Last week, I heard a piece on NPR with Melanie Joy, the vegan (and frankly, supercilious) author of “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.” It’s been eating at me for a while and I thought I’d address it here.
Ms. Joy is full of interesting rhetorical tricks, which is why, I think, I found my hackles going up. She spoke of an exercise she does with her college freshmen and how they betray their cultural ignorance about pigs and how she challenges their ignorant assumptions. That seemed to be one of her arguments as to why we should all go vegan — because she manages to out argue a bunch of idiot college freshmen. When asked to address the issue of humanely raised meat, she dismissed it at a myth.
I wanted, badly, to call up and talk to Ms. Joy. I wanted to tell her about the farms where I get my meat and to tell her she’s an arrogant nit for assuming I don’t know humane treatment when I go and pet it behind the ears. And I wanted to answer her rhetorical question: Why do we eat pigs and love dogs? Sadly, it wasn’t a call-in show, so all I could do was snarl at the radio and slam pots around. (I do this a lot when listening to the radio.)
There are good anthropological, ecological, and mathematical reasons for this. My answer is that of a dedicated but amateur foodie and I really need to do research to back it up, but here is a general outline of my answer:
A pig is a very efficient converter of low quality food stuff into high quality fat and protein. A piglet born in the spring can eat food scraps, half-rotting food, whey, acorns, grubs, and other stuff that people don’t eat and become 250 lbs. of meat and fat by the fall. While pigs may be smart and loving companions, when you’re hungry, that is much less important.
A dog, on the other hand, is woefully inefficient as a calorie converter. It requires a lot more protein and fat and takes longer to grow and never gets anywhere NEAR 250 lbs. So, we don’t eat it because, in the very straightforward caloric math of survival in a subsistence situation, it doesn’t make any sense.
However, and this is vital, a dog does other things that make it worth its keep (as opposed to making it worth the slaughter). It guards and protects. It can help manage flocking animals. It attacks hostile people and animals. It helps track, hunt, and retrieve prey. It can babysit small children, keep old people company, and keep your feet warm at night. Pigs may be smart and whatnot, but they don’t do those things. (Why they don’t and dogs do is a fascinating study of the hierarchical pack structure of wolves and the subject of some really good books the titles of which elude me right now. Anyone?)
As to why we wear cows? Cows are handy primarily as sources of milk in that same subsistence setting. Milk is an awesome source of fat and protein and calcium, all converted from grass and other things that humans can’t eat at all. With a little work, you can make milk into yogurt or cheese, both of which keep for a long time. That made the cow worth her keep until she stopped giving milk, at which time she was slaughtered, and her parts were used, including her hide.
Now, I have to say that vegans have always been the nutties of the food world in my opinion. Vegetarians I can understand, a little, but the refusal to eat honey and milk, the two foods that literally don’t hurt any living thing, just seems strange to me. So I’m predisposed to dismiss her arguments. But the fact is, she didn’t make moral or ethical or philosophical arguments. She played clever little rhetorical words games.
What’s more, she dismissed my entire philosophy about eating meat (humanely and sustainably raised meat) as a myth that I buy into because I’m too stupid to understand the reality of the situation. I don’t begrudge Ms. Joy her tofu, (though I may mock her a little and ask if it’s made from GM soybeans from Monsanto?). As such, she needs to back the hell off of my bacon.