I turned vegetarian eight months ago – for no particular reason. It may have been a subconscious desire to eat healthier, or perhaps it was a need for change after years of a meat-heavy Mexican diet. Whatever the catalyst may have been, it was definitely not a conscious objection to the consumption of meat on environmental or ethical grounds at the time. But in the months that followed, when people asked me why I made this life decision, I felt like I should have had an answer, a cause to justify my dietary habits. If I were to choose, the environmental impact of meat production would probably top the list, followed closely by the harsh treatment of animals. As opinions on food polarize us more than ever, it seems like its not enough to make a choice, you have to be able to defend yourself to both non-vegetarians as well as vegans as to why you won’t swing either way.
So what are our reasons for imposing dietary rules upon ourselves? In quantitative terms, religion is the winner. Over 2 billion Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains choose to adopt a range of dietary restrictions from the banning of pork in any form to limiting the consumption of vegetables only to those that do not need to be uprooted from the ground. In second place is a less voluntary factor – health. Counting together diabetics, cardiac patients, people with food allergies and intolerance towards dairy and gluten would result in a relatively low number in comparison to religion-bound consumers, but not negligible as a percentage of the world population. And lastly, taste. Some people just don’t like the way their palettes react to certain foods. Tastes, like allergies, may change over time but certainly contribute to differences in diet from one person to the next.
So the amount of food that is not consumed as a result of ethical choices is quite low in comparison to the other drivers of dietary composition, mostly because only the very affluent can make these kinds of choices. I may not have a strong ethical foundation to my logic of not eating meat, but regardless, I can afford to because I can replace it with other sources of protein or fats that others may not have access to. A friend of mine, already a strict vegetarian, recently tried to persuade me to give up dairy given the environmental impact of its production, and I thought about how many people on the planet could actually afford to give up dairy given its central place in so many different gastronomic cultures – despite the fact that we don’t need it in its current form to survive.
Not many apparently, which is why its important that we consider facts before we make choices to change diets – and preach about the value of these changes to those that may be less-informed. Beef production is often cited as extremely water-intensive but many vegetarians may not know that almonds use up more water than cows on average, water-intensiveness differing from water-efficiency which is a different matter altogether. Fish farming generates waste and depletes stocks of wild fish which are used to feed farmed fish but soybeans have contributed to the deforestation of the amazon (even though much of it is used to feed cattle). These are basic facts that everyone should be aware of before making the kind of dietary decisions that, if adopted on a large scale, will result in possibly catastrophic imbalances in our ecosystems.
There are few numbers to support most of the content in this post. This is more of a reflection on my conversations with conscious eaters since my transition to vegetarianism. The arguments against meat-eating are pretty clear to me, and obvious to most environmentally conscious people, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that I have the right to ostracize meat-eaters. Instead, I consider it my duty as a non-religious vegetarian to inform those in my ambiente why going green isn’t a bad option, apocalyptic future of a meat-eating civilization aside.