It seems that I’m not alone in being a lapsed plant eater. In trying to create a food philosophy I could get behind, I’ve been struggling with how exactly to voice what makes me uncomfortable about both omnivory and vegetarianism. Marissa Landrigan wrote in Paste Magazine:
For so long, I had assumed I was maintaining a diet that caused less suffering, but my vegetarianism had blinded me to the myriad other ethical dilemmas that were a part of my eating choices. I started wondering whether not eating animals was the only, or even the best, way to make such a compassionate choice.
This was exactly my goal when I decided to started eating meat again. I wanted to move beyond boycotting a food economy whose practices I found abhorrent, and move towards supporting what I see as a burgeoning food economy recentered on small-scale, local, sustainable farming, some of which does involve raising livestock animals. I decided that, by investing in these sources of meat production, we can attempt to offset the suffering implicit in any act of eating.
And it’s not just “lapsed vegetarian” writers who struggle with the morals of eating meat: “veganish” James McWilliams (PSmag) also gets into the complexity of whether or not eating animals is ethical.
…consider the untold numbers of sentient animals killed by combines and pesticides to grow the essentials of a vegan diet—edible plants. In 2003, Oregon State agriculture scientist Steven L. Davis created a dust-up in vegan camps when he calculated that the number of small animals killed to grow plant crops was high enough to justify using more land to raise large ruminants rather than edible plants. Because overall suffering would be diminished if we ate more large ruminants, he concluded, “humans may be morally obligated to consume a diet from plant based plus pasture-forage-ruminant systems.”
The philosopher Gaverick Matheny quickly (and convincingly) took issue with Davis’ numbers. But the essential fact remained untouched: A vegan diet requires harming sentient animals. A lot of them. So we can reject Davis’ flawed calculations, as well as his claim that we should be eating large ruminants raised on pasture, but the question he forces us to consider doesn’t go away: Are there sources of meat with a suffering threshold low enough to justify reducing our consumption of plants, and thus the number of animals killed to grow plants, by eating from those sources?
When I read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, a rather unbiased, un-preachy work revealing the state of modern meat production in the United States, I was flooded with emotion that I had blocked out since learning about global warming in the 3rd grade… and realizing nobody else really cared. I cared about it when I woke up in the morning, and it shaped my whole day; an adult had told me my world was gonna end but meh, there was nothing to be done about it… how could I ignore the sheer enormity of the problem of climate change? It’s obviously overwhelming to a 3rd grader to realize that the world is not going to be the same, and will likely change for the worse; on top of that, when I’d try to talk to people about it, adults and peers alike, nobody seemed to care. I started to think that maybe it WAS overhyped, maybe it wasn’t that big an issue, otherwise more people would be freaking out about it, right? It’s as if I were desperately asking an adult to do CPR on someone while the adult was walking away and saying, “look they fluttered their eyelid, they’re fine!”
I regret not having joined environmental clubs, student government, etc. I regret not working harder on communicating about these issues in a more informed, less alarmist way, so that I could feel like a more powerful entity despite my young age. But nevertheless, life DID go on, everything seemed fine, and if I were to really interact with people in a meaningful way, I had to stop bringing up climate change.
So then I read Omnivore’s Dilemma. I knew all of the facts already from discussions with people who did care about climate change, but the book hit this wonderful balance between emotional and rational arguments, facts and anecdotes. The author ate meat and therefore was able to say: “Look, this is something I care about deeply but I live my life just like you. I’m not on any moral high ground here.” It resonated with me, to not be condescended to while learning about issues I cared a lot about. Previously when other vegetarian friends would say why they’re vegetarian, I’d felt like it was a completely emotional, antisocial choice–I’d perhaps internalized much of that apathy and denial I struggled so hard against in childhood.
And despite Michael Pollan’s meat-eating habits, his book led me to question my own lifestyle for nearly a year before I too declared that I was going vegetarian. I did it to reduce my carbon footprint, to eat healthier, to stop my tacit support of factory-farmed meat.
My mom fussed over what she’d cook. Thanksgivings became difficult, even though when I passed on the turkey a cousin came out to me as a vegetarian also. My brother made me feel downright shitty about it: one time at a korean restaurant, which we tend to do family-style, he ordered meat for the whole table, and I had to fight to order just one vegetarian dish, at which he rolled his eyes and gave in so grudgingly I felt like I was choosing between family and eating habits. Vegetarian doesn’t go over well with many people.
Furthermore, I started training for a marathon. I was hungry a lot. It got to the point where I’d eat half a jar of peanut butter in one sitting, and I’d think about the resources that went into that half jar of peanut butter–raw material, packaging, transportation– and think, would one piece of chicken be all that bad compared to this?
After getting sick several times over the course of the year, I lapsed into meat-eating for a while. I tried eating meat-light but found myself having it more often than not. It felt good to feel accepted again, to be getting whole nutrition in simpler foods (no protein powders, supplements, etc.). I had more energy as well. But of course I felt conflicted about it, especially after seeing first-hand the feedlots of Kansas on my bike trip and starting grad school far away from family pressure. I gave it another shot.
I even ate predominantly vegan for about 8 months, foregoing cheese and eggs 80% of the time.
