Is Vegetarianism Dead?

A resolute avoider of meat reconsiders her beliefs.

November 8, 2012

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.

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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.

Illustration: David Senior

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.