My Evolution from Vegan to Ethical Omnivore
I believe people who choose to abstain from eating animals and their byproducts are convinced it’s the right thing to do: for animals, for the planet, and for their own health. It takes a lot of willpower and commitment to examine everyday products for animal-based ingredients; avoid animal-derived clothing (especially when purchasing shoes); and, for many, discipline themselves against deeply-ingrained cravings and traditions involving eggs, meat, seafood, and dairy.
One could certainly debate the origin of these inclinations, and the degree to which individuals experience them. I was only vegan for three years and during that time, had to exercise a lot of willpower to avoid my own cravings, which I personally believe have both genetic and cultural roots. But to me, it was worth it—I was sparing animals’ suffering and helping the planet. Yes, perhaps humans are inherently omnivorous, but aren’t they also capable of considering the impact of their actions and adjusting their behavior?
At first it seemed straightforward. I learned about inhumane living conditions, egregious slaughterhouse practices, and the cruelty of laboratory testing. It felt good to hold the moral high-ground. And I thought people who chose to eat meat were ethical but under-informed; somewhat informed but preferred not to think about it; or well-informed but unable or unwilling to commit to it.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” -John Muir
Choose to harm animals or choose not to, right? That’s what I thought, but the more I learned the more hypocritical I felt. I realized that ultimately I was choosing to harm some and not others, and I struggled to find a balance suitable for my conscience.
Any animal who possesses a nervous system that includes a brain can feel pain. So that’s all vertebrates (mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians) but also a variety of invertebrates like crustaceans and insects. It was clear to me at the time, morally, that if I never ate beef or consumed dairy, I could absolve myself of ever harming a cow. And I was doing this because a cow is an animal and I didn’t want to cause animals pain.
But a fly is also an animal. A roach is an animal. Ants are animals. One night as I flushed a toilet-paper-encased spider down the toilet, I wondered: Could I commit to sharing my home with insects, or always catching and releasing them? Isn’t the life of one animal equivalent to another? Was it reasonable to feel good about saving one cow but killing 10,000 termites?
And it got more complex. Eating organically is better for the planet and our own health, in part because only certain pesticides and soil amendments can be used. But how many animals (like beetles, caterpillars, and slugs) are killed while producing organic fruits and vegetables, and in horrible ways? Neem oil suffocates them, salt dessicates them, diatomaceous earth shreds them. Some “pests” are hand-picked then drowned or fed (alive) to poultry. Moles, rabbits, and deer are shot. And many OMRI-certified soil amendments are, themselves, slaughter byproducts: bone meal, blood meal, feather meal, fish meal. Realizing this, I no longer found the consumption of organic fruits and vegetables completely guilt-free.
I learned how most of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified to withstand the widespread application of glyophosphate (e.g., Roundup), and that it’s often sprayed on wheat as well. Those three commodities are used to make the majority of meat alternatives like Quorn products, veggie burgers, tofu, and seitan. I realize the safety of glyophosphate is technically still under debate, but it doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies. I can avoid it by opting for organic versions though, right? I believe so. But then we run into another issue: tilling and harvesting.
How many worms and snakes lose their lives to blades as they’re dragged through the soil? How many mice, voles, rabbits, and (again) insects get caught up in the spinning blades of a combine? Exact numbers are debatable but the fact that lives are lost seems pretty certain. Tilling and large machinery also contribute to global warming, which isn’t awesome.
And it turns out even nut production poses moral issues. In addition to pesticide and transportation concerns, some nuts (like almonds) require lots of water to grow. And since they’re cultivated in places that don’t naturally support their basic needs, that water has to come from somewhere (like California’s Klamath river during severe drought periods, threatening the survival of endangered king salmon). This information makes the selection of almond milk as a dairy substitute a bit more morally murky. Save the fish or save the cow? Whose life is worth more? Similar moral uncertainties arise when considering other dairy substitutes: How many lives were lost when the soy, or the oats, were planted, tended, and harvested?
And in a similar vein: How many animals suffer, and to what extent, when planting, tending, and harvesting cotton or flax (for linen)? Wool, angora, mohair, cashmere, silk, leather, and all other animal products are out, so what is the dutiful vegan left to wear? Synthetic fabrics created with environmentally-polluting plastics? (Polyester, nylon, and other synthetic fabrics are widely implicated as the source of microplastics found in oceans, rivers, and lakes.)
“Every Living Organism Requires the Death of Another” -Josh Tickell
As the moral high-ground I once occupied eroded from the ebb and flow of inconvenient complexities, I wasn’t sure what to do. I started to feel like the person who had been under-informed. If I stopped exploring, I’d be the person who kind-of knew but chose not to think about it. So I did think about it. A lot. And I still do.
In my current opinion, consuming animals and making use of their byproducts isn’t the heart of the problem; it isn’t the primary thing causing suffering and environmental degradation. Large-scale, industrial agriculture is. Simply declining to use animal products (and encouraging others to follow suit) assists in solving the livestock-related part of the problem, but exacerbates the non-animal part of the problem. If no meat (or dairy products) are being consumed, the void will likely be filled with other industrially-produced commodities (like wheat, corn, soy, and almonds). The suffering, death, and environmental degradation continue.
I read Kiss the Ground by Josh Tickell during our big road trip and found it disturbing and inspiring at the same time. He was able to succinctly express what my own exploration had revealed. “Without exception in our biosphere, rhizosphere, and in the oceans, every living organism requires the death of another. Put in the simplest terms, death is a prerequisite for life. But carnage is not a prerequisite. Nor is rampant suffering. Nor is the wholesale destruction of ecosystems and species.”
“Be the Change You Wish to See in the World” -Mahatma Gandhi
So what’s a person who cares about this particular set of problems to do when every food and clothing choice is imbued with some degree of harm? For me, the answer is to accept it. Happy lives are filled with compromise. I examined my own behavior and inclinations, and decided to make a conscious effort to achieve a balance between caring for myself, other people, animals, and the planet.
I strive to consume meat and other products derived from a small number of sustainably-raised and humanely slaughtered animals rather than opting for a larger quantity of protein sources whose production likely resulted in the suffering and death of many animals. I buy organic when I can. And the biggest step? I chose to become a farmer. Not just any farmer, but the kind of farmer I would want to buy products from: an organic, regenerative farmer who’s kind to animals and respects the environment.
We all have our parts to play. I’ve decided this is mine, and my wife has decided it’s hers, too. So our children will be raised on this happy homestead, where we hope to help convince the next generation that farming can indeed be good for animals, people, and the planet.
Thanks for reading,