In the past, I would have advocated vegetarianism to these friends and family members as the only option. To be a vegetarian today, however, one must acknowledge that people want to eat meat, for cultural, biological, and gustatory reasons. Our bodies are built for it, and in the words of Matt Jennings, the award-winning chef of Farmstead in Providence, meat “will always be a part of the culinary landscape.” Given this, instead of denouncing all meat consumption, I champion animal welfare by encouraging humane farms and slaughterhouses.
One of the heartbreaking facts I’ve had to accept as a vegetarian is that all life requires death; there is no way to eat without the death of an animal, let alone plants. If you eat cheese and eggs, you must know that both traditional and factory farms kill male livestock, as they are of minimal use in these agricultural operations. Foer writes that 250 million male layer chicks (which don’t lay eggs and don’t produce enough muscle for eating) are destroyed each year. And even if you are a vegan, feeding yourself an entirely plant-based diet, animals die. As Lierre Keith reminds us in her provocative but compassionate book, The Vegetarian Myth, soil needs fertilizers, which often come from animal wastes and by-products or nonrenewable petroleum. On top of that, she points out, the widespread cultivation of grains destroys the natural habitats of many creatures and thereby kills them, as well as irrevocably eroding topsoil and polluting rivers. There is no “pure,” death-free diet. The issue is so complex that Frances Moore Lappé, the author of the highly influential Diet for a Small Planet, encourages us to move beyond ideological rigidity and the judgment of another person’s ethical purity and seek urgent solutions.
If I support high-welfare meat, why stay a vegetarian? To use Lappé’s metaphor, being a vegetarian is like having a string tied around my finger as a constant reminder that I choose not to participate in an irrational and destructive food supply centered on grain-fed animals. I choose to fight by avoiding meat, while at the same time supporting sustainable and humane methods of slaughter. This is my version of vegetarianism, and it is very much alive.