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My intention here is not to convert vegetarians to eating local flesh. My point is that everything we eat comes with consequences, and eating in a truly conscious way requires a person to acknowledge that. Yes, a hamburger means that an animal has died. But dairy cows, in order to produce milk, are forever being impregnated; the resulting calves are either raised for slaughter or they replace other mothers, who go on to become ground beef. Even vegetables and fruit have blood on their hands: According to the Pesticide Action Network, each year 672 million birds are exposed to agricultural pesticides, and an estimate ten percent (or 67 million) die as a result. Massive accidental pesticide spills from the vegetables and fruit fields of California's Central Valley have killed fish in surrounding rivers even 1,000,000 at a time.
And that's just death. Factor in our food choices' ramifications for the environment, the economy, and people, including farm workers, family farmers, the meat cutters made famous in Fast Food Nation—not to mention our own fragile bodies dealing with pesticide residues—and it's enough to make you stop eating altogether. What choice isn't poisoned?
For me knowing the facts doesn't act as an appetite suppressant. In fact, buying, cooking, and eating food is the greatest joy in my life. I go to the farmers market the way others go to church: When I go there I connect to something meaningful and exciting. It's a weekly ritual, where I see old friends and meet new people. I get information and perspectives that change my view of the world, and walk away nearly every time feeling rejuvenated and hopeful. I go there not to boycott the grim, modern food system and its dire consequences, but as a vote in favor of an alternative: namely food that is healthy for the land, the people who grow it, and me.
The diet that results is not an -ism, it's a series of considerations. I choose my vegetables and fruits to be grown as close as possible to where I am. Because I live in California, that usually means within seventy-five miles, year-round. When traveling I apply that standard as well. I seek out restaurants that value sustainable agriculture and track down each new city's farmers market. When I end up in a truck stop I still choose potatoes over tomatoes in winter, knowing full well that the choice matters only in principle.
I don't cut corners with animal products, however, eating them only when I know the person who raised the animals and trust his or her methods to be humane. Even then, I eat meat infrequently and cheese only slightly more often; I'm still sensitive to the killing involved, and like to treat its products with reverence. Pork is still crossed off the list; I simply like pigs too much.
But these are my personal priorities. To another person I wouldn't recommend these guidelines so much as the thinking behind them. If you don't like something about the food industry, don't support it. But perhaps more importantly, do support something you do believe in, so that the alternative can grow. A woman I once interviewed told me that when she was pregnant, she was eating not just for herself and her baby, but for her grandchildren. The choices we make now not only shield us from the hazards of the present, they pave the path for a future that's safer for our children.