In high school and for part of college, I was a vegetarian–although not technically, because I was still eating fish. The reasons behind my choice were 9 parts humane, 1 part teenage rebellion. I wasn’t a healthy vegetarian in the sense that I ate loads of starchy foods and processed foods, if only because I really wasn’t too sure how to incorporate non-meat protein sources into my daily cooking repertoire. Somewhere not too long before I graduated, I slowly started re-introducing meat back into my diet. And I was fine with it. I really liked, and by that point missed, the taste of meat. I still do, as long as I don’t think about it for too long.
But within the past year or so, after more than a decade of eating meat–fish, chicken, beef, turkey and pork (bacon only)–I have done an about face. I want no part of it any more. There are many motivations behind my shift in perspectives, including environmental, humane, health and social, not to mention now being a parent where I am now responsible for feeding someone other than myself, and there are many sources of information guiding my decision. Books like Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, The Food Revolution by John Robbins, and Food Matters by Mark Bittman all certainly fanned whatever vegetarian flames remained. Views of the photographs and video footage available at the Humane Farming Association and the The Humane Society of the United States showing how animals raised for food are treated really struck a chord with me. And most recently, the movie Food, Inc., which I just finished viewing this evening, sealed the deal on my shift. The two images that stick in my mind the most are the deplorable conditions in which the vast majority of our food animals are forced to live and what happens to them between the time they leave the “farm” and reach the grocery store. Prior to reading these books and viewing these videos, I was already aware of things like de-beaking chickens, but accounts of pigs who have had their snouts sliced off like slices of bologna by overworked slaughterhouse workers or the fact that a lot of meat is sanitized with ammonia before it gets eaten, forced me to re-examine my role in this process. If you have limited time but want to know more, I suggest the book Eating Animals, some visits the two websites I mentioned above and watching Food, Inc. If none of those things change your mind, perhaps nothing will.
But it isn’t your mind that I am worried about. It’s mine. Because I am struggling with the line that I have, for now, drawn arbitrarily in a place that stops short of no longer eating dairy or eggs. Why? Shouldn’t it matter just as much that the dairy cows that are working so very hard to produce an endless supply of milk are often times treated in less than humane ways and given a score of hormones and prophylactic antibiotics that are questionable at best just as the cattle that I am not eating anymore? When I read what conditions must exist in order for a dairy cow to be able to produce milk–including having her calves taken away from her so that nature’s intended consumer of mama cow’s milk does not deplete the supply for us humans–I had to take another step back. I always thought that by not killing animals, it’d be enough for me to feel good about what I was eating. To be clear, I do not think that drinking or eating milk from a cow is important or even healthy for a human diet, even for children (mental note: blog about pediatricians pushing milk). As many others have so eloquently said it long before me, milk from cows is designed to grow calves into 1,500 pound animals, not humans. But I really like ice cream, butter and cheese. Should that be enough to override the consequential collateral damage that is taking place?
Yes, it’s true, purchasing organic dairy does reduce some of these negative conditions, but let’s face it, other than milk itself, it is hard to find other organic dairy options in a store–how often do you see things like organic cheese or organic ice cream? And what about when you eat out or at a friend’s house? Do I really want to be that person who is constantly asking whether the cream in the alfredo sauce is organic and how was the cow treated? I imagine I would not get invited over for dinner very often. And while I fully acknowledge that there are some responsible farmers out there–Niman Ranch and Polyface farm are two good examples of how even meat can be done right–how can I ever be certain that what is on my plate will satisfy the mental checklist in my head? Is that the kind of association I want to have with food, which is not just a means of survival but also large part of our family dynamic and social fabric? So why not just cut it out altogether to avoid the issue?
Eggs pose a similar problem. Generally speaking, hens and their eggs–unless they are certified as humanely raised by one of three independent certifying organizations–are a large cog in the factory farming wheel. And while it is true that a hen is not dying at the instant she lays the egg that might become part of my quiche, notwithstanding the conditions in which she must live, for every female chicken that is born (and later will become an egg layer) you can bet that there was a male chicken that will have another demise given that he cannot lay eggs. Is there such a thing as carnivorism by association? Tools like this one created by the World Society for the Protection of Animals help the concerned consumer like me.
But it’s more than just deciding to cut these things out entirely for the sake of the animals and our planet. Even if I do take the plunge, would it be necessarily any better? Most dairy and egg alternatives are heavily processed and have their own environmental footprint. Is eating vegetables and grains that are transformed into something else by a factory–often one that is very far away from where I live–something that I want my daughter to associate as being food? Granted, the bucolic scenes of hens and cows in pastures near red painted barns that appear in my daughter’s books are far from the truth of where most of our food comes from today–unless you seek out the farms with the most humane and environmentally friendly practices like we try to do–but milk and eggs do conjure up, at least in my mind, a more idealistic form of what food is. And there are some things that factories still cannot duplicate well enough for me find satisfaction in a vegetable based alternative. Cheese is a big one. As I type this, perhaps I am making a new argument for becoming a raw or whole food vegan? Ack.
So, for the time being, I am still eating dairy and eggs. I am not even entirely sure why, but a large part of it is certainly because I am avoiding the commitment that is required for an all or nothing approach. Eating in absolutes seems like a very hard thing to do. Perhaps that is because it is potentially genetically wired within us since many, many thousands of years ago, we did not have the luxury of “choosing” what we ate to survive; we ate what we could find or kill. And that remains true for many people around the world today, with purchase money or arable land being the likely present limiting factors. Reading articles like this one, Veggieworld: Why Eating Greens Won’t Save the Planet in the July 17-23, 2010 volume of New Scientist magazine, only further calls into question my overall rationale for an increasingly plant based diet. In the end, my quest for figuring it all out continues. At least waffles are appropriately still acceptable on the menu.
Copyright (c) 2010-2014 Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved. Personal theme was created in WordPress by Obox Themes.