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).