Nicolette Hahn Niman on Being a Conscientious Omnivore

CivilEats has some important coverage of Meat Free Mondays, showing the concept is winning the support of people far outside the vegetarian community:

The list of Meatless Monday supporters continues to grow across the globe, and surprisingly to some, many of the latest enthusiasts make their living either cooking meat, such as chef Mario Batali or producing it, like rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman.

America is still sadly a country in which most people would struggle to put together a totally meatless day of eating. I think anyone who is promoting the Meat Free Monday concept—and that includes ranchers and meat-loving chefs—deserves applause.

The remainder of the CivilEats article features Nicolette Hahn Niman talking about making ethically informed food choices. All of her comments are worth considering, but she does say a couple things that merit a response:

I try to get all my food from a place I’d enjoy visiting.

This is an ingenious statement, and one I think we should all apply to our food choices. In fact, if I differ with Niman on this point, I bet it’s in my wanting to apply this rule more consistently than she does.

Let’s think about her phrase, “I try to get all my food&#0133”

Where do you get your food? Specifically, where do you get your meat, milk, and eggs? Niman is obviously too thoughtful to assert that you get these foods from your retailer. What she no doubt really means is that you should be paying attention to the quality of life on the farm in which the animals that produced your food are raised.

But is that really going far enough? Isn’t the other half of the equation the slaughterhouses to which all these animals—including the dried-up dairy cows and spent hens—are sent? Would it be possible to say that you could “enjoy visiting” one of these slaughterhouses? And if you couldn’t enjoy your visit, should you really be purchasing these foods?

As I said, Niman’s standard is an excellent one. But I think that omnivores who carefully applied this rule would soon find themselves in the vegan camp.

Niman goes on to say:

And if you have a yard why not have a garden, maybe have a flock of egg-laying hens?

Once again, Niman’s looking deeper than most food buyers, but she’s still not looking deeply enough. And the trouble is that most omnivores hearing this advice don’t know enough to ask the right follow-up questions.

To start, are these hens going to be ultra-productive modern varieties, with their tremendous predisposition to health problems? Or are they going to be lower-yielding heirloom varieties?

Either way, are you buying one male chick for every female you purchase? If not, you can pretty much count on each unpurchased male chick being smothered or ground up alive. But if you do take in the males, and you have nearby neighbors, you are the biggest asshole on the planet.

See, it’s not as simple as Niman makes it sound.

And what about veterinary care? If your hen gets bumblefoot, or a prolapsed vent, or some other bizarre chicken malady—are you going to pay for specialized veterinary care? If so, those are going to be some expensive eggs.

There are many reasons I’m vegan. And one is that I’m too damned lazy, and much too cheap, to be a truly conscientious omnivore. Link.


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