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Caring for our food at its source

The pleasures of dinner can be quickly spoiled when you consider where it came from. But that consideration is behind the ethical food movement.

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    JULIA DALMASS SITS DOWN FOR A SUNDAY FAMILY DINNER IN MOORESTOWN, N.J.
    ANN HERMES/STAFF/FILE
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Every language has its version of “um, um good.”

Food – its acquisition, preparation, and consumption – is a source of endless human interest. A kitchen is a sanctuary, stage, time machine. Chefs are celebrities. Aromas transport us back to childhood, to Saturday morning pancakes or the first time we tried eggplant or kimchi. If you have ever stirred a cast-iron pot under the stars in the Rockies, snarfed up sausages with new friends in the Black Forest, or slurped a bowl of soup after a hard day’s work, you’ve felt the benevolence of food.

All food has a back story, though, and because it often lacks benevolence we try not to think about it. But that’s changing. In a Monitor cover story, Fabien Tepper (click here to read it) examines the mainstreaming of the humane-food movement. Major corporations such as McDonald’s, Smithfield Foods, and Sysco know their customers are increasingly concerned about how animals are raised and (no gentle words here) slaughtered, processed, and packaged. Consumer demand is working its way through the supply chain, changing conditions on the farm.

That change is not happening as quickly as animal-rights advocates would like. Surveys show that only 5 percent of Americans (the number is much higher in India and other countries) don’t eat meat. But with Earth’s population expected to grow by 2 billion by 2050, the United Nations forecasts that meat, which requires large amounts of water, will become a smaller and smaller portion of the world’s diet.

The alternative, vegetables, are excellent food. But scientists are finding evidence that flora, like fauna, are also intelligent. I mention that not to replay the old argument by meat-eaters that vegetarians, too, are guilty of killing for sustenance but to point out that the food chain is fraught with moral choices.

Here’s mine: I keep a small flock of backyard chickens. Despite trying to stay detached, I have come to see them as individuals. One’s bossy, one’s affectionate. We warm their hut during the coldest days of winter, nurse them when they are ailing, chuckle at their shenanigans. The other day, one jumped up on a porch table, knocked some dishes over, and immediately crouched down to be petted in what I believe was a deliberate attempt to distract me from getting mad. (As if I could, you crazy kid.)

When a predator chooses one as a dinner ingredient, I feel the loss. Yes, I still eat store-bought chicken, though not as much as I once did. Familiarity breeds affection. The more I know about the source of my eggs, the more free range I give the girls, even at their occasional peril. I shouldn’t need to have a backyard heifer or pig to care that they are also treated humanely.

My chickens are only a hobby. I understand how difficult it is for hard-pressed farmers to make expensive changes to their animals’ habitat. As Fabien’s cover story makes plain, however, our relationship with animals farmed for food is evolving. And so, it appears, are we.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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