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.