“So, what made you want to become a vegetarian?”
Anyone who’s been a vegetarian for more than a few years has certainly encountered this question countless times. Even though the running (and sometimes true) joke about vegetarians is their perceived eagerness to preach about their ethically superior eating habits—“How do you know if someone is a vegetarian? They’ll tell you.”—the reality for most vegetarians that I know is quite the opposite.
Many people choose to become vegetarians for highly personal reasons, and inquiries into those reasons can lead to some pretty awkward conversations, especially considering the circumstances under which questions like the one above are almost always asked. The question of why you became a vegetarian almost always comes from people that don’t know you all that well, otherwise they’d probably already know the answer. What is more, the question is almost always asked in a situation in which food is being served, meat is on the menu, and everyone is eating it except you. Mix these factors together, and it’s not exactly the ideal situation for an explosive diatribe about animal rights and ethical eating, at least if you don’t want to ruin the dinner party.
My go-to response has always been that, “I watched too many documentaries”—a halfway honest reply which usually suffices to elicit a chuckle and put the topic to bed. But for those who pry, there is more to the story.
I was in my mid-twenties, living in Minneapolis and attending grad school at the University of Minnesota. My studies and city life in general were forcing me to really grapple with a lot of the world’s injustices for the first time, as well as my complicity in some of those injustices. Meat-eating was one of them. Over a number of months, it just seemed to become more and more clear to me that the vast majority of meat that is produced and consumed in the United States is the product of animal suffering, and particularly as someone who has always considered themselves to be a lover of animals, it became more and more difficult for me to justify meat-eating as part of my lifestyle. So, on December 31st, 2012, I made the one real New Year’s resolution of my life. A few hours before midnight on my New Year’s Eve shift at Stella’s Fish Café in Uptown, I asked the kitchen for a steak and an order of dry-rub buffalo wings with extra sauce on the side (surprisingly among the best buffalo wings in the Twin Cities). I savored every last bite and went back to serving drinks, and after the clock struck midnight, I never ate meat again.
For two years. On New Year’s Day of 2015, I decided to celebrate my second anniversary of vegetarianism by treating myself to a buffalo steak from Hell’s Kitchen. It was delicious, and it made me horribly sick. Nevertheless, what was originally supposed to be a one-time thing ended up representing a shift in how I approached vegetarianism from there on out. I was still vegetarian on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, but on special occasions—be it turkey on Thanksgiving or buffalo wings on my birthday—I decided to give myself some leeway. As the months and years went by, those “occasions” slowly started to become less “special”, and instead became more random and regular. What started as carefully planned meat-cations a few times a year turned into spontaneous carnivory a few times a month or week—rarely in the form of a full entree, but enough bites here and there to disqualify me from true vegetarian purity.
Unlike my decision to go vegetarian, the relaxation of my self-imposed meat-eating restrictions didn’t result from any kind of philosophical shift. Most meat consumption, to me, seemed as unethical as ever, but as much as I liked black bean burgers and Tofurky dogs, there were still some meaty dishes that couldn’t be replicated by plant-based proteins, and I wanted to occasionally be able to enjoy them. Buffalo wings didn’t become any more moral, I just wanted to eat them more often.
A certain level of fraudulency wasn’t new to my dietary philosophy. Even during my years of strict vegetarianism, I always felt that vegans were the true moral heroes. After all, if the goal is to reduce animal suffering, it can be hard to rationalize the consumption of eggs and dairy. Conditions on dairy farms and in hen houses can be just as miserable as farms geared towards the production of beef and poultry. In fact, you could make the case that some dairy is even less ethical than meat. Chickens and cattle brought to slaughter are at least put out of their misery, whereas laying hens and dairy cows are expected to keep producing.
I’ve tried to overcome this ethical dilemma by only buying the most free-range, grass-fed, locally-produced, certified-organic eggs and dairy that the grocery store has to offer. Still, many in the animal rights community will tell you that there is no such thing as ethical eggs or dairy considering the reality of what it takes to keep hens and cows producing, and what inevitably happens to the males of these species, as well as the females that can no longer produce.
So, why haven’t I become a vegan? Because egg whites and whey are staples in my high-protein diet. Because almost all baked goods contain eggs and/or milk. Because it’s hard for me to imagine my life without ice cream and pizza. Despite my reservations about what the production of these foods entails, the pleasure and convenience that they bring me is more than I’m willing to give up. In short, I haven’t become a vegan because I’m selfish.
