What we choose to eat has to do with where we came from and where the food came from. Let’s examine the economics of our food choices before we assign morality.
I grew up in a vegetarian-for-generations family. But my upbringing included caste opposition and a more liberal palate (which I didn’t correlate at that time). I was exposed to meat, fish, eggs early in life because my family believed (rightly) that it would be very difficult to go out into the world handicapped by what I could not eat. This was done alongside respecting the choice of other family members to stay vegetarian. I got used to eating non vegetarian food openly, outside the space of home. It frequently surprised friends who assumed I would not be ‘allowed’ to eat meat because I was South Indian (which, well, how regionalist!)
I’ve been thinking about the economics of our dining. What is the cheapest source of food in the world? The sea. You can just go in, pull out what you find and eat it. I’ve been told (by snooty vegetarians) that prawns are the cockroaches of the sea. Maybe they are (I don’t know) and so what? Why the elitism in eating insects when it’s perfectly fine to eat offal of landbound creatures?
The next cheapest source of food? Hunting. If you have the bodily strength to run & fight, the skill to wield weapons to protect yourself from animals larger than yourself and kill those smaller than you, you will eat. It’s not a coincidence that the martial classes in every society in the world have been meat-eaters (from European knights to Hindu Kshatriyas). How you find your food defines your role in society. That is the social hierarchy of what kind of animals you eat and even which parts of the animal you get to eat (Soul food in USA evolved from black slaves making do with parts of meat that their white slavers did not want to consume).
The next economical option that lets you eat? Animal husbandry. You need space and resources to feed animals for some time before they become worth slaughtering for food. And in that while, some of them will pay for their lives with milk and eggs. Your family will eat and for as long as they are alive, they will be treated as family since human nature can’t nurture without caring. Humanity has coped with having to kill these animals in various ways – differentiating farm animals from household pets, imposing sacred connotations on certain animals that are more profitable alive than as meat or just accepting that death is an integral aspect of life. It’s an entire life philosophy.
And finally, we come to the most expensive, most labour, capital and time intensive form of food production – agriculture. It involves many people, multiple processes and several weeks to a year. This means you need to have enough resources to feed everyday while growing crops for future stomachs. Food fiction also taught me how we could trace our history of colonialism, warfare & economic changes based on the kind of spices used, the cooking techniques employed and even the names of ingredients. All of that is economic and it is so enmeshed all over the world, who can say what is truly ‘our culture’ when it comes to food?
If we’re going to measure morality based on what we eat, let’s acknowledge how the food got on our plates first.