Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Farm to Fork Continuum in print

This article cropped up today in The Age’s epicure. Following on the heels of their two page spread on veganism, and with a whisper in the wind about a feature on vegetarianism en route, one can’t help but wonder whether someone over there is running a line.

The article by Necia Wilden addresses the gaps and blindness in the farm to fork continuum, and her attempt to face her dinner. Necia travels to an anonymous farm to watch the slaughter of a 14 month old lamb by Farmer Rob.

It’s a thoughtful piece, which raises questions which beyond the scope of the article to answer, and she is honest with herself about many things:

- Her ‘prejudice’ in favour of pigs:

Irrationally, the only thing making me feel a little better about being here is that it's a sheep and not a pig. This is partly because of something Rob had said earlier, that the saddest place to visit is a pig abattoir, "because pigs are sensitive and intelligent animals and you can hear them screaming".
- Her underwhelming reaction to the slaughter and how it may have been different :

Would I have reacted differently if I'd gone to an abattoir? What if it had been a pig? Or it had endured a less merciful death?
Yes, you would. This lamb’s comparatively quick and easy death is no match for the bloody, torturous, and cruel slaughterhouse where sheep are often still alive and aware as they have their throats cut, plunged into boiling water, their skin torn off and their limbs torn off. But you won’t be allowed in a slaughterhouse – and that should tell you more about the disconnection between farm and fork than anything else.

The article pricks a number of myths dearly-held by many omnivores, hauling them out into the sun:

The fact is we live in an age that has taken us further from the source of our food than any other in history. … An age in which we have forgotten - or are choosing to ignore -where all the truckloads of meat we eat really come from.

Or even the simple fact that many people see no contradiction in voicing outrage at cruelty to dogs and cats while they're enjoying a breakfast of bacon from factory-farmed pigs and eggs from battery-farmed hens.
However, there are a number of assumptions and prejudices that Necia does not confront, or indeed even acknowledge. One is her belief that by simply being able to face the death of an animal, or to know that it was killed ‘humanely’, it entitles her to eat it without compunction:

I wanted to reconnect, if only fleetingly, with the culture of my grandparents' era, when wringing a chook's neck in the backyard was no big deal.

We saw no evidence of suffering. I don't believe she knew what hit her. As Rob says afterwards: "The most traumatic thing for this sheep was being photographed."
Presumably it was a big deal for the chook. All this, of course, leads to the ‘happy meat’ conclusion:

I do, however, make a pledge to myself to be stricter in my policy of eating only organic or genuinely free-range animals, in the hope that the improved quality of their lives translates to an improved quality of death.
… and the self-justifying comment:

There is also, as our photographer Simon Schluter says, an amazing display of skill by Rob.

"If I were a sheep," he says later, "I'd want to be killed by this bloke."

Wow. Lucky sheep.

Throughout the article a number of logical voids appear which are not recognised. The presence of Meg, the anthropomorphically-named sheepdog, is one darkly ironic one. Meg, of course, is not food.

For example, Rob’s position on which sheep are fit for slaughter:

He wouldn't harvest a pregnant lamb. Neither would he harvest a baby, despite the fact suckling lambs are said to be great eating.

"Morally it doesn't seem right to harvest the ones that are four weeks old," he says. "I won't do that."

Presumably morals, like lifeboats, are only for women and children. You may also note the term ‘harvest’.

His opinion about pigs:

… something Rob had said earlier, that the saddest place to visit is a pig abattoir, "because pigs are sensitive and intelligent animals and you can hear them screaming".
The argument about intelligence is surely over, or do we need to repeat the Singer/newborn/mentally challenged argument?

… and his unintentional flash of insight:

"Can you see that what has happened here is a crossover, a transformation?" he says. "It is no longer something that's living and growing but a food."
Exactly. I believe this is what Necia is actually trying to get at. The salient point is that it is no longer something that’s living and growing because he slit its throat, not because it is inherently intended to be food.

Rob continues:

He has never focused on cutting the throat. "You would be a bit sick to focus on that little bit. You're focused on creating food for the table. It's just a job that needs to be done.

"When you hunt and gather, that's a normal part of life. If you didn't grow the vegetables, if you didn't kill the animals, the cupboard would be bare."
Neither of these statements stands up to even the lightest scrutiny (except the bit about being sick to focus on the throat slitting. Dare I suggest that you must be something else to actually do it?). You do not need to create food for the table in this way, nor would the cupboard be even slightly bare without it. We are not hunter gatherers, nor do we think with our canine teeth (thanks for that one, Janice). What's more, the inestimable difference between vegteable and animal militates against any comparison. We live in a time and place where we are in no way obliged to rely on meat to sustain us, nor is it a necessity for our health. Using this kind of utilitarian argument is an emotional shield against the sheer needlessness of slaughter.

Necia ends with a number of interesting comments. She writes, quite correctly, that:

the food industry will continue to avoid scrutiny only for as long as it can depend on a quiescent public.

I would add to that also that the meat industry will avoid scrutiny as long as it refuses access to its operations by journalists and authors; continues to spend vast amounts of money on lobbying, ‘research’ and advertising; and continues to help us move further and further away from the farm by presenting us with pre-slaughtered, pre-butchered, unrecognizably-presented, euphemistically-named, shrink-wrapped trays in the supermarket at artificially low prices.
I am somewhat confused by Necia’s closing statements:
For me, I am aware, like never before, that I am eating flesh. This is not an unpleasant sensation, and it certainly adds another dimension to dinner. … To paraphrase the old adage: Hunger is probably still the best sauce. But now I know that gratitude runs a close second.
Perhaps if she had engaged a little more with the lamb that was to become her dinner; read a little more about practices in commercial animal raising operations, and done a little more questioning of her positions on the role of animals as food, she would have come to a different conclusion. Perhaps I am just too revolted by the idea of finding the sensation and thought of eating flesh pleasant … but then I’m vegan. Grateful though, I cannot understand. There was no need to eat the lamb; its body did not sustain you in a time of famine, nor did it willingly go to the slaughter (excuse the awful pun). It, like all animals, did not allow itself to be killed. I am reminded of the recent German case in which it was found that a person cannot consent to being killed and eaten.
Despite the limited scope of the article, I feel that had Necia looked and thought a little harder she may have interrogated her own prejudices a little more deeply. Nonetheless, this is an article that actively looks at, thinks about and talks about the farm to fork continuum, and makes a number of interesting comments about the increasing alienation of most people from the source of their food.


Lisa Dempster said...

As you know I agree wholeheartedly. I was glad this article looked a little deeper than usual at the farm to fork continuum, and also that it even acknowledged that seeing a sheep killed one on one would be different from a trip to the abattoir. However I was really frustrated at the end of the article when the author writes: I do, however, make a pledge to myself to be stricter in my policy of eating only organic or genuinely free-range animals, in the hope that the improved quality of their lives translates to an improved quality of death. ... which just invites all the other omnis reading to do the same.

I have to thumbs up to Epicure for including some coverage (at last!) of veg issues. I'm hoping that it's not going to stop at just two or three articles. Let's see some veg recipes, some veg food reviews - or even just a review in which the reviewer tries the veg option! Please!

Miss T said...

... or, heaven forbid, they acknowledge that vegans are actually interested in food and cooking, and can usually do it pretty damn well!