Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Ethics of Eating

For the record, I was a vegetarian for several years, many years ago, but I was never a don't-eat-anything-with-a-face vegetarian, because I don't think it's wrong for people to eat meat. In fact, physiologically, I really do believe that people were built to eat meat ... and plants. Our teeth are incisors in the front for cutting, canines on the sides for ripping and molars in the back for chewing. Check out the teeth of carnivores vs. herbivores vs. omnivores, and it's pretty clear that nature intended us to be the latter.

I was a vegetarian, because the meat to which I had access at that time was prepared in such a way that was unappetizing to me, and when I stopped eating meat, I felt better. So, I just kept not eating meat for a while. It got really interesting when I would tell people that I was a vegetarian, because I think, in general, vegetarians get a bad rap.

Of course, more and more, and the more vegetarians I meet, the more I'm thinking that perhaps it's not entirely undeserved.

Like recently. I came under fire from a vegetarian for raising rabbits for meat. I know that it's not common, here in the United States, to consider rabbits as meat. I knew that when we got our first rabbits thirteen years ago, which is why we don't talk a lot about it, but I also know that it's a cultural thing, and has nothing, whatsoever, to do with whether or not rabbits should be considered a meat animal.

Two arguments against eating meat were posed. The first had to do with the morality of killing the animal that is highly intelligent and sensitive. Having raised rabbits for thirteen years, I know what wonderful animals they are. I think, because I chose to raise them not as just pets, that people might misunderstand and believe that I have a callous attitude about them, perhaps labeling them as just a food source. That would be grossly untrue.

It would be impossible to raise an animal in as intimate a setting as my tiny yard, with my children constantly present, without a huge degree of concern for the well-being of that animal. It would be impossible to have an apathetic attitude about them, and see them as merely objects. They aren't. They're living, thinking, feeling beings, and I am acutely aware of that fact.

Unlike the person who has only experienced meat as a cellophane-wrapped package of anemic-looking pink goo they label "meat" at the grocery store, I have an emotional connection to my food, and the hardest thing I ever had to do was to put aside my middle-class, suburban primness and grab the knife. I came to feel that if I wanted to eat meat, then I needed to be willing to, at least, raise it, knowing that it would, someday, end up on my plate. Yes, I have butchered a rabbit. No, I did not enjoy it. No, I do not have any delusions that the rabbit happily or willingly gave his life so that I could eat. Yes, it is a very humbling and discomfiting experience. No, I don't think everyone should have to do it, but I do think, if we're going to be eaters, we need to understand where our food comes from, and that place is not "the grocery store."

Raising food is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of guts to look at a thing, knowing that some day you will, literally, swallow its essence, and that it will cease to exist except as a part of you.

Ever harvest a potato? It's the root. In order to get to the root, I have to kill the plant. When I eat the potato, I destroy the plant, but I also destroy any hope that plant might have of reproducing and growing next year.

I believe plants feel - not in a way that we can understand, but they do feel. In her book, Behaving as if the God in All Life Mattered Machaelle Small Wright explores the belief that plants have feelings. Really, she explores the idea that all things contain that eternal spark that is in all of us - that all of life contains a piece of the creator.

Likewise, in Shamanic/Native/Indigenous philosophies, if one wants to learn about a plant, for instance, what its properties are, one must ask, and then, be willing to accept the notion that the plant will provide an answer. Herbal healing courses often work on this philosophy, and the idea is that it's not enough to simply look up a plant, its properties, and its uses, but in order to really be able to use the plant for healing purposes, one must know the plant, and the only way to know the plant is to believe that the plant is a living creature.

In all of the native cultures with which I have had contact, it is wrong to harvest a plant without thanking it for the gift of life it is giving with its death. Maybe not willingly giving, but giving nonetheless and in saying thank you, we're voicing our understanding.

If we believe that god is in all things, in all life, then we can no longer argue that it's okay to eat plants, but not animals based on some idea that animal lives are more valuable than plants.

Thus, for me, to argue that it's not okay to eat my rabbits, because they can feel, makes me want to counter with the question of whether it is okay to eat the potatoes I planted, then, as they feel, too. At least there are as many learned and thoughtful people in this world who believe so as there are people who believe we shouldn't be eating animals.

Of course, for many, that argument is a little too out there, and I get it. It would be way too far a stretch to believe that plants talk to us, if we only listen.

