Vegetarians and meat eaters clash constantly on the issue of whether or not it’s wrong to eat meat. There’s a range, for sure; from PETA activists to macrobiotics to self-described feminists to farmers, meat is a controversial issue. But now it’s time to know for sure: what’s the deal with vegetarianism?
The following is an excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements by Sandor Ellix Katz. It has been adapted for the web.
I love meat. The smell of it cooking can fill me with desire, and I find its juicy, rich flavor uniquely satisfying. At the same time, everything I see, hear, or read about standard commercial factory farming and slaughtering fills me with disgust. I hold great respect for the ideals that people seek to put into practice through vegetarianism.
Vegetarianism is the original manifestation of food activism. Since ancient times vegetarians have sought to embody ideals that they see as making the world a kinder, gentler place. A small minority of people throughout history—mostly inspired by religious ideals—have eschewed animal flesh, among them Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Roman Catholic Trappist monks, and Essenes, an ancient Jewish sect. Historically vegetarianism has been a practice of asceticism: a rejection of material pleasure and an embrace of universal compassion. In more recent times vegetarianism has largely been motivated by political and ethical ideas, as well as the pursuit of good health, as we shall explore below.
I was a half-hearted vegetarian for a couple of years, even vegan (avoiding not only meat but all animal products) for a little while, based on the abstract idea that animal fats are unhealthy, which I no longer believe to be true. When I tried being vegan, I found myself dreaming about eggs. I could find no virtue in denying my desires. I now understand that many nutrients are soluble only in fats, and animal fats can be vehicles of rich nourishment. Of course, much depends upon how the animals are raised, and also upon how you integrate them into your diet.
Animals raised factory-style, pumped up with antibiotics and growth hormones and fed the by-products of chemical agriculture, contain high levels of toxicity that have become concentrated up the food chain. They are also often treated cruelly and live in deplorable conditions. A friend who attends a state agriculture school was in a livestock class that required students to perform acts of unnecessary violence such as dehorning mature bulls, rather than the alternative procedure of cauterization in infancy, which involves far less pain and suffering. Students’ concerns about animal welfare were dismissed by the professor with “Don’t go PETA on me” (PETA being the animal-rights direct-action group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). “The industrial farm is said to have been patterned on the factory production line,” writes Wendell Berry “In practice, it looks more like a concentration camp.”
Where the meat comes from and how the animals lived are factors that figure into my eating decisions. I am grateful to be meeting farmers everywhere who are talking about the ethics that guide their animal raising and slaughtering practices. I appreciate that they are reflecting upon these difficult questions, trying to learn what exactly it means to breed and kill animals in a conscientious way. Animal-rights activists may consider “humane meat” to be an oxymoron, but for many of us seeking to satisfy our nutritional needs while upholding values of simple decency, humane meat is instead an ideal to strive for and support.
Varieties of Vegetarian Volition
The realities of factory-farmed meat make a compelling case for vegetarianism, though people are motivated to become vegetarians by many different concerns. A number of people I’ve talked to about it just always felt a visceral revulsion toward meat and stopped eating it, even as children, as best they could. Many vegetarians stop eating meat for more ideological reasons. Religious beliefs have inspired vegetarians for thousands of years. Reincarnation, for instance, suggests that the same souls incarnate as animals and as humans, raising the possibility that the animal you are eating was your grandmother or some other beloved soul. Many different ideals, from renunciations of the pleasures of the body to expressions of compassion toward all living creatures, lead spiritual adherents to reject animal flesh.
Animal welfare is another ancient motivation for vegetarianism. Can we not refrain from murdering our fellow beings? This question has often been linked to the human tendency toward violence, and philosophies of pacifism and nonviolence have also long inspired vegetarians. “For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other,” the vegetarian Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras is said to have observed. As if to illustrate Pythagoras’s point, during the rise and spread of Christianity many vegetarian sects were attacked as heretical. According to the British Vegetarian Society, “These non-violent vegetarian ascetics were painted as fanatical deviants, feared, loathed, and frequently persecuted by the established church.” Pythagorean ideals of peaceful coexistence with animals reemerged during the Enlightenment and were embraced by several different Christian movements of the nineteenth century. Until the past century, in fact, vegetarians were often referred to as Pythagoreans.
Promoting a more equitable usage of natural resources is another important motivation for many vegetarians. A watershed book that helped catalyze the contemporary vegetarian movement is Frances Moore Lappé’s 1971 Diet for a Small Planet. This book drew connections between the persistence of world hunger and the practice of feeding grain to livestock. Each pound of beef, reported Lappé, required twenty-one pounds of high-quality grain that could otherwise nourish people directly. But a resource allocation analysis does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that vegetarianism is more ethical than eating meat. Animals are healthier on pasture than on grain, and they can graze on marginal land where intensive crops would not be possible. When Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon began their year on the Hundred-Mile Diet, they had been vegetarian for fifteen years. Facing a paucity of locally grown vegetable protein sources, they realized, “The most readily available protein sources are all animal based: fish and shellfish, eggs, dairy, meat. It is increasingly clear that local, sustainable eating is not always going to be vegetarian.”
Related to resource allocation issues, yet distinct, is concern about the ecological impacts of large-scale farming, ranging from the deforestation of the Amazon rain forest to create grazing land to the dramatic air and water toxicity associated with concentrated animal feeding operations. Large-scale factory farms concentrate the wastes of huge numbers of animals in small areas, creating noxious odors, contaminating drinking water sources, killing fish populations, encouraging antibiotic resistant bacteria, and endangering human health. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, one of the U.S. regions with the worst air quality, local pollution-control officials say that more smog-producing gases are produced by the region’s rapidly growing dairy industry—with an unprecedented concentration of 2.5 million dairy cows—than by either automobiles or pesticides.
Yet another inspiration for vegetarianism comes from a feminist critique of meat eating, which draws parallels between the processes of domination and domestication of both animals and women. “The same societal influences create these oppressive systems and the only way for all to be free is to connect the issues of oppression,” states a flyer from Feminists for Animal Rights. My friends at the Bloodroot Collective—whose café in Bridgeport, Connecticut, founded in 1977, is still thriving—wrote in their 1980 cookbook The Political Palate:
Our food is vegetarian because we are feminists. We are opposed to the exploitation, domination, and destruction which come from factory farming and the hunter with the gun. We oppose the keeping and killing of animals for the pleasure of the palate just as we oppose men controlling abortion or sterilization. We won’t be part of the torture and killing of animals.
The feminist-vegetarian critique has been elaborated by Carol J. Adams in two volumes, The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990) and The Pornography of Meat (2003). “Objectification permits an oppressor to view another being as an object,” writes Adams. “The oppressor then violates this being by object-like treatment: e.g., the rape of women that denies women freedom to say no, or the butchering of animals that converts animals from living breathing beings into dead objects.” Adams describes meat eating as a “mirror and representation of patriarchal values” and “the re-inscription of male power at every meal.”
For most people political ideals such as feminism, pacifism, concern about world hunger, fairness, animal welfare, and the state of the earth are all too abstract to motivate such radical behavioral change as becoming a vegetarian. Ultimately more compelling than all these noble impulses, the biggest motivation for vegetarianism (at least in North America) seems to be personal health. Specific reasons vary: to reduce the risk of heart disease; to avoid exposure to growth hormones, antibiotics, and chemical and radioactive toxicities that concentrate in animal fats; to lose weight; to reduce the risk of cancer; to remedy digestive disorders; to feel lighter; or all of the above.