For two years, the Barred Rock Hens Ms. Pickles, Marge, and Middles have resided in my back yard in a custom built coop, design courtesy of my fellow Fern Creek educator colleague/urban farmer/sustainability-expert extraordinaire Joe Franzen. They are a combination of urban-farm-producing creatures and pets. Because of this pet status, I will likely not be able to slaughter them once their egg-producing days are over, instead saving that task for another less-attached urban farmer.
The hens produce delicious eggs for nine to ten months of the year. Everybody says fresh eggs taste better, and I tried to confirm this claim with a somewhat controlled blind taste test last year with my sister and her friends–three out of four research subjects preferred the backyard eggs. If you’ve ever had the satisfaction of plucking a warm egg from a coop, it certainly provides a visceral connection to the food we eat. When we think about what we eat, where it comes from, and the impact of our culinary choices, much has been brought to our attention by authors such as Bill McKibben and Michael Pollan. Perhaps nobody has challenged my thinking more of late than Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and the less-well-known Eating Animals.
To Safran Foer, eating animals means taking a morally-indefensible stance. What I choose to do–I try to provide roughly a quarter of my meat intake from bow-hunting for deer, rarely eating fast food, and buying local meat when I can–doesn’t cut it as responsible action. Because of industrial agriculture’s vast influence, unless I’m incredibly disciplined, I’m going to consciously or unconsciously support a cruel system that manipulates and misleads consumers. Franzen writes:
If we don’t say no to something that systematically abuses 50 billion animals, if we don’t say no to the number one cause of global warming, and not by a little but, but by a lot, if we don’t say no to what the UN has said is one of the top two or three causes of every environmental problem in the world, locally and globally…if we don’t say no to something that’s making our antibiotics less effective and ineffective…just what to we say no to?
The image below is of a dumpster full of discarded male chicks, which are of no use to hen and egg factories. This is just one example of mass destruction and cruelty (by any sane person’s definition of the word) employed by industrial meat producers.
Foer’s stance troubles and challenges me. With the current rise of meat consumption in America and across the world, humane farming will never rise to scale to meet demand. And I love barbecue. I’d have a helluva hard time going vegetarian. I, like many people, don’t want to feel constant guilt about what I put on the dinner table. Nonetheless, keeping backyard chickens helps raise my consciousness about the issue and, I hope, be a more thoughtful meat consumer, even if Safran Foer would scoff at my efforts.
At this point in my meat-consuming life, I will kill a deer, but I won’t kill Ms. Pickles.
Should we feel shame or guilt about eating meat regularly, even if our society–in the words of Safran Foer–spends a smaller percentage of income on food than any other civilization has in human history, yet treats the animals it eats with cruelty so extreme it would be illegal if inflicted on a dog?