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A reply to “The ethics of food”

The following letter to the editor was submitted as a response to an article published in the Ottawa Citizen, which you can find below the letter itself.

Dear editor,

Thanks to Kate Heartfield for her recent piece, The ethics of food. In an age where food philosophies have become all the rage, it’s healthy to ask question and respect other people’s food choices.  Ontario farmers are willing and able to produce such a variety of foods, grown a variety of ways. As a farmer, I follow food safety, environmental and animal care standards to produce the best beef in a sustainable manner in the Ottawa Valley.  Of course there are many additional standards - including organic, free range, halal and even biodynamic - that some farmers will choose to participate in and need to be paid accordingly. Regardless of what a person’s food politics are, I’m glad when they take the time to consider how food our food is produced.  I also value how fortunate we are to live in a society that has so many food choices available.

Gerald Rollins Beef farmer, Cobden, Ontario

In reply to:

IDNUMBER  201308310065

DOCID:  176764907

PUBLICATION:  Ottawa Citizen

PAGE:  B6

DATE:  2021.08.31

SECTION:  Editorial EDITION:  Early

BYLINE:  Kate Heartfield

———————————————————————- ———-

The ethics of food

———————————————————————- ———-

There aren’t many arguments left that rely on the notion of the ideal human in a state of nature. Except, for some odd reason, when it comes to the ethics of what we eat.

On the one hand, you have the meat-eaters, sagely tapping their canine teeth with one hand as they dip their Chicken McNuggets with the other. According to this school of thought, Man is at the top of the Food Chain and who are we to argue with Nature? We can eat meat; therefore we must. Pass the cronut burgers.   Matthew Parris recently wrote a clever, interesting and ultimately unfounded piece for The Times of London to explain why he would rather eat the flesh of a dead animal than meat grown in a lab. What “gives meat its edge,” he argues, is the very thing that makes him uncomfortable with it. “I’m afraid the knowledge that this burger was never a cow dulls the attraction, while the knowledge that I’m eating another creature sharpens it. Sharpens both the attraction and the horror. At some level in our psyche, however buried, I think that carnivores want to know they have killed.”

I applaud Parris’ self-examination, but not his willingness to apply pop evolutionary psychology to the entire human species. The reference to a “buried” emotion conveniently heads off any contradiction from those of us who don’t find that knowing they’ve killed gives their meals more flavour. “We must surely all have the hunter’s instinct buried somewhere within us,” Parris writes. (When the word “surely” appears in an opinion article, that’s a sign the writer’s on shaky ground.) Some vegetarians and vegans have decided to meet the meat-eaters on paleolithic territory and fight the battle there. In a recent op-ed for the Vancouver Sun, Patricia Tallman argued that the shape of human teeth and intestines, even our fingernails, put us firmly in the herbivore category.

“Anthropological evidence and scientific comparison of our anatomical and physiological features demonstrate that humans are designed to be plant-eaters.”

Within a single sentence, Tallman appeals to both science and, perhaps unwittingly, creationism. No, humans weren’t designed to be plant-eaters, any more than they were designed to be meat-eaters. We weren’t “designed” at all. We evolved. We evolved in ways that allow us to eat and benefit from a remarkable variety of plants and animals, which has proved very useful. If you believe that a Creator wants humans to eat or reject particular foods, then there isn’t much need to examine our teeth or intestines for clues - just look to scripture and religious authority. But for those of us who do not believe that, the idea of “design” simply doesn’t come in to it. If we are not trying to obey the dictates of religion or of an anthropomorphized concept of Nature, then each individual need only ask two questions:

(1) How much meat do I need to eat to be healthy?

(2) How much meat is best, from environmental, animal-rights, economic and other standpoints, for our human civilization to consume? Speaking for myself, the answer to Question 1 is zero. I haven’t eaten meat for about a decade and I’m in very good health. Protein’s easy to get, iron and the omegas require a little planning, and unless you’re a strict, long-term vegan, B12 isn’t usually an issue.

Question 2 is a little more complicated, but there is a consensus, even among defenders of meat production, that humanity could consume a lot less meat than it does today. If there comes a day when there is evidence that humanity en masse is not consuming enough meat to keep the planet functioning, I’ll reconsider my vegetarianism, although I don’t relish the idea. About 90 per cent of the reason I don’t eat meat is simply that I find it disgusting. In most of our debates about how to live in society - gender roles, for example, or homosexuality - appeals to what is “natural” are increasingly, and rightly, relegated to the fringe. We could fight those fights on that territory; we could argue about the mating and parenting habits of penguins and chimps, or whatever. But why bother? We have more relevant standards for judging ethics and policy. Food, though, brings out the weird in people. Despite the many modern advances in farming and food technology - suffer from iodine deficiency lately? - the notion persists that pre-modern or traditional food is healthy food, from the Paleo diet to Michael Pollan’s commandment to not eat anything your greatgrandma wouldn’t recognize. My great-grandmas didn’t live long enough for me to know them. My Scottish grandma was renowned for her baking, heavily reliant on Crisco shortening. My Newfoundlander grandma ate much of her food out of tins - canned peas and spaghetti, Carnation milk in her tea and corned beef, a.k.a. “bully beef.” Convinced to try falafel once, near the end of her life, she reacted as if someone was trying to kill her.

Which of us is closer to our caveman ancestors? And who cares, anyway? I’ll eat what I prefer and what seems best to me, and leave genetic memory and intelligent design out of it.

Kate Heartfield is the Citizen’s editorial pages editor.

Twitter.com/kateheartfield. Email: kheartfield@ottawacitizen.com<mailto:kheartfield@ottawacitizen.com>.

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Posted by Farm and Food Care on September 5th, 2013 :: Filed under Consumers,Education and public awareness,Food,Letters to the Editor,Media,Speaking out
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