Guest post by Michael Coward
INTRODUCTION: MY LIFE AS A MEAT-EATER
My journey to veganism was a reluctant one. It was already a significant step that I chose to stop eating meat. My high school friends and I used to put on “beef-fest,” which (innuendo aside) included just about every edible part of the cow supplemented by various bacon and sausage offerings. When I met my wife-to-be, she was a vegetarian, but that couldn’t withstand my carnivorous convincing. We consumed decadent quantities of dead animal, everything from pâté and foie gras to massive steaks and head cheese. I was a cheeseburger addict like Randy from Trailer Park Boys.
We worked in the food service and bore witness to live crawfish boils, the butchering of a whole pig (a coworker went to the farm to pick it out while it was still alive), pickled cow heart, fried pig skin, and fishermen bringing in their still twitching fresh catch.
THE SEEDS OF CHANGE
Even after viewing Food, Inc. I didn’t bat an eye at sushi, chicken stock, beer filtered by fish livers, or leather. I knew that shark fin soup was bad, but pushed the remainder of the issue as far from my mind as possible.
Food, Inc. left a lasting impression, but the backfire effect had its hold on me. I told myself that it couldn’t be that bad. I’m slow to change my mind and this was no exception. Through the culinary scenes of Minneapolis and Miami, my gratuitous meat consumption continued. When my wife wanted to go to a local vegan restaurant here in Chattanooga, I told her to take a friend.
The best burger in Chattanooga is at Main Street Meats. We once bought a whole rabbit from them, took it home, and butchered it. When it comes to their steaks, there’s no competition, and it was after eating one such steak that I became honest about how I felt.
I felt guilty.
I felt guilty. I grew up hunting and fishing, and while I remember the sweet victory of setting the hook or hitting my target, I also recall that hint of compunction. It was more than subconscious. It was physiological, a sinking of my heart, a feeling in my gut. I won’t go into the details, but I remember one instance in which I killed a squirrel and things went awry. I recall being proud, but also a little horrified at myself. I had a trophy, but also a sickening sense that something about this was wrong.
The Main Street Meats steak was delicious, one of the best I’ve ever eaten, and I realized that if I had to kill the cow myself in order to get the steak, that I couldn’t bring myself to do so. Just the idea brought back the repressed emotions of guilt from my hunting and fishing days.
After dinner, I told my wife how I felt. I didn’t want to speak it into existence, or I might actually have to confront it, but I laid it out. I could think of no reason that something should die just so that I could eat. Our actions either contribute to suffering or they alleviate it, and I couldn’t think of any way that eating animals prevented suffering. Some tribes still live off of the land and maybe some hunting is justified due to overpopulation, but we’re a middle class family in a medium-sized city. We don’t need to eat meat and avoiding it is not much of an inconvenience.
I didn’t want to speak it into existence…
We decided to give vegetarianism a try. I thought that I would be miserable, that I would crave steaks and pork chops, that I wouldn’t feel satiated. Without meat substitutes, that might have been the case, but we started buying tempeh, seitan, and tofu. We were already putting loads of creativity into our cooking, but as vegetarians we took it to another level, with a surprising lack of impact on prep time.
It became normal sooner than expected. I kind of thought that I would probably treat myself to a cheeseburger or bowl of ramen once in a long while, but the idea of that became repulsive. Even prior to going vegetarian, I was cognizant of pig intelligence, and once I faced that, there were no exceptions.
It became normal sooner than expected.
SKEPTICISM TOWARDS VEGANISM
After I was fairly certain that the move to vegetarianism was permanent, I posted a brief account on social media. Someone remarked that they wouldn’t be surprised if I went vegan. I grew up in South Georgia, and I am no stranger to Christian Fundamentalism. For those who don’t know, Fundamentalists are the Christians with the nasty signs listing all of the people that their god hates and what he’s going to do to them. To me, vegans were the fundamentalists of the vegetarian ideology.
To me, vegans were the fundamentalists of the vegetarian ideology.
