Thursday, May 17, 2012

Thoughts on Ethical Eating

As you may or may not know, I'm a pescetarian (means I don't eat poultry or red meat). I don't usually talk about my eating habits unless asked, because I don't want it to come across as sounding judgmental, or like I'm trying to change others' eating habits. I believe diet is a very personal issue, and I don't think there is one "right" way to eat. However, I figured I'd share my reasoning for anyone who is interested. If you aren't, feel free to skip this over or send me hate mail.

I've always been a huge animal lover. I toyed with the idea of vegetarianism all throughout my teens. I would always ultimately abandon the notion, because I didn't think I could healthily maintain it. I grew up hating fruits and vegetables, and living pretty solely on very processed carbs and meat. The idea of a veggie-hating vegetarian sounded pretty dumb to me.

Then, when I was a sophomore in college, I began picking up the vegetarian pamphlets I often found displayed around campus. I'd always shied away from them, thinking that I didn't want to know how awful animals were being treated if I wasn't doing anything about it. Eventually, this began to seem cowardly to me. I figured if I was going to contribute to this industry, I should at least know what it was doing.

What I found horrified me. The fact that animals were dying for me was honestly not that upsetting. What really got to me was the terrible quality of life they had before their deaths. I won't go into details - if you're interested, check out the links below, but I don't want to shove information down your throats you may not want. I was troubled, but still not quite ready to make a change.

Reading a quote by one of my heroes, Jane Goodall, is what really did it for me. She said, "Thousands of people who say they ‘love’ animals sit down once or twice a day to enjoy the flesh of creatures who have been treated so with little respect and kindness just to make more meat." 

This really got to me. I have always been known as a Doctor Doolittle of sorts with my friends. I spent my childhood saving injured birds and squirrels and bats. I've always had a plethora of pets. Being an animal lover is a huge part of my identity. Reading this, from someone whose animal ethics I so admired, made me feel like a complete hypocrite. 

The day I came across this quote was my 19th birthday. I decided that I couldn't give up meat forever, but I could handle having it once a year on my birthday. So, that night I went out with my family, got a big Fuddrucker's cheeseburger, and then said goodbye to meat. 

People give up meat for many reasons. Let me make it clear that, for me, it is not because I find meat to be inherently unethical. I think the food chain is a good system that makes a lot of sense. I have absolutely no problem with responsibly hunted meat. I also know there are a lot of small farms that humanely raise and slaughter their animals in a very respectful way. The issue I have is America's meat industry. It is the terrible quality of life of these animals that I take issue with. 

As I continued through college, I began to become more interested in the environment. Through this, I began to realize the massive damage raising animals for food has on our planet. The amount of water and land needed to sustain a herd of cattle is staggering. A plant-based diet requires much less resources. However, I also learned that most of the plant-based agriculture in our country is ecologically devastating as well. I learned about chemical fertilizers, GMOs, and food miles. This led me to initially start buying organic produce, and eventually move on to buying almost all my fruits and vegetables from local, organic farmers markets.

When I initially gave up meat, I knew I would have to clean up my diet. My mom (who was very supportive of my decision) bought me a couple basic vegetarian cookbooks. From these, I slowly began to learn how to cook healthy food that was also delicious. As I began to research nutrition (I was very concerned that I give up meat in a healthy way), I learned that Americans actually get way too much protein. I learned that red meat and poultry are commonly believed by nutritionists to be a less healthy protein source than beans, nuts and fish. As time went on, I began to love cooking, and LOVE fruits and vegetables. I adored meat, but I was surprised to see how quickly I stopped craving it. Even when I have it as my birthday dinner, it seems like less of a treat than it used to. My taste buds evolved, and I've begun to lose a taste for it.

I am a pretty relaxed pescetarian. If I'm invited to someone's house for dinner, and the only food they have to offer is meat (and I can't make a decent meal out of the sides, which is what I normally do), I'll just go ahead and eat it. For me it's about putting as little money as possible into the meat industry, but knowing that the world won't end if I occasionally eat chicken parmigiana to avoid being an ungracious guest. Not eating meat is my choice, and I don't think it's fair to inconvenience others because of it. I eat fish because it makes restaurants easier; because I think fish has health benefits that other meats do not; because I am less troubled by the fishing industry than the livestock industry (although it is environmentally troubling, don't get me wrong); and because I grew up by the Chesapeake Bay and seafood is in my blood :). I occasionally buy shoes or belts made with leather, because it seems like a toss up to me which is worse for the environment - leather or synthetics. 

I think it's quite possible that eventually, one day, I'll become mostly vegan. I would give up eggs and dairy before fish, because, as previously mentioned, those industries seem more damaging to me, both to animals and to the environment. A few months ago I decided to only buy eggs from the farmers market, where I know the chickens have happy little lives wandering around the farm. In the near future I will probably do the same with dairy products. (I went with eggs first, because chickens are abused far more than cattle). 

My attitude towards my dietary choices is live and let live. I think everyone picks different things in life that are important issues to them, that they are passionate about. Some people only shop at small businesses. Some people join the military. Some people advocate against bullying. I gave up poultry and red meat. I don't think one of these choices is better than the other. I think it's important, whoever you are, whatever you think, to find a cause you believe in and make little (or big) changes to affect the world accordingly.

