Chapter 4

 

 

Vegetarianism

 

 

 


The Diet of Peace (and Carrots)

 

“I do not see any reason why animals should be slaughtered to serve as human diet when there are so many substitutes.  After all, man can live without meat.  It is only some carnivorous animals that have to subsist on flesh.  Killing animals for sport, for pleasure, for adventures, and for hides and furs is a phenomenon which is at once disgusting and distressing.  There is no justification in indulging in such acts of brutality.”

—His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama of Tibet[1]

 

When having discussions about vegetarianism, I have often heard the belief that flesh-eating must be somehow necessary to sustain human health, that there must be some secret and vital nutrient in meat that humans require.  This belief is probably inferred from the fact that the majority of people in our culture eat vast quantities of flesh foods; either that, or because belief in the necessity of flesh-eating is imposed upon us by the meat industry.  The Meat Board Meat Book tells us that “Although cavemen didn't know it, meat is also a highly nutritious food and an essential part of a healthy diet.[2]

 

Yet nothing is more easily refuted than the idea that the consumption of animal flesh is somehow necessary to sustain human life.  It is clear, from the simple fact that many people live long and healthy lives without eating animals, that meat cannot be a necessary staple of humanity.  The argument that vegetarianism is only possible for someone living in a technologically developed civilization, such as our own, is also easily proven false.  Principled vegetarianism in the West has had a proud and long-standing history, dating at least as far back as Pythagoras in ancient Greece.  Pythagoras held the belief that the souls of human beings could be reborn in other animals, meaning that killing a pig for food might mean eating one of your ancestors.[3]  In the East, Vegetarianism has played an important role in many religions, dating back to antiquity.

 

The topic of vegetarianism follows naturally from what I have discussed in the previous chapters.  Once we recognize our kinship with other animals, and realize that they are not simply tools for us to exploit, the idea of consuming them for the sake of luxury should become abhorrent – particularly when we see how terribly the majority of animals being raised for food today are treated.

 

 


Pets vs. Dinner

 

Why is it that we call some animals ‘Rover’ and others we affectionately call ‘Beef’?  Is it because ‘Beef’ tastes better than ‘Rover,’ or is it because ‘Rover’ is considered more intelligent or, perhaps, more cuddly?  A children’s book about animals explains this dichotomy in brilliantly simple terms:

 

Pet species are animals with which people have formed particularly close bonds around their homes.  Farm animals are creatures that people keep for more practical purposes.[4]

 

The law treats cruelty to animals quite differently depending on whether the animal is a ‘pet’ animal, or a ‘food’ animal.  Last year, The Vancouver Sun contained an article about a man who had severely beaten a dog over the head with a golf club, “fracturing its skull and causing it to lose an eye.”  The man received a 15-month jail term, intended, as the judge declared, “to fully express the shock and horror the public felt about the ‘senseless attack on an innocent pet.’”  Later in the article, a professor who was being interviewed brought up the important question of how the case would have been handled had the victim of the attack been a pig and not a dog.  The perpetrator probably would have “received a small fine and been required to compensate the farmer for the economic value of the pig.”

 

 

Why Vegetarian?

 

There are many reasons why people choose to become vegetarian or to increase the number of plant-based foods that they eat.  In 1911, Popular Science featured an article about vegetarianism in which the author divided vegetarians into four groups:

Vegetarians from motives of gustatory taste.

Vegetarians from motives of esthetic taste.

Vegetarians from motives of physiological opinion.

Vegetarians from motives of ethical opinion.[5]

 

Today, we might add three more groups to the list:

Vegetarians from motives of environmental awareness.

Vegetarians from motives of alleviating world hunger.

Vegetarians from motives of cultural fads.

 

Often, a person becomes vegetarian as a result of one of the above motives, but then continues as a result of discovering more about one of the others.  For instance, my mother became vegetarian a number of years ago when she was having health problems.  Her doctor told her that she had a choice: either she could eliminate meat from her diet, or she could go under the scalpel.  She chose to make a shift towards vegetarianism rather than be cut open, which made her original motive one of “physiological opinion,” i.e. health.  However, after she became vegetarian she began to think more about her feelings around the killing of animals.  Now that she has learnt about the ways that animals suffer in today’s agribusiness, her reasons for being vegetarian have shifted to include compassion for the animals.

 

My reason for being vegetarian always has been and always will be from “motives of ethical opinion,” and this, I believe, is the strongest and most fundamental reason for becoming vegetarian.  However, in this section I would like to look briefly at some of the other reasons that people choose to become vegetarian or at least to increase the ratio of plant to animal foods in their diets.

 

People that become vegetarian because of cultural fads – because it’s “cool” or because their friends are vegetarian – generally do not remain vegetarian for very long, unless they are able to discover in themselves deeper reasons for choosing to eat a plant-based diet.

