Thanksgiving brings out a lot of disagreement among Americans, on topics ranging from current politics all the way back to the origins of the country. In spite of these disagreements, millions of Americans are able to come together every year to celebrate something they can still agree about: eating turkey.
Americans will eat an estimated 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving Day, according to the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association. Social media will be filled with recipes and photos. Even the president joins in the fun by “pardoning” a turkey, as President Donald Trump did on Tuesday.
Of course, our national obsession with meat is an ongoing affair. In 2018 Americans consumed an estimated 222 pounds of meat per person. In 2019 we divided our attention between stories about the Amazon fires and stories about which fast food chain has the best chicken sandwich.
This raises a question: How, in 2019, with everything we know about the animal welfare, public health and environmental impacts of factory farming — including its contribution to climate change — are so many of us not only eating meat, but publicly promoting the idea of eating meat?
I think that part of the answer is that most people see what we eat as personal, not political. The result is widespread social and economic support for a system that many of us recognize as deeply harmful.
Most people see what we eat as personal, not political. The result is widespread social and economic support for a system that many of us recognize as deeply harmful.
I would love to persuade people to eat less meat this Thanksgiving. But I know we already talk a lot about that. I also think that we do food ethics a disservice by focusing so much on our consumer behavior and so little on our social behavior around food. So, I want to focus here on the latter.
We know that what we say can be at least as impactful, if not much more impactful, than what we do. For example, if you share on social media that you like a new restaurant, this speech act can cause your friends to eat at this restaurant at least as many times, if not many more times, than you do yourself.
Here, then, is a simple argument for not engaging in speech that promotes eating meat. While we have a right to free speech, we also have a responsibility not to harm others unnecessarily. When we promote eating meat, we help to normalize a food system that kills more animals, harms more workers, consumes more land, water, and energy and produces more waste, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based alternatives by a wide margin. So, while we have a right to speak our minds, we also have a responsibility not to promote eating meat unnecessarily.
Of course, as with any simple argument, one could object to this argument in many ways.
One might claim, for example, that promoting eating meat does not, in fact, harm others unnecessarily. All food systems cause harm in one way or another. So, we would be causing harm no matter what food system we supported. However, this response overstates how comparable these harms are. While all food systems are harmful, factory farming is much more harmful than alternative food systems. And even in cases where it is necessary to support harmful systems economically, it is not necessary to support them socially. Harm reduction is possible even if harm elimination is not.
One might also claim that not all meat is factory farmed. Granted, it might be bad to promote factory farming. But it is not bad to promote non-industrial animal agriculture, which is more humane and sustainable.
This point is well taken. But note two things. First, nonindustrial animal agriculture often causes unnecessary harm, too. Second, when we promote nonindustrial animal agriculture, we might not intend to be supporting factory farming. But if our action promotes the acceptability of eating animals, the vast majority of whom are factory farmed, then we might still be supporting factory farming whether we like it or not.
Lastly, one might claim that I am asking too much of people. Food is a central part of our personal and social lives. We need to be able to enjoy our food, in part by sharing our love of food with one another. Not to mention the fact that not everybody has access to healthful plant-based meals due to structural oppression. In these cases, people have no choice but to support animal agriculture.
As before, these points are well taken. But again, note two things. First, insofar as we eat plant-based meals, we can share our love of food without publicly promoting factory farming at the same time. Second, while some people do lack access to healthful plant-based meals, this is not a reason for anyone to promote factory farming unnecessarily.
This last point is a reminder of why we need to think about food justice holistically. The more we expand access to healthful, humane, sustainable, culturally significant foods, the more people will be able to celebrate food without having to support a deeply harmful food system in the process.
The more we expand access to healthful, humane, sustainable, culturally significant foods, the more people will be able to celebrate food without having to support a deeply harmful food system in the process.
Ultimately, our consumer and social behaviors are linked, and they both have political significance. One is a matter of voting with our wallets, and the other is a matter of getting out the vote for our candidate of choice. They are also mutually reinforcing. When we structure a daily ritual around complicity in an unnecessarily harmful system, it becomes harder — socially, psychologically, even logistically — to not be complicit in that system in other ways too.
With that said, note what I am not asking here. I am not, at the moment, asking you to work to dismantle factory farming (but, please do!). I am not even, at the moment, asking you to stop eating animals (but please do!). Instead, I am simply asking you to stop promoting the idea of eating animals. And, if you find it difficult to eat animals without promoting the idea of eating them, then I am asking you to think about what that shows about the act of eating them.
It might seem that how we talk about our behavior is a minor issue. But even seemingly small actions, like posting on social media, can play a role in upholding or resisting unnecessarily harmful systems. This Thanksgiving, I hope that we can all avoid sharing words or images that promote violence unnecessarily. This includes words or images that normalize the violent origins of our country — as well as words or images that normalize the violent origins of our food.