Breaking Vegetarian: The Ethical Implications of Eating Meat

Paste's column on eating meat mindfully

Food Features Vegetarian
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In a recent column for NPR, Barbara J. King asks experts from the Humane Society, Farm Sanctuary, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals a question on many people’s minds as they make the decision to become a meat-eater again: does being vegan or vegetarian really help animals? As an advocate for ethical omnivorism, I was curious to see what the latest views are on supporting the well-being of food animals through dietary choices.

What I found most revealing in the panelists’ responses was how familiar they were, as they are many of the same ethical considerations I articulate when asked about the guiding principles of my omnivore diet: namely, the treatment of livestock animals in factory farm conditions, and the negative environmental and human health impacts of those factory farms.

I became a vegetarian for many of the same reasons: I decided it was wrong to participate in such a harmful system in exchange for some culinary pleasures. I spent the next seven years as a vegetarian, boycotting the meat industry, and researching additional ethical considerations related to food choices. In general, many vegans and vegetarians are concerned with not doing harm through their diet, and with making what they see as compassionate choices for life on their planet. And what I learned in that time is that nothing about eating animals is simple, black-and-white ethics.

Paula Lee, author of the recent memoir Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat, says it’s important to remember that “all eating involves the death of animals, even vegan diets, because animal and human death is everywhere and cannot be avoided, no matter how carefully you’ve constructed your personal cosmological order.”

For example, as a vegetarian, I often purchased boxes of frozen meat substitute products—soy burgers and fake chik’n nuggets—which I discovered were often subsidiary brands of multinational corporations like Smithfield or Tyson, that own and operate inhumane animal feeding operations. I read Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland and learned that even produce sold at alternative grocery chains is picked by underpaid workers in near-slave labor conditions.

For so long, I had assumed I was maintaining a diet that caused less suffering, but my vegetarianism had blinded me to the myriad other ethical dilemmas that were a part of my eating choices. I started wondering whether not eating animals was the only, or even the best, way to make such a compassionate choice.

Antonia Malchik, a writer and former vegetarian, remembers similar realizations: “How, I thought, could I pretend that not eating pork from a locally-raised pig, while at the same time eating soy products whose cultivation has destroyed massive rainforest habitat for all kinds of animals could actually be considered an ethical choice?”

I was still a vegetarian when I moved to Iowa for graduate school, right into the belly of the industrial agricultural beast. I was surrounded, most of the time, by wide expanses of corn and soybean fields, most of which, I knew, would be used to feed livestock animals. I was saddened, thinking of how many bushels of healthy, diverse vegetables could grow in that same nutrient-rich soil. I didn’t have to drive too far to find livestock processing facilities, nondescript grey buildings surrounded by electric fences, or feedlots, half-mile-long pits of mud and feces where droves of cattle stood idly swatted their tails.

But I also saw farmers who weren’t participating in that food system. Who were, in fact, as opposed to and disgusted by it as I was. Farmers like Nick Wallace, whose growth hormone- and antibiotic-free cattle roam on acres of carefully-chosen grass species, and are slaughtered in a specially-designed, stress-free environment. Farms like Flavor of the Sun, whose heritage breed chickens roam in rotation through grass and wooded environments, receiving a high-quality diet of insects, grains, and berries, while supporting and regulating the natural ecosystem.

In summarizing the panelists’ responses to her question about whether not eating meat saves animal lives, King writes, “animal rescue is not as much about filling up sanctuaries with animals saved from slaughter, as it is approaching our entire food system with fresh eyes.”

This was exactly my goal when I decided to started eating meat again. I wanted to move beyond boycotting a food economy whose practices I found abhorrent, and move towards supporting what I see as a burgeoning food economy recentered on small-scale, local, sustainable farming, some of which does involve raising livestock animals. I decided that, by investing in these sources of meat production, we can attempt to offset the suffering implicit in any act of eating.

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Flickr/Lokesh Dhakar

I’ve found that many former-vegetarian omnivores grapple with this knowledge, such as writer Jessica Vozel, who says, “I still struggle with this, which is why I limit my meat consumption and try to make ethical choices in the kinds of meat I buy. It’s actually a really complicated switch.”

Ultimately, we have chosen to eat meat, rather than boycott it, because we want to face the reality of suffering head-on, so that we can choose how and where to invest our food dollars to do the most good. But it comes with the complex, but rewarding, benefit of thinking much more holistically about our food system.

“It’s easy to say ‘all life is death and suffering’ …but for me, all ethics are something I struggle with almost daily,” Malchik says. “The important thing for me is not to bury the facts behind how I live and the choices I make. Facing them is a lifelong effort.”

What I’ve seen of living animals on small-scale, locally-owned farms, and what I’ve learned about corporate connections, environmental degradation, and human suffering in the food system suggests that the way an animal is raised and killed for food affects much more than an individual’s eating pleasure. How the animal is raised impacts the ground on which it lives. The quality of that land impacts the farm and the farmer, and their larger community, environmentally and economically. The practices on a farm and the pricing of food affects whether a community has enough jobs, which affects whether or not members of that community will be able to afford to eat. Whether or not someone will buy an animal to eat impacts the labor conditions and pay scale of farm workers.

Lee thinks of her dietary choices this way, too, saying, “By serving others well, we all have the opportunity to honor and respect the plant and animal lives that contribute to our own. The plate is the world in microcosm.”

The point here is that neither a purely vegan diet nor an omnivorous diet can be considered automatically ethically sound. Both are rife with complicated questions. I just strive to face those questions, every day.

As Vozel says, “The main thing for me is not being flippant about my meat-eating. I recognize that it’s a decision with consequences, and try to honor that by limiting my meat consumption and making deliberate choices in the meat I buy.”

The question of whether or not to eat meat is not simply an animal-rights issue. It’s an environmental issue, a labor rights issue, a fair trade issue, an issue of our global community’s economic, environmental, and human progress. If our ethical goal is to live in harmony with our world, eating a hamburger doesn’t have to run counter to those ideals. It can be a way to invest in them, to practice them with every bite we take.

Marissa Landrigan’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed a food memoir titled “The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.” She currently lives in western Pennsylvania, where she runs the food-themed reading series Acquired Taste, and teach writing at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.