by Maria Martelli
Neatly wrapped in plastic bags, wonders between two slices of bread, those were our sandwiches in high-school. We didn’t know what to expect inside, because our mothers, grandmothers or aunts made them, and every other day the ingredients changed. Zacuscă (a baked eggplant and peppers spread), mushroom pâté, lettuce, radish, cherry tomatoes, soy shnitzels, egg-less mayo, grilled zucchini, which ones will it be? And the two sandwiches, would they be the same, or different?
It wasn’t always like this—at the beginning they weren’t this miraculous. They were the usual butter and salami, butter and ham, day by day. But something changed in our group of friends. As one of us became vegetarian one winter, our circle of sharing sandwiches reached a halt, a stop point. We used to meet every day, at the longest break, share and swap our boring sandwiches, especially because not all of us had them always. How could we share now? She didn’t ask us to do it, but slowly, by spring, the rest of our sandwiches became vegetarian too. And even slower, by summer, we, too, followed the sandwiches in giving up meat. The circle of sharing touched upon six of us, and indirectly, some of our parents and guardians, as well. Suddenly, the meat was seen. Its absence was joy, pleasure, sharing. Its presence was hard to bear.
The issue of what we eat and how it got to become food is not a new one, but as long as the practices embedded within this process keep being harmful (to human or nonhuman animals), we will keep speaking about it. Our sharing of sandwiches was a tiny, tiny ripple of change from an unquestioned relationship with what we ingest as food to a more conscious one. Eating, which is so mundane and daily, is one aspect of our lives in which we meet the globalized world, the exploitation of animals and of people, the embodiment of capital forces and advertising, the result of hundreds of years of agriculture. It is also a space for pleasure, comfort and caring. This essay raises questions as to how might we put more of the latter (joy) at work into changing the first (exploitative relationships), for both humans and animals alike?
The way animals entered our lives was deceitful, not by their own will—neither the entering nor the deceit. Most of the animals we came into contact with were eaten by us, carefully packed and sliced to look like something beyond themselves. Something for us. They were brought on our tables, in our fridges, in our holiday celebrations and our sandwiches with fancy food names, as if they were born premium grilled steaks and golden nuggets. As if smiling faces was what kept all of this together, not animal exploitation, both human and non-human. Farm factory workers tend to have high chances of accidents at work, having to handle sharp objects on a daily basis. Some work in very cold environments, some deal with constant pain from the very repetitive slicing movements they have to make.
The animals themselves live very short, terrible lives, in confinement, many of them genetically chosen for a specific task: grow meat fast, give lots of milk, lay lots of eggs. The rest of their bodies, and whatever reason they might have for living or enjoying their lives, are overlooked to satisfy the sole reason that they are bred. In some sense, people know this. But most of the people benefiting from animal agriculture have a hard time looking at it straight and acting in behalf of change. Not only change as in our own consumption habits (which isn’t accessible to all and isn’t a great basis for political action), but change as in structural change. How does one go about that?
Agriculture is so deeply embedded into our societies that it’s going to be a tough one to alter. Some parts will change more quickly than others, and intensive animal farming should probably be where we begin to let go. It is first and foremost cruel to the animals themselves, but if we were to count only what our own species gets out of it (as if our species could live separately from the others – which it … can’t), we’d still be at a loss. The working conditions are bad, the pollution is harmful, lands are encroached, and the greenhouse gases emitted make up a significant portion at blame for climate change. A huge number of people rely on it nonetheless, so it begs the question of how to transition—and transition to what. Some models have already been proposed, ranging from computer-assisted vertical greenhouses to permaculture models. On the small-scale, alternatives are blooming. The trick is to start big and small, start what you can, start everywhere.
One possible way to understand “food” is to grow it. Once I was sitting at a big table with some family friends I did not know well, and the topic fell to the fact that I was vegan. A woman then exclaimed, “ah, you would not like to hear what my husband does!” I quickly agreed that I most likely would not, as these kinds of conversations tend to end badly. However, he proceeded saying “I grow meat.” I responded, without thinking, “animals grow meat.” Someone laughed, and we left it there. Animals are indeed aided in growing, or more accurately said, their growth is sped up to minimize loss and maximize profit. But it is not humans that grow meat; meat is the flesh of animals. Or, more accurately—meat is what we call it when it is made edible. Salami and ham, those were the names by which we knew animal parts in high-school. We didn’t know which parts. We didn’t even know which animals sometimes. I, personally, was clueless to what most food looked like before it was sat on a plate. Gardening is a good cure for that.
