I have a complex relationship with meat. See, I grew up eating meat. Not too much — at home we ate a largely plant-based diet both before and after my dad became a strict vegetarian. But occasionally we would go out to eat, and I was permitted to order meat dishes. It was like a “treat”, reserved for a special occasion. I liked meat; even now I crave turkey and beef, flavors poorly replicated in soy substitutes available today.
I now feel uncomfortable calling meat a “treat” while knowing what is required to put it on my plate. Though I’ve been a vegetarian for three years, I do not think consumption of animal products is inherently evil. Contemporary production of it may be – it’s unsustainable (extreme environmental degradation), unnecessary (for optimal health and vitality, we should be replacing most of the meat in our diets with fruits and veggies), and unhealthy (livestock and poultry are pumped full of antibiotics and endure stressed and diseased conditions prior to slaughter – and then we eat them).
For many, though, meat can be a source of valuable nutrition if raised properly and sustainably. And for much of the world, the ability to eat meat really is a treat; it’s a sign of wealth to regularly consume animal flesh. For the world’s poor, it’s reserved for meals that mark milestone occasions ranking much higher than those in my family (which were more often typified by “Mom doesn’t feel like cooking dinner tonight”).
The fact is that for some, to have meat served on your plate, there is a real and recognized sacrifice that has to be made. I have been told (anecdotally) that in Ethiopia it used to be common practice to perform a kind of surgery on livestock wherein one would open up the side of the cow, extract a steak of meat, and sew her back up. This, in an effort to preserve the cow for her life-giving milk, necessary to the Ethiopian diet. Obviously, this is not a process an animal could physically withstand on a daily basis; it would be for rare occasions only.
I am still looking for documented evidence of this actually happening, either now or in the ancient past, in Ethiopia or elsewhere. So far I have not found anything written about the practice, but the idea of cutting meat out of a still-living animal for the purposes of consumption would certainly be horrifying to most of us raised in the West.
The process is not inconceivable or necessarily non-historical. If you trust the Bible as, at the very least, a historical document, you will note that in Genesis 9, after God permits that “every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you”, he follows up with a warning: “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” (Genesis 9:3-4, New American Standard Version)
A disclaimer here: I am not, nor have any desire to be, a theologian, and this is certainly not an exegesis. From a layperson’s standpoint, the meaning of this text may be instruction to drain/cook the animal’s blood completely and thoroughly from its body (no rare steak for you!); or it may be God forbidding his people to consume the flesh of living animals. I have heard both interpretations, and you may take up with your pastor the original meaning of that text. Whether you are a believer in Scripture or not, however, I point out this biblical passage because for large volumes of the world’s population, scripture informs daily life. (Even beyond Christianity, Jews, Muslims and Hindus all practice strict dietary rules as well.)
So you consider a cow, alive and without anesthesia, being cut open for its flesh, and you think, “I would never, could never eat or prepare the meat of a still-living animal.” Even if it is a fiction, it is cruel and repulsive (and this, presumably, is the reason behind such religious dietary restrictions). Yet here in the U.S. we have documented cases of animals meeting the butcher’s knife without being properly stunned and while fully conscious. Are the two any different? Generally, consumers simply look the other way, slaughterhouses are hidden behind closed, policy-protected doors, and we think nothing of the living bodies from which our food originates.
Let’s face it. Meat is complicated and emotional. It is good, life-giving, and sometimes necessary; and it is evil, harmful to our bodies, our environment – and our consciousness, if we favor our tastes over our moral quandaries.
I try to weigh these perspectives in balance, while living and eating as ethically as I know how. For me, that means advocating for more fruits and veggies, and less meat in American diets. It means looking at my food as a healer for diet-related maladies infecting large swaths of our country’s population. And it means voting with my fork. As CivilEats contributor Haven Bourque writes, “even vegetarians need to have skin in the game.”