Friday, 5 March 2010

Why I don't eat meat

As I child, I decided I would stop eating meat. It was one of those goofy things that kids do and I don't recall how long it lasted - it wasn't long. I went right back to my old ways soon thereafter and became a confirmed and unhesitating meat eater. One day, many years later, my son, then in his early teens, announced that he was going to stop eating meat. Without a moment's pause, I found myself saying that said I would join him. I have been a pescatarian (fish-eating vegetarian) ever since. It has been about five years now.

People often ask me why I chose this life style. Meat eaters want to know why I am 'depriving' myself of the essential pleasure of eating meat. Vegetarians want to know why I am such a wimp and not ethical or committed enough to go all the way to abstain from eating fish. [Vegans, who do not consume any animal products - including milk and eggs - are so far above me on the moral scale that they barely think I'm worth talking to.]

For a while, I would respond to the questions from carnivorous inquirers with a recitation of my various ethical rationales for avoiding meat. I could create a fairly convincing story when I tried. But the honest truth is that I had no reason for my choice - at least no overwhelming conscious one.

Now, there are plenty of good reasons to remove meat from our diets and all of them are made infinitely more compelling by the fact that meat eating is simply a choice: we do not need to eat meat to survive or to be healthy: 1) Meat eating is bad for your health - avoiding it is clearly better for your heart and circulatory system. 2) Farming meat is a very inefficient way to feed people - only one tenth as many people can be fed on meat than on the grain needed to produce that amount of meat. (This is hard to justify morally in a world where people continue to starve.) 3) The production of meat produces an enormous quantity of greenhouse gases, connecting our dietary preferences connecting to the acceleration of global warming. 4) The animals we eat are different from us in only subtle ways. To me at least, unnecessarily killing creatures with personalities and brains that work a lot like ours is just wrong. 5) Last, but not least, there is Bambi - the cuteness argument. How can you eat something with a cute face? [This is related to my rationalization for eating fish. Not nearly so cute!]

But the true basis for my decision was something different. I jumped at the opportunity to make myself a particularly awkward dinner guest because I wanted to be different. Not just different in the sense of odd or quirky [although those who know me will happily offer that I didn't need to eat differently for that.] What I wanted - without recognizing it consciously - was a way of living that connected to my broader spiritual choices and commitments.

In that, I was being anything but unique. Virtually every religious tradition has imposed some sort of dietary restrictions. Jews have the laws of Kosher and Muslims, in a very closely related system, eat only food that is Halal. Buddhists avoid all meat, Hindus do not eat beef, Christians have their fasts, and so on.

Many, many reasons have been put forward for religious dietary rules. From my own experience though,  the power of a dietary restriction is that I have had something to remind me every day of my commitments - of the person I am trying to be. And, it has some real advantages in that it is easier than never cutting my hair, less conspicuous than growing a huge beard, less painful than piercings, and much less permanent than tattoos!

The world we live in does not make it easy to be mindful and deliberate about our choices. We are bombarded by stimuli and dazzled with temptations at every moment. It is a tremendous challenge to recall our deeper commitments amid the many demands on our attention. The way I eat is just one small way in which I can keep myself present to the way of life I have chosen and the vision I have set out to reach.

Although my reasons for becoming a pescatarian initially had little to do with the good moral reasons for avoiding meat, I have since become convinced that this is indeed a good way to live responsibly on the earth. I have tried not to be militant about it, but I do feel very strongly that it is considerate of our fellow human beings, it is respectful to the other creatures that share our planet, and it is a way to live more lightly on the Earth itself.

And, by the way, I would really enjoy some barbecued ribs right about now and my home-made tofu jerky, while tasty, is not nearly the same...


  1. You write, “Vegans, who do not consume any animal products - including milk and eggs - are so far above me on the moral scale that they barely think I'm worth talking to.”

    That’s a broad brush indictment of vegans, and an unfair one. Without exception, every vegan I know wants to talk with others, and to share information, as you are sharing here. Granted, some are not the most effective communicators, but consider the challenges of denial and defensiveness they face. In my opinion, it’s probably defensiveness that has caused you to make this statement about vegans, even though I doubt that one of them has ever said or implied to you, “Andy, because you eat fish, I think you’re barely worth talking to.”

    But I would guess a few meat eaters think that you look down on them, too, even though you don’t.

    Some information that I’d like to share with you comes from an article in the February 23rd edition of The Guardian. It’s about fish, from Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals.” The refusal to support what is written about here hardly requires someone to be “so far above [you] on the moral scale.”

    I’d also like to recommend a vegetarian riblet product that is amazingly good, but I’m not sure if it’s available in England. It has a lot of sauce with it, and goes especially well on a potato or rice.

    Thank you for speaking out.

  2. Charlie - humour, or at least an attempt at it... For the record, I have never been neglected unfairly by a vegan for not being a vegan! Never! OK?

    I wish I hadn't read the Guardian fish article. Damn!

    Thanks for the tip about riblets, though...

  3. Hey Andy, Can you make some tofu jerky for us one time-Sounds Yummy :~)

  4. As a failed vegetarian myself, I sympathise. I have settled for eating less meat, and trying to buy organic and/or free-range and sustainably fished fish; but I do find I crave it if I cut it out altogether. I do not eat battery-farmed eggs or chickens though. I find that most vegetarians and vegans are not holier-than-thou about it, but some are. Conversely, some meat-eaters are very defensive about their meat-eating. I agree that some sort of dietary practice can increase mindfulness, too.

  5. I like the mindfulness aspect. But putting that aside, you know what I find works really well? Not being fundamentalist about anything. And actually that means I get to talk about my choices with other people way more than if I just said 'I'm a [insert label]'... because everyone tends to be surprised when I jump out of the box and do something they don't expect (like eating cheese sarnies!).

    I think that people relate more to the idea I'm trying to put across when I say "I try not to eat animal products because of [blah], but I don't always succeed and I try not to make my friends' lives difficult". But perhaps it's just the admission of failing which helps people understand more.

    I also don't label myself as anything... though I did come across the phrase 'flexatarian' in the US which is pretty cute! But that's possibly because I really dislike labels.

    Oh, and I heard some bad news (well, for me!) about tofu - highly processed soya may be as bad for the environment as white meat. How depressing is that!

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. findsandfeatures-

    ugh! that tofu news is horrible [says he with a batch of tofu jerky in the oven at this very moment!]. Do you have a link to that dismal report?