“You eat like a rabbit,” he says.
“Rabbits don’t generally eat garbanzo beans or cooked rice,” I reply.
As the conversation changes, he forgets my rabbit food, and I forget his meat. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we have.
According to a 2008 study by Harris Interactive Service, about 7.3 million people are vegetarian in the United States—that’s about 3.2 percent of the population. Most are young, from middleclass backgrounds, and live in the Western or Southern regions of the United States. I’m one of them, a skinny, grain-eating, tofu-crunching middle-class American.
Nothing radical there.
We vegetarians eat about three meals per day—just like our omnivorous counterparts. We don’t all use organic paper and beet-juice ink or attend regular services at hippy churches on weekends. Most aren’t PETA extremists who throw red paint at fur coats and survive on seaweed and unpronounceable grains. Perhaps our farts smell a little bad sometimes, or we’re be a pain to take out to dinner, but most of us are pretty normal. At least I think so.
Still, some people berate me with things like, “why the hell would you do that?” or “we deserve to eat animals,” or my personal favorite, “you’re going to die because you’re not getting enough protein.”
Others aren’t so malicious. They just don’t understand, or grow up thinking that all vegetarians fit the same model. But we are all very different and have very different reasons for becoming vegetarian.
The most iconic reason to switch is for the animals. Killing animals “feels wrong” for some. Many famous people in history became vegetarian for this reason, like Leonardo da Vinci and Franz Kafka, and in a Europe before quinoa and tofu, that was a major sacrifice. Today, it’s more common than ever.
Meaghan O’Rourke, junior journalism and French major at St. Bonaventure University, made the switch after watching a PETA video in high school.
“I became a vegetarian overnight,” she said. “It was one of their classic videos that showed the inside of the industry. It sensationalized the whole thing. ”
Still, it prompted research.
Slogging through various articles and books—including the best seller Skinny Bitch—she developed a firmer resolve.
“Most of the meat we’re exposed to on a daily basis is super processed and contains no nutritional value for us, and it’s when the animals are treated the worst,” she said. “I disagree with the whole industry.”
Many share her story. Eating Animals by Jonathan Sefran Foer is one example from a slew of books detailing the food industry. Some—like The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan—press for more organic alternatives, while others, like Foer’s book, recommend a diet without animal products. Studded with statistics, testimonies, and studies, they make a hefty case against processed meat. Many switch because of such arguments.
Emily West, a three-year vegetarian, switched after reading Foer’s book.
“After reading it, I realized it wasn’t a system I wanted to support,” she said. “Some of it’s just gross,” said West. “If someone told you about what went into food … you wouldn’t want to eat it.”
In particular, the use of antibiotics worried West. Many epidemiologists link the rise in “super bugs” with consuming antibiotics in processed meat. In the plants, producers treat animals with a hefty array of antibiotics. A sick cow is not a productive cow. The antibiotics accumulate in the animal, and as people eat the animal, the antibiotics “bio-accumulate” in people. This kills bacteria needlessly, allowing the resistant ones to survive and reproduce with less competition. And voilà, “super bugs.”
Researchers also link the presence of salmonella and other bacteria to the industry because some procedures in factory farm maximize efficiency while reducing cleanliness. For example, the close quarters of animals in factory systems spurs bacterial growth, despite antibiotics.
“The bacteria’s not in the meat itself, but the process,” said West.
Dr. Georgian, an ecologist and biology professor at Bonaventure, agrees that the meat industry has problems.
“There’s a huge difference between someone snaring their rabbit on their property and making a stew and getting a pound of meat from who knows where,” he said.
For example, in traditional systems, farmers return animal waste to the soil for fertilizer. An industrial system separates the animals from the grain, exhausting the soil and creating unused waste. The farmer uses artificial fertilizer to aid growth instead of the animal waste, creating algal blooms in nearby water from runoff, killing fish.
“We’ve taken the solution and neatly divided it into two problems,” said Georgian, quoting Pollen’s book.
Moreover, industrial farms often create monocultures of single crops over wide spaces. While easier to harvest, monocultures can empower pests because once the pest overcomes the plant’s natural defenses, it has a whole farm to eat, unchallenged. To control these pests, farmers turn to pesticides, herbicides, and genetic engineering.
“We are just pumping agrichemicals into this system,” said Georgian.
Agrichemicals can hurt health and disrupt ecosystems, often in complicated ways. For example, artificial fertilizer can produce carcinogens as it breaks down and many pesticides are labeled mutagens.
“These are dangerous compounds,” Georgian said.
But, as he points out, the problems lie with the industry not with meat consumption itself. Any industrial farm uses agrichemicals, whether the grain goes to livestock or vegetarians. One can choose to buy local meat, thus escaping systematized farming.
“Small-scale, local meat production might solve many of the issues that would prompt someone to take a stand against meat consumption,” said Georgian.
Many object to killing animals regardless of the industry, however.
Dr. Richard Reilly, a philosophy professor at St. Bonaventure, draws his outlook from his Buddhist background and refers to Buddhism’s first precept: do no harm. In Buddhism, this is one of the foundational ethical principles: don’t hurt other sentient beings, including animals. Creating suffering is immoral, and hurt creates suffering.
Only, it’s not that simple.
“The first precept means not to destroy life, and that in itself does not make someone vegetarian,” he said. “The Buddha himself was not vegetarian.”
Forced to survive by begging, the Buddha and his early followers ate meat. If they didn’t they would have starved. Still, they maintained the intention.
“In Buddhism, the intentionality behind the act is more important than the act itself,” said Reilly. “The Buddha would not allow animals to be slaughtered for him and his congregation.”
“One time my teacher—he was talking with children—he used the example of that mosquito biting your arm. ‘Why is that mosquito biting your arm?’ he asked. ‘For blood,’ someone said. ‘Why does he need blood?’ ‘To live.’ ‘How fortunate you are then to provide life to that being,’” said Reilly.
His teacher often added, “If you don’t understand the sacredness of the life of the mosquito, then you don’t know what makes life sacred.”
A mosquito story also surrounds the humanitarian Albert Schweitzer. With his work with the sick in the jungles of Africa, Schweitzer killed many mosquitoes, but in Europe, he dusted them away or let them suck. The reason? In Africa, the mosquitoes had malaria, so their bite could’ve killed him. European mosquitoes didn’t have the same danger, so he didn’t swat them.
As he put it in many of his books, “I am life that wants to live in the midst of other life that wants to live.” Sometimes, lives conflict. Lions eat gazelles, fleas bite rats, bacteria kills. This is the law of nature. We must fit in somewhere. For vegetarians, our place differs from most omnivores, but most vegetarians don’t find this problematic. For many, diet is a problem of understanding and personal choice, not dogmatism.
“At this point, just the idea of killing an animal and eating an animal makes me upset,” West said. “If someone sits down and talks to me like this, I’ll tell them my reasons, but I’m not like, ‘Eww! You’re eating meat!’ That’s my choice. I just think people have a responsibility for the resources they consume.”
For me, the switch was ethical. Like others, I didn’t want to eat meat and destroy life if I could live fine without it. Since then, the tantalizing perfume of bacon in the morning or burgers in the afternoon tempts me. Now and then, tofu is hard to find, lentils get repetitive, and I still hate telling hosts I don’t eat meat. But I couldn’t go back. Three times per day, I’m different. I can live with that.
I wrote this piece a while ago, but the original blog I put it stopped existing. So, I updated and expanded it, putting it here.