How to Not be a Vegan

On a recent podcast, Ezra Klein was asked his opinion about how much of a difference individual decisions about consumption make. His response was for us to think less about our personal consumption, and more about how we’re a carrier for ideas that change the way society consumes. He gave the example of being vegan:

I don’t think my personal decision to not eat meat is that important. On the scale of the global animal trade, it’s meaningless. But I caught my veganism from my wife. Other people have caught veganism or vegetarianism from me. And it’s in that way that individual attitudes ladder up to social attitudes, and then to social or political change.

Ezra Klein, The Ezra Klein Show, August 31, 2021

I appreciate this approach. And it means we need to pay attention to “how contagious we are” with our ideas. If I carry a lot of judgement, “I eat this way and so should you!”, people will just tune out. We’ve all got very little patience with self-righteousness of any kind, regardless of how righteous it actually is. But we can help by giving honest testimony about what our choices are, and why, and how we’ve made the less convenient ones work for us. So here’s some of mine.

I am not a vegan. I was vegetarian for 10 years when I was younger, with a few exceptions for fish. I quit in part because of the recommendations of a nutritionist; and I continue to want to include meat, eggs, and dairy in my diet for health reasons. Nutritional science is complex, with many individual variations; I don’t want to get too deeply into that debate here. But I do think it’s important to reconcile my diet with sustainability; the impact of modern animal farming on the planet, on soil depletion, on global warming, is huge, so how can I continue with my chosen diet without contributing to those problems? Even more: in accordance with Kant’s “universalizability principle”, how can I consume food in such a manner that, if everyone else who wanted meat were to eat in a similar manner, we wouldn’t be destroying the ecosystem?

The fundamental guideline I’ve come down to is “no more tortured meat”. This is about factory farming, vs traditional methods of animal farming, with similar concerns for fish, eggs, and dairy. The impact is global, as well as personal: traditionally raised animal products are far healthier, as well as better for the environment.

Let’s consider the large ruminants – cows and buffalo. These animals coevolved with prairie ecosystems; they contribute to those ecosystems by being part of the soil-making process. Basically, they eat grass and leave behind cowpies; then they tread on the soil and cowpies with their hooves, mixing it together. Over centuries, this built up an average of 18″ of topsoil across the North American prairie. In addition to the fertility of this soil for crops, this is a form of carbon sequestration; healthy soil can store upwards of 10 kg of organic carbon per cubic meter. So in this sense, cattle grazing can actually combat global warming. (Slowly.)

In contrast, let’s look at what we’ve done with modern cattle farming – first, we realized that we could fatten up cattle much faster by feeding them grains such as corn, even though it’s not their traditional diet. So instead of letting grass grow and letting the cattle graze, it becomes possible to keep them confined, grow corn, and feed them the corn. But – again focusing on certain kinds of short-term efficiency – we grow the corn using tilling, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other intensive agricultural techniques, none of which were required by grass. And this leads to soil depletion – this style of large monocropping, much of which is used to feed confined animals, is largely responsible for eliminating over half the topsoil in the United States since 1850. It’s down from 18″ to around 8″. We don’t have long to go before we won’t even be able to use much of this land.

And then there’s the torture. It’s one thing to come to an ethical accommodation to the basic equation of being a carnivore: that I’m willing to kill healthy living, feeling beings for my dinner. (And a lot of them, over my lifetime.) It’s a very different proposition to say that I’m willing to subject them to the lives they live in factory farming – where they’re separated from their mother at a young age, confined to narrow pens for their entire life (often never even seeing the sky), and grown to unnatural size at unnatural speed using hormones and non-traditional diets. Personally, I’m willing to participate in the ancient contract of the food chain, of life ending life for food; I’m not willing to participate in a system that causes my prey to suffer through their entire lives.

Regarding the effect on my body: Grass-fed beef has a healthier cross-section of fatty acids – more omega-3s, fewer omega-6s, less inflammatory. (Virtually all chronic disease in humans is exacerbated by inflammation, especially chronic inflammation rooted in dietary choices.) The same is true of dairy, especially for high-fat products like cream and butter. In addition to avoiding factory-farmed eggs for the chickens’ sake, I won’t buy eggs that are given “vegetarian feed”, because chickens are also carnivores, and the chickens that get to eat bugs produce healthier eggs. These are specific examples – what this generally points to is that traditional diets and ways of living for the animals humans traditionally eat, make them more nutritious for humans. There are many, many details here, but that general principle makes sense to me.

So this is how I experience ethical non-vegan eating: there is deep suffering for animals and for the planet if I eat factory farmed animal products; but traditional farming techniques, that honor the living patterns of the animals involved, can be rich for the animals, good for me, and actively beneficial (not just less harmful) for the planet.

Tortas Frontera ingredient sources
Tortas Frontera Ingredient Sources

All of this makes it hard to eat out, of course. It’s hard to find restaurants that can give any particular certification about the farming practices that go into their dishes. Some will say organic, for instance, but can they say the meat or the butter is grass-fed? So I don’t eat out much. But a good fallback position is to be vegan at a restaurant. That might mean getting a side of broccoli with olive oil, some places. And occasionally we can be surprised – I was utterly delighted to come across this sign in Tortas Frontera, in (of all places) Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

What choices have you made to improve the sustainability or reduce the suffering associated with your food choices? How do you communicate those choices to others?

Comments 1

  • More from Ezra:

    “All of the stuff catches. And it is why I’m a fan of people not being quiet about the way they try to instantiate their political ideals in their individual lives. I think that a lot of the value of the choices we make is in our willingness to try to use those to change the choices other people see as normal for them to make.”

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