.
Do I think pigs are smart and adorable? Yes. All animals are smarter than we give them credit for. Do I wish animals didn't taste so good and we would all happily be vegetarian, sure! Do animals eat other animals? Yes; have done since the beginning of time. I'm a realist, a pragmatist, I want to make things better for agricultural animals right now and I believe this is the way to do it.
Murray's little babies... Photo: Lelania Little
Vegetarians and vegans will say the only way to end animal suffering is to take them off your plate. That is the ultimate way, yes, but it's also something that only a small percentage of the world's population will do.
I Believe Humans are Opportunistic Omnivores
When we were hunter-gatherers we ate what we found, collected, dug up and caught - roots, berries, shellfish, eggs, small animals, etc. But settling down and becoming an agrarian society changed everything. And unless you want us to go back to being hunter-gatherers, agriculture and agricultural animals are here to stay. So how can we make their lives matter more; make their lives better?
For me, the answer is supporting local, small farms. That's why you'll find me at Farmers' Markets around Toronto cooking up my friend Murray's heritage pork, while still having great affection for Esther the Wonder Pig!
So Yes, it's Complicated
Wouldn't it be lovely if we were all vegetarian? Sure! But that's a pipe dream, at least for the foreseeable future, so in the meantime, we try to change the system from within. The reality is, even if I were a strict vegetarian myself, as opposed to a once a week meat-eater, I'd still support small farmers for how they've chosen to produce meat while protecting and nurturing the land.