“So, why are you vegan?”
I am asked this question frequently and I dodge it almost every time. “It’s a long story,” I’ll say, or “It’s complicated,” or “Do you really want to know?” They almost never really want to know.
For the persistent acquaintance, there’s a second buffer of deflecting responses. “For the same reason I went vegetarian,” I’ll say, which sometimes drives home that I don’t want to be having a conversation about it. If they press, I say, “For environmental and ethical reasons.” This is usually enough.
When, rarely, someone wants a straighter answer, I look at the ground and say, “Because meat and dairy production in this country are cruel and inhumane to both animals and people, and I don’t want to be a part of it.” This generally stops the conversation cold, and I can redirect it to something lighter.
This is cowardly.
Vegans get a bad rap, and it’s sometimes deserved. We’re often seen as PETA devotees, impossible to feed, all the antisocial elements of hippies without the easygoing nature, militant policers of everyone else’s dinner. I don’t want to be that kind of vegan. I want people to like me. I want to be invited over again. And I definitely don’t want to make everyone around me uncomfortable about the food that they’re eating.
In this essay, though, I’m going to tell the truth.
The food choices that I make are closely interwoven which my calling as a Christian. This is true despite the fact that there’s no proof text in the Bible advocating vegetarianism, let alone veganism. The best suggestions are that meat appears not to have been eaten in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 1:29) and that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego ate only vegetables and water instead of the rich food of the Babylonian court (Daniel, chapter 1). These verses have nothing to do with my diet, though, and they would need to be stretched pretty far to serve as commandments. I myself think that becoming a vegetarian in an attempt to recreate Eden is at best silly, and at worst hubristic.
I abstain from meat and eggs and dairy as a way of trying to live in right relationship in a broken world. I am not convinced that abstention from eating animals and animal products in principle is necessary to live in a Christian manner. But I am deeply convinced that the production of these things in the developed world and in the United States in particular, at high volume and for little money, is one of the ways in which those with no power or money are slowly crushed under the structures that provide convenience for everyone else.
I want to make three important disclaimers at the outset.
(1) Very cheap animal protein makes nutritionally dense food available to people with very little money to spend on groceries, or who buy nearly-instant or fast food because of the lack of time or energy or know-how to prepare meals from scratch. Nothing I say should be read to suggest that people with no money, no time, and no energy should go vegan. Bulk dried chickpeas are cheap, for instance, but you need hours to soak and boil them, and then all you have are boiled chickpeas, not a meal.
(2) This essay is about my response to living in a broken world, as a person with not inconsiderable advantages over many others, in a country that contributes more than many others to that brokenness. It is not a blueprint or a decree, although I do hope that those with the option consider what I say with some seriousness. I could make other choices and the choices that I do make do not make my hands totally clean—I know that already, believe me.
(3) Interested persons might refer to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, which had a profound effect on me, if they don’t feel like reading the rest of this essay.
I have never watched a PETA video.
I stopped eating meat in college, when abstention from flesh for Lent burgeoned without my permission into a permanent commitment, and I stopped eating eggs and dairy a few years later. When I stopped eating meat, my body felt lighter and stronger and I felt I had stopped avoiding something, as though I had felt uneasy about meat for a long time but hadn’t admitted it to myself. I don’t expect everyone to feel this way, but it was my experience. I soon found myself faced with an incredulous and offended family and a skeptical boyfriend. It was as though I had converted to a new religion: I was called upon to defend myself, and my cautious responses were taken as insults to my omnivorous kin. It was a difficult transition period when I quite eating meat, and even harder when I abandoned dairy, no less so because it seemed on its face absurd—why should anyone care what I was eating, if I didn’t make a big deal out of what they were eating? But my being vegetarian seemed in and of itself to be a challenge.