I was fairly certain that there is something inherently unethical about unnecessarily killing an animal for food. However, there is nothing wrong in itself with eating an egg.
I continued to research veganism, but it was difficult to find anything compelling. Sure, it was apparent that factory farming was egregious, but what if I raise happy chickens that lay more eggs than they need, and I happen to take some and eat them? The answers offered by most websites would pose a question in return: Why do you need to eat the egg? I think my culinary resume speaks for itself. I love good food. Some answered that vegans don’t eat animal products and that was the end of it. It sounded like fundamentalism to me.
Much of the web content was pretty one-sided, and as an academic, I needed more. It was frustrating, because there was little out there in the way of rebuttal to veganism. Most rebuttals assumed omnivorism, which I wasn’t willing to entertain.
My wife, however, didn’t give up so easily. It was on YouTube that she came across well-cited videos detailing the case for veganism. She turned me onto these videos. In addition, I found resources of my own. I watched debates between vegetarians/vegans and omnivores. I was as good as convinced when we watched the well-cited documentary What the Health.
I became convinced that there are three primary cases for veganism: animal welfare, the environment, and personal health
I became convinced that there are three primary cases for veganism: animal welfare, the environment, and personal health. I’m not overly preoccupied with my personal health, but even that aspect had my attention, and the other two factors are certainly compelling. I figured if any one of those three reasons were legitimate factors, then that alone was a sufficient case for veganism. It so happens that I came to think that all three are major factors.
There is a reason that there isn’t a significant amount of rebuttal out there: there’s not much in way of counter-arguments. If a person can’t imagine giving up meat or cheese, I understand that. But that’s a personal decision that has little bearing on the ethics of the topic. The data overwhelmingly show that even so-called ethical livestock practices still results in the mistreatment of animals and contributes to a profound impact on the environment. The research on this subject appears to be substantial and conclusive.
The majority of my friends are likely as cynical of veganism as I was at one time. I can by no means make an exhaustive argument for veganism, but perhaps some explanation can help others understand why I had such a significant change of mind.
THE MORAL CASE
On the eating of animals in general, we simply live in a society in which it is no longer necessary. It may be arguable that there was a time in which the consumption of meat was vital, and that still may be the case in some parts of the world, but it has become a luxury in the West. No longer is taste an excuse for the consumption of meat. Modern science has revealed too much about animal intelligence for that the hold any weight. Any case that may be used for eating cows, chickens, or pigs can also be used to justify eating cats or dogs.
For any would-be pescatarian, that too presents an ethical dilemma. Look no further than David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster” in which even a creature that lacks a conventional brain still exemplifies extreme distress and agony when it is boiled alive. The myth that fish don’t feel pain is well-debunked by science. If a lobster, a sea-bug for all intents and purposes, experiences pain and demonstrates preference, all the more to assume that whatever a fish experiences is that much more traumatizing.
The treatment of animals prior to slaughter is also a much ignored issue. Before giving up meat, I knew it was bad, but I chose not to dwell on it. However, it is imperative that animal cruelty be acknowledged. This is not exclusive to factory farms, but rather a widespread practice. There are a few farms that exercise more sustainable practices, but at the end of the day, the animals are still slaughtered for food.
Keeping animals for their byproducts is also unsustainable if the goal is to minimize animal suffering. Like any other mammal, cows will eventually cease to produce milk as their calf grows older. Cows will only continue to produce milk if they bear another calf. Nature isn’t nearly quick enough to meet the societal demand for dairy, so the industry standard is to force-impregnate them. I would encourage anyone who doesn’t find the forced impregnation of a conscious being disturbing to research the process.
That aside, there are further implications of this cycle. The dairy industry can’t stand to lose a drop, so the standard practice is to take calves away from the mothers. If it’s a male calf, there is only one destiny: consumption, often as veal. Male calves are put into cramped cages designed to limit their movement. This way, they don’t develop muscle and their meat stays tender. If kept alive into adulthood, the male cow will consume resources that would be better used elsewhere until it is inevitably slaughtered. Cows can live 15 to 20 years, but dairy cows are lucky to live five years. They are milked to exhaustion and when they can’t stand any longer, they are slaughtered. To support the dairy industry is to support the meat industry.
