Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is well known for exploring the emotional lives of animals, and in two previous books, "Dogs Never Lie About Love" and "When Elephants Weep", has presented a very convincing case that there are few differences between what we and non-human animals feel. In "The Face on Your Plate" he extends this argument to the animals we eat--particularly farm animals and fish--bolstering his case with a wealth of new scientific evidence showing that even dumb-looking turkeys and cold-blooded salmon are more thoughtful, introspective, and emotionally rich than any of us have imagined.
However, whereas his previous books inspired delight at the emotional landscape that we share with other animals, "The Face on Your Plate" provokes discomfort, as it was designed to do. No matter one's dietary preferences, it's impossible to read Masson's descriptions of cows separated from their calves at birth, of salmon mindlessly swimming away their lives in fish-farm pens, and of chickens and pigs sequestered in the equivalents of concentration camps without being repulsed by the profound cruelty associated with the making of our food.
What then can someone who reads this well-documented book do to rectify this situation? We can turn our backs upon it and ignore the cruelty, as Masson points out that many of us do, or we can follow his lead and become vegans. This is the central theme of the book: that the vegan lifestyle--consuming no meat, dairy products, or eggs--not only reduces the suffering of other sentient beings, but also helps to alleviate global warming while spreading agricultural resources to hungry humans instead of to methane-belching livestock. To sweeten his point, Masson spends the latter part of his book extolling the culinary delights of veganism as well as its health benefits, suggesting that we take a very pure line: it would be best if we gave up all animal products, even honey.
Some readers may find him a bit precious in this regard--do bees really care about their hives being "robbed"? I did not find this to be the case. Once you engage the map Masson draws--that all animals have feelings--(and it's hard not to), it's difficult to fault the logic of his position, especially when he bolsters it with such good biology, impressive logic, and admirable passion. All that acknowledged, I wish he had also discussed the notion that veganism may not be the only morally and environmentally sound way of eating, and, in fact, may not be universally adoptable. His not addressing these issues seemed like an omission in an otherwise wonderfully thoughtful and provocative book, and I hope that he and others will participate in the conversation that I would like to open up. (Full disclosure: I say this as someone who hasn't brought factory-farmed animals into his kitchen for over thirty years and also does not use dairy products.)
This discussion would begin with the challenges veganism poses for those of us who do not live where many vegetables and fruits grow. For example, I had to grin while reading Masson's glowing accounts of his papaya breakfasts, avocado lunches, and tofu dinners--he grew up in California and lives in Auckland. But while reading these passages, I could see ten feet of snow outside my windows in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and this was in April. If one of Masson's points is that veganism allows us to eat locally and low on the food chain, so as to reduce our carbon footprint, the practice must also acknowledge the inherent transportation costs and increased carbon footprints of transporting these kinds of foods to distant, faraway places that have short growing seasons.
A better choice for people in these places, at least environmentally, might be to eat locally grown wheat instead of tofu and keep a pig or two. Of course, keeping livestock, even if the animals can roam, fails one of Masson's most telling critiques of the relationship between humans and farm animals: that we betray the trust of those whom we feed when we kill them for food.
Years ago, I myself faced some of these quandaries when I adopted vegetarianism for three years: I felt uneasy about eating produce grown faraway because of the costs involved in transporting it. My solution was a different one than the one advocated by Masson: I went back to hunting the animals who lived nearby me. In three of my books ("Bloodties", "Heart of Home", and "Merle's Door"), I've explained this position to greater and lesser extents, and I'll briefly summarize its main points here.
Wildlife, being free, has not entered into a compact with humans. Species like deer, elk, moose, and bison view humans as they view wolves, coyotes, bears, and mountain lions--we're another predator to be wary of. Therefore, when one hunts them, one isn't betraying a trust, as is the case when one kills a domestic animal who one has cared for. One is engaging animals who are as suspicious of humans as they are of the other predators who eat them, and one meets them on their home ground, not in an abattoir.
If one hunts locally, one's carbon footprint is also small. In "Bloodties", I employed the same scientist whom Masson quotes--Dr. David Pimentel, of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University--to calculate the fossil fuel costs of three different diets. The first consisted of the elk I annually shoot and eat in Jackson Hole, an elk whom the Yellowstone ecosystem has grown in the same way since Pleistocene times, without hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides. The second diet was a calorically equivalent amount of potatoes grown just over the Teton Mountain Range in Idaho, and the third was a calorically equivalent amount of rice and beans grown in California. For the elk, Dr. Pimentel and I factored in the cost of my driving to and from nearby roadheads, the manufacture of my rifle and clothing, and the electricity to run my freezer. For the potatoes, it was the cost of producing and running the farming machinery and trucking the potatoes from Idaho to Jackson Hole. For the rice and beans, it was the use of fertilizers, irrigation, and farm machinery, canning the beans, and transporting them and the rice 900 miles to Wyoming.
The results of this exercise were instructive: My hunting an elk costs planet Earth 79,000 kilocalories annually. If I ate 150 pounds of elk in the form of potatoes, the cost would be 151,000 kilocalories. For rice and beans, it would be 477,000 kilocalories. Clearly, eating what your home place grows cuts down on your carbon footprint.
