Features  Meat in the middle

Discussing the ethics of renouncing vegetarianism and dietary extremism

When she was in high school, Olivia’s family got into urban farming. Though her city has laws prohibiting roosters, you can buy chickens online and have them sent to your doorstep. They send more than you order because you can’t tell their sex until they start crowing. The problem then becomes what to do with the adolescent roosters. One morning, a particularly fat rooster named Charlie started crowing – it’s a boy! Olivia pushed for Charlie to be dinner. The irony of this? She was a strict vegetarian. 
When we advocate becoming more in touch with where our food comes from, we aren’t saying to throw the household pet in the oven. To some, eating the food you raise might seem on the other end of the spectrum from vegetarianism. For many, however, avoiding meat is avoiding the unethical practices that come along with the mainstream industry. Eating Charlie would mean knowing how he was raised and what he ate. In the end, Charlie ended up on a farm and not on Olivia’s dining room table. Still, the seeds sown by the desire to eat a family pet led to our recent decision to give up vegetarianism.

For both of us, not eating meat was a personal decision, as well as a statement against the environmental consequences of the meat industry. This is the story of two ordinary girls who love food. We had chosen to eat vegetarian for, collectively, half as long as we’ve been able to choose what to eat in the first place. For us, vegetarianism was an easy transition, and for a long time, a decision that went unquestioned. It was in line with our moral convictions. Recently, however, the decision has become more fraught with issues of choice, cooking, eating, health, politics, the environment, and lifestyle.

Being a vegetarian because you once felt a life-changing pang of empathy for a fluffy lamb is one thing. However, there’s a growing trend to boycott meat for environmental reasons. Some don’t eat cute things, or things with eyes, noses, feet, fur, or any combination of the above; see your vegetarianism, veganism, pescetarianism, et cetera. Others don’t eat meat for religious, cultural, political, or economic reasons.

Vegetarian: the identity
In the postmodern search for grounding identities, what’s in our refrigerator has become more than political; it has become fundamental to our identity. What we choose to put in our shopping carts or mouths is an important decision that becomes complicated by these identities. It is difficult to navigate the divisive minefield that is the vegan-vegetarian-omnivore triad. We cannot help but feel ourselves forced into the “ex-vegetarian” position. This means being treated as if we are deserting the cause or returning to the world of the living, depending on who we are talking to.

We cannot let this stand unchallenged, for two reasons. Firstly, strict identities polarize the issue, making it become one of in-group and out-group politics. Secondly, it implies that not eating meat or animal products is the best way to confront the problems of the meat industry and that this lifestyle choice is a superior position.

As Joe Schwarcz, a McGill professor and director of the Office of Science and Society, says, “Extremism in anything is never the answer.” His calm wavered on the subject of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA): “People tend to develop a quasi-religious fervor about these things. Especially when you look at some of the activist organizations like PETA, which to me is nothing other than a terrorist organization.”

PETA alienates anyone outside of their stringent animal rights camp, and forces a certain image of what it means to be pro-animal. This extremism does not allow for people to be concerned with the common practices of meat consumption in any way other than militant veganism. We do not regret our time as vegetarians, but we never intended to be part of a movement that vilified non-meat eaters.

A valid alternative
Many choose not to support the meat industry because of its numerous environmental consequences: for instance, abuse of land, pollution, and energy use from transportation, and excessive waste. However, buying meat can be used to support farmers, suppliers, and butchers with ethical business models. One’s financial input can potentially make a more positive change than a boycott. Every dollar is like a vote: we can put pressure on the industry to change how animals are raised, killed, and sold. Currently, McDonald’s is the world’s largest buyer of beef, according to the film Food, Inc. Simply not buying McDonald’s hamburgers can have more of an impact than not buying meat at all.

The meat industry will continue to supply the products that consumers purchase. “Everything is run on profit. If someone isn’t going to make money off of it, it isn’t going to happen,” explains Schwarcz. Forking out a few extra bucks could mean a farmer can continue to raise fewer chickens in better conditions. On the other hand, opting for the cheapest alternative means continued support for low ethical standards in the industry.

The move from veggie- to meat-eater is more complicated than just starting to cook meat. Now, when we go into the grocery store, we have to determine whether the chicken breasts on sale are a product of a meat industry we want to support. This is something that should be a part of every decision we make as consumers. It is a battle we are particularly committed to fighting, despite the extra effort it requires to pass over Provigo’s unknown meat sources and travel to a second grocery store, or visit a local butcher, or maybe even make the trek to Atwater or Jean Talon. Our wallets the market and the meat industry more than silent protest ever could.

The ethics of eating animals
While we’ve changed our perspective on eating meat, we don’t condone putting hot dogs on everything. We still base our meals around vegetables. Schwarcz’s words of wisdom: “Most of the diet should be based on foods that are of plant origin.” He explains that 70 to 80 per cent of what you eat should be plant material.

Our decision to be vegetarians was never founded on an opposition to meat-eating. We were against how our culture eats meat. Taking a critical look at our dietary choices, however, we realized that North America’s problems with over-consumption apply to more than just meat.

“Meat eating is a luxury…. But just because we say it’s a luxury should not trivialize it,” explains Schwarcz. He suggests, “Life is a quest for luxury, finding what makes you happier.” For a long time, we were happy with luxuries like fresh peaches and gourmet cheese. As we began to cook more, the addition of meat to our diets opened doors. The new, positive options in the kitchen seem endless. In the words of a friend, it’s a whole new world.

The ethics of raising animals
Our media is devoting more and more attention to the ethics of our dietary choices and practical methods of eating in a low impact, environmentally friendly way – which can be overwhelming. Movies like Food, Inc. and books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals indicate the growing popularity of vegetarianism. Graphic images of vile slaughterhouses disturb many into never wanting to eat meat again.