To support the dairy industry is to support the meat industry.
It is perhaps debatable that there is nothing intrinsically unethical about the eggs from backyard chickens. Unfortunately, the level of egg production required on a retail or restaurant level isn’t sustainable. Laying an egg is a highly taxing process that leaves chickens deficient of nutrients. Chickens are not designed to lay one egg after another, but by taking the egg away from the chicken immediately, the chicken will begin to produce another egg, which creates a cycle of nutrition deficiency that diminishes the chicken’s health at an accelerated rate.
An unfertilized egg will never hatch, so that much isn’t a question of ethics. At some point, new hens will be needed, so some eggs will be fertilized. Much like cows, animal agriculture has little use for the males. Male chicks are usually killed, sometimes instantly ground alive or piled into a trash bin of already dead or dying chicks. This is a common practice.
Like cows, once hens have outlived their usefulness, they are sent for the slaughter. Sometimes dying or diseased animals are discarded, often in some pile of already dead animals. They are later taken, often times still alive, and used for animal food. To a degree, diseased animals may still be processed for human consumption, as if the hormone and antibiotic packed healthy animals aren’t concerning enough.
This is far from an exhaustive list of reasons that animal agriculture and consumption is unethical. It is not also specific to factory farming, but a dilemma that presents itself on the smallest consumer level. I told myself that there had to be exceptions, that it couldn’t be this bad. I have yet to find a consumer-level farm that doesn’t intrinsically lead to animal suffering.
Animal ethics recommended viewing: Food, Inc. (disturbing content)
THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
In addition to the general ethics of animal treatment, animal agriculture is the leading cause of most environmental concerns from climate change to pollution. It is so severe that animal agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas emissions more than cars, planes, trains, and all transportation combined. The waste emissions from animal agriculture makes its way into streams and rivers, which makes its way into oceans, creating massive unnatural algae blooms in which ocean life cannot live.
Keeping livestock for meat and dairy demands resources that are disproportional to the product produced. Conservative estimates show that it takes 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. The amount of grain that it takes to sustain the meat industry is highly disproportional to the amount of food that it produces. The amount of grain required is so high that it could solve hunger by the hundred millions.
The amount of grain required is so high that it could solve hunger by the hundred millions.
Environmental impact recommended viewing: Cowspiracy (mild/brief disturbing content)
THE HEALTH EFFECTS
Obviously the hormones and antibiotics pumped into cows, chickens, and pigs have profound health impacts.
Meat, particularly processed meats, are a significant cause of cancer. Meat has also been closely linked, more so than sugar or carbohydrates, to causing diabetes. Dairy is also a significant factor to inflaming chronic illness. Those with chronic conditions who have implemented a plant-based diet have experienced a dramatic reduction in episodic flare-ups and have even eliminated symptoms altogether. The findings are so significant that Kaiser Permanente, the largest managed healthcare organization in the United States, now recommends and has implemented a plant-based diet that also eliminates oils and sweets.
Many of the world’s leading and record-breaking athletes have moved to a plant-based diet. It’s surprising how many celebrities and athletes have opted for veganism with stunning results. There are meat substitutes, as well as nuts and other plant-based products that provide ample protein. Our closest relatives in the animal kingdom eat mostly plants, and they have no deficiency of protein. This is all not to mention that we don’t need as much protein as we think we do.
The leading cause of chronic illness in the United States is almost always related to obesity, and the studies are conclusive that at the heart of this epidemic is the food. More and more doctors and researchers are finding that a plant-based diet is the solution to national health problems. While an individual may not be concerned about the health impacts of dairy, its prevalence in the modern diet has a dramatic societal impact. If the government came clean on the health impacts of dairy and stopped subsidizing it, the general health of the country would improve and our gratuitous health care costs would plummet.
