Why I Mostly Eat Vegetarian Food
To begin, that title is very precisely worded. I am not a vegetarian. I am not a vegan. I have been teased because I’ve incautiously used the phrase “I’m mostly vegetarian” in the past. No, I choose to eat vegetarian (or even vegan) food, most of the time. This may be a confusing (and possibly indefensible) position but it is accurate. I have that choice, though, because I am no where near poverty or starvation (and, even at my poorest, starvation was pretty remote). But given that I have a choice, why do I?
Why Post This?
A couple weeks ago, a friend asked me (on twitter) if I was mostly vegetarian. This led to a brief discussion as to why but more specifically issues of labeling and honesty. I realized that perhaps I should post something because my eating choices aren’t just an arbitrary preference: they are triggered from real ethical concerns and writing about them might just draw a bit more attention to an issue I consider important.
To state that another way: I think humans (especially in the wealthy “developed world”) should be producing and eating fewer animal products. If that angers you, then this post will anger you. For some, it’s uncouth to talk about your moral positions as regards food, but less so for other things1. If it seems like I’m preaching, then perhaps I am. Does this mean I’m judging you personally, whoever you are? Honestly? Probably not. I’ve got better things to do. But I do wish the question received a bit more consideration.
Environmental Impact and Efficient Use of Resources
When I first modified my diet from “whatever I felt like”, I stopped eating seafood. Many fish and other sea life are endangered or threatened. Even animals with robust populations are often captured in extremely damaging ways. These days I will eat some seafood, but it’s because I have more information and understand the issues better.
But if I was giving up fish because of environmental damage, what about meat? Meat production is expensive (in resources) because we’re eating an animal that itself has to be fed. Since there’s not enough grass for the numbers we raise, we grow food for animals. In many cases, we could grow more food to directly eat rather than feeding it to animals.2 Somewhere around 80% of corn grown in the United States feeds animals. A great deal of the soy is also fed to animals. Most of this corn and soy is grown in huge monoculture fields, very intensively, using many inputs in the forms of pesticides, fertilizers, machinery, etc. The inputs could be used to support more direct food for humans — corn and soy are actually tasty and nutritious foods themselves. How many people could be fed using that land?
But the fertilizer and pesticide run-off and soil erosion are a huge problem. The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone is a region of the ocean that intermittently becomes low in oxygen due to algae blooms feeding on nitrogen and phosphorus run-off. Low oxygen kills much of the life. Given how much agriculture in the Mississippi watershed supports raising animals for meat, the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone may largely be due to our society’s consumption of meat. If we weren’t trying to feed so many animals, would runoffs be as disastrous?
Related to all of this is of course the problem of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. There’s a lot of information on the internet only a google away, so I’ll leave you with a NY Times summary of a relatively recent consumer-oriented report on the emissions related to different types of foods. Short version: animal-based foods result in more greenhouse gas emissions than vegetable-based foods. One critical point that I personally needed reminding of is that cheese is actually worse than many meats and fish (e.g. tuna and chicken).
Animal Rights and Humane Treatment
This section was originally named “animal abuse” because that is what modern industrial animal “husbandry” looks like to me. Few would support treating a family dog the way cows or chickens are treated in a factory farm. I’m not going to describe these conditions. It’s frankly not something I want to summarize. Suffice to say that standard industrial animal conditions are cramped and diseased. There’s a reason antibiotics have to be used.
Even if the animals aren’t abused, what does it mean to eat meat? Eating meat (or fish) means: I’m ending the life of another living creature not much different from me. I don’t have an answer for myself, but I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of ending the life of an animal, especially vertebrates and octopi. Some of my favorite reading (and video) is about the diversity and complexity of life. How amazing it is that there’s all this life! And each little bit is doing its own little thing, whatever that is, in its own little place. Ending one of those lives seems pretty similar to ending my own and maybe I should consider that. It’s not that I learned anything new recently. I just seem to be interpreting differently. I don’t know that this perspective will entirely change my behavior, but it’s there.
Even before my friend asked that question, I’ve usually eaten vegetarian food. But since I was raised on meat (and especially beef), it is tasty to me. I don’t have a visceral disgust to the idea of eating meat. So I’m regularly (once a month perhaps) tempted by some beef (always “hippie beef” as I call it3). Very occasionally at a party or the like, the lure of bacon will catch me. I loved sushi before I mostly gave up fish, so I more frequently eat certain types of fish and seafood (e.g. local shellfish or domestic catfish or supposedly sustainable sushi). Though these exceptions are pretty rare because it’s often socially and practically infeasible to “be sure”.
But I do make exceptions. Sometimes it’s just easier. Or someone brought something very interesting looking to a party. Or our order was misunderstood at a restaurant and the item would go to waste. Or I’m at a very fancy restaurant and the interesting options involve meat or seafood (I sometimes call this “cultural eating”). Or I’m at a bar with a lot of friends and my only “safe” options are french fries and I know that only eating fries will make me a grumpy person all evening.
I’m not a saint and sometimes I rate my own hedonistic pleasure or social norms above consideration for the environment or animals. Waste bothers me a lot, so it’s easy to make an exception for non-vegetarian food that would otherwise be wasted. I rationalize and compromise with the world. But that sits less comfortably this week as I consider when and why I make exceptions.
The Fuzzy Shifting Line
So … what? I’m not eating vertebrate meat at all right now4. Most dairy or eggs that might be available to me while eating out is going to be factory-farmed, so that should be out (though until recently I too often ordered the eggs or cheese because it’s tasty). At home it’s pretty easy to eat vegan when I want. Aside from cheese and eggs (these at least I can be mostly sure don’t involve animal abuse), our groceries rarely include anything non-vegan. Almost all fish are right out, of course. Shellfish aren’t out for any (firm) reason, but it’s probably simpler to just not eat any seafood at all (and easier to explain too). I will likely sometime eat meat again, but I imagine it will be much less often than previously.
So, I’m still not a vegan or even strictly vegetarian. All I can say is that I mostly eat vegetarian or vegan food. And maybe this post will make a few more people think about eating less meat.
I would include specific examples of less fraught moral discussions — whether spanking is child abuse or whether anonymous political donations are okay, for instance — but I suspect that would derail the argument when someone reading doesn’t agree that my particular choices are acceptable for polite discussion. So I put it here in a footnote.
But, you might say, is that we could raise ungulates on grass in marginal lands that couldn’t be used for other agriculture. Raising meat animals on marginal land is a good use of resources if that’s your only option. But we have other options and a lot of marginal land use is increasingly destructive.
Though perhaps “yuppie meat” would be a better phrase these days. It’s curious to me that everyone I talk to about this knows what I mean by “hippie meat” though.
We’ll see how long it lasts — meat, especially beef, is tasty to me.