People choose to be vegetarian for many reasons, such has to avoid supporting cruelty to animals, for personal health, and for the health of the planet. Is vegetarianism really the best choice for achieving these objectives?
I’ve spoken to a lot of vegetarians as they come through my door for various reasons, and I know that the decision to avoid eating meat is not taken lightly. These people have struggled with the ethics of the issue, and have concluded that vegetarianism fits best with their integrity.
I too have given the issue a great deal of thought, but ultimately I’ve concluded that it is possible to eat a diet that includes meat in a way that fully values the life of an animal as much as a vegetarian would, and does not compromise the planet.
Many people believe that eating red meat is inherently unhealthy. They believe that red meat causes cancer and heart disease among other things, so becoming vegetarian would ensure greater health. But what would one have eaten 1000 years ago if one lived in a northern climate where the land was covered in snow for 6 months of the year? What would one eat in the middle of winter? Would it be even possible to be a vegetarian under those circumstances? I would bet that in the winter, animal foods would provide most if not all of the food eaten.
According to scientists and medical doctors that travelled the globe visiting traditional cultures before contact with "white man's food", those cultures were all extremely healthy, had perfect teeth and bone structure, and NONE of those cultures were vegetarian. They did not even have words in their language for today's chronic diseases.
Might it be that the reason red meat is linked to these diseases is that we are eating red meat from feed-lot animals that are not given their natural diet but instead one filled with antibiotics and hormones? They are kept confined in tiny pens so they get no exercise, and they are never let outside? Sick animals cannot make a healthy human.
However there is no evidence to show that eating meat from animals that ate their natural diet during their lifetime, and spent their days outside in the fresh air and sunshine is unhealthy. Pastured meat has a completely different fat profile than GMO corn-fed factory farmed meat. Pastured meat is higher in omega 3s and ALA, and is lower in saturated fat. Pastured animals have no need for antibiotics as they are healthy.
Most often when someone initially becomes a vegetarian their health improves dramatically, not only because this diet forces one to eat more vegetables, but also because usually vegetarians eat a whole-food diet and are more likely to avoid processed and packaged food. They are more likely to cook their food fresh, and will eat more of their food raw. These are huge steps in the right direction for improving health.
But human beings are omnivores, meaning our digestive tracts are designed to eat flesh foods. Some nutrients that we need to be healthy are extremely difficult to get without eating meat, and after a few years on a vegetarian diet, health can become compromised. A diet without meat means a diet very high in carbohydrates, which might be very problematic in sensitive individuals, even if those carbohydrates are whole.
If one needs animal foods to be healthy, is it a good idea to avoid them altogether? Do we fault the lion for eating a deer? Should the lion become a vegetarian too? Everywhere one looks in nature, life eats life and often killing in nature is far more brutal than what one would find in a meat-packing plant.
I agree that factory farming is terrible for the animals that have to endure that life. The animals spend their entire lives indoors crowded together, often standing or lying in their own excrement. They frequently don’t even have enough room to turn around. Beaks of chickens and tails of pigs are cut off. They are fed an unnatural diet they would never choose for themselves – one that accelerates their growth so they can be slaughtered sooner.
And because the pace that big-agribusiness animals are moved through the killing floor, sometimes the kill isn't clean, and the animals also suffer a painful death. Anyone with a heart that sees animals in these terrible, smelly, over-crowded places would be horrified, and it is understandable that knowing of such cruelty, one might choose to become a vegetarian.
But what if the animal lives its life fully expressing its cowness, or chickeness, or pigness, ending with only one bad day? Cows and chickens out in the fields, the cows doing what cows do best – grazing with the herd, and chickens doing what they do best – scratching in the cow paddies for the maggots they like so much. Pigs wallowing in mud to keep themselves cool. To me it is different if I know the animal had a good life, and that I’m eating it after its one bad day. After all, we all will have to face that one bad day too, at some point.
