Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
For most of my life, I’ve eaten meat just as much as any other American. I’ve enjoyed my fair share of medium rare steaks and buffalo wings. In July of 2017, I decided to stop eating animal-derived foods, and have stood by that decision since.
Long before I switched to a vegan diet, I was aware of the numerous environmental and health effects of consuming meat, yet I was able to justify continuing to eat meat through convenience and cultural conventions — the same way we all justify doing things that we know are not morally sound. I’m sure that many of you are aware of the environmental and health benefits of plant-based diets before (if not, or if you would like to learn more, please view the attached links). As such, I’m not here today to present any of the numerous factual benefits of reducing your meat consumption, but rather to provide a perspective on this issue that you may not yet have considered deeply.
Last May, I was fortunate enough to have work on a Colombian cattle ranch for two weeks. I am not going to tell you about how the animals were crammed into tiny cages or physically abused, because that is not what I saw. In fact, the cows had hundreds of open acres to graze on grass and be with their young, were milked by hand, and were generally well-respected by the cowhands.
I milked them, went in the corral with them while they were being vaccinated, and even branded them. One day, while moving them on horseback, a calf mistook my horse for it’s mom, and I guided it back to the herd. I saw the cattle interact with each other, and I interacted with them.
I even witnessed a cow being slaughtered. We moved all the cattle into a corral. They managed to break down the side fence and all of them escaped except for a young male whom the ranch hand and my friend Choro managed to lasso. We laid him down on his side, and Choro pierced his neck with a knife. I stood by his side for the next ten minutes and watched his blood pool around him as he moaned hoarsely. It was certainly not Choro’s first time slaughtering a cow, yet tears still rolled down his cheek. We loaded its body onto the back of a truck. As we butchered it back at the house, a farmhand accidentally pierced its stomach and its feces leaked across its body. We hosed it off, finished butchering it, and ate it the next day.
I share these details not to paint an image of violence or filth, but to remind you that the steak on your dinner plate was part of of a complex, sentient being. It does not appear from thin air, and much energy and effort goes into producing it.
I had seen slaughterhouse videos on YouTube many times before, but not until then did I fully understand the enormous amount of energy and effort that goes into producing meat. I never fully considered the fact that cattle experience social connections, happiness, sadness, pain, and life in general.
I gained a tremendous amount of respect for the intimate relationship the workers on this ranch had with their food. They understood that cattle are complex creatures and they respected their lives. They enjoyed the beef on their plates, but participated in the not-so-fun parts of the process, too.
A primary problem with the meat industry today is that consumers are entirely disconnected from the production process. We enjoy meat without considering the complexity of the animals’ lives and the process through which it is taken from the animals’ bodies, and, resultantly, consume it in excess. Although we are superficially aware of these things, we do not fully understand of them.
The reality is that most of the meat we consume is produced in a much less intimate way than it is on the ranch I worked at. We all manage to convince ourselves that it is okay to overlook the abuse and flat out poor sanitation of modern meat production.
We justify the gross mistreatment of certain animals through highly arbitrary and inconsistent reasoning. We pat ourselves on the back for adopting a pet, yet we support the unnecessary and brutal slaughter of tens of billions of animals each year. We cringe at the thought of dogs being abused and killed for meat, yet we look the other way to cows, pigs, and chickens being confined to spaces barely larger than their bodies for their entire lives, being beaten bloody by workers, and being crushed under the weight of their peers. Is there nothing odd with considering oneself to be an “animal lover” yet happily eating the bodies of animals who lived lives of misery and experienced even more unpleasant deaths? This is not a fiction crafted by a select group of extremist activists; it is the reality behind the meat you’ve consumed without second thought for your entire life. This is not natural, this is not beneficial, and this is not honest.
I do not have any qualms with a means of meat production that treats living, sentient beings with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Yet, I am deeply saddened by the perverted system that we have perpetuated through our complacency for decades. It does not demonstrate any respect for our planet, our fellow living creatures, or ourselves.
So, I advise that you ask yourself: Is eating meat worth it? Is it worth the damage to our planet? Is it worth exacerbating the modern epidemic of noncommunicable diseases such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes that hinder the lives of our loved ones? Is it worth the bringing a tremendous amount of pain and suffering to our fellow living creatures?
If you’d like to move away from consuming meat, do so in a way that works for you. Whether you reduce your consumption of meat, eat meat only on certain weekdays or special occasions, or completely cut out your consumption of animal-derived foods, you are doing good. Don’t allow anyone to demean your efforts to make a positive change in your life.
If you do eat meat, consider purchasing it locally and from from more ethical producers. It is often difficult to determine what raising and slaughtering practices are ethical and to verify whether producers abide by their claims. There are a number of organizations, such as Certified Humane, that work to promote ethical practices. Keep in mind that virtually none of the meat you find at restaurants or grocery stores is produced in ways you’d be proud of.
Lastly, I would like to say that you don’t need to be a certain type of person to be a vegetarian or vegan. It doesn’t have to be a major lifestyle change or central to your identity if you don’t want it to. I’d be more than glad to discuss it with you if you’d like (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thanks for sharing your path to a vegan life-style. I got there in a vain attempt to get my spouse on a healthier diet and stayed with it when after a few months, found eating meat was no longer enjoyable. What struck me the most though were your comments regarding the meat-producing industry and our lack of connection to how our food (I would add vegan fare to that as well) is produced. Small. Local. In season. Minimal processing. And perhaps an avoidance of big box stores to sell it all. It is the intimacy with each other and with our food sources that we are making our lives less than healthy. But is that goal attainable?
