The Vegetarian Question

le Halle market, Paris, ca. 1879 On this Thanksgiving Day celebration I thought it important to contemplate food. Like many American ideals Thanksgiving itself has become mythologized and taught to grade school children as a feast of interracial harmony between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Pilgrims completely unprepared for the conditions they were to encounter in  Plymouth in 1621. On the brink of starvation and drunk on “at least a half gallon of beer a day, which they preferred even to water” they were rescued by the uninvited Wampanoags who had produced 20 acres of corn. In 1704 the governor of Massachusetts formalized Thanksgiving as a celebration of the European primacy over the native inhabitants.

Thanksgiving is an ugly holiday for me. A reminder of all that is broken with our society in America and our continual unwillingness to confront our real past in order to form a more perfect union. We visit our families under false pretense and indulge in a caloric orgy the average Malaysian could live on for a month. We eat foods, mostly absent during the original Thanksgiving and sit watching television in anticipation of the follow days blind consumerism that supports another myth, Christmas. At the center of our self deception is food. It is food that brings us together, that sustains us and is at the core of our environmental attitude.

I have several friends who are practicing vegetarians or my favorite term, fishetarians or pescetarians. I have been a lifelong omnivore and although I have altered my diet as I’ve grown older, I still eat meat without regret or shame. A few days ago I heard mention of a Thanksgiving with Tofurky®, the manufactured soy-based turkey replacement made by Turtle Island Foods in Oregon. It got me thinking about the issues surrounding vegetarianism and our relationship to food. Most of the vegetarians I know are adamant about their practices and often take a position on moral high ground. Rather than concede this position or admit defeat against it I thought it would be prudent to examine the underpinnings of this lifestyle choice.

Moral The morality of killing animals is a common theme brought to bear when choosing vegetarianism. This is an offshoot of the ancient religion of Jainism, a central tenant of which is every living being has a soul, every soul is potentially divine with innate infinite knowledge, infinite perception, infinite power, and infinite bliss and therefore, regard every living being as yourself and harm no one. This is the principle of Ahimsa, “non violence in all parts of a person -- mental, verbal and physical." From this central premise arises the pledge of the vegetarian from the Vegetarian Society; “We define a vegetarian as someone living on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits, with or without the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacea, or slaughter by-products.”

Analyzing this from a logical position the first question that arises is, what defines a “living being?” The Jainist’s include plants in that description, although they eat grains and plants that potentially destroy the plant itself. This has always puzzled me. If your central concern is to not harm other living beings why don’t plants count? Why are animals sacred, especially animals that would devour us if given the chance? Therefore, I would ask, do vegetarians who believe in this premise of not harming animals extend that to all living beings? Do they refrain from using paper harvested from trees? Alice Walker says; “"The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men." This statement oversimplifies the philosophical underpinnings of vegetarianism by equating animals (not plants) with humans and suggesting that we live autonomous existences. I admire Ms. Walker a great deal but find this statement fallacious and ignorant of the realities of the natural world and yet representative of many vegetarians. The work of a multitude of naturalists and zoologists has proven many animals engage in killing and often without reason. Regardless of the violent nature of the natural world, humans are animals ourselves and were once integrated into the natural environment as top level predators. Our predatory nature likely influences our attitudes toward other top level predators, such as bears, sharks, big cats, etc. Clearly we no longer live amongst the animal kingdom, and have separated ourselves from it in a highly industrialized manner. Therefore, this begs another question; do we live as we were intended to live based on our neolithic past or do we strive for what can be done in our current circumstances?

Industrialization vs. Cooperation One of the primary reasons I am a non-religious person, an atheist is due in large part to the morality of religion. Morality is a construct based upon absolute rules that adhere to dogma’s that restrict choice. If I as an individual am to believe in the freedom of the soul (for lack of a better word) than I must remain capable of personal choices that may under certain conditions cut against the grain of moral certitude. I make this point because I doubt few vegetarians would be willing to die in the moral certainty of their beliefs. Would a vegetarian choose starvation if the only food source available were meat?

I find a more appropriate tool is ethics. Although the practice of ethics deals with moral relationships it is a philosophical approach outside of it. More specifically I am speaking to applied ethics. This by no means allows for absolute resolution to my preceding questions, but it does provide a framework from which to examine them outside of dogmatic ideology. If the root of vegetarianism's concern for animals is a matter of suffering or violence toward other beings, then is there a non-violent approach to killing animals for food? Is violence perpetrated against (the living beings) plants by altering their genetics (I’m speaking strictly in the naturalist sense here, not the industrialized sense of genetically modified foods) or forcing their accelerated reproduction or even their off-season reproduction (i.e., greenhouse growing)? Several scientific studies have published findings that plants have a rudimentary nervous system which allows them to feel pain. If this proves correct, then there is little moral difference between eating lettuce and eating chicken or fish. This would appear to leave us all bound to fruitarianism, or strictly eating only seeds, nuts and harvested fruits. Of course most nutritionists caution that this leads to extreme weight loss and a breakdown of the pancreas. In order to find a rational variety of fruits and nuts one would be left to incorporate many exotics, such as avocados, mangos, bananas, dates, etc., many of which travel great distances in order to arrive at our local supermarkets.

