Around four years ago I came back from China and because of one of the last stories I wrote while over there I was determined to change my eating habits. I wasn’t ready to go full vegetarian, but I was going to try to eat less meat and try to avoid intensively raised meat.
So a friend of mine came through NY during those first months I was back in NY and he wanted a steak. I called Wolfgang’s on Park Avenue and asked if their meet is organic to which the hostess replied “what?” She passed the phone to the manager and he said, in a thick Balkan accent, “yes, yes, it is the best”. I was a bit wary, but made the reservation. My friend I sat down to eat and as the busy Balkan waiter told us about the menu I asked him if their meet was organic and I again got “what?”. So I said, “you know, the cow ate grass, wasn’t confined to a pen its whole life, moved around, etc.” And he replied, “no, no, cow never move, whole life.” I was disappointed, but still got the steak; I was trying to be a conscientious eater, but I wasn’t ready to go with the vegetarian option at a steak house.
That’s the heart of the matter for me: how to eat ethically as often as possible. Jonathan Safran Froer had a short essay on the Huffington Post after his book Eating Animals came out basically saying that you don’t have to be a vegan to try to be a more ethical eater, much in the same way you don’t have to swear off riding in a car if you identify with environmentalism.
But what really started me thinking about this was my time in China. I started researching a story on animal welfare when I saw something about a Chinese woman being ostracized after she was identified in a video crushing a kitten with stiletto heels for a Japanese fetish website. The story I read noted that there was no animal welfare law in practice. It was interesting that this woman was found and essentially disciplined through vigilante justice through the power of Chinese flash-mobs, and others have followed that story closely and what it means to Chinese society, but I started thinking about animals and China. It was interesting to me that the Chinese, as they acquire more wealth, are starting to have pets and become more conscious of animals. But it isn’t a straight shot from simply having a dog to respecting animals, in fact there are a lot of problems associated with increased pet numbers in China, some of which I touch on in my story (PDF). The story took me in many directions: traditional Chinese views towards animals and how they were influenced over time by Taoism, Confucius, Communism and Capitalism; the attitudes towards animals in the various regions (in the south, in Guangdong, they are fond of saying they will eat “anything that flies except for a plane and anything with four legs except for a table”); the rise of intensive farming in China as the Chinese demand more meat with their disposable incomes.
I also had the good fortune of spending some time with Professor Peter Singer as I was working on this story. Singer is a Professor of Bioethics at Princeton and the author of, among many others, Animal Liberation, considered by many to be the bible of the animal rights movement. He writes a monthly column for Project Syndicate, my ex-employer, and I met him once in his hometown of Melbourne, where we had lunch at a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant. That conversation, corresponding with him since then, and most importantly reading his books (The Ethics of What We Eat is also excellent) and essays helped me think outside the box. It’s not just about what we eat, but how we treat animals. For example, Professor Singer is a part of a movement to extend a modicum of human rights for great apes. He refers to the bias we seem comfortable with against animals as speciasm. Sometimes he is dismissed for these claims, but he backs up his views with strong research and convincing arguments and approaches the questions as a philosopher and not a polemicist or self-promoter.
Ultimately, for me, the question of how we eat is essential. It’s about our health and also about how we can shape the world we live in. You can vote with your dollars by patronizing restaurants that serve organic meat and make a bit of a difference by even asking if they have any organic options on the menu. Making big changes in the world – ending hunger, peace in the Middle East – seem daunting. But it seems like a small victory each time I find a new restaurant or grocery store that offers ethical eating options.