a blog by J.M. Cottle
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Food morality, part one: Eating with feeling

About a year ago, I was (lazily) following a paleo diet. This means eating food that would have been available to hunter-gatherer people in the paleolithic era, such as meat and fruit, and avoiding the products of agriculture, such as grains and sugar. I was following it because I believed it was the healthiest way for humans to eat. I have no interest in debating the validity of this diet, so if you want to learn more just go see what Steve has to say about it.

I was watching the movie Food, Inc. to learn more about sustainable farming, since the paleo diet recommends it, and I saw this one scene that made me think I was going to throw up. It wasn’t a scene of factory farming; it wasn’t a scene of cows crowded together in their own excrement or chickens pecking each other to death. It was a scene from Polyface Farm, which focuses on environmentally friendly farming and letting the animals roam and eat what makes them healthiest. Because eating healthy animals makes you a healthy animal too.

In short, the folks at Polyface Farm were supposed to be the good guys, so I was astonished at the immediate, powerful, visceral reaction I had to this one scene, starting at around 2:07 in this clip. If you don’t want to watch it, it shows a worker putting chickens into funnels head-first, pulling the heads out of the bottom of the funnels, and slitting their throats.

This scene wouldn’t leave my mind for weeks. Why did I have that reaction? Sure, I’m a hypersensitive person and I’m easily upset, but I have known for a long time that this is the process by which my chicken arrives on my plate. My family has owned cows and pigs for meat, and one of the cows is still in pieces in my parents’ freezer. I believed that as part of the food chain humans have a responsibility to eat animals since we have wiped out too many of the high level predators. I had often said that if you are uncomfortable with killing animals yourself, you have no right to be eating them.

But seeing a video of a chicken killed for food made me sick to my very core. And we all know what that means: my emotions were telling me that this was immoral.

At first I did nothing. I lived for months full of guilt and uncertainty, having nowhere to turn because everyone I knew ate animals — even factory farmed animals that had suffered immensely before dying — and no one seemed to consider this a problem at all. I wondered if I just needed to grow up. Children are grossed out when they learn what meat is, but adults should be able to handle the facts of life.

I began reading the blogs of vegetarians and vegans to see another side of the issue, and I started to think that it was possible for me to be healthy without eating animals. Some even say that it’s more healthy to avoid eating animals. I don’t have enough information to give an informed opinion, and I don’t have enough faith in nutrition experiments to think that we know for sure, but I was willing to give it a try.

Slowly, very slowly, I began avoiding the meat I didn’t even like in the first place but had made myself eat, and then I began avoiding the meat I liked, and then I avoided the meat I loved. By the end I was already refusing dairy and eggs, because I had gotten into the practice of thinking about the animal that provided my food, and how it was almost guaranteed that this animal had suffered and died even if it was not expressly killed for the purpose of my meal. Besides, an adult human stealing milk from another animal’s babies just seemed absurdly wrong.

And, of course, this wasn’t just about what goes into my stomach. I stopped buying all objects made of animal products, and the ones that I already owned I treated with respect, because throwing them away and replacing them seemed no better than spitting on the animal’s body. This new way of being felt easy and natural, as if I had lifted a heavy burden from my shoulders that I never even realized was there. I felt like I was doing something right.

So, a year after watching that chicken die, I’m vegan.

(Continued in part two.)

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