Sunday, August 9, 2009

Perfectly Good

In her column in this weekend’s Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente writes on women and food—two topics that she often writes on, and often writes on well.* The central point of this column (“Being in the Kitchen with Julia…”) was a good one: for all that Julia Child may have raised the level of culinary awareness in North America, she also “put the heat on serious, cultured, and accomplished women to get back in the kitchen, just as they had begun to claw their way out.” From this angle and from more than a few others, there’s a lot to be said for convenience. But Wente is as blind to certain other issues as she is intelligently alert to the impact of social change on the lives of women. “Why bother to turn on the oven,” Wente concludes, "when you can buy a perfectly good roast chicken for $7.99?” Why indeed—unless you have given some thought to the ways in which the factory farming that produces the $7.99 chicken entails far higher total costs than are reflected in that price. Costs to the environment—and costs to the chickens that are cruelly bred and cruelly treated throughout their short lives.

In another column—one that I quote in Animals—Wente makes plain her refusal to think about such questions, and is disarmingly frank about the reasons why:

[L]ots of chefs have already kicked foie gras off the menu. They think it isn’t nice to torture animals before you eat them. Indeed, most of what we do to animals before we eat them isn’t nice. If we knew exactly how they lived and died, we’d be horrified. Fortunately for us, we’re so removed from where our food comes that we can choose not to know. Ignorance is bliss, and I, for one, am a devoted carnivore. I have studiously tried to avoid learning about the revolting details of factory farming, because if I knew, then I would have to stop eating meat and start sending money to the animal-rights movement, or at the very least search out meat that had an okay life. That would be hard. It’s easier to be a hypocrite.

From one angle I find this attitude oddly honorable; Wente is prepared to state openly and honestly the sort of thing that I know I dimly felt within myself for many years but never had the courage to acknowledge, much less state openly in public. I'm sure such thoughts and feelings must be widespread, but it’s rare indeed that one finds them stated frankly in print. Far more often we try to persuade ourselves that factory farming isn’t really cruel, or doesn’t really harm the environment, or that non-human animals don’t really suffer. Wente is at least honest about her refusal to think or feel.

How can one best respond? Not, I would say, by trying to argue that someone such as Wente should give up meat. Perhaps rather by pointing to some of the ways in which practices that are far less supportive of cruelty can be just about as convenient. Free-range chickens may not always be humanely raised, but on average there is far less cruelty involved in raising them than there is in raising the cheap factory-farmed varieties. And the same goes for free-range eggs and free-range beef and free-range pork. To be sure, there are fewer convenience foods available that are made from free-range meat or eggs. But there are some (I’ve just googled free-range convenience food in the city in which Wente lives, and in less than 30 seconds discovered “Table-Ready Food” from Cumbrae’s, with two Toronto locations), and it is certainly possible to make a very wide range of quick and convenient meals with meat or eggs from free-range animals. In short, the choice is not a simple dichotomy between giving up meat and consuming the products of factory farming without any thought or feeling for one’s fellow creatures; there is a substantial middle ground.

Granted, free-range meat and eggs are not dirt cheap—and people with limited means may be justified in taking the least expensive alternative, even when doing so supports what amounts to animal torture. For those whose incomes are not at the absolute low end of the spectrum, though, there is certainly good reason to consider the ways in which that $7.99 chicken is not “perfectly good” after all, and to be prepared to pay a bit more for a better alternative.

* Her June 6 2009 column on the murder of Dr. George Tiller, for example—and on the reasons why women are sometimes driven to consider late-term abortion as an option—was as enlightening as it was courageous.

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