I thought I had learned to live with the discrepancy between what I believe and how I behave. When I set out to write this blog, I didn’t anticipate these “confessions” to lead me to any kind of moral epiphany. But choosing to confront these truths about my dietary choices has left me feeling much like I did in grad school nearly a decade ago. I’ve found myself Googling things like “pea protein” and “almond milk” between paragraphs and seriously considering what it might look like to eliminate milk, cheese, and eggs from my refrigerator and move closer to a more purely vegan diet.
I remember listening to a Sam Harris podcast a while back in which he was speculating about how societies of the future might look back and evaluate the societies of today. In particular, he was considering beliefs and behaviors that are widely accepted at the moment, but that future societies might retrospectively view as massive moral failures. Factory farming looms large as a potential candidate. The vast majority of animal food products in the United States comes from intensive animal farming, and for anyone who is concerned about the welfare of those animals, this is hardly the way to maximize it.
That’s not to say that factory farming is the modern-day equivalent of slavery or colonialism, nor even that factory farming is the greatest moral failure that we tolerate today. I personally believe that future societies will be most abhorred by our tolerance for such immense inequality both within and between nations, and the willingness of some (myself included) to live lives of such great comfort while so many others live lives of such enormous struggle. Nevertheless, if you believe that farm animals are sentient beings capable of feeling and suffering, then factory farming is wrong. It’s clearly wrong. But society at the moment makes it pretty easy to pretend that it’s not.
I’m still not convinced that animal farming can’t be done ethically. Whether it’s slaughter-free dairy farms or the chickens that wander my parents’ backyard, there are plenty of examples of farming practices that seem to satisfy my expectations for the humane treatment of animals. And while I’m still uncomfortable with killing, I think a certain level of ethicality could also be extended to some meat producing farms as well, assuming they provide their animals with happy and healthy lives up until slaughter. This also goes for hunters who only eat wild meat that they kill themselves.
The problem of course is that these methods could never meet the demand that Americans currently have for animal food products. Nor could they produce these products at the prices we’ve become accustomed to paying. There’s a reason that farms have been turned into “factories”. The whole factory model is based on maximizing the efficiency of production in order generate a large amount of product at a minimal cost. Unfortunately for the animals involved, efficient does not mean ethical. In fact, it usually means the opposite.
The fix for this problem is the same as its source—product demand—and it’s also where I feel that I have the most power as an individual. Every time I spend my dollars at a grocery store or restaurant, I am in a sense casting my vote for the food system I want, and the role that animals will continue to play or not play in that system’s existence. When I opt to buy vegan sausage patties, I am also casting a vote of dissent against the continued production of pork. When I pay higher prices for “ethical” eggs, I am sending a message to producers that animal treatment is important to me as a consumer. Even if I were to buy the same old factory farmed meat but just buy it less often, I’d still in a way be incrementally lowering the demand for that type of product and the insane level of slaughter that comes with it. I once had a friend who referred to a version of this practice as “meat-minimizing”—a term that I thought had a lot of potential. Most people in the world aren’t anywhere near ready for vegetarianism, let alone veganism, but if we could somehow facilitate a paradigm shift in which meat were to become more of a once-in-awhile luxury instead of a one/two/three times a day staple, that would save a whole lot of animals, and a whole lot of ozone layer to boot.
And as imperfect people in an imperfect world where definitions of moral virtue can be unclear and elusive, I think this is a pretty good principle to live by, not just in deciding what we eat, but in guiding how we behave in general. If you can live your life in a way that lowers the mean of the world’s suffering for people, for animals, and for the planet, you’re probably doing at least okay. Certainly, you could be doing worse.
As for me, I think I’m going to become a “weekday vegan”—a term I thought I invented until I Googled it (not only that, but literally the first search result that appeared also revealed the unoriginality of what I thought was a pretty clever title…). What this means is that I will try to fill my grocery store shopping cart exclusively with foods that are animal-free, and limit my consumption of cheese, eggs, and ice cream (and occasionally meat) to restaurants and takeout on the weekends. It’s a far cry from pure, and still flies in the face of some of my professed moral philosophies, but it is one step closer to where I’ve always thought I should be, and where I may someday summon the moral fortitude to go. In the meantime, when I order pizza this Friday, and maybe help myself to a drumette or two from my wife’s order of buffalo wings, at least I’ll feel a little bit less like the fraud that I still undoubtedly am.