meat eating

by tobybee

I was up at Peats Ridge music and sustainability festival over new years eve. The premise of Peats Ridge is that it combines entertainment, arts and creativity with sustainability. And, I think, it has won awards for their efforts at sustainability: they place a huge emphasis on sorting waste and making sure that things are recycled/composted, there are workshops on living in a sustainable manner etc. But one thing that my group talked about a few times throughout the festival was that there was meat being served by most of the stalls selling food. And not only that, but the prices listed prominently were most often for meat products and the vegetarian options were a bit more hidden. And it struck us that, seeing as eating meat is one of the most harmful things one can do for the environment, it seemed a bit odd that the festival isn’t more encouraging of people to refrain from eating meat whenever possible.

In one discussion that we had, my sister-out-law said that if she killed the animal herself she would eat it. For me, I couldn’t kill an animal, and the thought of eating flesh just mostly revolts me. At the same time, I do eat fish (I think it’s the kashrut laws that got it cemented in my head that fish isn’t meat, and so it’s different to other animals. But then, I don’t eat flake, but will happily eat seafood. ambivalent? yes indeedy.) and have dairy products. But I can’t stand goats cheese – it always tastes like goat to me.

And then I just read this post on the Jew and the Carrot blog, where the author, Lailah Robertson, talks about the ritual slaughtering of a goat that took place at the Hazon Food Conference a couple of years ago, and the ways in which this was raised for discussion at the most recent Conference, which took place at the end of December. And she writes that who ate the goat was part of a larger discussion of whether or not people would eat an animal that they had slaughtered themselves, or had watched be slaughtered – and that both meat eaters and vegetarians ‘switched sides’ on this question. But, more interestingly, she writes about the complexities and responsibilities of being vegetarian: of being prepared to eat dairy products but not the animal itself. She writes:

I’m a vegetarian, so this doesn’t have much to do with me, right? I can pick a side based on my own principles, but those goats and chickens aren’t being killed and served up in my name.

Except for one thing.

That goat was my goat.

No, I don’t mean he was my own pet goat. I mean that goat was my responsibility. I brought him into this world. His fate was directly linked to me.

That year the Hazon conference was held at the Isabella Freeman Jewish Retreat Center, and the goat in question was from their farm, Adamah, part of Adamah’s “boy’s town.” “Boy’s town” is the separate pasture for all the male goats who are born to the herd of dairy goats Adamah raises to produce milk and cheese. In order to make milk, goats need to be lactating, and to lactate they must be pregnant and then give birth. According to the wonderful Abbe Turner of the Lucky Penny Farm, who answered my questions (during today’s panel of Jewish Female Farmers) with deep compassion and groundedness, around 56% of the kids born in her herd are male. None of these little guys will be producing milk any time soon. So what happens to them?

I imagine this answer is different for different goats. And then there also the even more numerous males born to dairy cows, and all the males born to laying hens. Some end up as featured delicacies in local gourmet restaurants, like Abbe Turner’s. Others are killed quickly and cleanly by a shochet and eaten by those who raised them, like the goats at Adamah. Most others I imagine go to central processing plants to become stew meat or pet food or veal calves or are even ground into livestock feed, like male laying chickens.

When I eat eggs and dairy, even from the most humane, sustainable, small-farmer-owned, organic, local farms, I am not only drinking this milk and noshing on this cheese. I am calling forth this male goat, this living animal who is brought into a world that has very few options for him. Farmers could keep these male animals and raise them – and Abbe Turner does send some off to live lengthy lives as 4H projects or grass shearers. But to keep all of these animals would be to make pets of them, and the strain this doubling of the herd would put on the resources of land and water and farmer would be enormous beyond justification.

In saying that, I’m not saying that the strain on resources of keeping these “extraneous” male animals alive is not justified by the saving of their lives; I’m saying that it’s not justified by the resources (i.e., money) that I’m willing to contribute to get myself a delicious chevre or some tasty yogurt. I’m not paying so much for my cheese that there’s money in there to fund a goat sanctuary as well. So, the goat goes off to the knife. Someone kills him, someone cooks him, someone eats him. It’s not me, though.

No, I’m a vegetarian.

And so I start the new year wondering about my food choices. At what point do I work harder, pushing myself to try to make the ways in which I eat more equivalent to the politics that I speak and try to practice? At what point is it acceptable for me to say that I do what I can, and that I’m flawed, and that I am allowed to be ok with that? I don’t really know.