But that's when the fun starts, because while I would be very reluctant to talk about the spirit of a plant, I can debunk the moral superiority of a lacto-ovo vegetarian who thinks it's wrong to eat meat with just a couple of questions.

The first question is: Can a cow give milk without having a baby?

The answer, of course, is no. Like most mammals - like us - in order to give milk, the female must be impregnated, because a cow's milk is food for her baby.

On a dairy farm in this country - even a small dairy - the cow will be impregnated by artificial insemination. After the calf is born, it is removed from its mother and it will be fed using a pail with an udder-shaped nipple until it's old enough to be put on forage, and then, it will be fed hay or whatever that dairy farm feeds its cows.

If it's a female calf, it might end up being a dairy cow, later, when it grows up. But if it's a male calf, it will be castrated and raised ... for beef. We all knew it, but we knew it in an abstract, cows-have-to-have-babies-to-give-milk-and-ohh-aren't-the-little-baby-cows-so-cute kind of way, never considering that those baby cows grow up to be big cows, and something has to happen to them, right?

Some might suggest that we could just pasture the bulls, but let's look at some numbers. The average family drinks about a gallon of milk per week. There are approximately 119 million households in the US. That means that about half a million boy calves are born each year - if half the calves are boys. That's a lot of boy cows hanging out with nothing to do - half a million, every year. The life expectancy of a cow is twenty-two years. Approximately two acres of pasture is needed per cow. At the twenty-two year mark, when the oldest bulls were dying, there would be 12 million bulls and they'd need 24 million acres. For reference, the State of Kansas is just over 52 million acres.

If we're going to keep drinking milk and using other dairy products at the rate we are currently using them, we will have to do something with the baby calves, and if those baby calves are boys, they will become meat.

Perhaps the lacto-ovo vegetarian isn't eating the meat, but given the fact that a baby calf must be born to make milk and cheese and yogurt and ice cream and sour cream and whipped cream and cream ... cream, that vegetarian is as cupable in the death of that animal as I am. The difference is that I am willing to accept that fact (and the responsibility) that as an eater, things will die so that I can live.

Eating eggs is no less murderous - unless one is raising one's own chickens ... and then, eventually, there will be the issue of what to do with all of those chickens that aren't really laying eggs anymore, which happens when a chicken reaches the tender age of three. At some point, there will be a lot of chickens and not so many eggs. On farms where chickens are kept for eggs, those non-laying hens are culled, which is a nice way of saying they're killed.

If one eats eggs purchased from a grocery store, at some point, one will need to accept responsibility for the fact that the chickens who lay eggs will some day be killed and replaced with other chickens who will continue to lay eggs.

So, when a lacto-ovo vegetarian hops up on her soapbox and deigns to preach to me the immorality of my choice to raise rabbits, I like to ask, what happens to the baby cows and the chickens who no longer lay? And to let them know that they may not eat the meat, but they are no less culpable than I am for the death of an animal to get that food on their table.

The other argument I hear is with regard to the superior health benefits of a vegetarian diet vs. a diet that includes meat, and this one makes me laugh (because our teeth, apparently aren't enough evidence to prove that we need at least some meat, righ?)

The fact is that there are several nutrients that are only available through animal products. B12 is one. There is no reliable plant source for B12, and for those who eschew all animal products, B12 deficiency is a serious issue.

Vitamins D and iron are also limited in their availability in plant foods. There are some plants that do contain these nutrients, but iron, for instance, is more easily absorbed from animal sources. Further, there is some good deal of research to suggest that not all nutrients are created equal. For instance, the iron found in plants isn't exactly the same as the iron found in meat, and our bodies will process them differently.

Let's not talk about supplements, either, because if the argument is that a vegetarian/vegan diet is so much healthier, then one would be able to procure all of one's dietary needs from the food and wouldn't need the supplements, right?

I like looking things up, and I was curious. How do vegetarian cultures compare to non-vegetarian cultures around the world, health wise?

France is one of the heart-healthiest countries in the world, which really surprised everyone, especially the researchers, because the French make no sacrifices when it comes to rich foods. The life expectancy of a French person is 84 years. Only 2% of the French consider themselves vegetarians and when one looks at the causes of death, only 9% of the French are stricken by heart-related illnesses.