 

How esthetic is the practice of meat-eating?  Anna Kingsford (1846-1888), an outspoken activist for women’s and animal’s rights, talked about an excellent method for making esthetic judgments:

Mr. Ruskin has said that the criterion of a beautiful action or of a noble thought is to be found in song, and that an action about which we cannot make a poem is not fit for humanity.  Did he ever apply this test to flesh-eating?  Many a lovely poem, many a beautiful picture, may be made about gardens and fruit-gathering, and the bringing home of the golden produce of harvest, or the burden of the vineyards, with groups of happy boys and girls, and placid, mild-eyed oxen bending their necks under their fragrant load.  But I defy anyone to make beautiful verse or to paint beautiful pictures about slaughterhouses, running with streams of steaming blood, and terrified, struggling animals felled to the ground with pole-axes; or of a butcher's stall hung round with rows of gory corpses, and folks in the midst of them bargaining with the ogre who keeps the place for legs and shoulders and thighs and heads of the murdered creatures![6]

Clearly it would put a strain on one’s sense of esthetics to find beauty amongst these gory images.  I have read various accounts indicating that visiting a slaughterhouse, particularly as a child, is often enough of a shock and a disgust to put someone off meat for a lifetime.

 

The negative environmental impact of a meat-based diet is well-documented and widely recognized.  Michael Allen Fox gives a concise picture of some of the effects of the eating habits of our culture:

The ecodestructive side of the meat industry's operations… include toxic chemical residues in the food chain; pharmaceutical additives in animal feeds; polluting chemicals and animal wastes from feedlot runoff in waterways and underground aquifers; topsoil loss from relentless grazing; deforestation and desertification from the clearing of land for grazing and for cultivating feed; threatened habitats of wild species of plants and animals; intensive exploitation of water and energy supplies; and ozone depletion from the extensive use of fossil fuels and the significant production of methane gas by cattle.  Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin summarizes this sorry state of affairs in these simple terms: “meat production is a major source of environmental damage.”[7]

In fact, the Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices (1999) ranked meat-eating as the “second most environmentally destructive human activity, just after driving a car or SUV.”  The book was put together by the Union of Concerned Scientists, whose “scientific analyses have supported its advocacy work on energy, transportation, global warming, biodiversity, agriculture and arms control since 1969.”[8]  Clearly, reducing or eliminating animal foods from our diet is an important step for anyone concerned about the state of the environment.

 

There is a growing body of evidence that the standard eating habits of the Western world are causing a great deal of harm to human health.  The former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has said that nearly 70 percent of Americans die from diseases that are associated with the foods they choose to eat.[9]  The American Dietetic Association has published a report of its position regarding vegetarian diets, in which it states that

A considerable body of scientific data suggests positive relationships between vegetarian diets and risk reduction for several chronic degenerative diseases and conditions, including obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and some types of cancer.[10]

A dietary study in China, known as the “China Project,” was called by The New York Times “the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease.”[11]  Because the villages throughout China where this extensive study took place depend largely upon their local agriculture, the types of food that are eaten vary significantly between villages.  Some of the villages are essentially vegan, whereas others consume a large quantity of animal products.  The China Project took into account dietary patterns, along with other lifestyle factors – over a thousand pieces of data – for each of the 10,200 people surveyed.[12]  Campbell concludes:

The China Health Project’s primary finding is that the Chinese who eat the least fat and animal products have substantially lower rates of cancer, heart attack, and several other chronic degenerative diseases.[13]

Although my health is not the primary motivation for my dietary choices, I have noticed an immense improvement in the state of my health and well-being as a result of changing my diet.  Since becoming vegan four years ago, I have not had the flu, a headache, or any other illnesses whatsoever, whereas prior to that I used to get sick a few times a year and have occasional headaches.  I have also noticed a significant increase in endurance, energy level and overall strength as a result of the plant-based foods I choose to eat.

 

 

Degrees of Vegetarianism

 

Vegetarians come in many different flavours.  Some people consider themselves vegetarians if they think that they eat less meat than the status quo, and some others strangely consider chickens and fish to be vegetables,[14] thus including the flesh of chickens and fish in their “vegetarian” diet.  There are apparently names for these sorts of non-vegetarian vegetarians.  People who include fish along with their plant foods are called “pescovegetarians,” people who eat birds are called “pollovegetarians,” and, if we wish to be even more absurd, we could call someone who abstains from all foods of animal origin, except for pig flesh, a “porcovegetarian.”[15]

 

 

Veganism

 

Many people, when they become vegetarian, tend to increase the amounts of dairy products and eggs in their diets.  Sadly, this shift may cause even more suffering to farm animals than a meat-based diet, for various reasons.  Firstly, most eggs come from battery-caged chickens. Secondly, the male calves kept in veal crates are a byproduct of the dairy industry, since a dairy cow is forced to give birth once every year in order to continue to produce milk, and male dairy calves are useless to the industry for anything other than veal.

