giving thanks

I've been a vegetarian for most of my life now, and have never tried to convince someone to join me in the "alternative" diet.

That's partly because meat-eaters tend to expect (and dread) some prying, accusatory activist rant from a vegetarian, and I do my best to avoid fulfilling stereotypes, not to mention telling people that their way of life is wrong. A greater reason is that I wouldn't even know what to rant about. My childhood decision to stop eating animals didn't have anything to do with environmental causes or animal rights, it was a simple gut determination - it just didn't feel right.

As I see it, elements of your lifestyle like diet should be free to your own volition. I had the freedom to make the veg choice for myself, and respect anyone else's right to make their own choices about what they eat. But what about when those choices are uninformed? How many of us really know where our food comes from? When you think about it, that's a pretty important question - we're talking about the stuff you put in your body multiple times a day. Massive food companies give us their stamp of approval, but a two-second look at these conglomerates reveals them to be food manufacturers more than food producers... do they really have consumers' (in every sense of the word) best interest in mind?

I read a book recently. Written by a favourite author, it's called "Eating Animals", and it's pretty exceptional. With the inspiration of a new son, and the responsibility of determining that child's diet, the writer sets out on an in-depth, level-headed exploration of the American meat production industry. It's by no means an easy read (he acknowledges early on that the name of the book alone suggests difficult and grotesque lines of moral uncertainty), but it is absolutely a valuable one. As you'd probably expect, some grizzly truths about the lives and executions of factory-farmed animals are revealed throughout the course of the book, but that's not the ultimate motif (he emphatically details the benefits of a family farm alternative).

The much more significant question in Eating Animals is this: exactly how much are we willing to overlook or ignore in the production of our food? In the case of meat, that alludes to animal suffering, the creation of a venue for serious disease evolution, and radical environmental impact; but the question extends to all corners of our plates. Side effects of modern dairy, grain, and yes, even fruit and veggie production can have some pretty devastating implications for a human body and the world it lives in. Eating Animals asks the questions that point to an obvious answer: a call for food production that is more environmentally and ethically responsible than our current model.

So what does all this have to do with Thanksgiving? Well, the holiday dinner is perhaps the most deliberated meal of the year in North America. It's the one where every dish has meaning, and families come together to share those ideals. Unfortunately, even that mindfulness seems to have been usurped by the compromises made for economic convenience in food production. Here's an excerpt from Eating Animals that sums up a lot of its messages:

In many ways, Thanksgiving initiates a distinctly American ideal of ethical consumerism. The Thanksgiving meal is America’s founding act of conscientious consumption. But what about the food we feast upon? Does what we consume make sense?

All but a negligible number of the 45 million turkeys that find their way to our Thanksgiving tables were unhealthy, unhappy and - this is a radical understatement - unloved. If people come to different conclusions about the turkey’s place on the Thanksgiving table, at least we can all agree on those three things.

Today’s turkeys are natural insectivores fed a grossly unnatural diet, which can include “meat, sawdust, leather tannery by-products,” and other things whose mention, while widely documented, would probably push your belief too far. Given their vulnerability to disease, turkeys are perhaps the worst fit of any animal for the factory farm model. So they are given more antibiotics than any other farmed animals. Which encourages antibiotic resistance. Which makes these indispensable drugs less effective for humans. In a perfectly direct way, the turkeys on our tables are making it harder to cure human illness.

It shouldn’t be the consumer’s responsibility to figure out what’s cruel and what’s kind, what’s environmentally destructive and what’s sustainable. Cruel and destructive food products should be illegal. We don’t need the option of buying children’s toys made with lead paint, or aerosols with chlorofluorocarbons, or medicines with unlabelled side-effects. And we don’t need the option of buying factory-farmed animals.

And on that somber note,