    An aside - France is the largest exporter of rabbit meat in the world, and rabbit is a staple in much of French cuisine. For those suffering from diet-related illnesses (heart disease, diabetes), the absolute best meat, pound-for-pound, is rabbit, as it's incredibly lean and has the highest protein content of any of the most common livestock animals - maybe there's no correlation between French health and eating rabbit, but there could be.

In India, 40% of the population is vegetarian. The life expectancy of someone living in India is 64 years, and we might want to argue that their lower life expectancy has nothing to do with their diet, until one considers that 38% of the population dies from heart-related illnesses.

Maybe there is no correlation between their strict vegetarian diet versus the French's eat-everything-as-long-as-it-has-cream attitude and the longer life expectancy and healthier hearts, but maybe there is.

The country with the healthiest diet in the world is Japan. They are not vegetarians. In fact, there is a lot of information on the Internet about how difficult it is to be a strict vegetarian in Japan, because so many of their dishes contain fish or a fish-broth.

And, I'm sorry, but fish are animals, and fish have feelings and intelligence, just as much as my bunnies. Ask my daughter, who raises Betas about how smart and sensitive and interactive they are. If one eats fish, one can not call oneself a "vegetarian."

We can't live (for very long) without food, and eating requires killing something. Really, it's just that simple. As such, arguments that demonize the eating of meat on ethical grounds are a bit naive, in my opinion.

Further, if our first concern is being completely ethical when it comes to our food, our only choice is to forage and/or hunt all of our food. That way, the plants and animals we consume have an equal chance against us.

Unfortunately, no one’s going to do that, and so the next best option for ethical eating is a diet that consists of local, seasonal foods. Without knowing our food, where our food comes from, who grew that food, and what had to happen for that food to get to us, it’s too easy to ignore the fact that everything we eat was once a living thing, and if one is unwilling to admit that he/she has killed to have that meal, then one really has no right to make a moral or ethical stand against me for raising rabbits for meat.


  1. "When I eat the potato, I destroy the plant, but I also destroy any hope that plant might have of reproducing and growing next year."

    Not completely true--only mostly true! As I saw this year when I got potato berries! I'll be planting my true potato seeds next spring--I can't wait!

  2. Awesome, awesome post, Wendy!! You hit the nail on the head (again) , even at the risk of some severe rebuttals coming your way, I suspect ;)

    When I was growing up, my maternal grandmother kept rabbits, and we often enjoyed them, cooked in a tomato and white wine sauce. My grandmother did live in France for 13 years, during the war, and I'm sure that's where she acquired a taste for rabbit.

    Everyone should try producing their own food, either garden-wise or raising animals, just so that they can experience the exchange that occurs when the ultimate sacrifice is made, so that we can eat it (aside from the health benefits of knowing where your food is coming from, of course).

    And, like the Natives, I am truly grateful each and every time these plants and animals provide us with another meal.

    Thank you, Wendy, for a very timely reminder, as we are all enjoying the benefits of bountiful harvests this summer!

  3. Love this post. Then again, you're preaching to the choir here. But it's always nice to see someone put the information together coherently so I can draw on it in my less-coherent moments.

  4. Great post. Another argument I see often for vegetarianism is that it has a lower impact than eating meat. Always, the numbers used about the impact of eating meat is the CAFO model of animal husbandry, where you grow food that people could eat (i.e. corn and soy), feed it to animals, then turn the animals into meat. Given that 90% or more of the calories in the plants are used up by the animal before it becomes food for humans, clearly feeding those crops to humans would be lower impact. But, if you eat a grass-fed animal, the numbers are totally different. Grass can grow in places where you can't plant crops, and humans can't digest grass. So, animals that eat grass can be fed from land that can't grow crops for humans, thereby expanding the land that can feed humans. In my area, which is steep, rocky, and highly seasonal, it would be far, far easier (and lower impact) to get enough calories year round if my diet includes grass-fed meat and dairy than if I followed a strict vegan diet. We simply don't have enough arable land to feed everyone an all-veg diet. I think there are good reasons that temperate cultures usually eat animal products as a large part of the diet.

  5. When someone starts bemoaning the cruelty of hunting I always describe the source of the meat and milk that they bring home from Wal-Mart. It tends to get quiet then.

  6. I don't understand why eating certain animals has to be so damn taboo. We're all just meat when you think about it. I used to get concerned and confused looks when I'd tell people I don't eat industrialized meat so I just started telling people I was a vegetarian to spare a big long explanation.

