Can you really be a conscious carnivore?

Image of hog CAFO that supplies pork meat products

Photographed above is a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in North Carolina. CAFOs have been criticized for degrading air and water quality for neighborhing communities. Flickr/Waterkeeper Alliance

In its essence, food is simple. It’s the transfer of the sun’s energy from plants to animals and then, in turn, to us. But this elemental transaction has become one of the most loaded sociopolitical and economic issues of our time. And meat is the raw nerve in the heated national conversation about the impact of our food choices.

Today, outspoken vegans and unapologetic carnivores duel over ethical, nutritional, and environmental values, armed to the teeth with supporting research. Advocacy groups insist we should eat less meat, or only the right meat, or no meat whatsoever. Meanwhile, the rest of us wade through the uncertainty of it all—three meals a day, every day. Our meat eating habits, no longer a matter of basic sustenance, have become ethically fraught, deeply personal questions.

Did the organic chicken from the supermarket really live a better life? Is the bacon in my breakfast burrito causing antibiotic resistance in humans? Will the grass-fed burger I grilled for dinner contribute to global warming?

Over a decade after Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma made mindful eating a cultural maxim, it’s now common to think twice about the implications of our meat consumption. Peter Singer, the philosopher and author of Animal Liberation, the 1975 book that popularized the moral idea of equal consideration for animal suffering, says he’s witnessed the rise of a new class of conscientious consumer.

Throughout developed countries, people are learning to ask tough questions about where their food comes from and how it was produced,” he writes, in The Ethics of What We Eat. “Questions like these are part of a growing movement toward ethical food consumption.”

It’s not just vegans anymore. The larger herd of ethical eaters includes a group I call conscious carnivores, an unstudied population that dwells somewhere on the spectrum between absolutist poles. It is a place I know well. I live in a farming community in eastern Oregon, where the slogan “know your farmer, know your food” is a fact of rural living-as is a chest freezer containing a quarter steer, a half hog, a whole lamb, and assorted whole chickens. Our year’s supply of animal protein is all raised on pasture and killed on-farm. Seasonal vegetables are the center of my plate, and I swear off all factory-farmed meats. 07-09-18

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