An essay from an ex-vegetarian
I was a staunch, borderline militant vegetarian for over ten years, almost the entirety of my 20’s. I felt a deep compulsion to spread this message of new-found spiritual and environmental liberation with whomever would listen. I pasted PETA stickers onto all my belongings, including my ID book, and it become a way of life, a deep part of my sense of identity, as opposed just an ideology. Eating meat meant animals died, the majority of animals being purposely and horrifically factory farmed, for profit and for the palates of the uncaring carnivorous population. I viewed this as a one way street, whereby if you ate meat, you were a murderer, and if you didn’t, we were kindred spirits in our uprising of the animal liberation movement.
I had made my decision; I had seen the hidden-camera videos in slaughter houses, the faces of condemned animals facing their doom, I had cherry-picked the studies and blog articles and YouTube videos on the health benefits and ethical gravitas of vegetarianism, and I never even considered an alternative. Not for a second. This way of life made perfect sense. And to a large degree still does.
It seems difficult to believe that as someone who considers themself open minded, I never felt compelled to see the other side of the coin, to see this thing from another perspective, to put my bias to one side and face the truth.
A rabbit hole of such proportions it consumed me completely, changed the way I viewed myself, and the way I interact with the environment around me profoundly and permanently.
About nine years into this lifestyle I began feeling like my hunger could never be satisfied. After every meal I felt hungry again 20 minutes later. I ate as much soya, bread, pasta, vegetables and fruit as I could stomach, but I was never left satisfied.
Excluding the first beginning phase of conversion and confusion, and living on cheese sandwiches, I considered my eating habits healthy and well-rounded the majority of the time, so this new dissatisfaction with meals was confusing. Other side-effects were an almost permanent lethargy, and after a lifetime of strong, healthy teeth, they started to crack and break away, for no apparent reason. I’m no health expert, and I know these health changes could be chalked away as symptoms of some other dietary deficiency, but I had maintained a steady, fairly routine and healthy diet and the onset of these symptoms were alarmingly sudden.
Then another thing happened to really get me thinking- two big carnivorous dogs came into my life, shortly followed by two even more carnivorous felines.
I started researching vegetarian diets for dogs, desperately hoping it was possible. It turns out it is not only possible, but there are swaths of websites and movements and blogs dedicated to this very thing. In fact one of the oldest living dogs on record, a border collie, lived to 27 years on an apparent 100% vegan diet. But the more I read the more complicated and confusing it became; how could I deny my pets the meat they instinctively craved? I couldn’t, and if I fed them meat, I was now supporting the very industry I so vehemently opposed.
It was at this crossroads that I really started questioning and challenging the beliefs I so deftly clung on too. At precisely this time an arbitrary thumbing through an organic farming magazine pointed the way. I saw a tiny thumbnail advertising a book called “The Vegetarian Myth” by Leirre Kieth. This sounded like precisely what I was looking for. It was, and far more. The scope of the book completely unhinged my entire belief system concerning my relationship with the natural world, it left me in tears multiple times, and tore what had become a part of my identity apart. It showed me the flaws in my fundamentalist thinking, and things were not so black and white. You will find a lot of opposition to this book online, naturally, as this is not an easy narrative to accept. In fact there are entire websites dedicated to discrediting it. However most of the accusations and mistakes that are pointed out, fall short, and in the end are meaningless, because its the entire premise of the book that holds all the weight. Its our part to play in the cycles of life and death that we are so seemingly ignorant too, and disconnected from, hoping we can hide behind tofu and grains.
The practise of large-scale factory farming is, and always will be; disgusting, abhorrent, viciously cruel, and utterly inhumane. There is absolutely no excusing it. But there is another way, a humane way, a circular exchange in which we can be a part of, in which we are no longer at the apex of a cruel capitalistic pyramid, but where we are a part of deep, inherent,and ancient cycle of life and death.
Because the fact is this: no matter what you eat, somewhere, a living creature had to die in order for you to live.
This is the immutable truth of which most of us have lost sight. We have replaced forests of diversity with acres of mono-crops. We are destroying vast tracts of precious topsoil, bathing any life that remains in pesticides and chemical fertilizers. We are feeding ruminates with government-sanctioned mountains of corn, which only makes them, and us, desperately sick. The premise of the vegetarian ethic is rooted in compassion for the earth and all her creatures, and it is at the heart of a movement which, although pure in intention, needs to broaden its scope. Our ethical compass cannot begin and end at consuming flesh. There is far, far more at stake. While factory farming is an obvious and massive contributor to our environmental crisis, it is the tip of a much larger and far more insidious iceberg: industrial agriculture.