    But really, how naive do you have to be when it comes to the -lacto part of vegetarianism anyway. As if only consuming milk or cheese not the cow makes a cow's life better or different or even spares a life. People are just too ignorant about food and it's a shame.

    I could go on and on, I guess we all could. Wonderful post, by the way, as always.

  7. I'm not a vegetarian, although I do keep my meat intake down (esp. red meats, mostly because of cholesterol). I think butchering the critter you're eating is one of the most "honest" ways to eat meat, as you can't delude yourself that it just came from the store.

    Factory meat has some issues. Dealing with a chicken farm myself, I can say it's not as hideous as PETA makes it out to be, but it's bad enough. The houses are the older generation "curtain" houses that do let in sunlight along with fresh air, though. It gets pretty crowded at the end of a grow-out, so I suspect that factory chickens are fattier than free-range. OTOH, I've said before that chickens are evil and deserve to be eaten. ;-)

  8. Great post! I've been debating the ethics of eating (admittedly mostly with myself) for over 15 years now, and I still don't have a solid answer to most things, as far as I can tell. For me, it's been a constant search and learning process to try to figure things out amid a pile of information and misinformation, and a process of figuring out now only what's best for me, but for my community and the environment as well. Sometimes I wish it were more black and white, but most of the time I appreciate the opportunity to think so critically about such a central element of life.

    So now, after a years ago period of vegetarianism, and then a few years of adding in some fish, I've been considering whether there is a better way to eat. I'm thinking that there just might be, especially after meeting some local farmers who do produce high-quality, well-cared for animals. I don't think I'll ever be a heavy meat eater - it just doesn't work all that well for me - but I'm seeing the value in meat that is raised properly in a way that I didn't necessarily before.

  9. A-freakin'-men! Well written post.
    I am a life long vegetarian...but I don't eat meat because I don't feel healthy when I eat it, not because I have any illusions about not harming things.
    I occasionally eat eggs, when they are "in season" and I love cheese, yogurt, etc...from the happiest cows and goats I can find locally.

    I go months without eating either eggs or dairy when the cold weather stops local free range production, but I also eat what I am served when a guest in another's home. I still don't eat meat, but cheese sauce on broccoli, knowing the cook shops at Kroger? I can live with it.;o)

    This is what I know: life comes from life. Nothing on the earth survives without the death of something else.

    I used to love rabbit as a small girl and lamb, and if food were scarce you can bet I'd be hunting some defenseless critter in order to feed my family, if I couldn't forage enough or raise my own chickens.

    I will NOT eat my dogs, though. They are better guards and companions than dinner, I think.

  10. I'm part of the choir here too, as I'm sure you know. I was speaking to some of our vegetarian volunteers here recently. (It's pretty easy for me to accommodate vegetarian preferences in high summer.) I explained my view that with all of the food I consume, I feel a debt to ensuring for the future generation of whatever life I took that I might survive. As you mentioned with the potato, we not only kill the plant, but rob it of its offspring as well. So I see it as my responsibility, my bond with the plant or animal, to see that its relatives are perpetuated in the world.

    Now I can take that responsibility with kale, and tomatoes, and carrots. (I am actually conscious of the fact that I'm stealing and devouring the plant's babies when I harvest tomatoes.) But I feel that with the animals I most commonly eat, a species-to-species arrangement will suffice. I may not raise my own hogs, but I think I can pretty confidently say that my species will see to the continued existence of pigs for a long time to come. I couldn't say the same for whales, so I could never in good conscience eat whale meat, or any animal I felt was endangered by the actions of my species. That's my deal - I'll eat you, but I promise that there's a future for your kind, if not your own offspring in particular.

    The vegetarians seemed rather stunned by the way I look at diet and responsibility.

  11. I believe that eating meat, fish, eggs, and dairy when you're not starving is morally wrong and wasteful of the planet's limited resources. If more were like me, we might even avoid the very suburban apocalypse Wendy has written of, as it takes 26 times the fossil fuels to support a meat-centered diet than a vegetarian diet. A United Nations report in 2007 states that 18% of global warming emissions come from raising animals for food. Multiply one person who opts to kill animals for food in America alone and even a math dummy like me can figure out it is a spectacular (perhaps collapse-inducing) waste of resources.