If we were all to become vegan (a vegetarian that consumes no animal products at all, including no eggs nor dairy), which is certainly what some vegans believe is the right thing to do, one might ask what would become of the animals we currently raise to eat? I think if there were no more need for them, it would make no economic sense to raise them, and they would soon go the way of the dodo bird. Do we really want a planet with no cows, chickens or pigs? Would cows, chickens and pigs choose extinction for their species if given the choice?
I also wonder sometimes why we don’t seem to have the same concern over killing plants to eat. They are also life-forms that communicate and interact with other life-forms. Is it only life that has eyes and a beating heart that ethically we should not kill? Furthermore, many plants actually eat animal protein in the form of insects, so if it is okay for a plant to eat meat, surely we can feel okay about it too?
Then there is the question of saving the planet. Raising animals in factory farms is not sustainable. The “excrement ponds” full of antibiotic and hormone-filled animal waste leaches into ground water and runs off into streams, polluting our drinking water as well harming the fish and amphibian life. There is a huge carbon footprint farming this way due to the chemical fertilizers used to grow the feed, and the transportation costs to carry the corn to the animals. Feed-lot animals are raised on oil. Not raising animals this way would be far friendlier to the planet, and this is another reason that people turn to vegetarianism.
But the other option is to raise animals on solar power, not oil. Fence off a portion of a field, let the cows in and allow them to eat the food they are meant to eat – grass. The following day, move the electric fence to another part of the field, and give the cows access to fresh pasture. Three days later, let the chickens into the area that the cows were, so they can tramp through the cow paddies and find the maggots and other goodies. The chickens will also fertilize the field with their manure, and they will spread all this manure around with their pecking and scratching. Because the grass is now short due the the grazing, the roots will drop to match the height of the leaf above the ground. This further nourishes the soil, and causes rapid grass growth. In about 5 weeks, that area of pasture can be grazed again, and the process repeats itself.
The key to make the system work is it must be a mixed farm rather than a one crop / one animal farm. We need to copy how nature works, and help it along to make it more efficient. Plants nourish the animals, which nourish the plants with their waste, and around the circle we go. No antibiotics needed since the animals are not sick. No chemical fertilizers needed because the animal waste provides the nourishment the plants need. Far less expensive an operation, because there are fewer big, expensive, permanent buildings involved. Chickens are moved from field to field in light, wheeled structures that can be pulled by a tractor, and the cows can walk themselves. The cows are happy, the chickens are happy, the farmer is happy, and to top if off, this system of farming improves soil year to year, and it sequesters carbon! For more on this, read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, see Food Inc. or Fresh. Furthermore, this system of farming raises an enormous amount of food – as much or more than a factory farm.
We need to honour the food that nourishes us, and say thank you to the animals and plants that were sacrificed for our meal. This can be as much a spiritual practice as the spirituality that people seek by becoming vegetarian. We CAN choose what food we eat carefully, making sure the animals we eat lived a good life and only had one bad day rather than a lifetime of bad days. We CAN choose to shop from farmers who grow food in a sustainable way, and replenish the earth rather than deplete it by only choosing pastured animals along with organic, biodynamic or permiculture farming methods. In this way, even if we do choose to include animal foods in our diet, we can feel good about giving our bodies, our spirit, our conscience, and our planet what it needs to be healthy.
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Conventional vs. Organic vs Pasture-fed meats, poultry, eggs and dairy
Industrial agriculture – what’s the real cost of cheap food?
The problem with organic food
Improving nutrition by avoiding the grocery store
In defense of real meat
Pollan, Michael The Omnivore’s Dilemma The Penguin Press, New York, 2006
Kenner, Robert Food Inc. Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2009.
Price, Weston A. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration Price Pottenger Foundation, La Mesa CA, 1939.
Taubes, Gary Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health (Vintage) Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2007.
Chek, Paul Vegetarianism, inside out
Copyright 2010 Vreni Gurd