This experience points at the basic reality that the way we eat is very close to our hearts. It is a primary thread running through culture and ethics—consider holiday foods and family traditions; consider kosher law, halal, and Buddhist vegetarianism (which also prohibits aromatics like ginger). More recently, consider gluten-free diets for people who do not have an obvious intolerance or celiac disease; raw diets; “paleo” diets; juice cleanses; eating “clean” for athletes and weight lifters. Consider the very old and tired language of “sinful indulgence” around rich or sweet food, especially for women. This is the obvious problem: if I am choosing not to eat things that come from animals, it must be because that choice is somehow virtuous; thus, accordingly, anyone who doesn’t make that choice must be less virtuous than I in my eyes. Katy Waldman’s article in Slate about the way food-talk and personal morality have become intertwined is astute and useful: the way we talk about food, especially how we choose to eat, is often code for how good we choose to be. Blogs about eating paleo, raw, clean, are full of language about eating for your body, eating to take care of yourself, eating to be healthy and strong (and lean, never forget lean).
The truth is, however, that I am trying my hardest not to eat for myself. The more I know of the world as it is, and the more I try to understand the nature of sin, the clearer it becomes that it is not possible to eat in a way that saves me from sin. There is no way to become righteous through eating, and I fear that, without going entirely off the grid, there is no way to be righteous when eating. The game is one of harm reduction.
Moral arguments for abstention from meat tend to fall into two general categories, which I will address briefly in turn: environmental/waste arguments, and animal cruelty arguments.
Environment and Waste: to create one pound of beef (“live weight,” that is, a pound of a live cow before slaughter and processing) requires roughly seven pounds of feed grain; pork requires three; chicken just under two. The feed grain requires land to grow it on and water to grow it with, and also that the grain be fed to livestock and not human beings. A quarter of humankind’s “water footprint” is comprised by consumption of animal products, mostly in watering the grain required to feed them (and not people). Meat production and consumption is extremely carbon-intensive and an individual’s carbon footprint drops significantly when meat, especially beef, is eliminated. The earth is warming, there is not enough water to go around as it is, and millions of people are starving. Eating meat is not conscionable from an environmental perspective; put differently, it is grossly negligent stewardship of the earth God gave us.
Animal Cruelty: I have not seen the videos, but you can google them fairly easily. The life of an animal in an intensive farming operation—that is, an animal who will become normally-priced grocery store meat—is dirty, cramped, and short. Dairy cows are bred frequently in order to keep their milk production up; their calves are separated from them very quickly and either raised as replacement heifers (females) or sold as veal (males—which complicates the idea of milk as a vegetarian choice, as the calf bred to produce it often becomes meat). The cows are culled at about four (when their milk production wanes) and turned into beef, though their life span is naturally about twenty years. “Meat” chickens have been bred to grow enormously and quickly so that their legs can no longer support their body weight; their beaks are cut off to prevent them pecking each other to death from stress. “Laying” chicks are sexed soon after hatching and males are culled and disposed of; they too have beaks cut off to prevent stress behavior. Slaughterhouses process animals at such a high volume that a percentage is not properly killed before processing begins. The list continues. Eating meat is not conscionable from a humane standpoint, the issue of killing to eat entirely aside. Put differently, it is gross abuse of the creatures God put into our hands.
These arguments are all well and good; for some people, they are enough. It is my strong contention, though, that a third consideration is by far the most significant: human cost.
The meat processing industry—that is, slaughterhouse work—has incredibly high turnover rates, in some plants over 100% a year. That is, some slaughterhouses replace all of their workers once, and some twice, in a year. Processing plants tend to be in isolated areas, where workers and the surrounding communities have less recourse to legal protection from abuse and pollution. Many workers are undocumented immigrants, who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by employers. The rate of injury in meat processing is three times higher than in any other private industry in the United States; it has even warranted a statement by Human Rights Watch. It is also a job that requires killing living things, repeatedly, quickly, all day, every day, until you quit; even officials from the industry refer to the work as “dehumanizing.” Workers often suffer from PTSD. Slaughterhouse work pays about twelve dollars an hour.
Intensive farming operations, the ones that produce the bulk of meat in grocery stores, are frequently stories of exploitation of local farmers—in Appalachia, for instance, farmers who replaced tobacco with chickens for Purdue are kept in debt like sharecroppers, buying new required technology on credit and never making enough to pay it off.
