The Case for Partial Veganism

It‘s amazing how seemingly chance events can shape us. This can happen at any age, but it is especially true when we are young. In 1995, at the age of 12, I saw a film that would change my life. Ironically, it wasn’t a very good movie. When I heard the premise – about a pig that learns to herd sheep – I thought it seemed much too childish for sophisticated, William-Blake reading, 12-year-old me. But when I saw Babe, I was forced to confront a reality I’d never known existed.

Up to that point I hadn’t given much thought to where my food came from. I ate the bacon and eggs my mother made for breakfast; I ate the liver or chicken breast or steak that my grandmother would prepare for our weekly family Sunday dinner; I relished my Thanksgiving turkey and Easter ham. My contact with farm animals came mostly on those occasional spring and summer Saturdays when my parents and I would leave our inner-ring suburb of Buffalo, NY to visit friends in the country. As we drove past the rolling hills and farmland, I loved watching the cows and horses that milled about in green pastures. Every so often, we would visit a local farm where visitors were allowed to pick whatever crop was in season – strawberries in June, tomatoes in July, corn in August.

Up until the age of twelve, I imagined that this was what farming was like: idyllic, pastoral, straight out of a Sesame Street episode until or nursery rhyme. But then, the movie Babe showed me a different vision: huge numbers of animals housed in ugly, factory-like buildings. Was this the way most farm animals spent their lives? The movie also made me realize that pigs are extremely intelligent animals – indeed, they are as smart as dogs. I shuddered at the thought of my wonderful border collie, Boots, being slaughtered for food. At that moment I made a decision: the pork and beef in my life would have to go. How could I possibly eat other mammals – animals which my middle school biology class revealed to be so closely related to me?

Fortunately, my parents got on board with my decision to cut pork and beef from my diet. They expressed a little concern, however, when after my first semester of college in 2001, I announced that I had become a full-fledged vegetarian. The initial jump was basically a caprice – during the first week of school, I ate the cafeteria’s attempt at Buffalo chicken wings (my hometown’s delicacy), and I decided that the tofu tasted better. And, I soon discovered that honestly it’s not the chicken that makes Buffalo wings so delectable. It’s the sauce.

While my first steps toward vegetarianism were propelled more by impulse than rationality, I found that good reasons came later. Discussions with my cousin – a hospital dietitian – revealed that meat consumption was not needed for healthy living. I took heart in the notion that I was not killing animals (alas, at this time I did not know about the brutalities of dairy farming).  Finally, in 2005, I learned of the environmental argument. Animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to land use – indeed, 45% of the earth’s land is devoted to it – and a greater contributor to carbon emissions than all our fossil fuel use combined. It is also the cause of 91% of the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. For a few years I lived contentedly, confident in the belief that, by embracing vegetarianism, I was making the world a better place.

However, cognitive dissonance reared its ugly head again just two years ago when I saw another excellent film. Speciesism: The Movie, a thorough and surprisingly entertaining documentary by college-aged filmmaker Mark Devries, made me face an inconvenient truth. While giving up meat had been no real sacrifice (sorry Grandma, but I never really liked your liver and onions all that much anyway), I’d never seriously imagined renouncing cheese, or ice cream, or eggs. But, this film forced me to learn that on the whole, dairy cows live in much harsher conditions than beef cows, and most of them end up getting killed for meat eventually. And, even so-called free-range chickens live in crowded indoor conditions. Looking at this reality, it became clear that vegetarianism was not enough.

During the past two Lents, I have tried to embrace veganism as part of my spiritual practice. It is not easy – particularly since I’ve moved to the US heartland, where meat and dairy stand at the center of every meal. It’s also difficult because, as someone who generally finds cooking to be a chore more than an art, I don’t share the thrill some vegans experience at trying new recipes. But, as time goes by, my conscience is pushing me more and more in that direction – and I am urging others to follow the same path.

I know that this is not a message most of us want to hear. The consumption of meat and dairy forms the basis of our society; the cooking of meat is an art. Several friends have told me that they could never be vegetarian – the sacrifice would be too great. And, admittedly, I feel the same way about veganism. I love my Wisconsin cheese curds; I love my chocolate ice cream. I wear makeup. I am ashamed to admit that my car has leather seats.

And yet, the evidence suggests that some degree of sacrifice is necessary. In terms of animal cruelty, we might argue that there are other ways to avoid this without renouncing meat, like swearing to only eat animals that have been humanely raised, or working in other ways to resist the capitalist system that gives rise to these cruel practices in the first place. But unfortunately, there is no rebuttal for the environmental argument (unless you believe we can colonize space within the next forty years and that this possibility would justify the destruction of our ancestral home).  The inconvenient truth that even Al Gore did not want to mention is that animal agriculture is the number one source of carbon emissions, Amazon destruction, species extinction, dead zones in the ocean, fresh water consumption, and indeed world hunger (were we all to become vegan, we could currently produce enough plant-based food to feed 10 billion people). These are facts that, as Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn’s recent documentary Cowspiracy disturbingly reveals, the mainstream environmental movement does not want us to know, as it receives some of its funding from big agriculture.