This brings us to the other concern related to vegetarianism, the industrialization of our food. The vast majority of the vegetables grown in the U.S. are derived from three central California valleys, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin and the Imperial. That means unless you live within a 100 mile radius of one of those locations, you are burning precious fossil fuel in order to receive your veggies. That fuel comes from tankers that come from Middle Eastern countries that engage in human torture. Drilling the oil involves environmental degradation of pristine desert wilderness areas. The refineries that process the crude into gasoline or diesel for trucks are known polluters of sensitive ecosystems, such as the Gulf of Mexico, again harming or even destroying whole species of animals, not to mention the humans that live nearby. The refrigeration units on the trucks leak refrigerants into the ozone increasing global warming. Even when these refrigerants have been banned, other countries, such as Mexico continue to use them. The irrigation necessary to water these huge semi-arid valleys that maintain 2 growing seasons is tremendous and also requires methods that degrade the environment and burn fossil fuel. Finally, the overwhelming majority of farm workers that harvest organic crops are immigrants who live on substandard wages, bent over in hot fields 8 - 10 hours a day and are provided miserable living conditions.

Let’s look at Tofurky for an example. Turtle Island Foods is a privately held company in Oregon (unlike many of the large organic vegetable producers today) who powers their plant with wind power energy purchases and carefully analyzes their soybeans for genetic modification. However, rather than a whole food, your Tofurky is a highly processed amalgam of spices, bean curd and other ingredients. This most unnatural concept of developing a food from a combination of other foods seems to fly in the face of living in touch with the environment. Because Tofurky comes from Oregon, unless you live in Portland, you are shipping your food a long way in order to enjoy a faux turkey experience. Additionally, the rice, grains and soybeans that go into the manufacture of Tofurky do not come from Portland, but instead often travel thousands of miles. Finally, I raise the question of why a proclaimed vegetarian would want to consume something that is deliberately named for that which is immoral and reprehensible, i.e. the animal they refuse to kill? Why would you want to eat anything called a burger or hot dog? Aren’t those names symbolic of the very torture and killing you suggest takes place against the animal kingdom?

Dehumanizing our food Let me say for the record, I take no umbrage with vegetarians. There is an unquestionable glut of eating and and overindulgence with our food requirements, particularly in America. We have moved further away from our food origins than perhaps any other culture on Earth. Supermarkets have replaced farmer’s markets, butchers and bakeries. Even in the U.K. a recent survey showed “22% of 1,073 adults questioned did not know bacon and sausages originate from farms.” I am certain that figure would be much higher in the U.S. This distancing ourselves from our own food is coupled with an accelerated anthropomorphizing of animals in the media. Movies from Babe to Ratatouille give animals human qualities, behaviors and voices. Children are given Teddy Bears and fuzzy stuffed animals to play with rather than being introduced to zoos and farms. Habitats have been swallowed by unchecked rampant development unhinging once thriving species. It would seem we would prefer our animals either behind bars or in cartoons. On a Parisian episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations he visited the great central Parisian market his restaurant in NYC is named for Le Halle, immortalized in the great Zola book The Fat and the Thin. Throughout the market animals appeared uncleaned, full feathered, fully scaled, and retaining their extremities including their heads. Interested in wild boar or pheasant, there it is in all its original splendor, dead and ready to be cleaned by the purchaser for dining. This kind of intimacy with one’s food is non-existent in America unless you are priviledged enough to live on one of the few remaining family farms, or live in a region where hunting is for food not sport. Even deer hunting, the most prevalent of the blood sports in America is mainly devoid of connection. High powered weapons take down deer from a distance, often baited to their doom. The deer is dragged to a waiting truck and handed off to a butcher who cleans and prepares the meat for the hunter and his bragging rights.

As Michael Pollan so eloquently, and thoughtfully recorded in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma we are at a crossroads in terms of our dietary practices. The ethics of the way we eat is riddled with complication and ethical dilemmas. Americans have arrived at a highly neurotic state when it comes to food with lipophobia at one end and obesity the other. The media landscape is littered with diet books and exercise regimens to counteract our imbalanced attitudes toward our food. Fast food remains the staple of our eating and supermarkets cleverly arranged to maximize profit based on unhealthy consumption rain supreme. In the midst of this neurosis lies the added dimension of our environmental impact and subsequent acceleration of global warming.

Although not a vegetarian myself, I have given up beef. Although I have a clear concern for industrialized farming and the ridiculous practice of feeding ungulates corn they cannot digest without pumping them full of antibiotics and hormones, my reasons are centered more in the environment. Cattle are unsustainable as a species en masse. As our federal government culls heards of the last remaining biologically pure Bison, a true indigenous species, we allow cattle to roam unfettered destroying natural grasses and disrupting the environment in some our most unspoiled wilderness. Cattle require tremendous natural resources to maintain, depleting water, grains and fossil fuels in order to bring a steak or hamburger to your table or car.

It’s more than the idea another creature may have suffered at my indirect hand. Ethically I feel bound to find a balance between all the factors that contribute to my food. Utilizing more of an animal is paramount, not just selecting the good bits and throwing away the rest or making it into dog food. Choosing foods that are as locally grown as possible, organic and require the least amount of industrial support. Eating macrobiotically. Being in touch more with my food, understanding it’s origin. Not eating fast food or at restaurants that do not promote the same values I believe in. Avoiding processed foods or industrialized animal farming. Appreciating that I have the potential to be another animals food source and therefore respecting the sacrifice made when they become mine.

I don’t presume to have the answers but are dedicated to being more thoughtful about my food for the sake of the greater good, not just the sake of the chicken, pig or head of lettuce. We all must eat to live, animals and humans alike. The challenge is to find a way to support an overextended global population while maintaining balance within the environment. Perhaps our concerns should range more toward culling our own species and worry less about the pigs, cows and chickens. I for one, believe it is our nature to be omnivorous but that doesn't mean we have to indulge in rapacious meat eating like we're persisently attending some Roman bacchanalian feast or blindly indulge in food without any awareness of its origins.