What happened then? Why do I eat meat now? A big life change was moving into Manhattan and out of the bubble of small-hippie-town life. I had a few reasons for going back to carnivory:
- I was hungry a lot, and left unsatisfied by my vegetarian diet. While I was struggling with mental health issues, feeling hungry definitely didn’t help stabilize my mood or breed good body image: when I’d celebrate that I was hungry, I knew that wasn’t good.
- I had begun doing it to try and lose weight: a veggie burger clearly has fewer calories than a bacon cheeseburger, and vegetarianism was a convenient excuse for choosing lower-calorie options. Again, not great for my mood OR my body image.
- New York is full of food. Even street carts have amazing food. I hated to pass up on bone broth ramen or pork soup dumplings; I wanted to try everything, and the vegetarian Smorgasburg fare was not quite enough to satisfy my curiosity. I did really miss the social and culinary experience of eating new foods, even if they contained meat.
- The social aspect did grate. Eventually I felt like, what’s the point really, when everyone’s eating this meat? Why not eat some myself? This is the reason I’m least proud of. It’s just my cynicism and my inability to stick by my morals.
- Those were just excuses: The issue comes down to corporate responsibility. Individual actions make me feel good, sure: I feel good every time I bring my own coffee mug and forego a coated paper or styrofoam cup when I go out for coffee, when I use reusable paper towels at home, a handkerchief instead of paper tissues, a menstrual cup and reusable pads over disposable menstrual products. But ultimately, when I walk right by the paper towel aisle in the super market, if 90 customers had just bought paper towels that day my actions are futile. If those corporations were held responsible for the end-product of the waste stream of their products, then real change could start to happen. By opting out of eating factory farmed meat while everyone else is, I’m not actually making a difference; the most I can do is support initiatives to increase government regulation of these industries. I don’t know. “Vote with your dollars” is a way to make lower- and middle-income consumers feel empowered and also guilty for their consuming habits, while corporations could drown out 10,000 of your donations with one of theirs. As Williams (again, a vegan himself) says in “Do we really vote with our forks?” about an individual’s influence on, say starting a Walmart boycott:
Of course, there must be a numerical threshold for change. There must be a theoretical number of boycotting consumers who would, in their collective abstinence, deliver to Walmart a message loud enough for the system to adjust. But, despite the great unlikelihood of such an event, it’s simply implausible that such a massive number could be attained through the moral suasion of individual choice. Instead, something external to individual choice—such as a spike in price or a food safety scare or maybe the classification of bacon as a carcinogen—would have to drive such a comprehensive transformation.
While deflating, the message delivered by causal impotence shouldn’t deter the vegan from giving up veganism any more than it should deter the environmentalist from trading in the Prius for a Porsche. Symbolism matters, as does the personal satisfaction of knowing that you live your life in accordance with the ideals that you espouse. Plus, lots of symbolism can sometimes inspire a movement capable of effecting change from the top down, as Naomi Starkman recently suggested. But it is simply inaccurate to quantify our impact in terms of animal lives saved. Sometimes those making personal sacrifices for a larger cause—yes, even vegans—need to find another way to think about progress.
That is to say, individual action sadly does not matter; voting with your dollars does not matter; but symbolism does. Neither way of approaching ethical eating is more “correct”; it’s just important to keep both of these extremes, hopeful symbolism and cynicical practicality, in mind when making informed decisions.
- I don’t know how much I believe in consumerist elitism. The fact of the matter is that, food waste aside, factory farmed meat is cheap enough for the “masses” to afford, which is a good thing. People aren’t just getting the cheapest food they can get so that they can afford a new iPad; we genuinely benefit as a society from spending less of our money on food. Back in the day when you had to farm all your food, food expenditures pretty much took up a family’s entire paycheck. Think about what it means if we only have to spend 10% of our paychecks on food. Now, I’m aware that people in poverty continue to struggle to put dinner on the table, even in the U.S., and we have a lot of work to do to miminize this inequality, but to pine for a time where everyone produced their own food is to ignore the huge progress that these new habits of consumption represent. This comes at a cost to animals and the environment; we just need to fix the regulatory system that allows a more optimal tradeoff between cheap and ethical/sustainable food production. So who am I to say I’m above participating in this food system? Does it make me a mindless sheep if i do participate?
What to eat has been quite a big struggle on my part: to balance the fact that, now that I know what meat production for a growing world population and a modern society entails, do I believe that opting out is truly the ethical choice or is it just a feel-good tactic to keep my feelings of guilt for existing as a human on this planet at bay?
I have no answers. Only questions. All I know is that the struggle between eating meat and not eating meat poses a much more complex moral dilemma than I initially thought when I went vegetarian.
From Landrigan’s article:
“It’s easy to say ‘all life is death and suffering’ …but for me, all ethics are something I struggle with almost daily,” Malchik says. “The important thing for me is not to bury the facts behind how I live and the choices I make. Facing them is a lifelong effort.”
One thing that’s really changed: now I wish I ate vegetarian around family just to annoy my brother. Because if you’re policing others’ eating habits, I have no patience for you. Maybe that will make the social part a little MORE fun, and I will start re-introducing vegetarianism into my life from there. So, thanks big brother. I’m eating this tempeh for you.