I always have a feeling of pity for both my friends and the waiter at the restaurant when we go out for dinner. I can see my friends drop their heads as the waiter turns to me and asks what I want to order.
“Is the chicken free range?”
I’m usually answered with a twist of the head and a desperate glance towards the kitchen. Because most of the time you see, it isn’t.
At home I call it ‘happy meat’, an oxymoron that I revel in. No, I’m not a vegetarian. I’m far from it. I’m a conscientious omnivore. In the complex world of dietary habits it can be confusing to see where I fit in. This world used to be bipolar with meat eaters and vegetarians at opposite ends of the spectrum, but various shades of grey have emerged. The list includes vegans, lacto-vegetarians, ovo-vegetarians, lacto-ovo-vegetarians and the elusive fruitarian. Stalwart vegetarians and vegans consider eating conscientiously to be the marijuana of the dietary world – the gateway drug back to eating meat. Conscientious omnivores believe that animals which are raised for slaughter must be treated with respect and reared humanely. The crux of their dietary choice is the issue of animal treatment as opposed to animal slaughter. Having old Bessy land up in their hamburger patty is not the moral issue. They just want to be sure that Bessy was treated well and not exploited for the sake of efficiency and profit.
A consumer driven society has led to great demand for certain products and the meat industry has not escaped this trend. Intensive farming therefore has become more prevalent in the farming sector. It is an approach which sees farmers relying on the economies of scale to increase profits and decrease costs. This basic market principle however, takes on a sinister connotation when you consider that the products which are being produced are not cars or light bulbs – they’re animals. So when costs are cut it is the animals’ welfare and environment which suffer as a result.
The vast majority of chicken and eggs which are sold in shops are not free-range or humanely reared. Why? Because buying those products is too expensive and shops are not able to mark them up as much as their non-free-range counterparts. The battery chicken fillet that you buy that shows a happy, content, bustling chicken on its label is the worst kind of false advertising. The plight of battery chickens is not a pleasant one. When I tried to convert my sister, Emily, I started telling her about the sheds that house up to 100,000 birds. I explained how they are de-beaked and are subjected to artificial light cycles to increase their egg laying productivity. By the time I started to talk about the slaughter process she covered her ears, close her eyes and started shouting: “I don’t want to hear about the tortured chickens!”
And that very sentiment is echoed through the majority of society. Most people don’t want to know because then they would have to make an informed decision. Just as what you don’t know can’t hurt you; what you don’t know can’t make you feel guilty. The connection between what we eat and where it comes from has been severed. We are no longer appreciative of the fact that animals have to die so that we can eat them. That seems the epitome of ingratitude. I was at a recent garden party where a father spent 30 minutes going around to every guest asking them not to refer to the lamb which was revolving above the fire as a ‘lamb’. You see, they hadn’t broken to their little five-year-old cherub of a daughter that meat comes from animals. Smirking I asked him where she thought meat comes from.
“Oh, we just told her it grows, you know, like vegetables.”
I know where meat comes from. I grew up on a game farm, my father shot our food and I have hunted and killed an impala. Because that’s just how life works. In the proverbial cycle of life, death is natural. What isn’t natural is treating animals like products, turning farms into factories and making animal welfare expendable. Yet for a lot of people hunting is still seen as cruel and barbaric. What can be more acceptable than taking responsible for the food you are going to eat and being involved in the process? I am not willing to buy meat that comes from an animal that was mistreated. I would never treat a chicken the way they are treated in battery farms, so why would I buy a buy product of this system? It would just make me an accomplice and a hypocrite.
Even though I feel so strongly about this, I am aware that my beliefs aren’t foolproof. While eating conscientiously may be an ethical decision for me; it is also, ultimately, a selfish one. It is because I can’t reconcile with eating intensively farmed animals that I buy free-range. It’s not because I feel I can bring about a change in the system. The dream of having all animals raised humanely for slaughter is not one that will ever be realised. The demand for meat and animal products is too high for the move away from intensive farming to occur.
Don’t worry, I’m not an evangelical conscientious omnivore; I’m not out to save you.I don’t have the desire to convert people to my way of thinking, but I’m always willing to tell people what I know about the conscientious omnivore movement and how it has affected my life. Apart from helping me eat better, as I can’t eat most fast food, it has also made me acutely aware and grateful for every piece of meat I eat. And made me realise that although we are higher up in the food chain, our seniority does not absolve us from responsibility towards those creatures who occupy the spaces below us.