Consider The Jellyfish

Dean Burnett in The Guardian asks what seems to be a laughably simple question: “Is it okay for vegetarians to eat jellyfish?”  The answer is a lot more complicated than you might expect:

“But many people adopt vegetarianism/veganism for moral and ethical reasons, which is fair enough. Objecting to animals being killed or suffering for our food is a perfectly logical stance. But when you get down to the actual scientific minutiae of what these things mean, then it starts to get confusing.

This brings us back to the jellyfish question; would it be safe for a vegetarian to eat one? If you’re vegetarian for environmental reasons, it may even be better to eat jellyfish, given how abundant they are without any need for harmful human cultivation. But what about ethical concerns? While technically classed as ‘animals’, they are devoid of any brain or nervous system, and most can’t even control where they move. Everything we know about neuroscience suggests such a creature would be totally incapable of perceiving anything as complex as suffering or discomfort, and it certainly wouldn’t be able to experience any emotional reaction to such an experience. So by eating one, no suffering can be said to have occurred. It may still be a living thing, but then so is a carrot. Why is one OK to eat and not the other?”

Here in South Korea jellyfish is usually eaten in a cold salad, which is refreshing but honestly a bit bland.  Or it’s dried out and eaten like a jerky.  (You soak the jellyfish for a long time to get the toxins out.)

Of course, it’s all about to get more complicated:

“Insects, jellyfish and other species probably seem fair game to many due to a simple failure of empathy. Big, furry or fluffy creatures we can relate to, ‘ugly’ or different ones make it harder, so concern for their wellbeing isn’t so common, unfortunately.

This sort of dilemma, regarding what’s ethically acceptable to eat, is likely to get more complex as food production technology advances to meet demands. Already, humans are too widespread for modern methods to be 100% animal friendly (modern harvesting methods inevitably kill or displace many creatures while gathering vegetable crops) and our species will need increasing volumes of food as time passes. Technology will hopefully provide solutions to this, but also muddy the waters further.”

I like meat but I’m going to try and eat less of it in 2016.  And I’ll be the first in line to try out a streak grown in a protein vat or coming fresh off a 3D meat printer.  As much as I enjoy, well, eating and reading about food, I don’t think I’m capable of fetishizing it.  I laugh at Red Blooded Americans who are worried that vege-nazis are coming for their beef.  But I’m also skeptical of the left-wing version of this, where notions like farm-to-table and 100% organic (is that literally even possible now?) become our new culturally sanctioned sacred cows (ahem).

Once in a while it’s nice to splurge on a great restaurant experience, especially with someone you care about.  More frequently, it’s great living in a country like South Korea where you can pretty much stuff your face at a traditional, sit-down restaurant, with decent-to-excellent grub for less than five dollars.  (In America you’d be strictly limited to fast food for this amount, and we’re not even talking Five Guys bruh.)  And at times, I enjoy reading about how one of the most expensive fine-dining restaurants in the world is basically a scam aimed at pretentious, new-money jerks.

Which is to say, food can be awesome but at the end of the meal it’s also just food.  It’s the universal human fuel which we can and should approach ethically and sustainably, or suffer the consequences, but also something we tend to over-think precisely because it is, by nature, such a personal thing.

I’m all for people reading and taking to heart Michael Pollan, but also worried that we tend to equate our modern-day food choices with a practically religious significance that they don’t hardly deserve.  As always, we limited human animals tend to give ourselves far too much credit for individual choices that pale in comparison to invisible structural norms and overwhelming historical and scientific forces re-writing all the rules as we speak and / or type.

So, some highly ethetical tofu and kimchi soup for me today.  And some post-ethical 3D printed deep-fried bacon-and-mayonaise poppers ten years from now?  Bring it on.

Donkey Sauce is, of course, completely optional.

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