My name is Rachel, and I’m a vegetarian . . . who is considering eating meat again. I’m going to have a little debate with myself here. I became a vegetarian for a number of reasons years ago, and still stand by all of these reasons. But since this time, I’ve also begun questioning whether eating meat would be the “right” thing for me, for a number of different (but connected) reasons.
Read on to hear more about these two sides that I’ve been struggling with recently. . .
I first vowed vegetarianism after I spent some time in El Salvador in college. It took me being thousands of miles away from my home to learn the life-changing lesson that what I (little ol’ me) do impacts others not just in my own circles and close to home, but those I’ve never met halfway across the world.
I didn’t know exactly how or why at the time, but I strongly felt that if I gave up my own consumption of meat (among other life changes I’ve made), I would be lessening my harmful footprint even just a bit (especially being that the US is the 2nd highest consumer of meat in the world). This was an important step on my journey toward environmental & human health.
When I “converted” to vegetarianism 7 years ago, I didn’t have a strong scope of understanding when it came to the environmental impact of my decision. I knew there was something to it; so I decided to put the cart before the horse. I gave up meat in all forms, and then I researched the heck out of my decision.
I devoured books by Michael Pollan, Jane Goodall, and others on mindful eating and food systems. I discovered that there was a lot more to the meat issue than I first realized. I didn’t know a lot about the terms “organic” or “grass-fed” when I gave up meat; in fact, I’d never eaten organic meat (to my knowledge) or wild game. It’s here that I want to make clear that I don’t think meat is “bad” or those that eat meat are “bad” or even that the action of eating meat is “bad.”
It’s here that I also want to share some of the environmental impacts that affirmed my decision to forego meat consumption:
- 338 gallons of water are used to produce one serving (3 oz) of beef (source).
- Raising & processing poultry uses about 88 gallons of water per serving (3 oz) (source).
- If recent world harvests were equitably distributed with no diversion of grain to feeding livestock, the World Hunger Program at Brown University estimated that a vegetarian diet could feed 6 billion people, whereas a meat-rich diet like that of people in the wealthier nations could support only 2.6 billion (source).
- Livestock waste has polluted more than 27,000 miles of rivers and contaminated groundwater in dozens of states (source).
- Factory farms in the US generate 130x the waste that humans do (source).
It’s important to take into consideration that all of the above stats are representative of real impacts that affect not only our environment, but us, the inhabitants of this environment. So in addition to the industrial raising of meat polluting our water, air, and soil; it is also doing so within our bodies. Here are some other ways meat consumption impacts human health:
- In 2011, drugmakers sold nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics for livestock — the largest amount yet recorded and about 80% of all reported antibiotic sales that year (source).
- Historically (aka throughout millions of years of evolution), our diets were higher in omega 3s and quite low in omega 6 seed oils. It was actually at the advent of the modern vegetable oil industry that we began our influx of omega 6s. With this, we began feeding livestock corn & grains that are high in omega 6s. Without getting to complex here, having so much omega 6 in our diet is not healthy. When you consume an animal who’s lived primarily on corn & grain (much of it genetically-modified), you are taking on a great deal of omega 6. This imbalance of too much omega 6 & not enough omega 3s has been linked to inflammation (at the heart of many illnesses, cancer, & disease), heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and more (source) & (source).
And what about how health is impacted by being a vegetarian?
What I do know is that veggies are good for us! I’m not going to get into breaking down all the different plants that are full of nutritious goodness, as I think we all have a pretty clear understanding that vegetables (when grown organically, in healthy, rich soil, eaten & prepared in proper ways) are great for our bodies. I know that we all need a diverse diet rich in plant matter whether or not we eat meat.
I feel pretty strongly about nonviolence. There’s a lot behind this that I’m not going to get into here, but suffice it to say that I believe humans are intelligent, compassionate, and evolved enough to solve problems in other ways beyond resorting to violence. This is really complex stuff. I still don’t know how this applies to the slaughter of animals as I can see both (or many) sides.
I do know that there are humane, loving, beautiful ways of raising, killing, processing, and eating animals. Still sometimes I do wonder, if I’m taking this nonviolence stuff pretty seriously, should I be eating animals? Should I even eat plants – I mean, hey, they were alive once too! Okay, moving on. . .
