I grew up on the Canadian prairies. As early as the first grade, we had milk day. Each student took a form to their parents and filled out which milk they would receive the following week. Chocolate milk? White milk? One carton? Two cartons?
Next week arrived and the milk cart visited each student. It delivered fresh, cold milk and a bag full of colourful trinkets and stickers. The most famous sticker could be seen attached to car bumpers throughout the city: I <3 Alberta Beef. Milk is great for you! Beef is delicious! Let us be strong and healthy, together.
Through this process, I learned what is right for me in great detail. Milk is a part of the food pyramid. It lives right next to the beef, the green vegetables and the wheat – all the things we eat. And that just so happen to grow in our province. If I eat all of these things then I will have strong bones and teeth. I don’t want my teeth to fall out! I want to be strong and have muscles. Then I should wash my protein rich steak down with an ice cold glass of milk.
I learned about the cow. I got a sticker of a cow. Or two, or three, or four, as many as I wanted. I loved that the cow smiled. She sits atop my pencil. She is not a steak yet. She wears sunglasses.
I learned that the cows love to give me its milk. The farmer takes a pail, sits next to the cow, pats her gently on her shoulder, then squeezes her utters to exhume the milky, teeth-and-bone fortifying liquid. And the beef? Cows get old, you see, and we do not want to be wasteful – … so we eat them. The circle of life.
In the first grade, I wouldn’t know what to make of artificial insemination. I wouldn’t know whether or not the antibodies and hormones within cows milk were suitable for my consumption. Do I have the same nutritional needs of a baby animal which has four stomachs and will weigh well over a tonne? If the cow has a baby, what happens to the baby? If I drink the mother’s milk, what does her calf drink? I don’t have these questions. There is only one question that concerns me: chocolate milk or white milk?
I didn’t learn that machines milk cows. Machines impregnate cows. People take calves from their mothers, sometimes sticking their heads into bars to prevent any growth of muscle mass. Without muscles in the body, a baby calf will render meat of delightful tenderness. Those sweet, tender calves turn into veal. But I know that veal is fancy. If I do well, if I make lots of money, then I can afford to eat veal.
But I didn’t know that the calves might not become veal. They might become new milk cows, kept healthy through antibiotic treatment, living out a fraction of their life span. Perhaps they will grow to one day produce little veals of their own. Either way, the end result is the same. That delicious slice of red meat in the red square of the standard issue food pyramid. Take your milk, take your pyramids and your stickers - the dairy industry will teach you what is right for you.
The myth of the friendly farmer is compelling. We are taught to believe that our needs are filled without cost. We are taught that any cost is justifiable because it is what we need to do to survive. When we look through this story, we see the tentacles of the free market. Milk day sells beef and milk to children. And we buy deep into the myth.
We believe that meat and milk are dietary staples without which we become weak and waifish. We are scared into thinking that without milk, we will be frail and breakable. If we do not eat meat, we do not fit into the template. We don’t complete the pyramid. We will not have enough protein to be strong athletes or intelligent students. We have scaled unimaginable, industrialized horror and torment to realize these myths. Myths keep the money flowing.
Once you are aware of the depths of these myths and you understand the picture of industrialized agriculture, you might concede: “I cannot dispute its unpleasantness. But they are just animals. We need to eat them to survive. I care not for the “feelings” of a fish, cow, chicken, or pig. I am not even convinced of the existence of those feelings. I buy organic, local, free range, grass fed; I eat how I eat and I like it.”
A position of this nature is one of deep and temporary selfishness and privilege. Not only does it assert the dominance of human wellbeing over that of other lifeforms, it marginalizes the vast environmental and spiritual cost.
We will need to produce more animals for more meat. This means more land for more animals who need more feed. And more feed requires more wild land to become farmland. Farmland needs more water. But we are already too far gone.
We cannot afford to grow this system. The means to do so require the continued success of our darkest ideologies. The success of these ideologies and the state of a livable ecosystem are opposed. Meat comes at a devastating environmental cost.
The environmental cost is nothing to that of the spiritual. A mother cow will not cry out the name of her calf as it is taken from her. A pig, wading through its own refuse, does not pontificate whether it was meant for bigger and better things. A chicken whose beak has been stubbed and talons have been clipped will not cry tears as it is pumped full of steroids and fed until its legs break. An animal cannot tell you why it is suffering. But the heart - the rightness - breaks and the spirit is tormented all the same. An animal suffers.
And we consume this suffering. A life - a creature, an offspring, a living being - experiences travesty and then we place it within us. We think to use this animal as a fuel. We think to consume only his or her flavours, proteins, and fats. Yet we receive much more.
Many sit and wonder, why does depression plague me so?
Why do anxious thoughts run throughout my mind?
Why do I feel so scared and unwell?
I eat my meat, I live my life, I make good choices – but something is wrong, something is wrong, something is wrong, something is wrong. I must numb this pain. I feel trapped. I feel dirty. I feel sick. Something is wrong. I hurt. This torment - the screaming in the dark corners of your mind - are the cries of these spirits. For as long as you perpetuate their misery, they will be a part of you.
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