People always ask why anyone would decide to go vegetarian. Even if you eat fruits and vegetables, bread, cookies and ice cream, how can you do without the meat you’ve always enjoyed? That’s a really good question, one deserving of a thoughtful answer.
The simple answer is that it’s not easy: if I’m giving up meat, chicken and fish it’s not because I’m indifferent to them. I’m a foodie. I relish eating good food. I’m also obsessive — I’ve always read labels— that’s why I rarely eat processed foods and stopped drinking soda years ago.
Like most people, for many years I didn’t give much thought to the origin and processing of what I ate. I assumed the trajectory that animals traveled from field to market was unremarkable. I knew about growing fruits and vegetables— I have a garden myself— but I never really wanted to know exactly how a piglet turns into a pork chop or a cow into hamburger.
There are many reasons to cut back or even renounce eating meat. For me, it’s not a question of dislike. I certainly relished rare roast beef, grilled steak and a juicy hamburger. Or I did until nine years ago, when Michael Pollan’s detailed chronicle of the short, brutish life of a steer from insemination to slaughter jerked me way out of my comfort zone. No, I’ve decided to try to deprive myself of foods I’ve eaten and enjoyed all my life because now I’m much better educated. I’ve learned how much factory farms— whether they grow livestock, poultry or fish— adversely impact the environment worldwide and even hyperlocally— the health of my own body. I know that animals are raised as commodities— things that produce a profit— not as living, sentient beings, so ethical issues play their part as well.
After learning the intimate particulars of life and death in the feedlot, I lost my taste for beef for almost a year. I couldn’t get Pollan’s description of the conditions in the CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) out of my head. The thought of thousands of cows crowded in pens where they live in their own shit while being artificially fattened in record time on a diet that makes them sick substantially detracts from any enjoyment I might derive from eating their flesh.
The hormones and antibiotics that routinely spike their feed pass also into the body that consumes their meat. The hormones make the animals grow big and fat much faster than they would normally so that the meat producer can turn over a larger profit sooner. Because the cattle’s physiology is designed to process grass, the corn with which they are fed instead in the feedlots so upsets their digestion that they would die without a daily dose of antibiotics. Those drugs also counter the infections borne by their carcasses, besmirched as they are with the shit that they’ve lived in.
Americans are prescribed three million pounds of antibiotics per year plus the traces of the nearly 28 million pounds of antibiotics given to livestock yearly in the U.S. The consumption of all these drugs has led to the evolution of “superbugs”— germs that are highly resistant to the arsenal of medicines currently available. As for the growth hormones, some part of them is passed on through dairy products and meat and may affect the human life cycle. Girls are menstruating at progressively earlier ages— as young as eight— and there is speculation that the bovine growth hormones may be responsible.
As for my own progress into vegetarianism, I’m fine when I’m eating at home, though I confess I do feel somewhat deprived when I pass up plates enticingly described as only professional menu writers can do. A good restaurant, however, always has at least one imaginative vegetarian offering.
In the next post I’ll write about the environmental impact of CAFOs.
“Cows in green field” photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos under GFDL