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