The heart of this epidemic is the food.
Health-related recommended viewing: What the Health (mild/brief disturbing content)
THE CASE FOR VEGANISM IS REASONABLE
Maybe for some, none of this is compelling enough to give up animal products, but it at least makes the case that veganism is not an extreme. There is more than sufficient evidence for a reasonable person to opt for a plant-based diet. I have done my best to outline some of the evidence that persuaded me, as well as field many of the initial questions that I had when I started considering the issue.
CLEARING THINGS UP
I feared that going vegan would come with agonizing cravings and bland food, but I’m eating better than ever. It took some adjustment, but far less than I anticipated. I don’t really miss meat and cheese, and even in the fleeting moments that I do, I can honestly say that it’s easily assuaged by the fact that I’m eating better than ever. These days, I avoid even looking at the meat section in grocery stores, not because of the temptation, but because it kind of grosses me out now.
Before becoming a vegan, I made the same jokes as everyone else. How do you know someone is a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. If God didn’t want us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat? When someone asks for vegetarian recipes, some genius feels the need to suggest bacon or steak. Now that I’m on the other side, if I may make a suggestion: don’t. It’s not offensive, but it’s also not funny.
Generally speaking, vegans don’t want their dietary needs to put a damper on a social situation. While they aren’t willing to compromise their diet, simply talking can often minimize inconvenience on both ends. Understanding and consideration on both sides can go a long way. Most people are vegans because they want to do good in the world, and one would hope that carries into how they do relationships.
Most people are vegans because they want to do good in the world.
I was fortunate that my spouse and I were on the same page with this decision. When I approached her about vegetarianism, she was receptive. When she approached me about veganism, I listened. Not every family is going to find themselves on the same page. For significant others, communication and understanding is vital. The vegans I know who have children generally encourage their kids to eat plant-based, but also leave room for their kids to make their own decisions.
I don’t want to gloss over how veganism can impact relationships. People should support and respect one another. If that’s not happening in a relationship, then diet isn’t the heart of the issue.
People should support and respect one another. If that’s not happening in a relationship, then diet isn’t the heart of the issue.
Vegans can sometimes be obnoxious. Every ideology has its extremists. While I think it’s important that non-vegans are cognizant of the consequences of their actions, it’s extremely unethical to subject anyone to viewing graphic material without their consent. Furthermore, I have seen exasperation on the part of vegans when a restaurant’s offerings are scant. The frustration is understandable, but we should be more gracious. Humans have generally been omnivorous (even if mostly frugivores) for a few thousand years now, so veganism is a relatively new movement. For now, we’re the outliers, and we need to move towards progress in healthy and winsome ways.
Every ideology has its extremists.
Due to allergens, diet, accessibility, and budget, it may be more difficult for some to transition to a vegan lifestyle. I’m not here to condemn those people. No one is ever going to get it all right. Every person will inevitably leave a negative footprint. This is particularly true in the West. For most people, it would be impossible to stop using consumer electronics. The cost of ethically made clothes is outside of the budget for most. Vegetarianism and veganism are just as impactful and more practical, but still not accessible to all. Vegetarians and vegans are doing what they can. To the people that can’t get there, I ask that they do the same and do whatever they can.
Vegetarians and vegans are doing what they can. To the people that can’t get there, I ask that they do the same and do whatever they can.
CONCLUSION: THE PATH TO GREATER UNDERSTANDING
I’m sure that for many, there is still a lot of mystery out there. I get asked all of the time “What do you eat?” There’s also the ubiquitous “Where do you get your protein?” question. That information, as well as the research and studies that support many of my claims, is readily available on the internet. That said, the best way to really understand veganism is to talk to vegans. Vegans are people too and people can sometimes be jerks. I recommend that when you run into any kind of jerk that you go talk to someone else. Most vegans aren’t looking to proselytize or make you feel guilty. They just want to be understood.