The Vegetarian Conundrum
I grew up in a semi-rural area in Maryland, a rather unique state agriculturally. We have a vibrant agricultural industry here but lack the ideal conditions for growing the sorts of vast monocultures that have come to define the U.S. heartland. As such, I grew up with a rather bucolic understanding of farming: big red barns (one sat on the hill behind my parents' house), piebald dairy cows grazing in pastures (right down the road), and patchwork farmland where family farmers sold their wares from wooden carts by the roadside, hand-lettered signs advertising, "Tomatoes" and "Lopes" and "Sweet Corn." Those could be found within five miles of nearly any point in Maryland. At my childhood home, there was a roadside stand down the road in the other direction from the dairy cows.
What Michael Pollan has dubbed "supermarket pastoral," for me, was reality for the early part of my life. Learning about factory farming, then, came as quite a rude shock. I'd always assumed that my hamburger came from cattle like those grazing down the road and that my bacon came from the pigs raised by the 4-H kids at the annual Farm Fair. Most people, upon learning about factory farming, put it firmly out of mind, and that's certainly easy to do. Industrialized agriculture in the U.S. has striven to remove any transparency from the production process for that very reason. In Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, he describes the public being taken on (very limited) tours of the Chicago meat-packing facilities. Even the deception of transparency that Sinclair describes doesn't exist anymore. Industrialized food facilities are off-limits to consumers. It's possible to pass a lifetime ignorant of where food comes from, and most people do.
Upon learning about factory farming, my pendulum swung in the exact opposite direction from its initial position where meat-eating was concerned. Now farming was factory farming. Animal rights activists don't like to depict the alternatives to factory farming that exist and, to be fair, they probably were not nearly so available sixteen years ago. But one of my major schisms with the animal rights movement comes from their insistence on the fallacy that animal products must come from factory-farmed animals. Not only is that untrue, but it has dire environmental consequences when we dichotomize animal products as bad and plant products as good.
I have been a vegetarian for sixteen years, but I have been an environmentalist for my whole life. Growing up in an areligious family and without many friends my age, I played alone outside a lot, and I always looked to nature for the answers that most people get from religion. I remember being cautioned by my mother in the first grade not to show the other kids "mating" pictures from the insect field guide that I was taking in for show-and-tell. Sex was no great mystery to me; it was the way animals reproduced themselves, and I could observe it on any summer day in my own backyard. The same was true of death and other issues that religion tends to instruct people to hyperventilate over.
Because of this, I have always had a reverence for nature, and that often expressed itself in various forms of environmental activism. My family recycled back before it was cool to do so (much less required by law), when you had to take your own cans to the center and received a little money for each bag. My vegetarianism, I always assumed, was a natural extension of my environmentalism. After all, the animals rights movement has always avowed that animal-based agriculture is bad for the environment. The stats produced on pollution, water usage (most of it government-subsidized), the use of fossil fuels, and soil erosion would have stopped me cold from eating meat even if my heartstrings hadn't been wrenched already by the awful descriptions of factory farming. As I grew older and my ethical understanding of eating meat matured as well, I began to name "environmental reasons" as a major reason why I remained a vegetarian, right alongside "factory farming." I never really considered what happened when "factory farming" was removed from the equation.
And, in fact, this is really The Question. Talk to most vegetarians and vegans and the desire to stop animals from being harmed and exploited tops the list of why they have committed to a choice that is by no means easy. (No matter what vegan bloggers tell you, eating meat is a major part of the U.S. diet and, therefore, U.S. culture, and for most people, deciding to turn theirs backs on that is a lot harder than simply shrugging and pretending it doesn't matter). Measuring harm and exploitation to animals, though, is not so simple as counting those killed and abused in slaughterhouses. It requires the recognition that all animals--even human animals--are connected to the world we inhabit, and when that world itself is harmed, then death and exploitation occur. It may not be so dramatic as the gruesome slaughter scenes that groups like PETA capture on film, but it is no less real because we can't--or choose not to--see it.
Bobby and I recently watched an HBO documentary about PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and one of its founders and current president, Ingrid Newkirk. One scene that particularly impressed us about the shortsightedness of the vegetarian and animal rights movements showed Newkirk preparing supper for herself, a frozen Amy's Organics meal that she cooked in the microwave.
PETA is located in Washington, DC. Amy's Organics operates out of Petaluma, California. By their own testament, "[o]ver fifty percent of our vegetables are grown within 200 miles of our 'kitchen,'" i.e., their kitchen is itself located in California. Or Ingrid's microwave meal traveled roughly 2800 miles, as the crow flies, to reach her plate.
What are the implications of this? There is the fuel it takes to get one supper 2800 miles from producer to consumer. There is the fact that Amy's meals are frozen and the power it takes to keep them frozen from production to plate. While Amy's uses local (to them) ingredients when possible and is 100% organic, all of their ingredients are not local, so there is the transportation cost of those as well. Militant vegetarians like to look meat-eaters in the eye and spit, "How many animals died to make your sandwich?" I'd ask how much pollution, habitat destruction, (thousands of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf)--all of which equal animal deaths--went into Ingrid's microwave supper.
The irony of this question is that animal rights activists often use the concept of "out of sight, out of mind" to explain why people are so cavalier about eating meat. If we had to kill our own meat, they say, we'd all be vegetarians. (Considering that modern agriculture is a very recent invention--it was common as recent as my parents' generation to kill your own chickens--and people have been eating meat for millennia, then I highly doubt that.) Yet the same "out of sight, out of mind" informs many of their own food choices. Vegetarians and vegans who make a diet of frozen and prepackaged meals and buy their fresh produce only from Whole Foods are doing considerable more harm to animal life than the person who eats in season and buys local food--including meat.
The requirements of ecosystems don't change because we decide we don't like how nature operates. Animals are a vital part of any ecosystem, which means that they become part of the food chain. Sitting in the backyard for fifteen minutes and watching robins eating earthworms illustrates that. Grazing animals, such as cattle, fertilize the soil. Animals like chickens eat insect pests. Pigs turn and aerate the soil. When we remove them from the ecosystem, the solution means an increased reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and petroleum-powered machinery to do the jobs that animals do naturally. We have to fill the big, gaping hole that we've left in how nature operates. The effects of that can be devastating.
The answers aren't easy and far be it from my intention to turn into one of those finger-pointing veg fundamentalists who engage in exchanges along the lines of, "But you eat cheddar cheese and it has rennet!" "But you feed your dog meat!" "But you still put animal secretions on your milk in the morning! Eeew!" I am a vegetarian and have no plans to change anytime soon. Clearly, I do not think that vegetarianism itself is a bad choice or need be destructive. However, it is not the answer for all environmental ills and pretending that it is perpetuates the same harmful delusions that industrial agriculture has used to keep people believing that the chicken about to become dinner spent a full and happy life pecking about in someone's dooryard. The notion that buying a plastic package of California lettuce when you live in Maryland is somehow an enlightened choice because it is a vegetarian choice is just as delusional and harmful. My personal philosophy--that which led me to vegetarianism in the first place and sustains my lifestyle choices today--is to keep asking questions because there is no expectation of ever finding easy answers.
ETA: This is exactly why I wrote this post.