25 September 2008

Conscientious Omnivores

Well, I guess I can actually write longer things while I procrastinate on that one post.


There's a discussion going on over at Jezebel that started out being about all the recent issues with formula and milk, and has largely fallen into a debate over the merits of vegetarianism/veganism. The location isn't really that important, as it's a debate I've had over and over in recent years. I'm part of the local outdoor community--in particular, the student/working class end of it--which tends to be fairly activisty (why yes, "activisty" is a word, why do you ask?) and has a particular interest in environmental and sustainability issues, as well as a general obsession with health. You can see how the whole "what you eat" discussion might come up on a regular basis. And so, because this really is something I've done a heck of a lot of thinking about, I'm gonna put my two cents out there:

As best I can parse it, there are three main aspects to the pro-veg* argument:

1) the animal rights argument: both the dairy and meat industries are run in ways that are unnecessarily cruel to animals, and we should not condone their practices if we are to consider ourselves moral human beings. The most extreme iteration of this would be the "meat is murder" argument that killing animals for food, regardless of how it is done, is immoral.

2) the sustainability argument: livestock farming is damaging to the environment in many ways: it consumes enormous amounts of resources relative to what is produced, it leads to the destruction of sensitive habitats through over-grazing and clearing of new pasture in places like the South American rainforests, and it leads to the production of hazardous wastes, including astonishingly high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

3) the health argument: eating vegetarian/vegan is just plain better for you. This tends to be based on the cholesterol and saturated fat issues often associated with consuming meat and dairy, the high incidence of lactose intolerance within certain ethnic groups, and the frequent use of low-quality feed, antibiotics and other drugs within the meat and dairy industries that will affect the quality of the food we consume (this last point is subject to the most variability with regards to local farming practices--eg. the much lower use of antibiotics in Canada as compared to the US).

To me, these are three distinct arguments with varying levels of power, depending on whom you're speaking to. I personally find argument #2 the most compelling, followed by #1 and then #3, but your mileage may vary. Unfortunately, they tend to get lumped together into a single meta-argument that is much less effective in the long run, because it treats three aspects of an issue that are going to be ranked differently in people's minds as if they were (or MUST be) of equal importance to everybody.

here endeth the summary portion of the evening, and beginneth the criticism and requisite navel-gazing

The first problem that tends to crop up for the pro-veg side in these debates is one of delivery. Many people, when they have found a way of living their life in accordance with their principles and, in this case, physical requirements, get really, really excited. This is no surprise. Some of them get excited enough that they want to tell everyone in the world about this amazing thing they have discovered, in the hopes that it will be as amazingly helpful to others as it was to them. No surprise here either. Some of these people then get a bit...sanctimonious...and preachy, and fall into the trap of believing that there is One True Way to attain health and ethical purity, and that anyone who doesn't believe in it is brainwashed/stupid/morally degenerate. This is also not surprising; nor is it particularly helpful. Nobody enjoys being talked down to, and it's really hard to convert anybody to a particular way of thinking if you can't convince them that you actually value them as an independent human being first.

Of course, there are loads of vegetarians/vegans out there who are not sanctimonious twits. I rather like them, and will happily engage in discussion over our respective dietary choices with people who are willing to listen to what I have to say and treat me like an equal human being. A lot of them are even willing to admit that it is possible to be an ethical human being with a significantly reduced ecological footprint and still eat meat. A conscientious omnivore, if you will.

And that is important, because the discussion over whether to go veg or not gets framed as an all-or-nothing question far too often. I believe there is a middle ground, and its existence is predicated on how one addresses the 3 arguments I've listed above. I don't really think that the ideas at the core of #1 and #2 are up for debate. There are serious ethical and environmental problems with the way that meat and dairy are produced on an industrial scale, and we each have to make choices about how we wish to address those, even if we do continue to consume these products.

Where things get thorny, at least to my eye, is with argument #3. I seriously doubt that there is One True Diet that will work for every body on this planet. Some of us really do better eating absolutely no meat or other animal products. Some of us really don't. I'm all for educating people about various aspects of nutrition, as i think that it is really important for us to understand how to keep our bodies running as well as possible, and to be able to recognise and deal with problems that will significantly impact our quality of life (some of these, like lactose intolerance, can be mild but still problematic, while others, like diabetes, can be tougher to manage).

But the key here is knowing what you need to be healthy. I'll use myself as an example, because I know my body better than I know anybody else's.

I'm a very active person: I commute by bicycle as often as possible and walk most of the rest of the time, I rockclimb and mountaineer (both pretty high-output activities) in the summer and ski tour (think hiking up a mountain with skis on and then skiing back down) in the winter. I'm also naturally slim. All of this means that (a) I need a fairly high caloric intake just to keep myself going and (b) I have a high ratio of muscle to fat, and need to consume a lot of protein to maintain that muscle mass. A lot.