 

A vegan diet, which consists solely of plant foods, is a logical next step after vegetarianism, and all the reasons for becoming vegetarian also apply to becoming vegan.  When I first chose to become vegan, I gradually began to phase milk and eggs out of the foods that I ate, and in the process I discovered a wide variety of new foods that I had never known before.  People have criticized plant-based diets as being limiting, but I would say that I eat a much wider variety of interesting and satisfying foods now than I did prior to becoming vegetarian and vegan.[16]

 

 

Vegetarianism and Ahimsa in Eastern Religions

 

Vegetarianism has found an important place within many Eastern religions, including Jainism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.  Generally it has arisen out of the Eastern principle of “ahimsa,” meaning “non-harm,” which holds all animal life as sacred.[17]  For instance, eighty-three percent of India’s 680 million population are Hindu and practice vegetarianism in varying degrees.[18]  Jains are strict vegetarians, and are very careful to avoid harming other living beings.[19]

 

 

Anthroposophical Nutrition

 

Gerhard Schmidt, writing about “the foundations of a nutritional hygiene emanating from Rudolf Steiner’s Spiritual Science,” discusses vegetarian nutrition from an anthroposophical perspective.  He says that for human beings to be able to draw all their necessary nutrients exclusively from plant foods, we require certain inner forces that may need to be awakened within us.  When these forces are awakened, however, they make us more capable of work and thought, and allow man to

[regulate] his life and existence from a freer and higher point if view, [and achieve] this rapid thinking, this rapid comprehension, by virtue of his nourishment from the plant world.[20]

Rudolf Steiner chose to follow a vegetarian diet in 1900, and later recognized that he would not have been able “to go through with the strenuous activities of the last 24 years [of his life] without vegetarian nutrition.”[21]  He apparently made it clear, however, that he “was not agitating for vegetarianism,” but he also said that it is a necessary step in humanity’s progression, such that it will happen of its own accord and requires no agitation.[22]

 

 

But Animals Eat Other Animals!

 

As we saw in Chapter 1, we separate ourselves from animals in order to justify our abuse of them.  On the other hand, relating ourselves to animals has also been used to defend this exploitation.  One argument says that if humans are animals, then there is no reason for us not to kill and eat other animals, since they do the same to one another.  In correspondence with one of my classmates,[23] he formulated this argument as follows:

 

“Also, I would like to note that animals eat each other regularly, and as you argued, we are animals. Why shouldn't we eat animals? … I do not believe that it is wrong to eat animals.”

 

There are various ways to respond to this sort of argument.  In this case, I chose to respond by using the same logical construction contained in the previous argument, but changing a few of the words:

 

“Also, I would like to note that [humans shoot] each other regularly, and as you argued, we are [humans]. Why shouldn't we [shoot each other]? … I do not believe that it is wrong to [shoot each other].”

 

By making these small changes, the logical gaps in this type of argument become apparent: the fact that someone else does something does not make it right for you to do the same.

 

 

But Isn’t Meat-Eating Natural?

 

People often say that humans have always eaten animals, as if this is a justification for continuing the practice.  According to this logic, we should not try to prevent people from murdering other people, since this has also been done since the earliest of times.                —Isaac Bashevis Singer[24]

 

What does it mean for something to be natural?  When we say that something is ‘natural,’ what we often actually mean is that it is widely accepted or practiced, whereas something that is ‘unnatural’ is foreign or strange to us.  Michael Allen Fox notes that “many things are justified merely on the grounds of being ‘natural’ (greed, war, heterosexuality), and many are condemned on the equally flimsy pretext of being ‘unnatural’ (altruism, pacifism, homosexuality).”[25]  Clearly, the fact that something is supposedly ‘natural’ is not a valid justification for anything, and thus cannot in itself be used to justify meat-eating.

 

 

Culture and Necessity

 

Since I became vegetarian, I have often been asked what I would do if I were lost in the mountains without any food, facing the prospect of starvation, with the opportunity of killing an animal in order to survive.  When I was first asked this question, I quickly decided that I would rather starve than kill the animal.  Since then, however, I have realized that philosophy cannot deny the reality of necessity, and I have come to accept that necessity in many cases justifies actions that would otherwise be considered unjust. 

 

Necessity, however, is relative.  As Stephen Clark says, “it is of little use claiming that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering if anything at all will do as a context for calculating necessity.”[26]  Thus to say that necessity justifies killing is a dangerous proposition, because there is no clear line between necessity and luxury.