JD, I totally agree. I think that your question is a very fair one to ask. Despite all of the negatives that have come out of the development of our food system in recent decades, it has undoubtedly allowed us to produce extremely large amounts of food at a very low monetary cost. In my non-expert opinion, I do think that creating a food system with the characteristics you mentioned is feasible. Doing so would require a major cultural shift. We would all need to learn to value these things over convenience and cheapness. One documentary that I think provides interesting insight into the modern food system is “In Defense of Food” (also a book). If you haven’t yet seen or read it, I would certainly recommend doing so.
An excellent piece that deserves thoughtful consideration. No animal comes into the world looking forward to being torn to pieces and consumed but that’s the balance that nature exacts in the wild. What is not in balance is the human component. The expectation that all manner of meat can be on the plate at any meal, every day is way out of proportion to the actual needs of the body. I get it. Meat has that umami that nothing else seems to match but if you choose to divorce yourself from the reality of the slaughterhouse and the lives of the beings you are consuming, you can’t ignore the one thing that humans have: choice.
Like JD I gave up meat over the summer after decades of relishing the steaks, wings, chops (bacon) that are part of the American way. Why? Partly my wife who went meatless after watching too many playful cow videos but mostly the realization that all creatures love life. Knowing that, you’d better have a pretty damned good reason to take that life away from them. Sating a desire for mouth feel doesn’t seem like a good enough reason.
I’m not fully there yet. Dairy, eggs and fish are still on the menu but in much reduced proportion to veggies. I tried a slice of turkey at Thanksgiving and didn’t finish chewing it. You do lose the taste for it…
Bruh, there’s a reason we at the top of the food chain. I get if u don’t wanna eat meat. That’s cool, but if you look at the animal kingdom this is what is natural.
I understand, but the way in which we eat meat today is far from natural. Do you consider raising millions of animals at an accelerated rate that often causes extreme discomfort and health problems in tightly confined spaces natural? Is mutilating their bodies and physically abusing them natural?
“we at the top of the food chain”? That’s speciesist and debatable. If you lived in India, for example, you might realize that tigers are sometimes at the top of that food chain, not humans. In South Africa, it might be great white sharks at the top, or lions. We do not choose to factory farm humans for tiger, shark, or lion food even though their superiority puts them ‘at the top of the food chain’.
Furthermore, claiming that something is ‘natural’ and therefore ‘good’ (or what ‘ought to be done’), is called the naturalistic fallacy. It’s one of the more fun logical fallacies. It is traced back to G. E. Moore, the British philosopher, and before that to David Hume, the Scottish philosopher of the 18th century. Your line of justification fell apart about 275 years ago. Try again.
Removing “Why” from the title of this article would make it stronger.
Top 10 Reasons You Should Eat Less Meat
You Won’t Believe The Reason You Should Eat Less Meat
Eat Less Meat
Thanks for the suggestion. I do agree that removing “why” from the title would make it more powerful.
“ If you’d like to move away from consuming meat, do so in a way that works for you“
All too often, vegetarians and vegans are so blinded by their own views of righteousness that they tend to forget the obstacles that many face to choose a more plant based diet. People who live in food deserts or get food from food banks or soup kitchens don’t often have the luxury of choice in regards to what they eat. Sometimes disabled people must eat what is prepared for them and don’t have the choice of aligning their values with their eating habits. Often, buying bulk vegetarian food like dried beans can be cheaper than meat in the long run, but could require shoveling out more money at once or need more time and kitchen appliances to prepare. People with the privilege to choose their own diet often easily overlook these obstacles.
Vegans and vegetarians have been called elitist by many, and, as someone who is a vegan, I can agree that this title is often deserved.
I challenge all of us who align our views with a plant based diet, no matter what that means to us, to open the dialogue up and complicate the conversation around diet. Just because someone eats meat and other animal products does not mean they do not care about animals or the environment or their health necessarily. How can we shift the conversation from one that dictates a hierarchy of moral decisions to one that encourages availability of healthy, sustainable food for all?
I want to see a world where people eat less animal products. I want to see a world where fresh, wholesome foods are made more accessible to the masses and cheap corn products and inhumane meat are shifted from our focus.
I appreciate your article Aidan. I’m proud of you for writing about that which you believe in. I do think your point about making these decisions on whatever way works for you as an individual is important and should be a topic of larger conversation in the veg community.
Thanks for bringing this point up. Certainly, not everyone has equal power to make his own decisions around what he puts in his body. I agree that the goal of the conversation needs to be about access to healthy and sustainable food for all, not just a select few who choose to be vegan/vegetarian. I encourage individuals to make the choice to cut out animal products from their diet (to some degree or another) not only to make an improvement in their own lives, but also to contribute to a larger societal shift away from animal products. When those who have the means to obtain healthy and sustainable foods choose too do so, they are combatting the food system that results in certain sects of the population having access to only highly processed and animal-derived foods. We should all take whatever action is in our means to support a healthy, sustainable, and moral food system, and to move away from the one that unfortunately limits many of to fast and highly processed foods.
Bruh, how you gonna get swole 💪💪 if you don’t get enough protein 🙏🐔🐗🐷🐮? Also we at da top of da food chain so y eat vegetables and fruit when you could get swole🗿🙏💪?
Have you ever seen vegan bodybuilders? Seriously, go google that.
I love this article, a debt of gratitude is in order for sharing
a lot of information.