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Medium Dawn Felagund of the Fountain

The Vegetarian Conundrum

The (Cyber) Bag of Weasels

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

The Vegetarian Conundrum

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Today is the sixteenth anniversary of my decision to become a vegetarian, made at the tender age of twelve while reading Ingrid Newkirk's Save the Animals! at my cousin's graduation party. I like to commemorate my "vegiversary" (as I used to call it when I was a kid) by writing about my experiences with vegetarianism and the animal welfare movement; however, I've only managed once to actually post those reflections on LJ, thanks to the draconian Internet use policies at my former job. So to celebrate the first day of the former part, I am once again posting about vegetarianism to commemorate sixteen meat-free years.

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.
  • Thanks for this well balanced reflection! Reading this was a real pleasure! I studied Geoecology and always find it highly annoying when people - especially from nature conservation organisations and the like I sadly have to admit - rather fanatically believe their way is the only one without even considering that everything is connected and everything you do has an impact somewhere else. And that there often are no immediate answers as you have to take more than your own interests into account. Actually I had to discover that these people just as much ignore and falsify facts and even cheat and lie to reach their goals as for instance multinational company manager whom they turn up their noses at and feel morally superior to. Which they are not at all. It's really sad and also kind of disgusting.
    • I think the problem is often that people of all stripes try to fit reality to their ideology rather than the other way around. Many veggies have a strong moral/ethical belief that killing animals is wrong. So they grasp for anything that looks vaguely rational that can prove that. I just added an ETA to this post because one of the progressive newsletters I follow had an article today about how going vegan will solve all the world's environmental problems. Umm ... no. As usual, the article ignores many facts that don't accommodate the worldview that eating meat is awful and going to drive us to our destruction. Because, ultimately, many of the people making this argument care less about sustainability than they do stopping the killing of animals for food.

      Thank you for your comment--I really appreciate your perspective, given your educational background, and am glad you liked the post! :) I'm sorry I dropped off the face of the earth in our PM conversation. School became insane. But I'm slowly catching up. *hugs*
      • I think the problem is often that people of all stripes try to fit reality to their ideology rather than the other way around.

        So true. SO true.

        Or, to quote a (green) German politician:
        Reporter's commentary: But sir, that contradicts Ohm's Law...
        Politician: Laws can be changed.


        And, so I don't have to write a second comment: I really enjoyed reading your post. Between all the insane fanaticists of all kinds, it's always a pleasure to find people who have convictions and yet manage to be reasonable...
        • Politician: Laws can be changed.

          Oh dear ...

          Between all the insane fanaticists of all kinds, it's always a pleasure to find people who have convictions and yet manage to be reasonable...

          I think difference is between wanting to ask questions and wanting to find answers. I lost my patience with the animal rights movement at about the age of 13. ;) To me, these are questions that are not just really important to ponder but rather fun as well. Just when I think I've got something figured out, more questions pop up! :)

          I'm glad you liked the post! (And your icon is gorgeous!)
          • I'm glad you liked the post! (And your icon is gorgeous!)

            Aw, thank you! As you know, I keep dabbling in calligraphy and illumination even though I know nothing much about either. Fortunately, working in a fantasy setting, I can always claim that it doesn't look like real medieval art because it's totally the Noldorin style, duh. ;)

            Just when I think I've got something figured out, more questions pop up! :)

            Indeed. Ever since you posted this entry, I've been thinking about food and lifestyle and sustainability and it threatens to become a loooong, rambling LJ entry at some point.
            Or maybe it won't, because I have no time to write it just now (bloody thesis, stealing all my time!) and I'll probably have forgotten about it by the time my brain's free for non-thesis related things. ... >_>
            • I keep dabbling in calligraphy and illumination even though I know nothing much about either.

              I can't believe that you'd be anything short of awesome at either, given your artwork. Most medieval illuminators, too, until relatively late in the Middle Ages, weren't particularly good artists either. ;)

              Ever since you posted this entry, I've been thinking about food and lifestyle and sustainability and it threatens to become a loooong, rambling LJ entry at some point.

              If the thesis gives you a rest long enough to write this, and I somehow miss it (though I'm hoping to get back on my flist), please let me know? I'm glad that this post gave you and others something to mull over. (I almost typed "food for thought," but that's too bad a pun, even for me. :) That's the best 16th vegiversary gift a woman can ask for! :D
  • Thank you! A very insightful post with a lot of points to think about.

    I must admit, I started feeling bad about my "eating habits" years back. It's not that I eat much meat - I do, occasionally. I eat a lot of seafood, which leads to its own environmental problems. But I always think that I would feel so much better if I knew that the chicken I'm buying had a life. And that the tomatoes haven't seen 20 different pestizides. Unfortunately, I'm not living in a big town where I can shop "bio". And unfortunately, I can't grow *all* my own vegetables and fruit. Still, doing my best.

