Thinking About Food

by Don Lutz, Gainesville, FL (1st Prize in Editorial Contest)

Last spring an incident at the local Earth Day Festival gave me pause to consider how people, and especially children, think about the food they eat. Our local animal rights group had a table at the event, showing videos, handing out literature, etc. Part of the display was a poster showing the bloody head of a cow at the slaughterhouse. And the next day we received a complaint about the poster.

It seems that a young child, I believe around 8 or 9 years old, had seen the poster and become quite upset. The complaining party suggested that such graphic examples of violence should not be seen by children, and showing them was in bad taste at Earth Day, after all, a family event.

This raises some important questions. Should such a poster shock a young child? The only scenario that I can imagine wherein a child would not be shocked, would be if that child had actually been raised in a slaughterhouse, or in some other way exposed to the blood and gore involved in animal slaughter. Would a family life that revolves around subsistence hunting, as found in some indigenous cultures be such an experience? Certainly to some degree, but obviously hunting as practiced by most humans historically is just not the same as the slaughterhouse, where animals are clearly abused, may even be skinned alive, and of course are killed by the thousands.

But for most children, I would say that yes, the sight of a bloody cowís head hanging from a hook should upset a child, or anyone for that matter. Except, of course, for tough guys and gals. So if a child should be upset by graphic violence, the next question must be, should we shelter the child from such reality?

We humans have a rather strange relationship with what we eat. Whereas most animals obtain their food for themselves, in the living state of nature, most humans get their food by buying it from other humans. No foraging or gathering here. The result is that we donít really know our food anymore. Certainly not in the way that a natural predator does, or even in the way that most humans obtained food in any form - by hand. Up until just a few thousand years ago, most human children learned early on where food comes from. They accompanied the grown-ups as they gathered food, and for those groups who hunted, the child would experience the hunt at a fairly young age as well.

The point is that we donít know enough about food to make important choices about what we eat. A child should know that the killing of an animal for food requires acts of extreme violence; animals try to escape, scream, cry, and often leave family and friends behind when they die. The taking of many plant foods requires no killing at all, but even when it does, the child learns, correctly, that Ďkillingí a potato is just not the same as killing a deer.

But when we never see the live animal, let alone the killing and slaughtering, we are left with an emotionless experience when seeing the piece of flesh on the plate next to the potato. It is all the same, just food.

One can make a strong argument that most humans historically have exhibited an aversion to killing, despite the fact that a few human cultures were based on hunting, and these aggressive societies have come to dominate the modern human world. Violence is not a pleasant pastime for most of us, and seeing it up close is likely what led many religions to adopt a vegetarian philosophy. Especially if raised to cherish nonviolence, children will naturally reject cruelty and killing. To deny the child in the meat-eating household the truth about where his or her food comes from is doing the child and the food, an ethical disservice and injustice.

In other words, if the child learns early on what it takes to put a chickenís leg on a plate, s/he will likely opt for beans, rice and veggies. But if the child is fed animal flesh for a decade or more, before knowing where it comes from, an intelligent, ethical choice is much more difficult. When you have been doing something for so long, and being told it is good for you, itís not easy to suddenly consider that it might be cruel and heartless.

But some people, it seems, are not affected by the slaughterhouse scene - they seem to be immune to compassion at that level. Are they insane? Demented? Genetically programmed to kill? Probably not. Itís more like simple biodiversity. Just as some folks are more aggressive, or more athletic, or more intuitive, some of us are very compassionate and some are not. It may be in our genes. More likely, we are all born with similar potential, and circumstance dictates where and how our moral character is expressed.

To teach a child to love a dog, but be totally without feeling for a cow, is child abuse in itself. Children want to feel empathy and express compassion for all others. But of course, we donít allow this. To care about cows, pigs and chickens is anti-American, some would even say anti-Christian, and might hurt the great American economy. Heaven forbid!

So in the final assessment, protecting the child from the slaughterhouse reality is actually preventing him or her from becoming aware of animal suffering. And from feeling empathy, and acting on that precious emotion. The very process required for conflict resolution, peace and harmony.

Clearly, we no longer have a healthy relationship with nature and our animal kin. I can easily list over one hundred wonderful books about animals in a bibliography, but they can never totally replace the sensory and emotional experience of being with nature firsthand. When we learn about the other animals only from human animals, our understanding will always be limited.

Must humans kill indiscriminately? Do we really think we can know deer only by learning to hunt and kill them? Or know fish by dragging them from their homes with a hook and line? How blindly ignorant can we be of the lives of cows, pigs and chickens, when we see them only in cartoons, or in pieces on a plate? What can we know of the families, feelings, needs, pleasures and sorrows of farm animals, when 90% of the literature about them comes in the form of cookbooks?

Copyright © 2002 Don Lutz