As I’ve considered a more sustainable lifestyle, I’ve been mentally preparing myself for the fact that I would probably come to the conclusion that I need to become a vegetarian. I’ve been a vegetarian before, once in high school when I went full vegan for an article for the school paper and for a few months in college. I’ve been aware of the many problems with factory farming for ages, but I grew up in a household where we ate meat every dinner. I unashamedly love meat, but I also realize that eating meat contradicts the Just Cool It and rereading Eating Animals have convinced me that meat (as we know it) has got to go.
My reasons for going vegetarian, in order of importance, are:
- The environment
- Use of antibiotics and health concerns surrounding factory farming
- Animal rights
The truth is, I am not compelled to go vegetarian based on animal rights. I unapologetically believe that humans and animals are not equal. If I had to decide between saving a human and an animal from being killed, the choice to save the human would be easy. That doesn’t mean I think it’s ok that animals suffer while they are raised or slaughtered, but I don’t think the act of eating animals is immoral. The real problem is that our desire for cheap meat all the time has drastically changed agriculture. I could tell you all about how horrible factory farming is, but you probably already know that. I find the use of videos of animals suffering to compel people to become vegetarians distasteful and exploitative. These videos play at emotion, not logic, and in my experience they alienate people more often than convincing them. I would feel better about eating meat if I knew the animal didn’t suffer in life or death, but that really isn’t possible in the current system.
In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer examines the use of antibiotics used in agriculture. Antibiotics (and vaccines) are wonderful, but I also think we need to use antibiotics with caution. Factory farming relies on animals that have been designed to get fat fast while living in unsanitary conditions. Normally, most of these animals would die, which is where antibiotics come in. As humans, we should only use antibiotics when we are already sick and for a limited amount of time. But animals are fed antibiotics even when they are not sick, and as a result, we are seeing a rise in drug-resistant pathogens. These pathogens can mutate and jump to humans, and when this happens, we may not be able to protect ourselves. Perhaps the most compelling point from Foer is that the virus responsible for the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 originated as a virus on a factory farm. The virus jumped to people and resulted in 14,000 deaths. Obviously, abstaining from meat on my part will not stop a new antibiotic resistant pandemic, but I also intend to advocate for less antibiotic use in farming. This year, new rules from the FDA went into effect regarding antibiotic use, but as this article points out, the rule may come with loopholes and it will take time before we know if the new regulations impact antibiotic use in a meaningful way. Check out this video if you want to learn more about why antibiotics should be used with caution. Foer also points to the negative side effects of factory farming on workers and people that live near farms. The waste from factory farms can poison our water supply and workers on factory farms can get injured due to the physical demands of their work and communities living near factory farms suffer from “persistent nosebleeds, earaches, chronic diarrhea, and burning laws,” as a result of untreated waste (Foer, 176).
The main reason I am becoming a vegetarian though is due to the ecological impact of factory farming. Producing meat at the scale Americans demand requires significant use of fuel, land, and water. The image below shows the resources required for a quarter-pound of hamburger.
In Just Cool It, Suzuki and Hanington share that animal agriculture accounts for 14% of greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation is also a problem associated with eating meat as land has to be cleared for animal agriculture, leaving fewer trees to absorb CO2. Meat also has to be processed, transported, and packaged, all of which require fuel and other resources. We have a finite amount of land and water to support a growing population. Currently, 40% of the earth’s surface is used for agriculture (Suzuki and Hanington, 148) and livestock are fed the very foods we could be eating on their own (soy, corn, and other grains), so in addition to the emissions released by livestock, we use precious resources to grow their feed. There’s no way to eat (or exist) without causing harm to the environment, but giving up meat seems like a good step to doing less harm.
And so, I’ve decided to give up all farmed land based animal meat. If someone I knew hunted or fished, I would be more than willing to eat that since that animal didn’t use the same antibiotics or resources farmed animals do. I still need to decide where I stand on fish, and I know I will not be giving up cheese. Sushi and cheese are pretty important to me. I already eat both in moderation, so for now I feel good about the decision. I also realize being a vegetarian is a huge privilege (which I intend to write about at a later date). I don’t think all people need to be vegetarians, but in the U.S. at least we could do a lot of good for the planet by drastically reducing our meat consumption.