The way we get our food — especially our meat — is the most important system in America. There's no other system so deeply affecting us that we're so enormously ignorant of. No other system. Not one.
(There is no boneless, skinless farm, as one friend put it.)
This system can be a beautiful one, taking place at the hands of good men and women who run farms that look not unlike the Old MacDonald archetype. There is sunlight, symbiosis and health.
This system also can be an abomination, horrifyingly ugly and unconscionable, taking place at the hands of cruel men and women who themselves rarely are treated better than the animals they abuse.
Usually, these farms are kept in secret.
Much of the nation is watching Gov. Bill Haslam to see if he will sign or veto the "ag-gag" bill, passed recently by the General Assembly, that would require any video or photograph of livestock abuse be turned over within 48 hours to law enforcement.
Haslam has received more emails and calls on this issue than any other, according to WPLN News in Nashville. Country star Carrie Underwood even promised to protest his office if he signs.
Haslam can be reached at 615-741-2001. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are thousands of stories and videos detailing animal abuse. Here is just one.
In 2012, a Humane Society undercover investigator captured video from a Wyoming pig farm that supplies meat to Tyson Foods.
"Piglets were kicked like soccer balls, thrown like bowling balls," the investigation reads.
"Pigs died in their gestation crates often without even being noticed. One had been dead for several days and, left inside her crate, was half-buried in feed that had been automatically dumped onto her head during that time."
"Workers threw piglet testicles at each other and fed them to sows for 'fun."'
"Piglets, many of whom were diseased, were denied treatment and allowed to die slow deaths."
It took a long time -- far more than 48 hours -- to obtain such evidence, present it to lawyers, judges and law enforcement. (The investigation and video can be found on the Humane Society website).
If Tennessee's ag-gag bill becomes law, such an investigation would not happen here.
And that's exactly why the legislation was written: to protect the agribusiness farms that have so much to hide.
"It's a badly written piece of legislation, and that is why I think Governor Haslam needs to veto it," Karen Walsh, executive director of McKamey Animal Center, said Wednesday.
Small farmers (think Old MacDonald and not Wyoming pig farm) are worried that amateur activists can drive by their farms -- where animal husbandry can look quite different from pet ownership -- and cellphone-video what they see, upload it to YouTube, and then crush a family business.
"I respect farmers in our community and how very, very hard they work. While we're all in bed at night, they're out caring for the animals, trying to birth lambs and calves and being there," said Walsh. "Their family's survival depends on those animals."
The bill also would shift a greater burden to law enforcement, which now would be charged with investigating far more cases of animal abuse, something officers have neither time nor training to do.
"The bill doesn't serve either side well," Walsh said.
Yet the bill -- signed or vetoed -- still does not address the large question before America.
"How do we feel about how animals are raised for food?" she asked.
Each day in America, millions of animals are killed so that we may eat them.
What is our responsibility to them?
"Go into the largest livestock operation, search out the darkest and tiniest stall or pen, single out the filthiest, most forlorn little lamb or pig or calf, and that is one of God's creatures you're looking at, morally indistinguishable from your beloved Fluffy or Frisky," Matthew Scully, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, writes in "Dominion."
We can either look away or pay attention.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...