Friday, January 21, 2011

My contribution to a most contentious debate

Photo courtesy of Microsoft Clip Art

(No, not the "tiger mother" debate...we all know that this is not the way to raise the people we have been waiting for. So shut down the publicity machine for this woman, already!)

The question of whether people should eat meat has become another American infinity debate, like those regarding abortion and the death penalty. You can see this debate in full flower in Alternet's "Food" section. At this point, this is becoming just as boring as abortion and death penalty debates.

If you reach back into the past, say, 288 years ago, you will find wisdom you can use today. As a teenager, Benjamin Franklin read a book about vegetarianism and decided to follow the diet. His motive was mainly financial: a meatless diet allowed him more money to purchase books (a good reason indeed). A boat trip from Boston to New York, during which the crew fished for cod, was an eye-opener for young Mr. Franklin:

I balanced some time between principle and inclination until I recollected that when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs. “Then,” thought I, “if you eat one another, I don’t see why we may not eat you.” So I dined upon cod very heartily and have since continued to eat as other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet.” – Benjamin Franklin, quoted in Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life(page 36)

Young Ben had an excellent point. I have come to this same conclusion: it is not inherently wrong for humans to eat animal products, whether flesh or milk or eggs. Animals eat other animals. It’s a fact of life. Who watches nature channels and scolds “Bad lion! Bad shark! Bad eagle!” when they see predators predating? Why are humans special?

Torturing animals, killing just for sport, waste – those are all evils. But we can kill animals for food respectfully and humbly.

Ideally, we would slaughter our own meat and catch our own fish. Modern life keeps most of us too occupied, and so we must rely on middlemen. Ideally, we would all buy organic meat. Organic meat is prohibitively expensive for Two Dogs and me at this point in time, so we get our flat iron steaks and cooked whole chickens at regular supermarkets. (If more people bought my e-book Goody Ideas, though…)

I am happy with meatless meals – macaroni and cheese with spinach, grilled tofu and brown rice, eggs on top of asparagus and ricotta cheese. But a life without shrimp, scallops, tilapia, halibut, salmon sushi, chicken (and its liver), thin ham slices (chipped ham in Pittsburgh), lamb chops, and flat iron steaks will be difficult for me.

The vehement species of vegan would think me a monster. The vehement species of vegan says you cannot be a good person and eat meat. The vehement species of vegan wants the whole world to stop eating meat – yesterday.

(For an audio example of this species, listen to Bob Linden’s radio show Go Vegan. It’s the most annoying radio show you can’t stop listening to.)

The vehement vegans say that everyone going meatless will save the world because it will reduce greenhouse gases. (I think it’s the industrialized farming, not the presence of cattle, which causes the greenhouse gases – what kind of greenhouse gases came out of the dinosaurs?)

But what if the whole world went vegan?

What if we all woke up tomorrow and promised to give up eating beef, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy from that day forward?


1. Some of us would starve to death. It’s easy to forget this when you live in a country where fresh produce is practically in your face, but some people live in places with little or no arable land. Think of the Inuit (whom we used to call Eskimos), or the Tibetans.

2. What happens to the “food” animals if people decide not to eat them anymore? Will we just turn them loose from the farms and let nature take care of them? (That would make for some happy foxes.) Can they survive in the wild? Do vehement vegans even think about this?

3. Do we have enough farmland to feed 6,895,052,894 people (and growing fast?) Can we feed everyone on organic farming, or will we have to resort to unnatural interventions such as industrial farming and genetically modified seeds? I remember watching an episode of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! in which they claimed that if we relied on organic farming alone, it would feed only 75% of the people. I am not sure if this is true, but I wouldn’t want to chance it. The next time you are in a crowd, divide whom you see into groups of four, and then decide which one should die from too little food.

Of course, there is also nothing inherently wrong with being a vegan or vegetarian. Remember, though, that the meat eaters help make this choice possible. You know what meat is? Food.


  1. in response to #2, which is ALWAYS brought up by people who are "concerned" about animals, vegans know that people won't stop eating meat overnight. it will be gradual and there would be fewer animals bred if there are fewer people eating animals. currently, animals that are rescued go to sanctuaries and live out their lives in peace. there may need to be more of these if farms close and dont want to kill off the last of the animals (unlikely).

  2. your farmland argument also doesn't make sense. most of the grain grown now goes to animals. so if it didn't go to animals, that land could be converted to grow food directly for humans.

    who says organic gardening has anything to do with veganism? sure it would be nice to all eat vegan and organic, but one doesn't require that you do the other.

    I also happen to know vegans in alaska who don't starve. it's called trucks, trains, and planes.