This is what is almost solely responsible for wiping out our topsoil, deforesting our planets lungs, and poisoning our rivers mercilessly with toxic fertilizers. And this is the very system vegetarians rely so heavily on, with a glaring dichotomy, as this method of mass food production has destoyed more bio-diversity than anything else. Animal agriculture needs plant agriculture to survive,they are intimately intertwined in a self-evident feedback loop. The fact that a huge percentage of agricultural production goes to factory farmed livestock is another powerful argument in the vegetarian case. The argument that these grains could be used to feed people directly, as opposed to going to meat production. But why eliminate only one side of an ecologically devastating coin? We need to take a broader look at the picture, for the future of our planet, and for the future of its bio-diversity.
Agriculture, on any kind of large scale, is utterly dependent on oil in order to function. From pesticides to fertilizer to machinery to transport, oil is there every step of the way. This is clearly not a sustainable way to continue. The soil eventually gets to the point where it is utterly inert, where not even the most potent fertilizer can coax it into life.Or it is otherwise washed away completely, silting up rivers and destroying marine ecology, and industry just simply moves on to the next defenseless patch of land. It is a dramatic draw down of resources, and an ignorant assumption that oil, and our soil, are limitless.
But there are farmers who are proving that the opposite is possible. Joel Salatin being the heroic example. Not only is he raising cattle ethically on pasture, he has developed systems where he is actually building the topsoil, as opposed to systematically drawing it down. Making ingenious uses of rotations of livestock, he is building topsoil, producing high quality pasture-raised organic beef, chicken, pork, eggs, and more, and doing it all ethically and sustainably. His farm feeds not only his family but hundreds of members of his immediate community too. The animals enjoy happy free-range lives, are slaughtered ethically, and are completely free of antibiotics, artificial hormones, and most importantly, the diseases seen only in close-proximity factory farming.
Systems and farms like these are glaring examples of another way, a better way, an all encompassing way, and shows factory farming is clearly not the only method to produce meat. The current flawed western world-view is that the factory farming of animals is equated inseparably with the consumption of meat. But this is a modern phenomenon, based solely on cheap commodity corn, not the be all and end all of meat production.
As it stands, the majority of vegan and vegetarian diets are made possible only by the proliferation of globalization. To be able to thrive, especially as a vegan, on a diet sourced from local networks only, would be very difficult, and probably impossible in colder climates. Most of the food needed must be imported, again using tons of fossil fuels for transportation, packaging, and preservation.
I mention local sources, as this is the crux of the entire argument. We are heading swiftly towards a global food crises if we keep on growing food the way we are, and the path to the aversion of this crises lies in the local market. Small-scale organic farming is the future, the kind of farming that is unavoidably intertwined in a beautiful symbiosis with animals. We need them to fertilize our soils, to build the topsoil, and turn the grasses we cannot ingest into high quality protein. If done on a relatively small scale, this can be achieved in a way that is good for the animals, good for us, and ultimately good for the bio-diversity and soil of the farm its produced on. We can produce an amazing variety food in harmony with nature, instead of mono-cropping her into desertification. But we need to think local. Not grains from the US, gojis from china, honey from the EU and salt from Pakistan. It sounds like a Utopian hallucination, but its the only way out of this mess we’ve created.
I started eating meat again four years ago, and the transition was honestly, a difficult one. I have not strayed from my vegetarian values, but instead honour them; as my past, has shown me a new way forward. I feel better, stronger, more energized, my teeth are no longer falling out, but most importantly I have sense that I’m grounded again. I am a part of the bigger picture, the all encompassing paradigm, an active and conscious participant in the circle of life and death.
I had one more gate to pass through though, to test my resolution. In some sectors of the population its an everyday part of life, yet to others, its barbaric, inhumane, and to use a term from ‘Animal Liberation’ author Peter Singer; speciesist.
I had to take a life.
Not indirectly as I had been thus far for my food, but with my own hands.
And I did. A chicken. Two to be exact. I humbly took their lives. Along with my wife and daughters and two friends who showed us the way, I killed them,we plucked them, gutted them, cleaned them, and experienced the process from start to finish.
Now, this was by no means easy for me, and in fact I could not eat properly for days afterwards. It was in no way enjoyable, or easy, or even satisfying, but it was in some ways liberating. I completed the circle. As hard as it was I faced the reality of the cycle of life, and death. I cried for that chicken, but I also felt immense gratitude for the food I had never before had a hand in creating.
I felt grateful.
Empathetic. Like never before.
I was a link in the chain, not a sideline observer.
I will be judged, condemned, even laughed at for this, but I feel like a participant of life like I never have previously.
I will end by saying that there are volumes of conflicting information out in the world, and all one can do is follow their heart, and their own moral compass. The vegetarian ethic is a beautiful one, and one we can all learn a lot from. But there is another ethic we can immerse ourselves in, one also based in compassion, respect, community. And one in which we can hopefully start undoing the ecological damage we’ve inflicted thus-far on our biosphere, towards a new future paradigm where we are active, conscious and compassionate participants.