    And feeding my pets meat. Because whenever I see people on tv who give their dogs peas and beans, I know they're totally nutters.
    • I think that doing your best is awesome--and all that you can do! :) I've found that a conundrum when it comes to issues such is this is that no matter how much you're doing, it never feels like it's enough. The ease by which a person can access forums and be told by holier-than-thou types that she's not doing enough doesn't help.

      My husband and I eat almost entirely local and in-season by now. Yet it still feels like we fall short sometimes. We're going out to dinner tonight, and I guarantee that the ingredients that make our meal will not be local because they're not in-season here yet! :) But we balance our desire to have our choices reflect our ideology with the fact that we still live in modern culture, and it's hard to entirely give up what you're accustomed to. Or, it keeps us from utterly resenting the choices we've made.

      Unfortunately, I'm not living in a big town where I can shop "bio".

      We're very lucky to live in a state with a good growing season and fertile land ... but not too fertile and ripe for industrialized farming. ;) We probably have hundreds of local producers in Maryland, many more if we cross the line into Pennsylvania. (Where we can smuggle raw milk back to Maryland. :^P) So, yeah, location makes a huge difference, and I know how lucky we are. Most people in the U.S. are not so lucky. They either live in an infertile region, have a crappy growing season, or the region is so fertile that the only things growing are monocultures that will feed massive food corporations.

      Every little bit you can do, I think is absolutely awesome! :)
  • A very reasonable position on your choice, and making it clear that it's your own choice and not trying to foist it on others who may make other choices.

    There are many reasons to be a vegetarian. Health reasons, religious reasons, environmental ones or reasons based on protecting animals. I can respect all those reasons, although I am sure that it is not a choice I could make for myself.

    The question, though, that I always *want* to ask is: what if, by some miraculous stroke, every person on earth became a vegetarian overnight? What would happen to all the domesticated meat animals if no one is eating them? What would happen to the environment if all the cows, pigs and chickens were released into the wild? I've never actually posed that question before to a vegetarian because I'm fairly sure most of them would get defensive over it. But I'm genuinely curious as to how *you* would answer it, because you are an eminently reasonable person and I can trust that you would actually think (or perhaps have already thought) about the answer.

    • Thank you, Barb--I take pride in being a reasonable vegetarian. :) And I have thought about that question because it's probably in the top five of questions that I get asked, though usually not nearly so respectfully put. (More often, I get a whingy, "But what would happen to all the animals if we didn't eat them?" with the tone of trying to outsmart me rather than have a reasoned conversation about a difference in opinion.)

      There are literally millions of food animals living at any time in the U.S. If they were released into the wild, I'm sure it would be devastating for the same reason that the population explosion of any animal is devastating. There wouldn't be enough food to go around, their waste would pollute the land and water, the cattle would contribute to major land erosion, and so on. Eventually, equilibrium would be restored, but I don't think we'd see many farm animals in the wild. They're domesticated; they've coevolved with humans (a point many vegetarians overlook in their arguments) to have a mutually beneficial relationship. They provide us with food, fiber, and labor and we protect them from predators and starvation. Reading about a woman who accidentally ended up with a rooster that had been sexed as a hen, she put her decision to kill him for meat as, "I kill him with a swift blow, or I turn him loose in the woods to be torn apart by foxes." They're just not adapted to survive in the wild.

      However, I think that if everyone decided to go vegetarian, it would be much more gradual, and farmers would simply stop breeding as many animals to meet the reduced demand. So, in theory, I think that the U.S. could go vegetarian--just not overnight!--without experiencing dire consequences beyond the obvious major economic shifts that would ensue. Purdue would have to start manufacturing mycoprotein. ;)

      But I'm convinced that everyone going completely veggie would also be a really bad thing for the environment because local ecosystems require plants and animals, and farm animals are the main way that our modern civilization have handled the latter. And if farm animals can't survive in the wild, that means that to have the animal component, we'd have to start keeping cows and chickens as pets. Without animals, we have to rely all the more on chemical fertilizer and pesticides to do the jobs that are handled naturally in a balanced ecosystem. Actually, with much of the U.S.'s agriculture being monoculture, we see that now, where we have to genetically engineer plants to resist certain pests or diseases because nature's normal controls of those problems derive from biodiversity.

      We need them all to have balance, which is why I'm a very uneasy vegetarian and, if asked what I think is the best choice for the environment, will always answer, "Flexitarianism": eating locally and sustainably raised meat a couple times per week and balancing the rest with other locally and sustainably raised animal products and veggies.
  • (no subject) - aranellaurelote
    • Go you! :D And what an awesome post--I totally agree with everything that you said. You're my kind of vegetarian. ;)

      I understand not finding any appeal in meat. I've mostly lost all taste for it after sixteen years, probably because I was relatively young when I started and, also, meat was never my favorite food anyway. The biggest challenge for me has been seafood. I grew up in Maryland, which is bisected by the Chesapeake Bay, and seafood is a huge part of our culture. I remember enthusiastically picking steamed crabs at a young age. My family marvels that I have resisted cheating for so long, but I say it is just a mark of my dedication. ;) The rest, though--hamburgers, chicken, pork chops? Just don't interest me.

