Thursday, April 26, 2012

I Am Giving Up Meat (Mostly)

I love meat. Bacon, ham, steak, sausages, salami, hamburgers, lamb, veal,'s all delicious. In general the worse it is for me, the more I love it. Deep fried and breaded beef is one of my very favorite foods, and then of course there's bacon. In an alternate universe, I would eat bacon with every meal. It's even good with chocolate! (Have you had a Vosges bacon chocolate bar? They are amazing.)

Unfortunately for my taste buds, I became interested in the ethics surrounding food, due in part to one of my very favorite bloggers That Wife, who has written quite a bit about her food journey. Reading my latest book on the subject (Just Food by James McWilliams) has convinced me that the only morally justifiable option is to drastically reduce the amount of meat I eat. So I talked to B about it, and he is fully on board (he has never liked meat as much I as do in any case): we are now a (mostly) vegetarian household.

I say mostly vegetarian because I am not actually giving up all meat. I will still eat it for special occasions: holidays, dinners out, and so on. The difference is that it will now be a rare treat (on the order of once a month or so), seen as an costly and decadent indulgence, rather than an essential food group or part of the daily routine.

So why am I making this switch? For environmental, economic, and social justice reasons.

Growing up in the Bay Area, I have been aware for years of the terrible cruelty and suffering involved in meat production. While this makes me sad, it was never a sufficient reason for me to give up meat, even of the factory-farmed variety. The whole of nature is based on cruelty and suffering (being devoured alive by lions is a lot more painful than being processed into hamburger), because that's how the food chain works. Meat really is murder, but that's not because industrial meat production is evil; it's because all living organisms kill in order to live (even in the plant kingdom). It would be better to reduce this cruelty through humane slaughtering (and raising) methods, which as highly intelligent, technologically sophisticated creatures we have the capacity to do, but ultimately that's all it would be, a reduction in suffering.

I also never was convinced by the argument that we could feed all the world's hungry with the grain that otherwise goes to cows, pigs, and chickens. First of all, a lot of that grain is not really fit for human consumption (being specially genetically engineered, grown and produced just for animals); secondly, the world's hungry are not hungry because there is too little food. They are hungry because systemic income inequality means they can't afford to buy the abundant food available (in other words, it's not worth the farmer's while to sell it to them for the price they can pay).

The real problem with meat is that it is tremendously wasteful of resources: it consumes huge amounts of water, millions of acres of farmland, and immense quantities of fossil fuels, while producing truly stunning levels of air, water, and soil pollution. None of these resources are going to increase in quantity. This means that if we use X amount of acres for meat production, we cannot use them for anything else. By eating large quantities of meat, you are choosing a world geared around the needs of farmed meat animals. I find this prospect tremendously unappealing. I prefer a world full of biodiversity, wilderness spaces, clean water and air, where people aren't forced to live in crowded and unsanitary conditions (because if the land is taken up by meat production, it can't be used for living space/recreation/environmental balance).

I don't believe that there is anything wrong fundamentally with the consumption of luxury goods, as long as you are paying a fair price for the effort and resources required. The problem with meat is that you are not paying this price, because the undeniable environmental and social costs are not factored in. In fact, in many places (including the US), the opposite is true, with meat producers receiving artificially-lowered prices for water, land, and energy thanks to subsidies and government handouts. It's as if every meat eater is putting most of the cost of their meal on a credit card, except that payment comes from either the poorest and most vulnerable (those who have to live next to the meat packing plant), or from future generations.

So I have to impose such a "cost" on myself, which means pretending as if meat cost an incredible amount of money. I can only "afford" to eat it occasionally as a result. Since it's now so expensive, when I do eat it, I plan on making it count! Vosges bacon bars may still be in the future, but McDonald's is no longer worth the price. I suppose this will have the additional benefit of improving the taste of my overall diet?


  1. Very thought-provoking post. I have read and heard others say similar things, but you write with such a succinct clarity that it sounds so obvious that's how everyone should modify her diet. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I agree with you on so many of these points and have been attempting to educate myself further on the "cost" of meat production. We've been much more meat-free since we moved here, opting instead for more locally caught fish. But when we go back home, will we eat more meat? We might, considering we'll probably be going back to the farmer's market where I feel more comfortable buying meat anyway.

    I think I'm definitely still on the journey to finding out exactly where we want to be on the scale of meat-eating. Like you, I don't think we'll give it up, but I agree that we just don't need as nearly as much as is marketed to the average American.

    I'll be interested to hear more about your journey as you guys figure it all out for your family.

  3. I'm with the commenters above: this is so well-said. I've been wrestling with these issues myself. I've come to (almost exclusively) limit myself to the meat that comes from my parents' farm, though I still wonder if there are some ethical problems at play.

    Thanks for your thoughts on the matter. I'll probably be revisiting this post.

  4. I think your ideas about sustainable/humane meat only being a reduction of suffering are really interesting. And I have definitely heard and somewhat agreed with the argument that living in the wild is filled with predators and injury and slow painful deaths, so living on a farm where you are cared for is better, even if you are going to be slaughtered (of course I wouldn't apply that same though to factory farms where you are not cared for in any way).

    I do still have a desire to provide the animals with nice lives (I think I'm unclear whether that is important to you?). I think this is because I grew up raising pigs during the summer. When I would go down to the pen they would stick their little noses through the gate to say hello! At the fair I would wash them clean and then lay down with them in the pen full of fresh sawdust and snuggle. I loved my pigs. :) And so it makes me really sad to think of the pigs who never get to splash happily in the mud or roll around freely because they are in tiny cages and cared for by men who are mean to them (even though I am famous in my hometown for losing my temper and thwacking my pig across the back with a wooden stick while showing him at the fair).

    1. I do worry about the animals' lives (especially the pigs because they are such intelligent, sensitive creatures; my grandfather was a farmboy and had a pet pig too, and used to tell us stories about Weaker all the time).

      Even if they end up dead in the end, it seems like the least we could do would be to make their few months/years of life pleasant. Especially because they are dying for our benefit: in other words, I feel that we owe them something.

      On the other hand, making their lives pleasant is expensive. For chickens for example, if they are free range they waste a lot of calories on exercise, which means you wasted a lot of food/resources on increased chicken happiness that could have gone to something else, like malnourished third world children or curing malaria. I love animals but I would always pick a human's benefit over theirs (I am a speciesist).

      So I'm not sure what is best. This doesn't affect the meat decision, but as far as dairy and eggs go it's a big deal. I will have to do more thinking.