What are we to do? The current course most of us take – consuming meat and dairy products on a daily basis – is cruel, destructive and unsustainable. But, as I have said before on this blog, sacrifice does not need to be all or nothing. We do not need to make a binary choice between strict veganism and an omnivorous diet that places meat its the center. If all of us could become vegetarian for three days a week, the negative impact on animals, land, and water would be hugely reduced. This is an issue where I would urge us all not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Whatever our limitations may be, we must not let them become an excuse for doing nothing.

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  • Ronald King

    Good for you Jeannine. It is amazing how quickly time has passed since the ’70’s when I had switched to a vegetarian lifestyle. I still have my Acme juicer and it still works. The very same words you’ve written about the environmental impact of the animal waste and the solution were being expressed way back then. If I remember correctly one of the books I had was Diet for a Small Planet. It is sad that my generation has embraced mass consumption as its mantra.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

    Jeannine, thank you for an interesting post. Without going into the ethical merits of vegetarianism, I want to call into question your assertion that animal agriculture is “a greater contributor to carbon emissions than all our fossil fuel use combined.” I do not believe this is the case. According to Skeptical Science, a website on global warming that I have found very reliable in the past,

    http://skepticalscience.com/animal-agriculture-meat-global-warming.htm

    this is not true, either in the US or globally. For instance, in the US, they have data that show that 6% of CO2 emissions come from agriculture, and 80% from burning fossil fuels.

    Supporting other parts of your argument, at least in part, is a nice infographic from National Geographic.

    http://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/feeding-9-billion/

    It highlights the importance of reducing meat consumption (not necessarily going vegetarian, just shifting the balance in your diet). It also discusses a point you do not mention, which is reducing the amount of waste in the food supply chain, where anywhere between 25 and 50 percent of calories produced are lost.

    • Brian Martin

      I think those statistics are somewhat misleading, because the 6% of CO2 emissions from Animal Agriculture does not seem to include the burning of fossil fuels for the express purpose of supporting the Animal Agriculture industry. The growing and harvesting of feedcrops, the transportation of the animals to sale and slaughter, and the transportation and refrigeration costs of the butchered livestock are not contained (at least in my reading of your linked article) in that 6%.
      That being said…..I have a great song on this subject by Rev. Horton Heat Called “Eat Steak” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQynViAF6Ds
      I give this as levity and not disrespect.
      I think a look at how particular farming is done is justified, but I also think that agriculture can be done in a local, sustainable manner – I would refer to writings by Wendell Berry and others regarding this subject

      • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

        “Eat Steak” :-) enough said. I will take mine rare.

        I am not going to argue about statistics I am not thoroughly familar with, though if at the top of the article you click on the hightlighted link “6%” you will go to a very long document about energy use in agriculture, which includes a discussion of transportation. But I think the take-away is the point I was trying to make: while agriculture in general, and meat production in particular, contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases, it is not, in and of itself, more significant that burning fossil fuels.

        With regards to local, sustainable, agriculture, I generally agree, though I think one needs to be cautious. The total energy budget of a CSA farm where the members drive 45 minutes round trip in their SUVs every week to pick up their produce is very high, and may be higher than the energy cost of bulk transportation from several states (or even 1/2 a continent) away. This is not to justify bad agricultural practices (like growing tomatoes in Florida) but to point out that the simplistic equation “local = better” is not necessarily true.

        • brian martin

          I missed that link..and stand corrected.
          I agree with the rest of your statement as well…although I would suggest that the lack of usage of chemicals, the use of non GMO produce etc clicks things in the favor of CSA’s and the like…just my 2 cents.
          I believe that the evidence shows that in general corporate agriculture is at best an extractive industry akin to mining…and in less obvious way just as damaging to the earth.

  • Tausign

    Thanks for this post. I also read your prior related post, ‘It isn’t all or nothing’. First of all, the reference to the movie ‘Babe’ makes me chuckle. I had a friend years ago who was a hunter (for deer mostly) and he would roll his eyes when anyone accused him of shooting ‘Bambi’.

    I noticed that you tagged this post ‘Consistent life ethic’ and so I clicked to see what other concerns would be related. I agree that this topic rightly falls under your concern and wonder if your case wouldn’t have been stronger had you clarified what the true dissonance is. Is our concern about consuming other species or it about the lack of respect we give the rest of Creation (i.e. the environment and non-human life)?

    What does sacrifice mean and how is it accomplished? As a lay Franciscan (penitent) I’ve come to regard the Lenten sacrifice as a ‘prayer of the body’; that is to say that my physical body participates with my spirit in a prayer expression that is more than an ‘act of will’. This is much different than the traditional ‘discipline my body…my enemy’ approach that struggles with giving up ‘buffalo wings’ or ‘liver and onions’ that we may relish or dislike.

    It seems to me that you are trying to find the integrity that Pope Francis mentions in Laudato Si when he speaks of an Integral Ecology. It’s the harmony of being rightly connected to God, ourselves/neighbors and all of Creation. Of course, this pursuit is never complete, but the fruit is not only peace and joy, but a healthy sorting out over time of pork versus beans, chocolate ice cream, makeup and leather seats.