    Animal flesh and fat is additive as is the violence that accompanies the raising and slaughter of innocent creatures. All the arguments of
    sustainable meat excuseatarians exist to support a culturally sanctioned addiction. Humans, just like the chimpanzees we are related to, tend to fall into camps. There are the majority who are violent, with members who raid other chimp settlements, often killing and eating chimp rivals. It is our nature as humans and primates to be addicted to violence. We don't have to be this way.

    As humans, we can choose to be peaceful and to tread as lightly as possible. We have the knowledge not to pretend we have the right to consume the planet in the manner we are doing now.

    I commend those willing to kill animals that are essentially your pets rather than obtaining them anonymously from factory farms. Frankly, I'd rather eat twigs and bark than kill my companion animal or even one that wanders into my yard for food--that is the danger when you re-sensitize yourself to loving the animals around you. The benefits of becoming re-sensitized, however, are also huge. It's much easier to feel at peace when you don't put violence in your mouth. My head is clear, I can enjoy all the sights and sounds of the creatures around me knowing that I would never prey upon them, and since going vegan I'm down two pants sizes.

    My question for all of you: Unless it is a question of pure life and death for yourself or your children, why would you do this? Because they're tasty? Have you ever considered that your moral rationalizations might be the voice of a profound addiction?

  12. First let's talk about citing sources. This source, http://planetgreen.discovery.com/food-health/un-urges-a-vegan-diet-to-feed-a-growing-population.html, and several others, put the difference between meat-centered and vegan diets at 10x, not 26x. I would welcome the opportunity to read other sources that provide different statistics. Of course, all of this is based on the standard industrialized, grocery store diet.

    I would propose that a local diet (generally considered within 100 miles) would provide a significantly lower impact on any of the planet's resources. The statistics are pretty alarming. The average food miles for the industrial food machine is 27 times those same items purchased from local producers, according to http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/whybuylocal/. The same article indicated that carbon emissions are 17 times less from local and regional food sources. Add to that that you can then find farmers who raise your food in a manner that you feel is morally, and ethically, correct.

    Better still, let's take it in further. Grow or forage your own food. Raise or hunt your own meat, if you are going to eat meat. How does that compare to the industrial machine? Well, the average carrot travels 1500 miles to your table. My rabbit meat travels about 20 feet from my back yard. Foraging provides a huge advantage … many edible, wild plants grow that are never harvested. If you pick and eat these foods, you reduce your dependance on the industrial machine, eliminating fossil fuel inputs and carbon dioxide emissions completely from the equation. If we all grow, without power tools, or forage all of our food, we have completely eliminated diet from the global resource/warming problems.

    Physiologically, we are all different. If you lose weight by switching to a vegan diet, great. I switched to a protein and fat, low-carbohydrate diet and lost 25 pounds in a month. Some of us need meat, some of us don't. There are books written on the subject, like "Eat Right For Your Type".

    Natives in my area, a few hundred years ago or so, relied on both meats and plants for their sustenance. The fact is that plant sources of nutrition were not available year round. Meat provided the bulk of the diet during those long winter months. Plants were primarily the food sources when they were available. It was simply a matter of survival. I believe that most of human ancestry falls into similar circumstances. Our ancestors survived and evolved based on this type of diet, so evolution suggests that this is the healthiest diet for us. It is our own individual prerogative to chose what works for us and what does not.

    The natives took great care with their food sources and were very grateful for all that was grown, foraged, or hunted. We, too, should express those same feelings. Morally, and ethically, this is required. Most people in our society do not consider this to be important. This includes plants and animals. It is no less violent to kill a plant than an animal. The plant is equally dead. It just didn't scream in a way that most people can perceive. Culturally, we seem to assign greater consciousness to animals because we are, in general, blind and deaf to this reality. Additionally, our agricultural system destroys vast tracts of habitat, killing the animals who live there to produce the vegetative matter we consume. There are often fantastic discussions on this topic at Tovar Cerulli's blog, http://www.tovarcerulli.com. Tovar, incidentally, was a vegetarian for a very long time (10+ years, I think), until severe health issues changed that.

    The bottom line for me is that I choose to eat meat. In Nature, all things eat and get eaten. Even we humans get eaten, if only by the bacteria when we decompose. It is a fact of living. Eating plants is no less killing than eating meat. I choose to do it with gratitude and appreciation that something else has given its life for me to continue breathing.