Terms like “free range” and “cage free” are barely regulated: “cage free,” for instance, stipulates only that there are no cages but does not address crowding, physical mutilation, or any other thing a sensible person might assume is addressed. “Free range” often means that there is, somewhere, an exit door, even if few or none of the animals can reach it. These terms have cache and we are willing to pay more for them, but more often than not they mean only that the profit margin on the product is a little wider. The only way to be sure that your eggs or steaks are raised humanely is to know who is producing them, or to get friendly with the internet; it is essentially impossible to buy meat that is not slaughtered in high-volume processing plants. (This is to say nothing of the ease and frequency of E. coli and other bacterial contamination in meat we buy due to the quick tearing apart of animals who live covered in feces.)
What, then, can we do?
The broadest answer is: in a network of benefit and harm that is impossible to leave, we can strive to lessen impact, avoid known harm, and further the image of God.
Faced with the reality that meat is produced by a system that harms the most vulnerable—poor workers with little or no legal protection, rural communities, and animals raised cruelly to be killed in a way that harms the killer—I cannot eat it. Dehumanization, erosion of the image of God in another human being, is a price that is too great even to consider for the sake of what is, for me, simple preference, temporary gustatory pleasure. I do not need meat or milk or eggs to survive. No American does: it is nearly impossible for a healthy person in the United States to be protein deficient as long as he or she is getting enough to eat at all.
I want to emphasize that these choices do not make me good, or that I am in right relationship to all God’s children because I only eat plants. Tomatoes that are not local—tasteless winter tomatoes, tomatoes from my home state of Florida—are grown with slave labor; GMO soy is a blight not because I am frightened of GMOs (to each his own, here) but because its patent laws drive small farmers out of business for the benefit of enormous companies. I can buy rice grown in paddies in Texas, much of which is desert and even more of which is in drought. Quinoa, beloved of vegans for its protein and minerals, has gone from a peasant grain to a commodity too expensive for the Bolivian farmers who grow it to buy, though now they make more money from growing it. The sickness of profit for the large and defeat for the small goes very deep. To live in America, where everything is available to me, is to be at the center of a system of oppression and exploitation that ferries the produce of the whole world to my grocery store shelves. Whether I will or not, I am the rich man at the banquet while the poor man Lazarus starves at my gate.
Paul tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This has never, to my knowledge, been used by most Christians to mean that we should give up trying not to sin, or trying to sin less—it means only that we cannot hope to be the vehicle of our own salvation. I believe this. The ubiquity and the banality of sin are very clear to my Calvinist eyes, and I am not puffed up enough to think that my meager grocery dollars are saving anyone or anything, least of all myself. But I think that to take my hand away from around every throat I know of is the least that I can do in my constant struggle, through the grace of God, to follow after Christ.
- Reading Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer
- Watching “Food, Inc.”
The first actively advocates for vegetarianism. The second does not. Neither have anything to do with PETA.
What are some specific ways you could strive in your eating to lessen impact, avoid known harm, and further the image of God?
- ^ PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) uses the tagline: “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way” (http://www.peta.org).
- ^ See the following sources:PBS, interviews with authors and industry officials about slaughterhouses, at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/slaughter/slaughterhouse.htmlOn the dangers of the meatpacking industry:
Mother Jones, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2001/07/dangerous-meatpacking-jobs-eric-schlosser
Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2005/usa0105/1.htm
On exploitation of immigrant workers:
Indeed (job listings), http://www.indeed.com/q-Meat-Processing-Plant-jobs.html
On environmental impact:
Water Footprint, http://www.waterfootprint.org/Reports/Hoekstra-2012-Water-Meat-Dairy.pdf
Shrink That Footprint, http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/food-carbon-footprint-diet
Annual Reviews (scientific publishing), http://www.annualreviews.org/eprint/EBIXxM7sNxrBJyuRYgki/full/10.1146/annurev-environ-020411-130608
On dairy cows:
On tomatoes: seriously, google it, but:
- ^ http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/11/juice_cleanses_not_healthy_not_virtuous_just_expensive.html