Humans are Animals Too

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.

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8 thoughts on “Humans are Animals Too

  1. OMG, well said Toni! I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone else even begin to analyse all of the elements that mesh together to make up the “Big Picture”. My Dad was a skilled hunter, fisher, trapper, gardener. He was also the most conservation-minded person I’ve ever known – my brother and I learned to love nature, in all of its glory, complexity and misery, from him. The greatest sin, we were taught, was to kill something merely for sport: if you took an animal’s life it was for sustenance and you were grateful for it.
    I don’t remember to whom the credit belongs for “Nature abhors an imbalance…” (one of Newton’s Laws perhaps?) but, my hat is off to those who strive to understand… completely.

  2. Thanks Deb. I’m around a lot of hunters and fishers these days, which was not at all my upbringing, and I have found myself looking at the world quite differently than I used to. You are lucky to have had so much experience to those real connections between humans and nature; it’s clear not many of us get that chance these days. I’ll look forward to hearing more readers’ thoughts–I wasn’t sure if this would be a controversial post or not. 🙂

  3. We must be about the same age. I went vegetarian in college too, in 1990 or so. My husband and kids are not vegetarians and I am coming to similar conclusions that you have about meat and the focus on local and sustainable. If I do start integrating meat into my diet (not sure that I will), it would have to fall into the local and sustainable category and I’m moving the meat consumption for my husband and kids in that direction. As a family, we definitely eat far less meat than the typical American family, but we can definitely make improvements when it comes to where our meat comes from.

  4. Thanks for the podcast tip, Deb; I did hear about the segment coming up, but missed it live. I always look forward to Margaret Atwood’s take on things!

    Sandy, I think there must have been lots of people our age thinking about vegetarianism in college in the early 90s as animal rights became a big issue and identity politics were so important. Isn’t it amazing how much has changed in 20 years? Not all for the better, of course, but nice to see that some things actually have improved. I’ll look forward to hearing more about how you and your family work through these issues.

  5. I love this post. I’m glad to hear JJ has reduced the amount of land required to feed an individual down to 4,000 square feet because the WHO has it up somewhere over 1 acre.

    I’m currently utilizing about 2,000 square feet for the orchard and veg beds that feed 4. Granted 2 are children and one only eats pancakes but we still have quite a bit of room for rabbits, chickens, goats and sunflowers for oil that we aren’t using since the boys want play space.

    Someday my family will be as obsessed as I am at finding out truly how much you can do in a small space and then I’ll give JJ a run for his money.

    I have his book but I admit that in the soggy NW many of his principals just don’t apply. Perhaps I need to go through it again. It just makes sense to me that you can take 1 raised bed and sow 3 seasons of things at the same time. Broccoli raab comes up quickly then when it’s done you take it out to make room for sprouting and then heading broccoli and kohlrabi. Then when those are done the brussel sprouts are getting large and can shade the winter cole crops that you interplant somewhat and you can start a green cover crop in late summer just in time for it to grow over winter and be spring chicken food and soil amendment.

    It makes sense to me that animals are also part of the garden – they play an important role in soil fertility and pest management. I too was vegetarian in the ’90s until meeting my husband. I eat more meat now than at any other part of my life. I have to admit though that when I don’t my muscle tone suffers.

    Perhaps we eat too much grain as a society and raise too much grain (hence the large land requirements to feed an individual) with which to feed animals that get sick eating grain. Maybe it’s time we focused more on vegetables and meat.

    Great post!

    1. Annette, your blog and everything you are packing into your ordinary-sized space is inspiring. I’m so glad to hear your observations on both JJs techniques for our climate (Steve Solomon’s not really a fan either, so I’m considering them carefully–and watching others’ experiments) and your thoughts on production in smaller spaces. I’m also wondering about the whole goal of no-input total self-sufficent food production. Aren’t we a community and isn’t a certain amount of sharing between neighbour/hoods a good thing?

  6. It absolutely is. We are about to have a fall barter here in Seattle. Last year I got 120#s of free plums from neighbors, and free grapes that were going to fall and rot. I traded things I had put up at the barter and took home soap, honey, and beer. Others brought homemade bread, canned goods or traded services. It was wonderful.

    It makes sense to find buddies. Maybe you have a friend with a shady lot who wants to grow food. Let her grow the lettuces and huckleberries. You grow the corn and cabbage. I just wish I had more neighbors who had gardens or baked or even thought I was sane. If it wasn’t for the internet I don’t know what I would do! Your point about needing community and building community are what make this work. It’s what we are lacking (that extended family) that we lost when we moved to cities and why we are reliant on the teats of big ag now. Building that community again is the only thing that will keep this from failing.

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