Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Life and Death of Food


This journal entry was inspired by the above NYT story, and by a friend's comment that I shouldn’t have referred to the annual slaughter of sheep as 'murder' in my post on Tabaski. She’s right, of course.  Murder is defined as “unlawful killing” and usually refers to the killing of another human being.

On the morning of Tabaski, Grace went to her friend’s house and watched a sheep being slaughtered.  When she told me about it later that day, I was struck by how matter-of-fact she was.  I probably shouldn’t have been.  By now, watching animals being killed is, if not standard, relatively familiar for both kids.  Last summer was the first time they saw animals being killed for a meal.  The first time they saw it was when I first killed a chicken.  The only anxiety was my own.  Shortly after that, they watched a pig being killed, which is a much more dramatic event, filled with screaming (of the pig) and fear (also of the pig).

I posted a couple videos on my Facebook page that documented both the chicken and pig killing.  After watching those videos, a few friends emailed me, surprised at how easily Grace and Elijah accepted the killing.  It’s been my observation that kids are much more comfortable with death (and killing) than adults.  In fact, it was my own discomfort with the process of killing that prompted me to want to kill my own chicken.  I mean, really, how ludicrous is it that I eat meat, but that I don’t want to get my hands dirty by killing it.  It is hypocritical, to say the least. I felt that to be a responsible meat-eater, I needed to at least be willing to do the deed and to slit the throat of the thing that would give me sustenance.

The disconnection between us and the animals that sustain us has caused us to develop an extremely inhumane production system.  Indeed, one might never give a thought to the idea that the meat that you put in your mouth was once living and breathing.  We buy our food in the store, packaged and (seemingly) sterile, without thinking about what went into its production.  By this time, I don’t think I need to provide a bunch of examples about the social and environmental effects of our food systems, because many of us have seen them via films like “Food Inc.” and “King Corn” and “Supersize Me.”

I think, generally, people in so-called ‘developed’ nations look at Africa as un-modern and backwards.  The fact that people raise and kill their own animals is somehow seen as primitive.  But, though it may be un-modern, it is decidedly more humane than the system we’ve got in the US.  It’s probably also cleaner and less likely to make you sick.  Do I feel any qualitative difference between eating a chicken here and the one I buy at home in the store?  Yes, I do.  First of all, here, I can buy, at a reasonable price, a chicken that has not been pumped full of hormones.  Second, I really do feel better about eating a chicken that had some space to roam, and that lived its life doing chicken-y things.  Third, because meat is relatively expensive, we don’t tend to eat that much of it; we eat chicken maybe once a week, and meat no more than 2-3 times.  And each time we eat it, we eat communally, out of a single bowl, which probably reduces the amount we consume each time.  Lastly, the meat tastes better.

Part of the push to extend the industrial food system to places like Africa is based on the rationale that peoples’ food preferences are changing, that they are demanding more meat, that more and more must be produced and that only an industrial, modern food system is capable of producing the output required to feed a hungry planet.  I tend to think, however, that the implementation of an industrial food system is actually a cause of, not a response to, changing eating habits.  If meat is cheaper to produce, which is accomplished by using the inhumane techniques associated with the industrial food system, then perhaps people will eat more meat.  But, it is not a fait accompli that people must eat more meat, nor is it necessarily a sign of modernity.  The purveyors of the industrial food system know that it behooves them to fear-monger around the idea of starvation, and I think a lot of their projections about the future dearth of food are contrived based on their assumptions of changing eating habits, (as well as a whole lot of other assumptions.)

It’s ironic that so many in the US are striving to take back the means of their own food production when a similar system here is viewed as anachronistic.  I, personally, prefer the way the food system is set up here.  I like that I can kill a chicken in the morning, and eat it a couple of hours later.  And, from what I can tell with my research, Senegalese like it, too…and are not at all sold on the idea of a ‘modern’ food system.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post. I sometimes think that children accept death more easily than we do because they feel invincible, while we know we're next. And I plan to quote you in a book I am writing about how we label killing animals ourselves primitive and brutal when it is our industrial system that is both.