Where does our food come from?

December 11, 2018 — by Rohan Kumar

Prodding with sticks that deliver electric shocks, slaughterhouse workers stand behind a long line of pigs. Systematically, the pigs are forced forward, stunned, stuck, bled, decapitated and cut into pieces.

The reality of the slaughterhouse often does not extend past its bloodstained walls. Millions of Americans eat various meats of their choosing, unaware of how their food is produced and processed.

Factors such as religion, ethics and sometimes simply taste often influence students about what foods they eat. Meat is probably the most contentious food choice.

Organizations such as the American Dietetic Association advocate for a vegetarian diet. According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, vegetarianism not only resolves the ethical dilemma of animal abuse but also comes with health benefits such as reduced risk for chronic illnesses and a potentially longer lifespan. Vegetarian diets also leave a less severe carbon footprint since it takes large amounts of energy to produce even small amounts of meat.

At the same time, many experts oppose vegetarianism, saying it often leads to malnutrition. Animal proteins are considered “complete” (containing all of the required amino acids) while plant proteins are considered “incomplete” according to the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration, making obtaining sufficient amino acids is difficult with a plant-based diet.

Getting iron from meats is also easier than from vegetables since meats contain heme iron, which is also found in humans. Many meat supporters are not concerned with animal rights abuses, arguing that animal rights are not as important as those of humans and that eating meat is natural.

Senior David Berkowitz Sklar has made his support of vegetarianism a personal crusade. He is particularly focused on the livestock industry.

“Some people I knew were veterinarians and they were vegan,” he said. “I asked them why and they told me that there are a lot of practices in the livestock industry that are unethical.”

Sklar learned about the tiny enclosures animals are forced to live in and the often low welfare standards for livestock.

“I realized that I didn’t want to keep on supporting an industry that I thought was not paying attention to the well-being of animals, so I went out full vegan,” he said.

Although Sklar’s diet now includes wild-caught seafood, he is still wary of purchasing animal products since he is unsure which farms they come from. If he could ascertain their origin and know that the sources were ethical ones, he would be willing to include more animal products in his diet, he said.

Sklar has presented about the livestock industry various times to his classmates. He also completed several hours of volunteering work to support Proposition 12, a proposition passed on Nov. 6 that set more humane minimum requirements for livestock enclosures.

The law prohibits the sale of animal products that are derived from inhumanely treated animals, and requires egg-laying hens to be raised in a cage-free environment — defined as allowing each hen to move around in an area of 1.0 to 1.5 square feet of floor space. The proposition also requires 43 square feet of usable floor space for calves and 24 square feet for pigs. In particular, it required that enclosures permitted animals “to stand up, sit down, turn around, and extend their limbs or wings.”

Having spent much time educating others on where animal products come from, Sklar stresses the importance of integrating education about the livestock industry into the curriculum.

“We’re educated to be global citizens and to understand global issues such as global warming or textile factories in China, like how they’re exploiting child labor,” Sklar said. “But we’re never educated to think about how our actions are affecting the livestock industry, which is a giant industry and also the industry that we are most a part of.”

While Sklar himself prefers a mainly vegetarian diet, he said his main goal is not to convert his peers to veganism, but rather to make sure that they are aware of the impact of their eating decisions. By practicing more informed buying, consumers can change the practices that farmers use to raise livestock.

Another vegan, senior Raghav Malaviya, has also based his diet choice on the livestock industry. After his father went vegan three years ago, Malaviya switched from vegetarianism to veganism.

“After being informed on the cruelty of the dairy industry and the horrific environmental impact it has, I decided that it was just a better choice to be vegan,” he said. “Ethically, I felt better about my food choices and impact on the environment.”

Malaviya believes in the importance of education about food. Although he described food as an “ultimately personal choice,” he said that every person deserves to know important information before making their choices.

Both Malaviya and Sklar learned about the production of animal products before switching to veganism. However, many students still lack information on the subject.

Health and science teachers have noticed this lack of education about the livestock industry and have attempted to rectify it.

Health teacher Amy Obenour brought in a speaker from the nonprofit Ethical Choices Program last year who explained the benefits of a vegetarian diet and talked about the various practices that livestock producers use to maximize their profits. Using interactive demonstrations, the speaker described the tiny enclosures that livestock are forced to live in. Similarly, AP Environmental Science and biology teacher Kristen Thomson has also integrated the livestock industry into her APES curriculum; she shows students an hour and a half long documentary “Food, Inc,” which presents inside views of slaughterhouses and the treatment of livestock in feedlots.

“I think it’s important for us to be aware of where everything comes from,” Thomson said. “Awareness and being able to create your own opinions on things — that’s what is really important.”

In showing her students the documentary, Thomson aims to present the facts rather than persuade her students to follow certain lifestyle choices.

“It’s not my job to shame people into switching eating habits,” Thomson said. “I just want people to be conscious of their actions, and I think that all I can really ask is if people watch it they remember it.”

Many students, after watching the documentary, choose to continue to eat meat. However, a large percentage of students who currently eat meat are not fully aware of the treatment of animals in the livestock industry. Sklar fell under this category before his junior year, and as he sought to educate his peers, he noticed that many of them were in a similar situation.

“I honestly think that there actually have been a ton of people who’ve come up to me and they’ve told me that they’ve changed their diet a little bit,” Sklar said. “I know a lot of people have consciously started eating less animal products or buying cage free stuff in general.”