A thoughtful and timely essay on the foie gras debate, from the website of Incanto, a San Francisco restaurant. This essay makes some exceptional points and is well worth the read. Excerpt:
The reality is that bringing a forkful of food to the mouth of a human in our world, be it meat or plant, is usually as much about destruction as it as about creation; sustainability merely speaks to whether there is a balance between the two. Animals are raised for human consumption, then unceremoniously slaughtered, butchered, and packaged into sometimes unrecognizable forms. Vegetables are ripped from the soil or cut from the stalk at harvest, sometimes by machines that unintentionally claim the lives of innocent wild animals along the way. Remnants are tilled under to make way for new crops. The cook takes ingredients and submits them to knife, fire, and all manner of further manipulation to transform them into something that is chewed, digested, and passed into oblivion, usually with little thought of the significance.
Make no mistake: with the possible exception of the small number of practicing fruitarians – bonus points if you know what that is – some amount of destruction is inherent to the process through which most of us derive our nourishment. If we can manage our journey through the food cycle without leaving the planet worse off, we pat ourselves on the back, give ourselves a cookie, and call ourselves sustainable.
But sustainability does not change a fundamental fact: that the food system almost all of us are a part of not only tolerates violence – and yes, sometimes even cruelty and death – it anticipates and embraces it. Though one can appreciate the argument that a vegetarian diet imposes a smaller footprint on the world, the responsibility for this relationship rests not solely with carnivores, but with all of us who feed at the trough. Even the farming of grains and vegetables is undeniably responsible for the loss of animal life: farms displace natural habitats, farm equipment unavoidably intersects with wildlife, and even organic fertilizers may contain animal products (blood, bone meal). Food morality is not as black and white as we like to believe: it’s possible to raise animals sustainably and it’s possible to raise vegetables unsustainably. Neither side has a monopoly.
The notion of a society accepting an unpleasant trade-off between something valued within that society and death of innocents is not exclusive to food production. It is virtually a defining characteristic of collective social order, whether among humans or other animals. Each year in the United States, for example, more than forty thousand people are killed and more than two million injured in transportation-related accidents. Yet we accept the level of violence and suffering wrought by this human activity, with little or no ongoing debate. Why? First, because vehicular travel is convenient and interwoven with our way of life. But also because our country is founded upon the notion of personal liberty, which includes freedom of movement and freedom to choose how one travels. Even when that activity carries with it the certainty that thousands of people, including innocent by-standers, will die each year directly as a result, we implicitly accept this terrible cost in exchange for the opportunity to move around fast with relatively little hindrance. I have searched for an association of human rights activists that is protesting this senseless violence and calling for a ban on all mechanized travel. I have not yet found one.
This brings us to an issue – on the philosophical basis of pragmatism, at least – of less significance: the debate over whether our society should permit the force-feeding of ducks and geese, for the purpose of enlarging their liver for human consumption. In short: the debate over foie gras….
Ironically, were it not for the streak of deeply destructive vigilantism present within the anti-foie gras movement, Incanto and many other restaurants may not have actively chosen a side on this issue. After all, Incanto is an Italian restaurant, not French. And the brand of carnivorism we espouse at Incanto tends toward championing the lesser-appreciated offal cuts, rather than the few like foie gras that are already regarded as being worthy of alta cucina. In the past, foie gras never really fit in at Incanto. Even if it had, with Incanto’s daily-changing menu, it would hardly last for more than a few days.
Nonetheless, after San Francisco chef Laurent Manrique was targeted in 2003 by anti-foie gras protestors, this equation changed. Unknown persons vandalized Chef Manrique’s home and shop and sent threatening letters, along with a videotape taken of him with his wife and child at their home, directly threatening their safety. The sheer depravity and hypocrisy of this attack served as the catalyst for first considering foie gras for Incanto’s menu. It did the same for other restaurants around the country, raising the other side of the issue: whether or not as a society we will permit the views of a vocal minority to trample our personal right to choose what we will and will not eat.
Reasonable people can disagree over the ethics of one’s chosen diet and the various practices of farmers, whether those farmers produce meat, fruits, or vegetables. Fundamentally, we believe that individuals ought to be free to determine how to live their lives, including their diet. If we live in a society that tolerates the death of 40,000 people to die each year for the right to convenient travel, how can we sacrifice our right to taste, to choice, and to dietary self-determinism?
Awesome, and well worth reading in full.