Quietly making the jump to a meatless existence

By:
11/12/2009

For years, I considered making the switch to vegetarianism. Part of me was subtly rebelling against my parents and part was growing increasingly aware of the moral arguments behind vegetarianism. Peter Singer’s seminal work Animal Liberation, scanned in an afternoon at Barnes and Noble, introduced me to new arguments for animal rights. Yet, something always held me back from making the jump away from omnivorous eating habits. My mother is a fantastic cook, and the thought of giving up her lemon chicken or seared pork was disconcerting. While I made no real effort to curb my meat consumption, I became increasingly aware of the grave environmental effects caused by eating meat, the compelling moral arguments that underlie vegetarianism, and the health benefits of a vegetarian diet.

My thinking slowly changed this summer, when I stayed in D.C. instead of going back to South Carolina, and thus began cooking for myself on a regular basis. I was still eating meat when school ended, but that quickly changed; as the summer wore on, I found myself eating less and less meat, almost naturally. I never ran out of things to eat, discovering soy breakfast sausages and creative ways of cooking tofu. It dawned on me that my actions could match my long-held but dormant belief that meat consumption should be avoided. I’ll freely admit that I’m not the traditional meat and potatoes loving American, who fires up the grill at a moment’s notice. I maintain, however, that the jump to vegetarianism is not as difficult as most think it would be.

In his new book, Eating Animals, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer reflects on the journey to committed vegetarianism. I particularly identified with one section, “Pieces of Shit,” which describes the unbelievable amount of feces produced by Smithfield pigs. “Smithfield [America’s leading pork producer] annually kills … some 31 million animals,” Foer writes. “According to conservative EPA figures, each hog produces two to four times as much shit as a person … [resulting in] at least as much fecal waste as the entire human population of the states of California and Texas combined.” All of this waste, pumped into massive “lagoons” standing beside the hog sheds, is full of noxious gases and microbial pathogens that result in unusually high rates of asthma, diarrhea, burning lungs, and can even cause serious neurological conditions in humans. All of this waste leaks into the water supply of surrounding communities.

I lived in Idaho and experienced this aspect of factory farming firsthand when I visited a dairy farm with some 7,000 cattle. On each side of the street that ran beside the pens, which were not much bigger than the cows themselves, drainage gutters carried a consistent stream of liquid and solid excrement. It took everything within my power to avoid throwing up. The revelation that all this waste was piling up in the fields around the side of the farm was equally repulsive. In this environment, it takes a few hours for normal breathing to commence, as your body must acclimate to the airborne feces. And this is only one of the many frightening aspects of industrial meat production. A study conducted by University of Chicago Geophysicists Gidon Eschel and Pamela Martin concluded that adjusting eating habits from the standard American diet to a vegetarian diet did more to fight global warming than switching from an SUV to a small compact car. Furthermore, meat consumption is wildly inefficient compared to the production of plant-based foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that it takes 2,500 gallons of water and eight to ten pounds of corn to produce one pound of beef.

But most people, detached from the realities of industrial food production, never take the time to consider how their food is actually produced. There are numerous moral considerations that should be examined when evaluating factory farming and killing animals for food. While there may be cases in which it is possible to minimize animals’ suffering while maintaining a diet that includes meat, I would argue that this is extremely difficult, if not impossible, considering current agricultural practices in the United States. And, almost in spite of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ and similar groups’ cringe-worthy shock tactics against meat consumption, I have become increasingly convinced that we should not see animals as objects to be killed and consumed. As Peter Singer explains, “the case for vegetarianism is at its strongest when we see it as a moral protest against the use of animals as mere things, to be exploited for our convenience in whatever way makes them most cheaply available to use.” David Foster Wallace, in his famous essay “Consider the Lobster” posits that future generations may look back on “our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices.” While this may seem outlandish to some, consider that over nine billion animals were killed in the U.S. alone for their meat last year, and few of these animals were treated in their lives in ways that respected their interests—the way we might treat a family pet.

It may seem ironic in light of this piece, but I don’t consider myself a crusading vegetarian. When people question me about vegetarianism, I often take on an apologetic tone, as if it’s something I’d rather not discuss. Yet, I’ve found that too many people avoid taking the time to evaluate the impact of their food choices on the environment and the creatures they are consuming. It’s not necessary to become a vegetarian overnight, but consider embracing a diet without meat for just one or two days a week. You may find that the food isn’t so bad—and it’s better for animals, your health, and the environment.

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6 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Quietly making the jump to a meatless existence”

  1. Avatar Bea Elliott says:

    Excellent reasons for choosing compassionate and healthy eating habits. One need only get in the vacinity of intensive animal agriculture to realize this is not the course we should continue on. I’ve been meat-free for 8 years… Vegan for 2 and my health has improved and I’m satisfied that I am not causing needless harm to innocent animals.

  2. Avatar MoJo says:

    Kudos on making the switch. It isn’t nearly as difficult to live well without meat products as people might think. In time you will (must?) drop the apologetic tone though. No reason to apologize for basing your eating habits on reason and compassion for sentinent creatures, the environment and human health. You should be proud. Let the ominvores learn the facts of meat production. To continue to consume meat products demands apologetics not ceasing to consume.

    To your health!

  3. Avatar Kara says:

    Great article! I can definitely relate, but I am finding it easier and easier to say that I am a vegetarian. I try to be matter-of-fact about it, and omnis can take it how they want.

  4. Avatar Bradys Beef says:

    I also disagree with the methods used in factory farming, but I would encourage you to look at locally grown, grass-fed beef operations as an example of how beef can be raised naturally to produce healthier meat and a healthier environment. (Pictures included on the site)

  5. Avatar Lori P says:

    I agree wholeheartedly…no need to be apologetic…indeed, be proud of what you are doing and not contributing to needless suffering and killing of sentient beings. The road to better health factor (and writing nice articles such as this one) and less pollution you are contributing to is definitely something to be proud of. As far as grass fed beef, human bodies are just not equipped to eat meat..period. http://www.earthsave.ca/articles/health/comparative.html The meat still has fat and cholesterol in it and NO fiber. Even if it’s grass fed, the animals still go through a terrible killing process. Simply not necessary.

  6. Avatar Kelly says:

    I have been fully vegetarian for a 1 1/2 years and my goal is to be completely vegan in 6-8 mos. I spent several years tip-toeing around the issue…why, I don’t know. I think I just had to come to a place where I felt confident enough to really live what I believed for so long. I’m just sorry I didn’t start sooner! I have never felt healthier and calmer in my life..I just wish that friends and some family felt the same. However I hope I can quietly influence them to at least give vegetarianism some serious thought. So far some family have made small changes which is great! Also, without counting calories I have lost about 43 lbs. just by fully committing to a vegetarian lifestyle. I am exciteed about the future of this chosen path and look forward to trying new and interesting recipes.

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