On Vegetarianism

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Every week, my mother, and my younger brother and I used to drive twenty minutes or so to Taco Bell. It was as habitual as it was ritual; I’d eat my cheesy gordita crunch and drink my Starbucks coffee as my mother reminded us to complete our weekly chores. I looked forward to it every week, and sometimes I’d find an excuse to stop by the Taco Bell before Saturday came because I couldn’t quite wait that long.

Then I got sick of it. Something in me began to consider the food I was eating and what it could be doing to my body. I knew it wasn’t a healthy habit. So I kicked fast food. No more Burger King, McDonalds, or Taco Bell. Given that I never had any allergies to food, this marked the first point at which I decided that some foods are off the table for me. Since that point about seven years ago, I’ve never looked back.

Slowly but surely, I began to think more about the food that I eat, where it comes from, and what it could do to me. Several months after my last fast food burger I watched Food, Inc. I soon went vegetarian. I kept this up for another 18 months before realizing vegetarianism simply wasn’t good enough, not ethically nor nutritionally, so I went vegan. I’ve been vegan for five years now. Even though I’ve changed my position on the health-related impetus for veganism, the ethical imperative becomes more clear by the day.

Let me briefly make the case for veganism over vegetarianism.

The truth is, there’s not much of a difference between a glass of milk and a slice of veal. They are virtually inseparable. In order that the milk keeps flowing, dairy cows are impregnated. They inevitably give birth to baby calves. Within hours, the calf is separated from the mother because every ounce of milk consumed by the baby is an ounce taken out of the jug at the grocery store. If the calf is a male, it will often be chained up to prevent movement (and thus prevent muscle growth, which gives veal its tender texture) before being slaughtered within a week or two. Every glass of milk that you drink is eight ounces that was produced for the baby cow cut into pieces on your uncle’s plate. So if you’re a vegetarian and you feel the need to guilt a family member or friend for eating meat, make sure there’s no milk in your glass first.

And if you’re thinking that milk is just a by-product of the veal industry, you have it backwards. The dairy industry is huge, and farmers discovered that male calves aren’t totally useless; they could be killed and sold as veal. The dairy industry drives the veal industry, so one may argue that there is less slaughter in a slice of veal than a glass of milk.

And it’s not just dairy. On egg farms, baby male chicks are similarly considered useless and are tossed en masse into a grinder almost immediately after they hatch. This is standard practice. So again, don’t make a snide comment about your friend eating ham for breakfast if you’re eating an omelet. Actually, skip the snide comments altogether. It’s not going to do any good.

Of course, many vegetarians refuse to eat meat and cut down on their consumption of eggs and/or dairy as well, reaching for the almondmilk instead of the cow’s milk. The audience I am trying to reach here are the vegetarians who replaced meat with foods derived from dairy and eggs.

This is not to say that vegetarians — even the ones who believe milk comes from happy cows — are not having any positive effects. According to some calculations, a vegetarian saves somewhere between 371 and 582 animals per year. These numbers get a bit fuzzy when you consider that some amount of dairy converts to the slaughter of one calf, or that a certain number of eggs contributes to the death of one male chick, but it is unlikely that accounting for these factors brings the number of animals saved by vegetarians down to zero. And any reduction in unnecessary suffering is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.

Rather, vegetarianism is a good start. Had I never given up fast food, I don’t know if I would have had the self-efficacy to go meat-free and then to give up animal products altogether. I would never scoff at a vegetarian or lecture them on the horrible means of production of dairy and eggs, the same way I don’t do that to anyone that eats meat. Most people truly love animals and are therefore uncomfortable when they’re reminded that they eat them, too, and vegetarians are at least willing to make an effort to bring their habits in line with their beliefs. So to any vegetarians who may be reading this, I say: Good for you, but keep going. You’re halfway there.

Oh, and my brother is vegan now, too.

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