But there was another message buried in the data that Dr. Pimentel and I generated, and it was a counterintuitive one. Eating a big charismatic animal like an elk can be, when all is said and done, the dietary choice that causes the least amount of suffering, if one lives in a cold, northern place, where many vegetables aren't native.
The reasoning goes as follows: When crops such as wheat, rye, and sugar beets are harvested (to name but a few crops for which this holds true), rabbits, mice, snakes, and ground-nesting birds are killed by the harvesting machinery. Wildlife is also lost in oil spills (think seals, whales, and sea otters), and wildlife is then killed on our highways when our food is transported from farms to stores. Who hasn't seen the carnage?
In addition, deer love salad greens as much as we do and must be fenced out of farms. Fencing, of course, puts the problem of marauding deer onto someone else's farm. Eventually, the deer have to be "controlled," a euphemism that means killed, usually by public hunters. There would be no agriculture, organic or otherwise, if deer were given free rein to eat as they would.
This ongoing cull of innocent wildlife from the wellhead to the farm to the grocery store is almost universally ignored, yet it goes on every day. Tellingly, being a vegan doesn't remove one from the process of wildlife being killed so that one may live; it simply shifts the deaths over the horizon and makes them invisible, unless one takes the time to think about what is entailed in growing food upon and transporting it through landscapes that still belong to wild animals, not only to us.
One of the reasons I returned to hunting after having tried vegetarianism was, first, to be more personally honest about the wildlife deaths that were supporting me and, second, to see if I could reduce them. Both Masson's and my data show that if you eat locally you reduce the wildlife deaths associated with your diet. If my home place grew elk, well, that's what I should eat and diminish the wildlife deaths implicated in bringing vegetables to Wyoming. I also based my return to hunting on a Buddhist notion concerning the taking of life to survive: One ought to take as few lives, as few consciousnesses, as possible, since all consciousnesses are equal. Thus it's better to eat a yak, or a water buffalo, or an elk rather than five hundred chickens, or ten thousand shrimp, or, as is the case with all of us who buy food in a grocery store, indirectly killing so many cottontail rabbits, mice, and songbirds, who are the collateral damage involved in growing and transporting our produce. In the final analysis, as a Buddhist would say, each of these beings has a consciousness that is lost and a face you must acknowledge.
Because I kill the elk myself, and take her apart with my own two hands, and carry her meat out of the mountains on my back, there is indeed a face on my plate. She's not someone I care to deny or am squeamish about acknowledging. She is the face to whom I give my thanks, the being to whom I send my blessing, for having brought me through another year. Every hunting-gathering people with whom I have lived and traveled, whether they were Inuit in the Arctic or Bushmen in the Kalahari, similarly acknowledged the animals whose lives they took so they could live.
None of this should be taken as my attempt to recruit new hunters. Hunting works for some individuals, in certain places, and I only offer these personal anecdotes to demonstrate that hunting may be a morally and environmentally sound alternative to veganism.
It may also suit the needs of those who can't be vegans for physiological reasons, which is another topic that I wish Masson had touched upon rather than asserting that most children will display disgust when they learn that the meat on their plates comes from an animal. Again, my own experiences have been different in this regard. If children are not biased one way or the other, I have seen that some of them will turn away from meat, becoming vegetarians and vegans, while others will continue to eat it happily, even when they know whose face it belongs to. Why?
I believe this is because eating is not strictly an intellectual choice. More often than not, it's a cellular one that happens at the level of our guts. Physiologically, some of us can't digest the standard vegan staples, such as soy, oats, and legumes. The emerging science of neutrogenomics, which maps our individual genetic makeup, and then recommends an ideal diet to alleviate disease and promote long-term health, is at the forefront of giving a genetic basis to what most of us know intuitively: certain foods feel good in our bodies and others do not. For some of us, meat remains in the "good" category.
This should come as no surprise. Humans didn't begin to cultivate crops, or farm in any way, until about 14,000 years ago. Before that time all of us were hunter-gatherers, eating a diet of vegetables, roots, and meat, the proportion of meat in our diets varying from about 35 percent in the tropics to nearly 100 percent in the Arctic. It is hard to imagine that in the space of a few thousand years we have become obligate eaters of soy and grains, and that these have become a natural human diet, as Masson sets out to prove. Instead, the great majority of us are omnivores--not cultural omnivores, but biological ones--and omnivores eat some meat.
What we do with this evolutionary fact of life is another matter entirely, and it is here that Masson's book is of profound significance. His parsing of the moral implications of our diet are a goad to our conscience; they are a Buddhist master's striking us on the back with a baton and saying, "Pay Attention!" as we nod off.
For some of us this "pay attention" may mean following Masson's example and becoming vegans; for some it may entail raising our own livestock; for others it could mean incorporating an ancient hunting-gathering lifestyle into our own; and for some it may mean searching out domestic animals who are raised under far, far better conditions than they presently are. Whatever the case, Masson has moved the ethics of eating into new ground and has provided one choice, veganism, that will temperamentally and geographically suit a great many readers.