      I also hate answering questions on 'why is it ok to eat eggs/cheese/drink milk' - I like them, being a vegan is a bit too much like hard work and to be honest, I might as well make the most of the milk and eggs which are there anyway. My eggs come from a farm down the road and we have skimmed milk, so it's mostly water anyway.

      I do not understand the objection to free-range eggs and milk. (And I mean actually free-range, not the pseudo-free-range that is U.S. Big Organic.) I understand the objection to factory farming, of course, but if I raise chickens in my backyard, why is it exploitative to eat the eggs? To me, it seems another example of how the arguments used by the animal rights movement do not align with truly sustainable agriculture and how their ideology often gets in the way of common sense. (Because free-range animals can be incredibly good for an ecosystem.)

      And I do not eat fish, because to the amazement of several of my friends who claim to be veggie, eating fish is essentially, the same as eating meat.

      Ummm ... yeah. Vegetarians don't eat fish. (I don't like to tell people how to define themselves, but vegetarians who "sometimes eat some meat" really irk me. There's nothing wrong with calling yourself what you are: a flexitarian. My husband is a flexitarian. They're good people too. ;)

      I think that whatever we are eating, surely the best way forward is more local produce, and where that is not possible, for financial/other reasons, then we look at ways to cut down on packaging, power needed to cook etc the food and how to make production as green as possible.

      Totally agreed! :)
  • I've always found it more practical to eat what the season could offer. As much as my kid loves his cabbage with potatoes, summer is here at our doorstep and lettuce is far more reasonably priced that cabbage. He's been sputtering, but he will get used to it. We used to eat local self produced veggies, but well dad loved to grow them and what he had too much off (he always sown more than he and mom could eat), he gave us. He'd call me and and say, hey look I have green beans fresh from the land, want a pound? I could see where our veggies come from these days, but we have a political party (Party for animals) that keeps on hammering that the more food get transported to the store and therefore covering longer distances come at the cost for our environment.

    I was thinking, aren't you also growing your own food, or did you guys want to do that but didn't had the time for it yet? We only grow our own grapes this summer (smaller garden) and what is not used we leave it for the blackbirds who will eat it in the winter.
    • That's so sweet about your dad! Home-grown veggies are the best too. I think nothing tastes better than what was grown in your own dirt. ;)

      We are indeed growing lots this year! We have expanded our kitchen garden; we've also put in grapes, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and two new fruit trees (peach and pear). And we'll be getting chickens soon too, so there will be fresh eggs as well. :)

      We can't grow all of our own food simply because we preserve so much for the winter that we couldn't grow it all on our little bit of land. So we buy what we can't grow from local farms and keep what we grow mostly for eating fresh over the summer.
  • Everything here is so well said, Dawn! I, too, am a vegetarian and have been since the age of 14. My family comes from a farming background and may I say, they were absolutely mortified by my choice, lol!!

    Cathleen
    • Wow, I had no idea you were veggie too, Cathleen! :) Very cool!

      My parents kind of rolled with it when I became veggie at age 12. I ate a lot of salads in those first few months (because they had no idea what else to fix for me), but soon enough, it became just the way things were. (My sister also "converted" shortly after I did, so there were always two of us eating the veggie meals, at least.)
  • *stands up and cheers*

    I really think that many of our environmental problems stem from the increasing disconnect from the natural world that urbanization fosters. Too many people see the natural world and natural processes as something humans stand completely apart from. I have no idea how we're going to correct that problem, though.
    • I agree, both with the notion that that is a major root of the problems we're experiencing and that it is an incredibly difficult one to fix! :) I've always felt incredibly connected to the natural world, but then, I grew up in the thick of it. I remember when The Blair Witch Project came out and so many people were frightened because of the things that go bump in the forest, and I couldn't find it in myself to be scared of much--the woods was home! It was right outside my bedroom window. It was, if anything, a peaceful and comforting place to me.

      Or my husband takes his students--mostly low-income kids from Baltimore--to state parks as part of his school's summer program, and most of them have never been to anything remotely like that. They find everything fascinating because it's like a new world to them. Or a relative asked me, back in February, if I was getting fresh produce at the farm. It was February. In Maryland. We had just finished recovering from a record snowfall! (Of course, when the snow melted, I discovered that I still had turnips, chard, and sage thriving in the garden, but I don't think that's what she meant. ;)

      I find it a little scary sometimes how tenuously we exist in this world-apart that we've constructed. Most people would have no idea how to survive without the modern conveniences.
      • A lot of people have no idea of when different things are in season anymore. Eating watermelon in January seems normal to them. If we're forced by increasing energy costs to shift back to a more locally-produced diet, a lot of people are going to find the shift extremely hard to cope with.
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