Part of my entering the world of vegetarianism was in response to a deep intrigue over this untouched realm. I hadn’t quite found “my life’s passion,” and really felt that there was something calling me toward creating a healthier world. I decided to follow this calling in my own unique way, my first step of which was becoming a vegetarian.
Because I believe this:
I want to support all the farmers that are growing meat humanely, with care & concern, the way nature intended. I want to vote with my dollar by purchasing healthy animal products.
I want to be part of the positive transformation of farming the natural way (while using much of the technology and information learned in recent years), as it was for a long time before industrial agriculture blew up.
As writer Christine Lennon explains my sentiments so well, “eating sustainable meat purchased from small farmers is a new form of activism—a way of striking a blow against the factory farming of livestock” (source). That is exactly what I’m talking about.
When animals are raised in a way that’s in sync with the natural world – as many small-scale, organic, permaculture, or naturally-minded farmers are doing – the environmental impacts are minimal; in fact, they can even be positive.
Here are some ways these farmers are working with the environment to reduce the impact:
- Using animal waste to grow food. Rather than being a source of pollution in our water & air, manure can be used as a natural fertilizer to enhance plant growth – thus decreasing the use of chemical fertilizers and diverting the waste from pollution all at once.
- Letting their creatures forage, as nature intended. For cows & other ruminants this means munching on grass – they are built to consume this kind of diet rather than grain. For chickens, this means rummaging through the grass to eat insects and worms.
Of course, we can’t assume that any package of eggs stamped with the “organic” seal of approval means that those chickens were running around foraging wildly. But many farmers are giving this lifestyle to their animals, so it’s our job to learn who these farmers are.
- Foregoing the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, or any other kind of unnatural additive to raise their animals.
Healthier animals = healthier people. When cows & other animals are eating a diet heavy in grains, it throws things out of whack in their systems and thus in ours.
The health benefits of eating healthfully-raised beef (as one example) include:
- Grass-fed beef is naturally leaner than grain-fed beef (source)
- Grass-fed beef has the recommended ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats (3:1) (source)
- It can help strengthen the immune system and decrease the risk of heart disease (source)
Additionally, many vegans, vegetarians, and raw foodists have introduced meat into their diet after struggling with health conditions or simple lack of energy/weakness, etc. Now I don’t think I fit into this category, as I feel pretty healthy and my recent blood tests have shown this, but hey, there is an element of “you never know” that I’ve been wondering about. I also fully understand that not every vegan, vegetarian, and raw foodist has health issues and in fact, feels on top of the world!
I’ve never felt strongly against the killing of animals if it’s done in a humane way. To me, this means the animal lives as good a quality of life as possible for the entirety of its walking around on this earth. So I don’t see anything “wrong” with eating meat on a moral level if all these other pieces of the puzzle are honored – environmental & human health, humane treatment of the animal, etc.
With all this paleo talk taking over the universe lately, I’ve found myself wondering . . .
- Will eating meat make me feel better? I don’t feel bad that I’ve noticed, but what if introducing meat into my diet again made me feel amazing!?
- Will I have more energy if I eat meat?
- Is eating meat morally, environmentally, and healthfully the “right” path to take?
I have learned a lot since I became a vegetarian. I’ve learned about our food system, about food politics, about how food is grown & how animals are raised, about health & nutrition, and about people. I’m intrigued and wonder how what I’ve learned over the years can best apply to my diet beyond just my usual concern for eating locally-grown, organic plant-based goodness.
Side note: this is a good read on How to Argue Against Vegetarians.
It’s no doubt that the omnivorism vs. herbivorism debate is a complex one. There are people on both sides that feel 189% positive that their way is “the right way.” And honestly, I don’t know.
I don’t subscribe to a belief that either way – eating meat or not eating meat – is “right” or “wrong.” I do, however, believe that there are “right” and “wrong” ways of eating meat and even vegetables – if we’re talking about caring for the earth, ourselves, and others. I also believe that everyone is different and we each have to find what works for us.
I know ultimately it’s my own decision, but what are your thoughts?
Vegans, vegetarians, paelo peeps, real foodies – show yourselves and share your best pros & cons. I’d love to hear more sides to this great debate that I didn’t even touch on here.