Last week in my Green Communities class, we discussed food. To help us gain a perspective of how industrialized food production has become, we watched the Austrian documentary Unser Täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread), which can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. The following is the essay I wrote as a follow up assignment:
Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral! This is a German phrase that’s difficult to translate due to the lack of an equivalent English word that captures the nuances conveyed by Fressen. The closest explanation of Fressen is to eat like an animal and expresses the deeply rooted desire to survive. The entire aforementioned phrase literally means first comes the eating like an animal, then comes the ethics. This idiomatic phrase is common in German conversations and points to the priority of survival trumping all other human needs, desires, and aspirations. It also tells of the difficulty for the human race to consider ethics and morals on an empty stomach.
Most people in the developed world cannot grasp the concept of hunger. If they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, it is simply because they haven’t decided which restaurant or supermarket to patronize. Despite a high level of food security in the developed world, the will to survive is still imbedded in each human being.
In the early 20th century, Henry Ford perfected the assembly line. Mass production and economies of scale became the norm, so it’s no surprise that other collective human needs have also been mechanized and streamlined. Since it’s difficult to fulfill the need for mobility by constructing your own car, we may as well outsource auto production to Detroit. We’ve outsourced entertainment to Hollywood, outsourced justice to the police and court system, outsourced public discourse and community collaboration to the politicians and lobbyists, and outsourced recreation to Orlando and Anaheim. Why not outsource survival to a system of industrialized agriculture and collectively free our lives of the burden of involving ourselves in our own survival?
I grew up in a small, rural community in southeastern Idaho. Although I never worked on a farm or even rode a horse, I had friends who did. I feel blessed by having had the association with those whose work provides food for others. Conversations with those friends gave me an understanding of the reality of farming and ranching. Crops are not planted to beautify the landscape, and livestock are not raised to be pets. The purpose is to harvest when the season is over, and hopefully there’s enough of a profit to provide for one’s own family. Understanding this has left a lasting impact on me. I learned early that a cow’s purpose in life is to provide a profit for the rancher, so I have never had any moral conflicts about harvesting livestock. However, I have come to realize the disconnect between the farm and our dinner table.
My dad has a favorite story, which illustrates that disconnect. He grew up on a farm, and one time, while he was a teenager, his aunt, uncle, and cousins from Salt Lake City came to visit. His cousins, who were young girls at the time, were really enjoying playing with the chickens. As dinner time approached, my grandpa told my dad to go fetch two chickens for dinner. The cousins were still playing with the chickens, and without even thinking about the implications, my dad snatched up two chickens and headed for the chopping block. The cousins were still clueless as they watched my dad stretch out the chicken’s neck and raise the ax. As soon as the ax fell, the cousins let out a scream, which probably could have been heard throughout the entire state of Idaho.
Over Memorial Day weekend, I visited my dad and heard him retell this story. This time though, I thought about the fact that, with the exception of catching and gutting fish, I have never killed and slaughtered an animal. I honestly feel like my life is incomplete because of never having raised and slaughtered my own food. This leads me to wonder whether there is a human need to be more involved in one’s own food cycle. Is it emotionally and psychologically unhealthy to outsource the act of slaughtering one’s meat to others? I can’t help but wonder, if the propensity towards violence by many people might have something to do with the lack of taking an animal’s life. In other words, maybe we have a need to kill, which can be satisfied by the act of slaughtering livestock. Maybe we gain a greater appreciation for life, when we get our hands covered in blood as we dismember an animal that we’ll cook to feed ourselves and our loved ones.
Watching Our Daily Bread and seeing the industrialization of food production also caused me to think of how industrialized our daily human lives can be. We deprive ourselves of the opportunity for interactions with other people and with nature and thereby deprive ourselves of opportunities for interpersonal growth. In the name of simplicity and efficiency, we settle for bland lifestyles devoid of variety. Seeing the bulls harvested for their semen caused me to think about the pervasiveness of pornography in our society and the loss of interpersonal growth resulting from seeking sexual fulfillment through artificial means.
In closing, I am reminded of a quote from a presenter at CNU 21, who said: “Let us not confuse the ethic of work for the ethic of plunder.” I worry about the moral and religious implications of avoiding getting our hands dirty in the work of providing food for ourselves. The Old Testament sums up the concept well in Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”