And, yes, I am well aware that there are great sources of plant-based protein out there. A few major sources are soy; pretty much any other bean; nuts and seeds; and certain grains, most notably qinoa. There's lots to choose from, on the face of it, and I know several people with requirements similar to mine who do just fine consuming those sources. I don't. The biggest reason for this is that I have significant difficulties digesting soy, and lesser but still significant issues with most kinds of beans. They invariably make me gassy, bloated and (in the case of soy) mess up my normal digestive function for a few days. It's not pleasant, to say the least, and I doubt I'm getting what I need from them.

In fact, my symptoms are pretty close to those of lactose intolerance, a condition that is reasonably common and has been shown to be genetic and generally tied to a person's region of origin and how much cow's milk their ancestors consumed. I'd bet my first-born child that dairy isn't the only thing that humans adapt to consuming (or don't) over time. In fact, I'd say that really fucking likely that a group that has a had a consistent diet over a long period of time would adapt to get the most benefit possible out of that diet, and wouldn't have the same adaptations for foods that it had never historically come in contact with. I'd volunteer myself as test-subject for a study to look at how this works, seeing as my family has been in the same place for so long that one side of it takes its name from a village that got swallowed up by the bigger city that now stands on that spot (and that is my mother's home town) some 700 years ago. I'm from peasant stock, which also suggests that we would have been very closely tied to what the land could produce, even if wealthier Poles would have had access to more exotic foodstuffs acquired through trade. And the local diet? Pork, potatoes, dairy, beets and cabbage. Nary a soybean (or kidney bean, lentil or chickpea) in sight. I doubt that it's an accident I have difficulty digesting them.

If I rule out, or at least significantly limit beans as a source of protein, we end up with nuts/seeds and quinoa. Quinoa is a new addition to my diet, and I'm trying to see if I can eat more of it on a regular basis, but the stuff sits like a brick in my stomache, so I'm looking at limited intake for now. That leaves nuts and seeds. I might be able to consume enough of them to get the protein I need, but I doubt it. I think that they're a great way to supplement one's protein intake, but I don't think they work particularly well as one's primary source of protein. All of which means I have to eat meat, if I want to get the nutrients I need to keep my body functioning at my current level of activity. I suppose I could just throw my entire lifestyle out the window and become sedentary, but that doesn't exactly come without its own set of health problems.

I doubt I'm the only person who really does care about reasons #1 and #2 for why our current modes of meat/dairy production and consumption are seriously flawed, but doesn't really have the option of opting out entirely. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Because our economy is consumer driven, and those who stop consuming meat/dairy no longer don't have any power over the industry until their numbers get so high that there is no longer a large enough consumer base to support animal product production at all. And I doubt that will ever be the case, at least in part because non-consumption of these products isn't a viable option for a lot of people such as myself.

But responsible consumption is, and therein lies our power as conscientious omnivores. As consumers of meat and/or dairy, we get to choose whom we buy our meat, milk and cheese from, and we have the responsibility to call out producers on unethical and unsustainable business practices. And they have to listen, because their profit margins are dependent on our willingness to buy their product, and not the one produced in more ethically (free range, non-medicated, etc) and environmentally (organic, small scale, etc) sound fashion by the guy down the road. There is some truth to the "voting with your dollar" model, as problematic as the entire consumer-driven system is in the first place, and it is our responsibility as consumers to shop consciously as best we can**. We can all stand to reduce our consumption of the least sustainable products, such as beef, and favour ones that have a smaller impact, such as certain kinds of fish. And we can all be ethically and environmentally conscious while still consuming meat. In fact, we damn well ought to.

If we stop framing the argument as an all-or-nothing game, we can stop fighting over whose side is more morally upright and look at ways in which all of us can work together to make our food-production practices better for everyone, including the animals we kill and eat and the world we live in.


* I'm including both vegetarianism and veganism here and tend to lump them together in this debate, though I recognise the difference between the two terms.

** I'm aware that there are huge class and regional issues at play here as well. Deciding what kind of food to buy is a privilege. It's damn hard, if not impossible, to choose the (currently more expensive) free-range or organic chicken over the cheaper bulk pack when you can barely scrape together enough to feed yourself or your family, and where you live hugely affects what kind of options (eg. farmers markets vs. supermarkets) you actually have with regards to where you get your food and what kind is available. My point is that those who care about these issues should be doing what they can, within their means and working with their particular limitations, to address them. It's also why I think it's hugely important to make environmentally and ethically sound production affordable so that these choices are available to most people, but that means a whole different scale of activism and intervention, as I don't see a way of getting that ball rolling without the involvement of the highest levels of government.

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