“The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man's life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.” - Ned Stark, A Game of Thrones
Devoted nerds and avid readers like myself will likely recognize this quote from Ned Stark, George R.R. Martin’s most honorable character in the first installment of the ever popular Game of Thrones novels, now featured as an HBO mini-series with even more growing popularity.
And although the much admired Ned Stark (spoiler alert) won’t survive past the first novel, his words have stuck with me. No, I’m not planning on beheading anyone anytime soon, but it is that same ideology that I believe applies to my dinner every night.
I’m often asked if I am a vegetarian. Opting for vegetarian fare for most of my meals, anyone who doesn’t know me well might make this assumption. The truth is, I’m not a vegetarian and I am not morally opposed to killing animals for meat. This happens in nature all of the time, and I’m not going to argue with nature on this one. Try telling a cat that it shouldn’t eat the mouse that it just caught and see how far you get with that (I did try this once as a child…it did not go well). The fact is, animals have been eating each other and humans have been eating animals for thousands of years, and we will continue to do so for thousands more. So, no, I suffer no moral dilemmas about eating meat (Although, yes vegetarians, I very much understand your point of view that killing another creature for meat is no longer necessary for our survival and I can empathize with that idea). However, I do suffer a moral dilemma about the quantity of meat we as Americans consume.
The U.S. eats an overwhelming amount of meat compared to the rest of the world. At 270.7 lbs per person per year, Americans eat more meat than any other country in the world, aside from, oddly enough, Luxembourg (NPR: A Nation of Meat Eaters). It is our insatiable demand for meat, coupled with large urban populations unable to raise their own animals, that has led to the formation of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOS) and the mass production of animals for slaughter, a scenario that not only is destructive to the environment, often unjust to animals, and risky to human health, but which has also led Americans to conveniently forget where their food comes from, perhaps the most grievous crime of all.
We are generations removed from the rural lifestyles led by our grandparents and great grandparents. We shop at grocery store chains that didn’t exist 60 years ago in order to find the produce and proteins that they used to raise and kill themselves. We look at the label of a happy cow in a green pasture and blindly believe that this is is the case. We bargain shop for the cheapest cuts of meat and never stop to wonder how or why these prices are possible, and we forget the rows of steaks and chops and breasts, loins, and legs, and roasts, all once belonged to living, breathing beings.
But I grew up in the country, I know what my dinner looks like, and so I simply believe, as Ned Stark did, “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” If you have never killed an animal yourself, or if you believe yourself incapable of killing an animal, or if you simply can’t bear to watch an animal be killed, then you should probably consider thoughtfully if eating meat is good choice. If you can’t look a cow in its big brown eyes and then watch as its cut up into your sunday pot roast, you might want to rethink eating beef. If you don’t think yourself capable of grabbing a chicken and cleaving off its head, you probably should not eat chicken. If you aren’t able to stand the sight of a pig being strung up by its hind quarters and watch as its throat is cut and blood drained, then you might consider avoiding pork. Yes I am being graphic. But no, I am not being unrealistic. This is how your meat is slaughtered. It isn’t pretty. It is gruesome. And you have been spared all of this gruesomeness in order to make you forget, or perhaps, in many cases, in order to never let you know in the first place. Everything is cut and cleaned and trimmed, plumped and colored and pre-packaged in order to avoid reminding you that the hunk of meat you are purchasing ever lived. The blood is drained, the feathers removed, the skin peeled, the skulls and hooves disposed of. But the fact remains, every time you eat a cut of meat, you are actively taking an animal’s life. If more people stopped to consider this fact and all that it entails, America’s meat over-consumption issue might begin to recede. And if more people had to kill an animal themselves before eating it, America’s meat over-consumption issue might not exist at all. People should know where their food comes from and what it takes to get to their table.
Does this mean that I believe that we should kill every animal ourselves before we it. Well in a better world, yes. That’s probably how nature intended it. But the vast majority of us, myself included, don’t have the means to raise and butcher our own animals. Lack of land and time and knowledge have made it so we must rely on others to do this work for us. I certainly don’t kill all of the animals that I eat. In fact, I think in all my life I’ve only killed one myself. I don’t eat much pork or beef for this reason, although I believe I would be capable of killing a cow or a pig if I needed to. That may sound cruel, but remember, you are effectively doing the same every time you choose to eat a pork chop or hamburger, whether you wield the sword yourself or not.
I also believe it’s important to know how my meat was raised. The idea of supporting a system where animals are raised for mass slaughter grates on me. We cringe at the thought of puppy mills and our eyes water a little bit every time we see an abused dog or kitten pouting to the soundtrack of a Sarah McLaughlin song on tv; yet we willfully numb our minds to compassion when it comes to the animals that give up their lives to sustain us. So whenever possible, I purchase my meat from local farmers who I know are treating their animals with care. Yes, they still intend to butcher their animals, but at least they gave them the opportunity to actually live first.
In the end, when it comes to my dinner, I believe the most honorable thing to do is purchase a happy, well-cared for animal and swing the sword myself, and in the absence of that possibility, know that I would swing the sword if I had the chance. And that knowledge, that thought that every time I eat meat I am taking an animal’s life, that thought reminds me that veggies are really delicious too.
And so I put the question to you, can you swing the sword?
If you answered yes then read up on other ways you can insure that you are eating meat sustainably:
1. Purchase from local farmers: When you do purchase meat, try as often as possible to purchase humanely-raised animals from local farmers whose practices you know and trust.
2. Use the whole animal: Buying only packages of skinless chicken breasts means more chickens must be slaughtered to meet the demand for breasts. Scarfing down 10 wings at Buffalo Wild Wings means that five chickens had to die. The best practice is to buy a whole animal when possible and use as much of it as you can. Less animals will be slaughtered, there will be less waste, and you will be paying more respect to the life of each animal that dies.
3. Create at least one day a week where you don’t eat meat. Checkout Meatless Monday for ideas.