However, the slaughterhouses depicted in this propaganda aren’t the only places that raise and kill animals for meat. “[While] there are certainly a lot of problems in the beef industry and the chicken industry in how the animals are raised, those kinds of activist movies take things a bit out of context,” explains Schwarcz. “They will find some horrific example and insinuate that the whole industry is like that. But one case like that is too many.”

In contrast to these graphic scare tactics, Food, Inc. offers a feel-good message and tells us that as individual consumers we have power to make a change. We’re on board with promoting agency instead of extremism.

The debate surrounding the ethics, environmental consequences, and health benefits of food is often clouded with jargon – which only sometimes means what we think it does. Labels like organic, green, grain-fed, free-range, natural, and farm-fresh draw our attention to how the food was produced and appeal to our activist hearts. However, they have become over-used and no longer necessarily mean anything at all.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency decide what products qualify for these labels. The qualifications are often as vague as the words themselves (especially when it comes to buzz words like green and natural). For example, to earn the USDA title of “free-range,” chickens only need access to the outdoors for five minutes per day, according to the United Poultry Concerns. On the other hand, sometimes the cost and red tape around certifications means that it isn’t worth it for small farmers, even when their products are sincerely organic and free-range.

This ambiguity makes the battle in the grocery aisle even more difficult as we are forced to wonder whether it really is better to buy an organic, grain-fed, or free-range chicken. Researching local farms can clear up some of the confusion. When you know where your food comes from, it is easier to make an informed decision; it can reveal the bigger picture around that slice of turkey breast in your cart.

The 100 Mile Diet, a pop-environmental movement based on the adventures of Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, challenges you to only eat what is grown within 100 miles of your home. In Canada that means no olive oil, no tropical fruit, and no sugar, just to name a few. While it is always better to eat locally and seasonally whenever possible (we try to avoid produce that has crossed an ocean), the 100 Mile Diet can have the same drawbacks as extremist vegetarian or vegan approaches.

“Philosophically, it’s a good idea. You should be supporting your local growers for sure,” says Schwarcz. “In terms of the environmental cost, it’s not quite as clear cut as the activists make it out.” The pressure and endless food philosophies can be daunting. At the end of the day, you just have to make a moderate decision that suits your lifestyle, budget, and values. We recognize that not everyone has the luxury to afford always eating local or organic, but it helps to be aware of these debates; hopefully, we won’t always be cash-strapped students.

With all these issues in mind, we gathered our friends for dinner on Friday night. They brought the vegetable dishes, and we provided the meat. The day before, we went to the Atwater market. There are a variety of meats for sale – some are local. We had done our research on Ferme des Voltigeurs, a chicken farm near Drummondville that has been around since the 1960s. A butcher told us that he has been buying their chickens for 20 years. Not only do they grain-feed the chickens, they make sure that once they have been slaughtered, the dead poultry are aired out instead of dunked in ice water. This is a farm worth supporting. The thing we love the most about paying a little (really, not that much) more for what is, hands down, better meat, is that it actually tastes better too.

The decision to start eating meat again was not an easy one. It started months ago with hushed conversations and maybe a few pieces of bacon for breakfast. Neither of us ever intended to be vegetarian forever. When questions about changing our diets arose, it became something we pondered and read about long before that first piece of meat crossed our lips. We are still eating primarily vegetarian diets, but now we don’t have to be picky when we go to someone’s house for dinner and the choices on restaurant menus seem endless.

Consider voting with your wallet, your kitchen, and your dinner table. A vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is not a bad one, but it does not have to be a fierce, oppositional abstention. Enjoy your food, enjoy cooking, and enjoy getting in touch with the whole process, from farm to farts. In short, pay more for meat, eat less of it, cook it well, and have fun!

What to look for on labels
-Free-range refers to animals being allowed to roam freely.

-USDA free-range certification only requires access to the outdoors.

-As of June 2009 only products with 95 per cent organic content or more can be labelled organic in Canada.

-In Canada, organic food must be free of feed additives, growth hormones, pesticides, and herbicides.

Local ethical farms

Ferme Morgan
organic poultry at Jean Talon and Club Organic, 4341 Frontenac

Les Fermes Saint Vincent
organic red meat, pork, and fowl available at Atwater and Jean Talon markets

Ferme au bonheur des pres
organic lamb by delivery

To find more about your meat:

The impact of raising meat

Land Use
-In the U.S., 25.9 per cent is grassland pasture and range land while only 19.5 per cent is cropland, much of which grows feed crops.

-The expansion of pastures and arable land for feed crops in Canada causes deforestation and is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

-Meat-based diets require seven times more land than plant-based diets.

-Methane emissions cause half of the planet’s human-induced warming
-Eighty-five per cent of methane worldwide is from livestock’s digestive processes.

-The live stock sector accounts for over eight per cent of global human water waste.

-It is the one of the primary sources of water pollution worldwide.

-About 50 per cent of each cow, sheep, or goat; 40 per cent of each pig; 30 per cent of each chicken ends up as waste.

-Ontario alone produces 86,000 tonnes of deadstock each year.

-Housing animals in windowless sheds requires energy for conveyer belts, artificial ventilation, and lighting.

-Livestock travel on average 1,000 miles before they are slaughtered in the U.S.

-Additional energy goes into processing, packaging, and regrigeration.

Cattle Inventory
-In Canada and the U.S., farm animals outweigh humans four to one.

-The U.S.: 94.5-million heads of cattle
-Canada: 13.2-million heads of cattle