There has been a repetitive question in my brain for the last few months.
“Why am I not vegetarian?”
I consider myself a conscious eater. I am the kind of person that nowadays passes up fruit and vegetables because they are out of season. Certainly, I still drink coffee and eat chocolate, and by no means am a 100% locavore, but I constantly think about what I consume and what I eat.
I am however, not a vegetarian. There, I said it.
Sometimes, ethically, that makes me cringe. In fact being a person that writes about conscious eating, publicly acknowledging that I am not a vegetarian puts me in a vulnerable spot; I get nervous about the response. The internet loves to hate, after all.
And so my personal policy to eating has evolved. I eat very little meat (in the past month I have eaten it twice), and I try very hard to think about it when I do.
What’s so bad about factory farmed meat? A lot of things. From environmental to human health to animal rights, there are a variety of things that are wrong about factory-farmed, cheap meat. Nearly 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed in the U.S. go to livestock farming. To make one hamburger, it takes more than 50 gallons of water. Around 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the global meat and dairy industry. The list goes on. And despite our awareness of how bad the situation is, we continue to become more carnivorous.
Eating well isn’t something you wake up one morning and decide to do. It’s a process. Some people succeed at completely changing their diets overnight; for others it’s more gradual, but the point is that we move to something better. It is better to not be vegetarian but commit to eating less meat overall than to completely dodge the topic because it makes us uncomfortable. If we want to find solutions to the problem, then we have to join forces: omnivores, vegetarians and vegans.
One of the arguments for eating meat that I have often heard, and even used myself in the past, is the “we’re humans, we’re omnivores.” But the “we’re meant to eat meat” position doesn’t hold, because we’re not meant to eat meat the way in which we eat it. Mass-produced meat propped full of GMOs and antibiotics is not what our ancestors had in mind.
I walked through a market the other day and saw a row of poultry with the heads still attached. The birds were all plucked, but there were bent necks and a few duck bills here and there. I had the classic “yuck” reaction that is so common when we have grown up in a sanitized world where our chicken comes pre-cut in manageable sized and wrapped in plastic. We have no relationship to that piece of meat as an animal, it’s merely a piece of protein, something that is a building block of our daily nutritional intake.
The more I thought about it though, the better I felt about seeing those ducks and chickens than I did about seeing packaged breasts at the super market on sale for a minimal amount of pocket change per pound. At least whoever was buying these poultry were well aware of what they were eating, and while they probably weren’t about to have a eulogy about the beautiful life that Jean Pierre the chicken had lived before sitting down to dinner, there’s a much better connection to meat when you have to de-head and de-gut it yourself. It’s an animal, not just a grocery store product.
Talking about eating or not eating meat is difficult, because there is a lot of emotion involved. In fact, I often feel I can’t launch into the discussion because I personally haven’t made the commitment to completely take meat out of my diet. But one thing is sure: we all need to be eating less meat, and not just for the sake of animals, for our own health. And we need to be talking about it, no matter who we are, because the system has to change.
All this said, and I am still not a vegetarian. I do however realize that mentally I have made a transition from just a few years ago, and when I do eat meat it’s a very conscious decision. It’s not an addition to my dinner plate just because I need a slab of protein.
I think back to a meal I had in Afghanistan, a lamb stew that was prepared for us in a small village. It was the religious holiday Eid, and all around sheep were being slaughtered and served as dinner. No one goes unfed on Eid; a sheep is sacrificed not to feed a family, but to feed a community. It is for those moments I guess that I am not a vegetarian, or at least one of the reasons.
But a lamb stew in a small Afghan village and a pound of red meat on a bed of Styrofoam are two very different things.
Just like with your vegetables, if you eat meat, then reconnect with it. Know where it comes from and know what–or who– you’re ingesting. There is no room in our society for mindless eating anymore.
If you have ever talked to an artisan butcher, you realize that there is love and passion in their work. We are part of a natural food chain, and most of our ancestors had meat as part of their diet. But there is something inherently wrong with the way we raise, kill and eat meat today. So wrong that we can’t keep turning our head the other way.
There are no rules for eating, it’s up to each and every person to listen to their bodies to figure out what it needs to function best and also to find their moral compass and let that guide them in their food decisions, but if you consider yourself a conscious eater, you have to be thinking about the meat you consume.
We all can benefit from having a serious thought process about where our meat comes from and how it was raised, and whether or not, ultimately, we feel good about eating it.
Image: Tambako The Jaguar