In the last few years, urban gardening has gained some attention in Romanian cities and schools. A NGO program, for example, helps teachers and small children set up edible outdoor school gardens. Growing vegetables is different from growing meat, and at least one difference would be knowing it isn’t wholly your doing. You need to work with the soil a lot and hope the weather is on your side. You don’t control the growing zone you are in, the temperature and the winds. You have to pay attention to the environment, to bugs that might attack your plants and to birds that might swallow the bugs. Small-scale gardening most probably won’t feed the world, but it can open a window for kids and adults both to see where food comes from, and notice the kind of work that is put into it, together with other forms of life. Realizing that what is edible grows, is alive in various ways, and is edible for some species while for others it isn’t, helps us see food beyond its packaging. Moreover, gardening can open up a space for building and empowering communities, by providing common activities, common land, and sharing of produce.
When animal lives’ sole purpose is giving us something, and when that something disappears, their lives become disposable. The objectifying view of animal bodies is to be kept in mind, because this way of seeing—that some living thing is only valuable to us for x or y reason, and not valuable in itself—has crept up inside human relationships as well. The less we’ll act upon the world as if it’s only for our taking, the more enjoyment will be left for sharing between all of us. I’ve seen this in the videos with happy cows in the first “farm-animal” sanctuary in Romania, Nima Sanctuary. Old cows, unable to give milk anymore, naughty cows that wouldn’t listen, or cows that had accidents and weren’t “useful” anymore, would have ended up dead if this form of arrangement wouldn’t have appeared as it was needed. Indeed, most cows still end up that way, as the sanctuary can only host a few dozens.
But these lucky cows, these lucky ones light up the days of many of those watching or interacting with them. They enjoy being scratched behind their ears, and their human-carers enjoy doing that. They formed relationships between themselves, they have favorites, they gang up together. One of the still lactating cows mothers a young calf. These cows are freed from living-for-humans-only, but humans have not abandoned them, either. Humans have taken up the responsibility of caring for them, feeding them and preparing special rolled-up cereals and nutrients to be served at fixed hours—as one of the cows especially loves. They left the food cycle. Or have they? Certainly, these cows are never again to be eaten, their bodies are never again to be used. But cows produce manure, and manure is a good fertilizer in agriculture. Of course they are not kept for their manure, that is simply a by-product of them being alive. Just as our own human “manure” is.
Currently, vegan gardeners prefer using weed and vegetable cuttings for compost, which makes sense as a way of breaking from the animal industry. However, the magic of compost is that it transforms waste by putting into use (the other magic of compost is that it, too, can build communities!). Given that we are slowly challenging our relationships with not just farm animals, but all animals, and asking how to help them break free from our own domination, we can also give some thought to what might they enjoy from being with us, and what might be good for the environment if we arranged things a little bit differently. With scrutiny, not narcissism, that is.
Our sandwich circle in high-school was small, between humans only, and abstracted the amount of labour gone into the making of the food. But it was also an example of learning to extend care through sharing, learning to be there for each other, and learning to be for others outside of the circle, too. “Sandwich circles” can get bigger. They can include the whole school, as in school gardening, the whole community, as in urban gardening, the larger settlement, as in creating a circle of exchange of seeds, compost, skills, and care. Food is what we eat, yes, but other species eat as well. Indeed, other species might have eaten us, too, had we not been sheltered in houses, had we not modified our—and their—environments so as to chase them away. Realizing the very simple thing that being alive, on this planet, means being caught in circles with others, is one tiny step towards extending those circles of caring and sharing.
Maria Martelli is a scholar-activist interested in the analysis and criticism of oppressive power structures, especially those that play out in educational and environmental matters. She has an MA in Advanced Sociological Research at the Faculty of Sociology and Social Science, University of Babeș-Bolyai, Romania, with a thesis that offers a critique of how anthropocentrism is shaping the sustainable development goals (particularly those of education for sustainable development) and is a member of the Institute for Social Solidarity. She is keen on exploring what are the ways in which we can make learning beyond classroom, kin beyond babies, change beyond the personal and worlds beyond human-centered ones.