Whenever I’m forced to say I’m vegetarian, usually in some public place where eating is happening, I’m always asked, “Why?” by someone earnestly curious, while silence blooms around us to eavesdrop. I flounder to answer this question every time. Is it that I don’t believe in cruelty to animals? Do I believe I’ll have better health, better karma, or is it a moral/environmental act -in other words, am I working on my carbon footprint?
All of the above is true for me, but let’s explore some of the “meatier” issues here.
Environmentally, there’s a strong argument that a healthy ecosystem includes grazing animals (Omnivore’s Dilemma). But then the common mistake is to jump from this fact to defend supermarket steak- a product that is so far removed from ethics and health that it’s no longer defensible.
Yes, our evolutionary ancestors ate meat and our genetics carry the DNA of generations of meat eaters. However, they hunted! There were no mammoth feedlots. As a society we are now inarguably too far removed from the source of our food and the reality of the food chain. Remarkable, how a little saran wrap can insulate us so thoroughly from the pain and death involved in the meat we eat.
There’s a very strong argument that vegetarianism is a better health choice. VERY strong. There remains a counter-argument that for some, vegetarianism can never provide optimum health (Vegetarian Myth). However, even that camp can’t deny that North Americans eat too much meat and would benefit from significant reduction.
So, to cut down on meat is better for us individually and collectively, everyone agrees.
But, to cut down, or to quit? I think that comes down to a “what feels right?”, for you.
The average American eats 9oz of meat per day (Michael Pollan), and eating meat is connected to every life-shortening disease you could mention- heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. 1/3 of all arable land is devoted to growing crops for animal food (US FDA), while the vast majority of food calories grown to feed to meat animals is “wasted” on metabolism during the animals growth. On average it takes 20 food calories fed to an animal to get one meat calorie out (Diet For a Small Planet). Lets not even start in on the vast additional environmental and health problems caused by the overuse of corn to feed the meat industry. Just watch King Corn.
World Bank agricultural scientists have deemed the meat industry the cause of 51% of global carbon emissions (World Watch).
Chickens and pigs score higher on cognitive tests than dogs and cats, but the latter have legal protection while the former are subjected to entire lives of “unmitigated misery” (Bruce Freidrich). Most people who came within spitting distance of a slaughterhouse would feel disturbed, to put it mildly. Visiting an industrial abattoir (placed suitably very distant from anywhere residential) as a hitchhiker in a cattle truck several years ago was shockingly traumatic for me, and I din’t even set foot inside the place.
However, the switch over from meat-eating to vegetarian, clearly, does not come from reading a litany of statistics, nor even seeing films of unanesthetized turkeys having their beaks sawed off in a spray of blood and silenced screams. The facts pointing to better health, better agriculture, and better karma have been available for years. It seems as though some internal readiness comes first, and then some external trigger finally flips the switch and anchors it.
I was vegan for some years in my twenties, and it didn’t go well. I found that I couldn’t stay healthy. In hindsight I see that I didn’t have the discipline and knowledge to be able to sustain my own nutrition. It takes education, dedication, and responsibility to feed oneself in a balanced way, especially as a vegan. On the other hand, how else would you want to eat, if not consciously?
Returning to meat, I contributed to much animal loss of life over the years by eating unconsciously, assisted by the “saran wrap remove”, and believing that I could not be completely healthy, let alone athletic, on a vegetable-based diet (justified frequently with my vegan story). This is demonstrably bullshit. Ironman athletes like Brendan Brazier and Dave Scott prove it. Just last night I learned one of my favorite UFC fighters just went veggie, joining Mac Danzig and others.
Going vegetarian again in my thirties has been another matter. The last few years, I reduced my meat eating to what I considered ethical – local, organic, free-ranch, etc. I spent far more per ounce to know the provenance of the meat that hit my plate, and to feel that the animal had both lived and died well. Sparked by my own “vegetarian trigger” though, I dropped even that much-reduced amount of meat out of my diet last year.
I cannot imagine returning to eating meat now. What I didn’t expect was to never once miss it. Everyone seems to mourn for the smell or taste of some thing- bacon maybe? I have never once envied the steaming chicken breast on another person’s plate. In fact, it has become difficult for me to sit at a table and watch another person wrap greasy lips around a chicken leg. I certainly didn’t expect to feel that disgust. I would have said I don’t want to be “one of those vegans” who glares judgement and volunteers fun facts about chickens just before the bird comes out of the oven, like that they spend their whole lives unable to walk because they are so badly malnourished and kept so closely confined they cannot build the muscles to stand.
Having crossed the line, I now can’t understand why it’s not obvious to everyone that vegetarianism, or at least the most ethical relationship with meat, is urgently important. I look around at the mostly-meat-eating people around me and think with my heart breaking of how broad the scope of change would be if just a few people I knew switched over, or even just reduced. Would knowledge change their habits? Would better information, a little education, let them see they’re feeding their children growth hormones and antibiotics, that everyone could be healthier without anything from the meat aisle? Or, are they just not ready?
What’s your trigger?
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