I played at being vegetarian in my mid 20s when I shared a house with one, and I was about 85% successful, having occasional lapses whenever I returned home to my parents for a Sunday roast, or gorged on a kebab after a heavy session on the beer. I was ever so pretentious back then, and whilst I claimed I did it for moral and ethical reasons, I am fairly sure I did it because I couldn’t be arsed to cook my own tea. It lasted about a year, and then after the novelty faded I lapsed back into my old, omnivorian ways.
Fast forward nearly 30 years and hopefully stripped of most of the pretension I carried through my youth, I now find myself once again thinking more and more about vegetarianism.
I think initially it was for health reasons. Health, and specifically healthy eating, are topics I spend a lot of time researching these days. Ageing is another topic I think about a lot too, and I think it was this impending fear of death that spurred me on to find healthier ways of living, and better ways of eating.
However, the more I looked into meat, the less convinced I was that it was bad for you. Certainly eating too much meat isn’t good, and smoked/processed meats seem to be particularly dodgy, but I couldn’t find much argument against eating modest amounts of high quality meat. After all it’s filled with stuff we need – iron, protein, zinc, B vitamins, magnesium, the list goes on … and so I couldn’t logically discount meat on health grounds, at least not in moderation.
But reading up on this stuff further, I learnt more about the way our meat is farmed. The ladybird book of our childhood depicting a farm where the calf frolics with the piglet whilst the hens sit playfully on the red tractor, is seemingly a long way from the truth. I’m not going to go into what I discovered here, it’s all online should you want to know more, suffice to say I found it very disturbing indeed.
I watched videos of slaughterhouses, not extreme cases, but everyday slaughterhouses. I forced myself to do this, on the basis that if I eat meat I should at least be aware how the meat is produced. But it was hard. Should you want to take a look for yourself, here’s one example from Belgium. This is how your pork is made. It’s very, very difficult to watch. So difficult in fact that it has forced me to seriously reconsider vegetarianism, not on health grounds, but on the basis of cruelty. If that’s what a pig has to go through so I can eat sausages, then I’m not sure I want any part of it.
So that’s animal cruelty, but what about the ethics? Is it right to kill animals? Well not really, although one can argue that if we rear animals for eating, we are creating lives that otherwise would never have existed. If we take the grim, slaughterhouse cruelty of death out of the equation and assume instead that the Ladybird book of farming were true, where Farmer Giles leads the family cow into a field, has a quiet word in his or her ear and painlessly ends its long and beautiful life, it’s still questionable to me whether that’s ethical. Speciesism says that it’s OK to kill that animal (the cow), but not that animal (the dog), unless you live in Korea where it’s OK to kill both. We eat chicken, pigeon possibly, but not squirrels or rats. Or guinea pigs. Double standards everywhere, no coherent logic, no consistency. Speciesism, ageism, racism – think about it for long and you spot a certain trend.
And then there’s the environmental aspects of the meat industry: Cowspiracy. Once again, utterly shocking. We shower instead of bathing, we research more environmentally friendly cars, we recycle our carrier bags, yet none of it even comes close to countering the environmentally disastrous and potentially catastrophic impacts of large scale, global factory farming. Cowspiracy is a well made and humorous film and well worth a watch (free on Netflix), and I urge you to watch it. Don’t worry, it’s not grim like the slaughterhouse.
And so here I am, aged 52. I still eat meat because its easier to eat meat than not eat meat, particularly in a house of meat eaters, but it’s getting harder. Whilst I enjoy the taste of meat, whenever I eat it now it’s tainted with a growing sense of guilt and dare I say some shame and slight disgust. I ate meat twice this past week. You can’t be a little bit pregnant I hear you say, and you’re right. I’m a hypocrite. Whether I ate meat once, or 21 times in a week, makes no difference ethically. One could argue it makes a difference environmentally perhaps – if everyone ate less meat, less animals would be killed due to falling demand, etc. Less meat consumption also means less cruelty, but you’re still endorsing cruelty. Hypocritical
Oh and then there’s dairy farming. Milk and egg production are arguably just as cruel and ethically wrong as meat farming. Some claim even more so. And I have huge issues here too, and more exposed double standards. I gave up drinking cow’s milk two years ago, yet I still eat cheese, and I eat eggs. I could at least source eggs locally, eggs that haven’t been factory farmed exploiting chickens locked in dark cages. And by consuming less cow’s milk I can claim I am making at least some impact on the numbers of dairy cows, but it’s still hypocritical, and it’s still only a start.
I really don’t know if I’m brave enough to ever become vegetarian, let alone vegan but morally, ethically I feel I really should try. A possible halfway house is to become pescatarian, eating fish only, but this is still dodgy ground for any moral crusader. Like it’s OK to eat a fish but not a cow or a pig? But, it might be argued, it’s a start. It’s a move in the right direction along the ethical/cruelty spectrum that goes something like this:
Omnivore -> Pescatarian -> Vegetarian -> Vegan -> Fruitarian.
Becoming a fruitarian is just silly, becoming a vegan is very, very hard and vegetarianism is extremely challenging. Pescatarianism might be a stepping stone, but if you’re heading that way for moral and ethical reasons it’s difficult to make that your end stop.