Monday, January 15, 2007

Trying to Be An "Ethical Omnivore"


I'm not that thrilled with the term, but then it's handy to have some label that describes a way of eating. I have great admiration for vegetarians, even more for vegans, but I myself remain somewhat addicted to meat, not to mention cheese. Rather than turn a blind eye to the problems of factory farming, inhumane conditions of animals during their lives and at slaughter, rampant use of pesticides and fertilizer pollution , I am trying to follow a path apparently being referred to these days as an "ethical omnivore." What this means is basically that you don't eat food unless you know something about where it comes from. The "ethics" part is striving to make food choices that support organic farming and the humane treatment of animals raised for meat products. In addition, it means trying to eat locally grown foods when possible, eat foods in season, make the best choices for the environment, and focus on seafood products that are sustainable. The "omnivore" part is that you can eat meat - as long as you can verify the conditions in which the animals live and die.

I didn't come up with this idea on my own. I read "The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter," by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. I was dreading a preachy book telling me to go vegan, and instead was very pleased to find a great philosophical argument, some very useful information, and the realization that I have to choose between supporting farming and animal husbandry practices I don't believe are ethical, or doing a heck of a lot more work to decide what to eat. While initially daunted by the more work part, the more I learned, the more committed I became to finding a way to make it work.

So, two weeks into the new "Ethical Omnivore" diet, here's a bit about what I have learned. It is easier than I thought to obtain information - companies have been very responsive in answering my emails and questions about their practices. Although I lament the lack of a Wild Oats, a Whole Foods, or even a Trader Joe's in my town, we do have a Co-Op that carries organic products and has a very helpful staff. I have been able to locate local, humanely raised lamb and beef (grass fed only, not grain finished). I can mail order pork products that pass the test, and the Co-Op has free range chicken. The price of these products, if nothing else, will ensure that we eat less meat - I am aiming for 2-3 times a week max. Organic produce is easy to find, though learning what's in and out of season and where things are grown is slightly harder. Eggs and dairy are tough - though I did find an organic brand I can live with, and in summer local eggs will be available, and there is soy yogurt and soy milk that are good substitutes. Planning menus takes more time, but I find I am way more careful to plan to use up all leftovers, as the cost of all organic is higher - significantly on some items. I invested in a few new cookbooks and aim to slowly learn how to cook vegetarian and vegan meals, with at least several meals a week being vegan and most meals being vegetarian.

I was even able to locate one local restaurant that basically supports the ethical omnivore diet by letting you know the source of all meat products, and using only organic vegetables. Eating out is otherwise a little hard - it's not always possible to find organic, so in a pinch I aim for vegetarian. (Which is tough since I still strongly dislike most vegetables). The worst was the airport on business travel - all I could come up with was a bag of pistachios. But, you can sneak your organic popcorn with organic butter into the theater, and you can pack a lunch to work and airline snacks for travel, and it can be done, without trauma. I find a huge upside is that it forces you to think really hard before you put anything in your mouth - no more mindless eating and no more casual calorie consumption. Planned meals and snacks from reliable, investigated sources only leads to a lot more control over your diet.

I will be interested to see what effect this diet has over time on our bank account, our health, our habits and our cooking skills. I am hopeful that next year we are in a position to move farther - maybe vegetarian (vegan is still too far off for me to actually imagine doing on a daily basis, as meat and cheese have long had my strongest affection).

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