 

In some cultures at various points in time, meat-eating has been a necessity.  For instance, in First Nations cultures, due to a lack of available plant foods in sufficient quantities, meat-eating has traditionally been a necessity.  I have heard various accounts and stories about the Natives’ connection with animals, and I have a respect for their relationship as it has been described to me.  It is said that a Native hunter communicates with the animal that he is hunting, and that he asks permission for the animal’s life before attempting to take it.  Even if the animal actually has no part in this communication, I think that facing the animal in this way, and recognizing one’s kinship with it, is a nobler way for the hunter to come to terms with the necessary act of killing than the dominating, distancing methods we use in our society to reconcile the act of killing.

 

It would seem to be cultural imperialism to force our values onto indigenous peoples, but by the same token, we cannot use their culture to defend meat-eating in our society today.  Firstly, the meat we eat typically comes from the supermarket, from animals that were raised in factory farm conditions, animals that we never saw face to face.  Secondly, we have so many alternatives to animal foods, that meat-eating is now a luxury rather than a necessity.

 

 

Conclusion to Chapter Four: The Power of Individual Choice

 

Many people are sympathetic to the cause of vegetarianism, and may even wish to become vegetarian, but complain that they lack the willpower or motivation to make the shift.  Often this is because they feel, or claim to feel, that the choices they make will not make a significant impact on the suffering of the animals or on the environment.  This belief, however, need not be true.  The choices that a single person makes about the way he or she wishes to live life can have an incredible impact on the world, on many levels.  When one individual makes a clear choice and lives according to that choice, other people will notice and begin to examine the way in which they lead their own lives.  In the end, it will always be individual choice that brings about important changes in the world.  Remember, if you’re not a part of the solution, then you’re  a part of the problem.

 

“You, who are innocent, what have you done worthy of death?”

Richard of Wyche

 on seeing animals killed for food

 

 

The average American will eat all of the animals pictured above over the course of his or her life.[27]

 

 

 



[1] Jon Wynne-Tyson, The Extended Circle: An Anthology of Humane Thought, Sussex: Centaur Press, 1990. PP. 97-98

[2] Barbara Bloch, The Meat Board Meat Book, New York: The Benjamin Company, 1977. P. 17

[3] See The Metamorphoses of Ovid, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, USA: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993. P. 519

[4] Robin Kerrod, Pets and Farm Animals, New York: Equinox (Oxford) Ltd., 1990. p. 5

[5] Alonzo Englebert Taylor, “Is Vegetarianism Capable of World-Wide Application?” in Popular Science 79, Dec. 1911. p. 587

[6] ed. Kerry S. Walters and Lisa Portmess, Ethical Vegetarianism: From Pythagoras to Peter Singer, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.  p. 108

[7] Michael Allen Fox, Deep Vegetarianism, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.  p. 85

[8] ed. Manuela Bizzotto, “Meat-Eating No. 2 On List of Environmental Evils,” Canada Earthsaver, April/May 2000, p.4

[9] Howard Lyman, from the introduction to Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating (Erik Marcus, New York: McBooks Press, 1998.)  p. viii

[10] “Position of The American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian diets,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, November 1993, Volume 93 Number 11.  p. 1317

[11] Erik Marcus, Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, New York: McBooks Press, 1998.  p. 27

[12] Ibid., p. 28

[13] Ibid., p. 29

[14] “A grateful sob bursts from one vegetarian when she encounters chicken on the menu, for it happens that long ago she decided to count chicken as a vegetable.”  The Literary Digest for September 1, 1928.  p.43

[15] Joanne Stepaniak & Virginia Messina, The Vegan Sourcebook, Illinois: Lowell House, 1998.  p.149

[16] See The Vegan Sourcebook (Joanne Stepaniak & Virginia Messina, Illinois: Lowell House, 1998.) and Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating (Erik Marcus, New York: McBooks Press, 1998.) for more information on a vegan diet and lifestyle.

[17] Rynn Berry, Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World's Religions, New York: Pythagorean Publishers, 1998.  p. 17

[18] Colin Spencer, The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism, Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995.  p. 356

[19] ed. Charles R. Joy, The Animal World of Albert Schweitzer: Jungle Insights into Reverence for Life, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1950.  p. 145

[20] Gerhard Schmidt, M.D., The Dynamics of Nutrition, Wyoming: Bio-Dynamic Literature, 1980.  p. 141

[21] Ibid., p. 137

[22] Ibid., p. 141

[23] David Peters, from an email of November 29, 1999.

[24] quoted in The Vegan Sourcebook (Joanne Stepaniak & Virginia Messina, Illinois: Lowell House, 1998.  p. 1)

[25] Michael Allen Fox, Deep Vegetarianism, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.  p. 150

[26] Stephen R. L. Clark, The Moral Status of Animals, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.  p. 44

[27] C. David Coats, Old MacDonald's Factory Farm: The Myth of the Traditional Farm and the Shocking Truth About Animal Suffering in Today's Agribusiness, New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989.  p. 108


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