Having said that, people sometimes ask me if I think, in an ideal world, everyone would be vegetarian. I'm honestly not sure. What I do think is a realistic and desirable goal is that people eat less meat, and demand that our meat be humanely raised and killed, and that all our food not be pumped full of chemicals and hormones. I think the amount of meat we eat in this country is unhealthy for our bodies and environmentally unsustainable. If there were less of a market for such copious amounts of meat, farmers could afford to treat the animals better (by giving them higher quality food and giving them ample space, not just a tiny box they can't turn around in). I think this is a very real possibility. One of the things I love about capitalism (another blog entry for another day) is how we can very actively vote and create change with how we spend our money. Look at the green movement! Organic food and environmentally-friendly products used to be exclusive to crunchy, dreadlocked hippies. Now soccer moms are in on it. I can go to Giant and find a huge variety of vegetarian and organic options. When there is a demand (or lack of demand) for something, the market responds accordingly. 

If you have any thoughts on this, I'd be glad to hear them. I think food ethics is a really interesting topic, and would love to hear your opinions on these issues. For more info about some of the things I'm talking about, here are some links: 
The Vegetarian Resource Group
Farm Sanctuary
Sustainable Table


  1. "I think it's important, whoever you are, whatever you think, to find a cause you believe in and make little (or big) changes to affect the world accordingly." Perfectly said, Ms. Jeffries.

  2. I appreciate your impulses and it's true that industrial agriculture is killing the planet--both the horrors of CAFOs and the ecological devastation of monocropping and GMOs.

    I believe the answer is not in veganism, however, but in grazing animals on perennial polycultures. The great American prairies and other ecosystems were co-created by the plants AND the animals on them. Plants need the flesh, bone, blood, urine, and feces of animals--the soil must be replenished. Fossil fuel fertilizers are not putting back into the soil all that is taken out of them by intensive cultivation of grains and legumes. And many arid parts of the globe with thin and/or rocky soil are unsuited to intensive grain/legume cultivation but are well-suited to grazing animals, who can turn scrubby plants, indigestible to humans, into nourishing meat, bones (for broths), milk, and eggs (as well as leather, wool, etc.).

    People can tend herds, and raise locally optimized plants and retain food independence and security in this way, rather than depending on distant multinational corporations for processed, devitalized, ecologically damaging "food." This can be done in a way that improves the land, rather than devastating it. See Joel Salatin's books for how-to manuals for beef, pork, and poultry.

    We must wrest food production from these huge corporations and disperse it among millions of small farmers and ranchers. We must break the stranglehold of the horrifying CAFOs and slaughterhouses and meatpackers and go back to small-scale, local butchering. Animals can be raised in a way that respects their innate nature (to graze, root, scratch, etc.) and can be slaughtered in a far more humane fashion than we're doing now.

    For more info, Lierre Keith's book The Vegetarian Myth is a beautifully written, persuasive countering of the three main arguments for vegetarianism (moral, ethical, and nutritional).

    1. Thank you so much for such an awesome, in-depth comment! I think this concept makes a lot of sense. I agree that completely changing the way the meat industry runs is probably better (and more realistic) than wiping out meat eating entirely. I have considered eating meat again, but choosing to support small farms that are humane and ecologically sound. I probably won't, simply because I don't miss meat and feel like this way I'm leaving a small carbon footprint. If my family ends up eating meat, those farmers are where I'll be buying my groceries.

      I think you raise a lot of good points - particularly in your second paragraph. I've always believed animals can be raised for food in a respectful way, but it never occurred to me that cutting out livestock entirely could cause more harm than good. I'll look into that book - I'm intrigued now.

      Thanks again for a stellar comment!

  3. Good for you on this wonderful, thoughtful post. I've been a vegetarian for over four years but rarely talk about it. Like you, in the beginning I was more of a "pasta" terian that I was a vegetarian: it's amazing how easy it is to not actually eat a vegetable. But since I've started losing weight I am much more aware of that sort of thing and love veggies and fruit. My family is very supportive, cooking me veg alternatives or entirely meatless meals, and most of my friends are veg*an, too, so restaurants are always easy since we know which ones we can all eat at.

    But I also understand wanting to be a gracious guest: Over the summer I was visiting family in Texas and while we mostly ate out, one night my aunt wanted to have us all over and cook a big meal and she specifically made it vegetarian for me. Only the couscous used chicken broth. That's one of those situations where I put my veg diet aside for one dinner :)

  4. Great post. I love reading about why people choose the lifestyles that the do. I became vegetarian for mostly the same reasons and found that I also have become much healthier for the change. I used to go months without eating a vegetable, seriously- MONTHS. I subsisted on carbs and processed stuff and pretty much only ate "American" food. But when I became veg, I feel like a whole new world opened up to me- including my first tastes of Thai, Indian, and sushi. (I was pescatarian for the first two years and now am a full on veg.) I also started becoming more in tune with seasonal eating and my diet has basically done a 180 to no plants to almost totally plant based.

    I don't know if you are interested, but there are actually a lot of abuses in the fishing industry. Treatment of fish is basically unregulated. I guess because we don't really see fish as "high" on the sentient scale, in comparison to cows and pigs and what not, if you know what I mean.

    I don't eat meat or fish at other people's houses but I make a dinner of sides like you or bring something. However, I don't think being a vegetarian is like, a pact I signed in blood or anything, so if I ever really wanted meat, I would eat it. I could possibly see this happening if I was traveling and wanted to try out a dish unique to the area.

    1. Hah, I was the exact same way before I gave up meat. I'll have to look into the fish thing. I actually didn't eat fish for my first year, but then gradually added it back in when it seemed to fit most with my lifestyle. I used to almost never eat it, but now I do more frequently. It's actually something I've thought about re-evaluating lately. I think it's important to allow thoughts on diet to evolve.