There is a lot that excites me about the argument for vegetarianism, and by and large, it is a lifestyle I espouse--though I've learned to stay away from the pitfalls of nomenclature. I no longer call, or even consider myself a vegetarian, though for many years I was proud to use the title. I have not embraced an omnivorous life because I love the taste of meat (though I do), nor because I feel some Biblical imperative to subdue the land (which I don't), nor as a result of an obscene idea that I need to pack protein into every bite of food I take (no again). So what would cause me, after so many years of calling myself an herbivore, to remove my mantle? Fundamentally, I believe that the case for vegetarianism is fundamentally flawed, and that it actually threatens progress where animal welfare and environmentalism are concerned.
One could argue, as most vegetarians do, that the example a vegetarian can set by not eating meat is extraordinarily valuable. I appreciate this idea, and believe that people really can influence each other in profound, grassroots ways, in this case by questioning the injustices and ecological damage created by the meat industry. Sadly, though, and for reasons both cultural and natural, human beings mostly eat meat--and they always will: to deny it is to deny the opportunity to address the inadequacies of our current meat-producing system.
I know that there are thousands of theories both for and against meat consumption. My account addresses only one issue, which I believe is the crux of the debate, but please forgive me for not going into all of the philosophical details of consciousness and domination. I think they're important, but what matters more to virtually every meat eater I know is that meat is an inherent part of life. Vegetarians counter this with many moral nuances, but most often by arguing that eating animals is bad for animals and bad for the planet. They are not wrong here, but their view is limited. When done properly, eating meat can actually advance our landscape, society and economy...and that is why I ate steak for dinner last night.
It wasn't just any steak, although it did have me thinking about one very interesting debate between two great food enthusiasts, Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer, who have both written about the troubling choice of the omnivore's dilemma--eating animals, as it were. Pollan argues that eating meat is so naturalized into the human being that he sensed he was breaking a fundamental bond by abstaining during a period of experimental vegetarianism. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan explains that he found it too difficult to tell hosts and friends about his eating habit, and frequently felt that he was making other people feel awkward or accommodating. I have experienced this as well, but if Pollan had been a vegetarian because of a genuine, moral impulse--which he admittedly was not--then he would have felt comfortable in the decision. Instead, Pollan advocates for eating meat born, raised and killed in a humane environment.
Safran Foer certainly doesn't feel like he's putting anybody out through his vegetarianism. Instead, he introduces a brilliant counterpoint to Mr. Pollan's argument in his book Eating Animals: essentially, he asks what someone with Mr. Pollan's view would do if served a roast in someone's home. Would you ask where it came from, or just dig in? Arguably, putting the host on the spot would make matters much more uncomfortable than simply making it known that you were a vegetarian in advance of supper.
Unfortunately, Safran Foer undoes his argument throughout most of the book by relentlessly pressing the reader to experience shock and disgust. There is nothing pleasant about the sea lice that accumulate on farmed salmon, nor would anyone want to order a plate of ribs while reading about botched slaughters at factory farms. These horrors are a reality and worth noting. After I read the book I was smugly proud of my own vegetarianism, even though I had been sneaking bites of meat for some time. I vowed never again.
And then it hit me: if I do not eat meat, and more importantly, if I refuse to cook meat, my marriage will suffer. I am married to a man who eats animals and who has expressed a desire that our children eat animals. He has plainly stated that he will not support raising children without eggs, dairy or meat. Indeed, abstaining from any food that might cause harm to the animal or planet is the logical conclusion to draw from Safran Foer's argument: the dairies and chicken farms that supply yogurt and eggs are no less harmful or implicit in the factory-farm based food system currently in place. Quite honestly, despite my many years of good health as a vegetarian, I'm not sure that I would feel comfortable raising my children without animal products--say what you will about protein in fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, etc., but the human body and brain have undoubtedly evolved around eating animals and their biproducts. Would I want to deny my child something I was given until I chose to walk away from it at age 19?
Safran Foer also condemns the meat industry in its entirety, claiming that there is one--a single--farmer in all of America who is actually producing chickens that are sustainable through and through. They come from heirloom semen, fed all clean, fair food and allowed to roam into the great blue yonder. These birds, he argues, are the only ones in the country that have a life worth being slaughtered for. And still he won't support the effort, rationalizing that it is cruel for a larger, smarter animal to take advantage of a smaller one.
It's true that eating animals is not necessary for the average adult where survival is concerned. But the plain truth is that no person, not Einstein, not Gandhi, not Safran Foer can change the fact that most people long to eat meat, and will eat meat. The argument to turn everyone into a vegetarian is creating a polarization that is not helping the effort to move away from factory farming. Therefore, the argument against meat could actually keep our food system in a rut. A more pragmatic plan is called for here--and yes, redefinitions of our own moral and gastronomic codes.
As someone who does care about animals, the planet and my community, I believe there is a better, more tenable way for me to live. For example, my husband and I receive a home delivery of meat from a local farm called Jolie Vue, which is dedicated not only to giving pigs, cows and chickens a happy life, but also to restoring native grasses to the area they farm. Animals are slaughtered and butchered by locals who share a sense of pride and reverence for the work they do. I can think of no better cause to support--even if I pass on the pork most nights and leave the pig meat to my husband.
Anyone hoping to make a lasting argument in the case for eating or not eating meat has to face the basic facts: most people want meat--at least where they have been accustomed to eating it. I recognize that supplying meat in mass quantities would be impossible from family-run farms, but perhaps those of us who have the time, energy and means to get twisted up about it should make a point to support local meat producers--believe me, good ones are out there--in hopes that they can take some of the market share away from factory farms and create an ever-widening circle of sustainable meat suppliers. In the meantime, I feel more comfortable saying that I prefer to eat meat whose origins I recognize: I feel morally bound to this and confident in my decision. There is a space between choosing to ignore the problem and making everyone else feel bad. Mostly, it involves cooking for yourself, hosting a lot more and accepting the occasional awkwardness of hoping to create an example.