Thursday, July 2, 2009

Veggie Might: A Confession and a Prayer to Remain Tailless

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

In a recent post, Kris suggested screening Food, Inc., and I complied. Eric Schlosser on a sesame seed bun! This movie rocked me to the core. Weeks later and I’m still reeling.

I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 20 years, mostly for ethical reasons relating to personal health, the environment, and animal welfare (and rebellion against my conservative parents, since we’re telling tales). My mid-90s mantra was, “If we fed people with the food we grow to feed animals that we then kill to feed people, no one would go hungry. And I want to be skinny.”

I spent my 20s and early 30s keeping up with the horrors of slaughterhouses, the evils of factory farming, and the dangers of genetically engineered/modified foods ... until I got burned out. Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me pushed me over the edge.

After taking them in, I vowed never to darken a fast-food door and put the whole sordid business out of my mind. Since then, I’ve resisted reading Michael Pollan or engaging in much of the discourse about food ethics other than to explain why I’m a vegetarian to the few who ask. (I’ve gotten over the rebellion and the need to be skinny; the rest remains.)

I was pretty satisfied with myself and my choices. “I’m a nearly-vegan,” I thought, “I buy organic when I can afford it. I send the occasional email petition to Monsanto. All this doesn’t really concern me. I am not part of the problem. Animals don’t die for my meals. My impact on the environment is pretty darn low.”

Well. Food, Inc. snapped me out of my self-righteous fantasy. And broke my heart several times over.

I don’t want to spoil it for you, but vegetarians are not necessarily off the hook. Just as I like to rail at those Skinny Bitch girls for suggesting that all vegans are skinny (hello, you can eat all the Tofutti Cuties and potato chips you want and still be vegan!), not all vegetarians eat ethically or healthily. So many times throughout the film I felt guilty that my ambivalence is part of the problem.

I realized that, except when I buy from the farmers’ market or CSA, I have no idea where my food comes from, who handled it, and how those people were treated. (I’ll spare you tales of feed lot run-off spreading e-Coli and salmonella to the produce fields. You watch the news.)

A particularly unsettling part of the film highlighted the impact of genetically engineered soybean seeds on farmers. Suddenly, my low-impact, cruelty-free diet/lifestyle had a price tag I could no longer afford. (Don’t even get me started on the fact that what we don’t know how GE foods may affect our health in the long run.) There, in the dark, I had a panicked moment. “Where in the name of Bobcat Goldthwait does my soy come from?”

As soon as I got home, I ransacked my fridge and cabinets in search of GE/GMO foods. I breathed easier when I found none, but my complacency was evident. I don’t want to grow a tail from Frankensoy, and I don’t want workers exploited so I can have relatively cheap raspberries.

Like Kris and the Husband-Elect, I have taken stock of my values and my budget and found I can do more, still enjoy food, and remain tail-free. (Are you there Maude? It’s me, Leigh.)

The CSA did not fit my budget or schedule this year. But three weeks in a row, I’ve shopped at a farmers’ market and bought only organic at my local health food store. I tend to overbuy in the face of a “good deal” and then end up throwing stuff away. Since the shift, my budget has pretty much stayed the same, and frankly, I’ve been better about buying less.

So, with eyes open again, I’m ready to learn more and take on new challenges in my ethical vegetarian walk. I just got The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food from the library so I can catch up on what everyone has been talking about for the last five years. In the meantime, here are a few links that have helped me tuned back in.

Organic Consumers Association is a clearinghouse of information about policy, community action, and organic living. The CSA’s farmer from last year turned me on to these folks. You can sign up for their newsletter or action alerts to make your voice heard.

Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog is crammed with mind-blowing articles about what really goes on behind the scenes at our food protection agencies. After you’re good and angry, write your congressperson.

Celebrate Food Independence Day with the people who inspired the White House garden. Kitchen Gardeners International is encouraging Americans to celebrate the 4th of July by using only local food at their Independence Day picnics and BBQs.

I’d love to hear what y’all think. Have you see Food, Inc.? Have you read anything about food policy you’d like to share? Care to testify?

(Images courtesy of Natalie Dee and Grain Millers.)

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Daniel said...

It's spectacular that there's so much dialog going on right now about food orgin, food quality and the ethics of food.

And food standards are starting to go up, both with corporate standards in the food industry (with things like Country of Origin Labeling, or new requirements for calorie count information at restaurant chains going into effect), and our individual standards as consumers and eaters. More and more people are embracing things like part-time vegetarianism and are being more mindful of the nature and provenance of their foods.

I think what's become clear over the past few years is we as consumers--and voters--have a lot more power than we think we do to make changes, both to our personal diets and to the foods in the marketplace.

Great thoughts, Leigh.

Casual Kitchen

Morta Di Fame said...

Great article. I have not seen food inc, yet, but the Pollan books are MUST MUST reads and I am happy you are getting them from the library. I agree that its not enough just to be vegan or vegetarian. I have recently become almost 100% local and it has changed the way I feel, look and has saved me loads of money, too. Its scary to learn about this stuff but I do believe that this new movement will change things for the better. It just can't go on this way because people are experiencing worse effects than growing tails! Cancer, obesity, diabetes, to name a few... is a great resource for all CSA, Famer's Markets and local farm produce and meats.
Thanks again for the inspiring candid post!

Shana said...

I've been burying my head in the sand trying to believe I'm doing the best I can (actually, last year I watched The Business of Being Born, and I'm still recovering from my long, successful, but uphill battle for a natural childbirth, if you want a decent excuse). I guess it's time for me to take up a new cause, so I'll have to watch Food, Inc., too.

I think one of the great things I've heard about this recession is the fact that so many people are growing their own food this summer (bummer about late blight -- apparently we've got it in PA -- but hopefully that will not ruin all). My hope is that a handful of these folks are growing tasty, heirloom varieties and will keep it up for the flavor even after their income improves.

Alex said...

"As soon as I got home, I ransacked my fridge and cabinets in search of GE/GMO foods. I breathed easier when I found none..."

Unfortunately, 90% of soybeans ARE genetically modified, and food manufacturers aren't required to label foods that have been genetically modified. So in all likelihood, any soy you're eating is controlled by Monsanto. : /

Anonymous said...

Most people on earth depend on engineered foods. By depend I mean they would have starved otherwise. The only reason we comfortable new yorkers can luxuriate in local food is because only a handful of us do so. NYC's 8 million would wipe out all arable land within a 100 mile radius within a day. It's a modern luxury- olde fashioned farming.

eatclosetohome said...

I "broke up" with my very favorite restaurant (sent a letter and everything) after seeing Food, Inc., because after repeated requests, they still don't carry any vegetarian, organic, or free-range foods.