Because I write about the human relationship to nature and about what non-human animals think and feel, people often ask me what I eat. Food can be complicated but improving our relationship with food isn’t so difficult. I try to be thoughtful about it.
I am not strictly vegetarian but there are a lot of things I don’t want to eat and never buy. I never buy any farmed animal meat for our home, and essentially never buy farmed animal products.
For me, how animals live is more important than whether they die because we all die. And in nature there is constant predation. For years I studied hawks and falcons and fish-eating seabirds. So I’ve seen more natural predation—and natural starvation—than the average person and I understand that birth and death bookend every life.
But in nature, if a predator kills an animal for food, that prey animal got to be who it was supposed to be until the moment it was caught. By stark contrast, animals on modern farms seldom experience one single moment of life as they might have enjoyed it. On modern factory farms, are animals forced to live miserably before they die.
So I don’t want anything to do with that. I have not bought farmed animal meat to cook at home since the early 1980s.
In addition to the misery often created, animal farming ruins vast amounts of land, pollutes water, grows antibiotic-resistant bacteria, depletes the ocean’s small fish to make animal feed (thus robbing fishes, seabirds, and ocean mammals of food), and contributes enormously to the atmosphere’s burden of the planet-warming greenhouse gasses carbon dioxide and methane.
For all those reasons, I don’t want my consumer power (such as it is) to add to demand for activities that are so damaging. I never buy pork or beef. I never buy milk.
I am not, however, a complete purist. I don’t want to feel religious or too sanctimonious about what I eat. I want to feel that I like my usual day-to-day diet so I will happily stick with it. I don’t want to resent my usual diet or feel like I am denying myself by being 100 percent rigid and inflexible. I travel a lot, occasionally to other cultures, and sometimes the best choices seem to be exceptions to what I’d eat at home.
However, I don’t like to obsess, so—Slice of pizza? It’s got cheese but, once in a while, OK. If I’m traveling and stuck in a place where the one “vegetarian” option comes alfredo, drenched in butter and cheese, I might get a salad even if it comes with some meat in it. When I’m a guest in a home, I don’t want to stress hosts with the need to make something different for me. So if I am served meat at a friend’s house and that is the main course, I usually eat it, partly to avoid making the host feel uncomfortable. Increasingly, friends who invite me to dinner say things like, “I was thinking of making chicken but because you were coming I stuck with pasta.” That’s good. If I am at a party and there are things made with meat coming around on trays, I sometimes eat them, sometimes skip them.
So that’s what I don’t eat and the range of latitude I allow. Let me tell you what I do eat day-to-day.
At home, beans, squash, Portobello mushrooms and lots of veggies often make for fine and filling fare. We have a small garden and grow some of our greens, tomatoes, and squash. We have several lavishly cared-for chickens who wander freely all day and return to the coop at night. We eat their eggs. We live near the coast and we catch and gather seafood. I still catch certain abundant kinds of fish to eat. (Fish experience stress and can feel pain, so we kill them quickly, usually by slipping them into an ice bath). I dig clams and mussels and sometimes buy farmed mussels or farmed oysters. Occasionally I buy wild Alaska salmon. Alaska’s salmon fishing is the only economic force standing between the greatest surviving wild salmon population on Earth and a proposal for a giant open-pit mines that would permanently ruin those rivers for salmon, bears, eagles, and so many others; I want to support the fishermen and the fight.
I love that a fish that I catch, clams I’ve dug, eggs from our chickens, or something from our modest little garden, all spark stories around our table. One can be vegan and still have no idea where one’s food comes from. If your food has a worthy story about where it comes from, it’s probably pretty good food. Of course like most people I do need to buy food. So I try to buy organic. I get many of my vegetables from a local greengrocer who gets most of their produce from local farms, much of it organic. We are not perfect, but we try to be mindful.
And although a lot of things would be better if everyone was vegan, being vegan is not a ticket to perfection either. If I catch a fish, the fish got to be who they were supposed to be until I caught them, similar to a natural predatory event. And—most important—I don’t harm the ocean’s capacity to produce another fish. But if I eat tofu, it comes from a soybean farm on land that used to be the natural home for many plants and animals. Vast areas of Brazil, for instance, lands that once grew monkeys and macaws, have recently been cleared to raise soybeans. Yes I know; much of the soybean crop is fed to farmed animals, so yes I agree; meat is still more of a drag on nature than tofu. But palm oil, qualifying as “vegan,” is a nightmare for tropical forests, wiping away vast communities of non-human beings including most of the orangutans on Earth.
So it can get a bit complex. The tradeoffs are not always simple or obvious. But how to improve our relationship with food isn’t so hard. So for me, local and organic matters. Cruelty matters. Knowing where your food comes from matters. Being perfect isn’t possible, but we can ask which food does less harm. That’s why improving our relationship with food isn’t so hard.