October 02, 2008

The Compassionate Carnivore - book review

Sustainable agriculture, including alternative methods of production and marketing, humane animal husbandry, etc. has been a personal passion of mine since about 11 years ago when I first started studying US agriculture during grad school. And thinking about what I eat has been part of my consciousness for at least 15 years, ever since Rich and I decided to make the choice to change to a vegetarian diet after Thanksgiving 2003. (We’ve since gone back to an omnivorous diet.)

So when I was offered a review copy of Catherine Friend’s newest book, The Compassionate Carnivore, I jumped at the opportunity. I was very glad to read this entertaining and thought-provoking book, and I hope that many of our customers and friends will read it as well.

Friend is a farmer in Minnesota who raises sheep and other animals for meat. The book, is an argument for humane animal husbandry, and encourages consumers to advocate for better meat raising practices though our purchasing choices. Her writing style is informal and humorous, and the book is both easy to read and informative.

In The Compassionate Carnivore, Friend discusses her own awakening about issues related to meat animals, including the overuse and waste of meat in the US, how animals are raised in factory settings, various aspects of “sustainable” animal husbandry, the issues and ethics surrounding butchering, life on her own farm, and steps readers/consumers can take to support and encourage compassionate animal husbandry.

Three of Friend’s sections in particular resonated with me. The first is the chapter in which she discusses the amount of meat that is wasted every year. Based on a figure of 22.5 million lbs of meat wasted per day in the US, she calculated that 15,000 cattle, 36,000 hogs, and 2 million chickens are basically thrown away every single day. (Go back, re-read that last sentence, and let it sink in for a moment…) Even if her estimates are off by half, over one million animals are still unnecessarily killed each day. Those numbers just floored me. I always try to finish meat on my plate (and give bones and such to our dogs), but I had never really thought about all the meat that just ends up in the trash and the fact that we are callously and wastefully killing millions more animals every year than is really necessary to feed the American public.

Friend devotes a section in the book to “choosing how animals die”. As a farmer raising meat, I really appreciated her thoughts on this topic. One thing she points out is that life and death are both integral parts of raising animals. We spend a lot of time trying to keep our animals alive, only to kill them in the end. While there is certainly irony in that, we can look beyond the irony to the goal that the animals live well and die well. Friend goes on to discuss some problems in large slaughterhouses, and also describes what happens in the small abattoir used for her animals. And she notes:

The lives of animals on sustainable or small farms are not necessarily all that much longer than in a factory; the difference is quality, not quantity.

Many times I’ve been asked by friends or customers if it’s difficult to kill an animal, or to raise animals knowing that they will be killed. It’s a good question. Friend includes a very moving letter to her lambs which articulates well how I feel… thankful to have witnessed the birth and life of our animals, and wishful that their death is brought about as respectfully as they were treated in life. It is a sad thing to know that animals that you have cared for, and maybe even loved, will die, but as Friend writes in the letter to her lambs:

…it’s about you and me. It’s about me working with nature to harvest the sun’s energy and convert it into food for humans. It’s about you having a great nine months of life. It’s about the two of us continuing to do what sheep and shepherds have done for more than ten thousand years, and I am deeply honored to be woven into the tapestry that reaches so far back into our past.

The third part of The Compassionate Carnivore which resonated with me was the chapter entitled “A Seat at the Table”. In this section, Friend argues that being an informed consumer of meat does more to help animals than being a vegetarian. Many vegetarians, my former self included, stop eating meat partially out the hope that it will reduce the demand for meat. However, she points out that although the numbers of vegetarians has risen over the past 20 years, so has the amount of meat consumed per capita. If everyone concerned about the treatment of meat animals became vegetarian, there would be no support for small-scale, humane animal husbandry. Friend points out:

People who become complete vegetarians for the sake of animals are basically getting up from the table and leaving the room. Although they might work to help better animals’ lives through their words, those words won’t keep a sustainable farmer in business. Only dollars will.

Rather than becoming vegetarian, she is encouraging consumers to be thoughtful about the amount of meat they eat (not too much), the amount they waste (hopefully, none!), and about where they get their meat from. Good advice. Throughout the book she acknowledges her own internal struggle about short term food choices (such as eating “pork chop-on-a-stick” at the fair), but in the end she encourages the reader to do make a long term commitment to eating humanely raised animals.

….the more of us who remain at, or join, the table by seeking out and buying humanely raised meat, the stronger our numbers, and the more animals that will be raised in sustainable, humane systems instead of as widgets in a factory.

Amen, sister.

Posted by val at October 2, 2008 02:21 PM