Earlier today I watched a TED Talk given by a geneticist named Pamela Ronald about the merits of genetically engineering food. Inevitably, a lot of the issues raised in the speech — particularly the idea of how our consumption and consequent acceptance of certain foods can make a difference in the lives of others — made me reflect on how my philosophy in regards to meat-free living has changed over the years.
As it is with most things in life, my thoughts on meat-eating have not remained static: as I’ve read more books, watched more videos and generally become more aware of how our world is embracing the cruelty-free / sustainability movement, my motives for remaining pescatarian have evolved and assumed greater layers of meaning.
Because it’s been a while since I last delineated my intentions as a semi-herbivore, I thought it’d be worthwhile to give an update on where I stand in regards to living a plant-based life.
I initially decided to cut meat after watching Food Inc, when I decided I would not support a system which treats animals and human beings (such as illegal workers in meatpacking factories) in degrading and disgusting ways. Two years later, I still believe that the complacency of the conventional meat industry — which continues to slaughter animals based on a model of convenience, rather than one of due respect and consideration — should be condemned, yet I don’t think that this is enough of a reason to cut meat altogether. In fact, if this was the only qualm I had in regards to the meat industry, I’d actually go back to eating meat — granted that the meat was sourced from a confirmed cruelty-free location where the animals are given the chance to roam freely and live to the utmost of their capacity prior to being consumed.
The rise of these progressive farms, such as Joel Salatin‘s Polyface Farms (which I first read about in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma — a fascinating read), means that there are several alternatives that cruelty-conscious consumers can turn to if they do not wish to support the ease with which the meat industry disrespects animal lives. I’m no economist, but I know enough to be sure that supporting said progressive farms will inevitably create demand for conventional farms to employ progressive models, which in turn will mean greater animal welfare on the whole. It’s important to be realistic and realise that the whole world’s not going to go vegetarian or vegan with a click of the finger. Turning to alternative farms is the best compromise we have at this point, and the most painless one at that — for all parties involved.
Here I’d like to address the whole argument on the sanctity of life and why it’s unfair to slaughter animals: there’s a reason why we call it a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world. It makes metaphorical sense, but literally? Even more so. I think it’s important to realise that it is in the nature of animals — us humans being animals — to rely on other species for nourishment. In the wild, animals eat each other all the time. Humans are only different because we’ve ascribed a moral value to our actions, but to what extent does this morality hold value? It’s crucial that we cultivate our internal moral compasses to help us navigate through life, but I don’t think distinguishing ourselves from ‘regular animals’ for our ethics does anyone any favours. On a more nit-picky point, if the premise of our respect for animals rests upon the idea of ‘equality’— that we feel equal pain, deserve equal rights to life (etc) — believing that we are in some way fundamentally above the inherent nature of animalism seems a bit lofty and hypocritical to me.
So, conclusion being: animals eat animals, humans are animals, ergo there is nothing inherently wrong with eating animals.
Having said that, I believe humans should feel some sort of obligation to care for animals, seeing as they too have lives and, more importantly, don’t have voices that merit change or attention in the way human voices do. To use a hackneyed quote: with great power comes great responsibility. In this life, to think about animals is one of the most admirable things a human being — as an animal with power — can do. We should respect all humans who try their utmost best to give back to the world in any way they can, with the humbling realization that their life is not the be-all and end-all, but rather part of a complex and multifaceted web of animals, plants and other people that share the same Earth. And if the meaning of life has got anything to do with being the best versions of ourselves, then caring for animals should be a topmost priority… and it is with this conviction that I continue my pescatarianism, and continue to respect all the mighty fine people who have changed their lifestyle to accommodate for this wonderful philosophy.
Think about it: if more people realized that the world is so much greater than a single individual’s own worries and preferences, we could mobilize so many people to combat the most pressing issues of our time. If we were to apply the same humbling logic in circumstances such as climate change or the exploitation of workers in multinational chains, we could really, really do a whole lot.
(By the way, you may be wondering why I haven’t gone back to eating meat if alternative farms are the amazing things I purport them to be. Here I clarify that I am not against eating meat; I’m simply against the system that makes eating meat so cruel. I would totally support alternative farms, but the reasons I haven’t gone back to meat-eating are: a) I haven’t had the time or mental energy to truly investigate and seek out alternative farms I can rely on in my vicinity, b) thus, for the time being I’d rather stay on the safe side and just not eat meat and c) I’ve gotten used to not eating meat, and it’s as simple as that.)
I think my views on the environment pretty much remain the same. It’s a fact that the production of meat seriously debilitates Mother Nature. I’m going to spare you with the statistics, but the sheer amount of water that goes into producing one hamburger is insane… not to mention entirely unnecessary, particularly for the protein-conscious, if you consider how much water goes into producing the same quantity of plant protein.
For more information on the energy used to produce animal products, I’d seriously recommend this Global Issues page on beef — it’s incredibly eye opening with some crazy statistics and insights into how devastatingly large the meat industry has become. It’s not a ‘proselytizing’ site either, but rather gives objective information on global issues around the globe
And one thing I read somewhere that’s stuck with me for a while (courtesy of the Global Issues website, as linked above):
“If water used by the meat industry [in the United States] were not subsidized by taxpayers, common hamburger meat would cost $35 a pound. You need 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat—2,500 gallons to generate a pound of meat.” — Simone Spearman in the San Francisco Chronicle (2001)
Yep. If it weren’t for subsidies for things like water and cattle feed (e.g. corn and maize), then the price of meat would really reflect how much of an impact meat-eating has on the environment.
Similarly, my thoughts on vegetarianism and health have also remained the same. It helps that the WHO brought out the research on the correlation between processed meat and cancer, however controversial that was. I think one of the advantages of meat-free living is that you’re exposed to a lot less processed food, which consequently reduces your chances of consuming harmful substances or foods that are generally higher in trans fats.
Besides, being a non-meat eater forces you to think more about what goes into your body, which means you inevitably become a lot more health conscious. That certainly happened in my case — I’ve been eating healthier than I ever have in my entire life, I have a lot more energy, feel a lot stronger and make much better food decisions in my everyday life. And it has certainly made me a happier person. 🙂
Although I do have to say that meat-free lifestyles aren’t for everyone. Every body is different and requires different things. My body is fine without meat, but I know of others who need meat for their bodies to maintain its optimal state of health. As a pescatarian turned vegetarian turned pescatarian, I think having fish in my diet has been beneficial for me and my energy levels — but then again, this might differ for, say, vegans, of which I know several, all of whom are very healthy and generally awesome.
So to wrap it all up: my philosophy on meat eating has changed a lot, particularly when it comes to the ethics of eating animals and how best to reconcile the rejection of a broken system with the formation of a new one. However, my perspectives on the environment and health have remained pretty much the same. I’m still a major advocate for people changing their lifestyles if they want to do better in the world, but I’m not incredibly fussed about the whole world doing it. After all, good things happen when people move at their own pace.
And I’m sure, in the long run, as sustainable eating practices become the norm and we become more conscious of how we treat ourselves and our Earth, we’ll have a lot of good things to celebrate over.