I wonder sometimes about us humans. Well at least us urban and semi-urban ones. There’s a lot of talk in self-sufficiency circles and in the environmental movement about how “we” are completely disconnected from nature generally and from our food production in particular. I’ve been struck again this week by the paradox of animal rights that comes out of that disconnect from time to time. Some animal rights activists, many of whom are also environmentalists, don’t seem to understand that we humans are animal elements of the ecosystems we inhabit, that we do not exist outside of the ecosystem and determine the best course of action for everything else.
Though I grew up in the city and never really thought about where my produce came from, I did think about food a lot, and in the early 90s, I became a vegetarian. I was living in the mid-western US, at a residential college. Coming from the west coast of Canada, I had never seen so much meat in my life! Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks! Every day! In my second year there, I worked in the cafeteria. All that meat being served came out of the freezer in processed chunks–none of it looked like it came from anything resembling an animal. I didn’t have any difficulty with my choice to avoid all of it. I stayed away from the fish there too (mostly because it only came in the form of “battered fish sticks”, and “battered” always seemed an ominous term), but fish and seafood never entirely left my diet.
Since we moved here, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about meat. When the 100-Mile Diet authors started down their path, they wrote about how they had to change their vegan diets to find more local sources of protein and fat. Tofu and olive oil was out, salmon, butter, and eggs were in. I can grow soybeans, garbanzo beans, and oilseed sunflowers, but when I consider the indigenous diet here, fish is king. Fish produced oil for food, but also for lighting and other now-petroleum-based products. Fish is still the staple protein for First Nations communities here, especially the remote ones, and the decline in fish stocks is a profound concern. If I was going to give up a food for ethical reasons today, fish should be it.
On the other hand, deer and rabbits are currently in overabundant supply. Deer and rabbits have become de facto protected species in our urban and semi-urban environments–we don’t hunt in the cities (for some good reasons!); these critters are cute and fluffy and fun to watch; they are no threat to us, so we’ve left them alone. At the same time, we’ve eliminated many of their other predators (wolves, cougars, etc) through deliberate culls or through habitat destruction. Those predators were often threats to us, and we felt justified in getting rid of them. But now the deer and rabbits are overrunning our islands and damaging our ecosystems themselves, as they eat too many of the indigenous plants and destroy the habitats of songbirds and other small but valuable creatures. They also eat farm crops and gardens and are generally pests.
The obvious solution to the deer and rabbit problems (and it has been suggested often) is to do a controlled cull and use the meat for food for the local population. Free range and organically raised (well, except for the occasional garden pesticide)! But the outcry is predictable, and soon donations pour in for impractical and expensive sterilization programs or other more “humane” alternatives to killing them.
I may be a vegetarian, but I also recognize that humans are predators. We are not at the top of the food chain with some sort of moral responsibility not to consume those below us. We are a *part* of the cyclical, integrated food web. We are food for other predators, or at the very least, for the earth worms and plants when we die. If we try to escape our role as predators in the ecosystem, we are still interfering and disrupting the balance. And even if we don’t eat meat, we still act as the world’s biggest predators when we clear-cut forests to grow soybeans and other large plant crops to feed ourselves something else.
Going vegetarian is often cited as one of the biggest impact choices we can make to mitigate climate change. There’s no doubt in my mind that the industrial production of meat is immoral and and an environmental catastrophe. It’s also one of the largest impacts of the North American lifestyle and is completely unsustainable as an export to the rest of the world. The Chinese can not ever eat as much meat as North Americans–there isn’t enough land and water and petroleum for it to be possible.
But all those low-impact inhabitants of the developing world? The ones who actually live on less than a planet’s worth of resources every day? They’re not vegetarians. They live in small-scale ecosystems with small food gardens, a few chickens, a goat, maybe a cow. They get eggs and milk regularly, and kill a chicken perhaps every few weeks. On a very special occasion, they kill the goat. Hopefully *after* it’s birthed its replacement! The animal manure feeds the garden, and the meat supplements what would otherwise likely not be a subsistence level of calories. It may not be the most fun life on earth, but it’s kept a balance for tens of thousands of years.
I’ve just finished reading Jon Jeavons’ infamous and influential How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine. It was really interesting, and it will likely become a useful resource for me. But I wondered about its central claim: that it takes 4000 sq ft to grow enough food for one person. That amount of land sustains intensive vegetable and fruit crops, and enough grains and potato-like starches to eat year round. Then it also produces enough compost fodder to replenish the soil in the other beds. It makes sense as a system, but I kept wondering about where the chickens fit in? Surely it would be more land-efficient to not try to *grow* all the calories we need to survive, and instead use some of the waste products of those crops (the kitchen scraps) to grow animals that produce ongoing food supplies (eggs and occasionally meat) as well as manure to help replenish the soil? The nutrient and caloric density of meat surely means we would need fewer of the grain/starch crops that are so land-hungry?
I was thinking about all of this as we pulled our crab trap out of the water in the early evening yesterday. The salmon bones and heads went into the bait trap, and a bunch of crab came out. The little ones and females went back, and we kept a big male for dinner. With about 6 big salmon, we have enough fish for the year in the freezer. We’ll freeze a few more crab through the season, and if we’re lucky, add some prawns. If we had a few chickens, we’d have the eggs that right now we buy around the neighborhood. We’ll have enough potatoes and lots of other veg to get through the winter–it’s our first year, so we’ll see how much we need to supplement and for how long. Over the coming years, I hope to be able to grow dry beans and peas for storing too. And maybe some wheat or oats.
But surely this is sustainable? It certainly feels low impact. And most importantly, it feels like we are a part of the ecosystem we’re living in. We have a role to play too–not in an abstract, intellectual way that declares that animals should have the same rights as humans, whatever that means. Animals are not different from us, we *are* a species of animal. And we have to consume to live like everything else on earth. But we can also give back and replenish the earth, like every other creature does, and we can respect and help to nurture the lives of the plants and animals that we must consume.
So will I stay a vegetarian? I’m not sure. It’s been close to twenty years, and what I crave and how my digestive system has adapted are now part of that decision. And although I have no trouble with the idea of chickens and eggs, I’m not sure I could bring myself to eat the bird I had raised for a couple of years! But the food landscape today is vastly different than it was twenty years ago. And I’m not sure that if I had grown up in the kind of life I’m living now that I would have ever felt the need to give up eating animals to begin with. We’ll see where that takes me.