More than 25 years ago, as a teenager, I became a vegetarian, and I have been one since. The resolution to change my eating habits was based in sentimentalism, but the conviction to stay the course has been grounded in reason. The longer I follow a meatless diet, the more justifications—ethical, political, salutary, environmental—I find to remain one.
In the past few years, however, my beliefs have been challenged by an unlikely source: the sustainable-food and locavore movements. Much of what they advocate is what I’ve expressed through my flesh-free ways—animal welfare, stewardship of the land, food justice, minimized waste—and yet there was a disconnect between us. Integral to the sustainability crusade to combat our prepackaged, grain-fed, boneless-chicken-breast society is meat itself; not just any meat, of course, but meat from pasture-fed livestock raised humanely on small farms.
This has led me to question if vegetarianism is dead. I don’t mean whether the movement is dead; the mainstream success of Meatless Mondays and the availability of veggie options in restaurants are evidence that the movement is alive and well. In 2011, 4 percent fewer land animals were killed in order to provide food for Americans than the year before—the equivalent of almost a quarter billion animals. But is the case for vegetarianism dead, given that there are now increasingly easy ways to buy high-welfare, pasture-fed meat; that snout-to-tail eating is hip and on the rise; and that to save heritage livestock breeds, someone must eat them? Should my diet reflect this new reality?
My answer is a firm no. My convictions were fully resuscitated after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. This book, which Foer wrote as a way to determine whether he wanted to feed meat to his first child, reminded me of the horrors of factory farming: the dangerous and sometimes deadly conditions for the workers, which approach human-rights violations; the profit-driven, unjust system that expects a small percentage of turkeys to die in transit to the slaughterhouse from the hardship of the journey; and the damning health implications for us, for our poor global neighbors who are starving in a time of plenty, and for the planet.
So revitalized is my commitment to vegetarianism that I can no longer overlook the contradictions of factory-farmed-meat eaters. How can a friend who advocates bike riding for environmental reasons eat a hamburger when industrial farming is one of the greatest contributors to global climate change, much more so than transport? Or how can a family member who is fanatically concerned about following a healthful diet happily tuck into sautéed chicken breast when the majority of poultry consumed in this country is fed a prophylactic diet of antibiotics and other drugs, which we in turn may ingest, and when raw poultry often carries pathogens, including E. coli, a sign of fecal contamination? There should be no room for industrialized meat on their plates, or anyone else’s, for that matter.