BOOK REVIEW: Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism

This book is sort of an “issues debated” collection, aimed toward YA readers either considering or researching vegetarianism.

Dialogue on this emotional subject often devolves into whether human beings are “meant” to eat meat. Sally Denneen rightly concludes that humans evolved as opportunistic omnivores, which enabled our type to colonize the world with great success. However, now that we are thoroughly domesticated, those of us who have a choice must face the fact that we raise and kill billions of animals for no good reason, often with great detriment to the world around us. William Saleton muddles the hypocrisy of him and his fellow steakhouse diners who watched the racehorse Barboro’s breakdown on the restaurant’s big screen TV. As folks mourned into their hunks of animal flesh, Saleton predicted that the meat eating ritual is one that is coming to an end.

Human sacrifice, slavery, the subjugation of women—every tradition seems normal and indispensable until we’re ready, morally and economically, to move beyond it.

But Saleton’s solution isn’t a mass movement to plant-based eating, but rather the brave new world of lab-grown meat. Saleton’s conclusion is one that I happen to agree with—human beings will never have the willpower to give up their favorite meats, but the process of producing meat in the lab will make the old animal farming system not only obsolete, but also wasteful, cruel, and environmentally unsound by comparison. Current animal farming is so wasteful (by the amount of water and grain that goes into fattening a steer for slaughter), that Bruce Friedrich makes this memorable comparison in his entry on veganism and the environment:

[Eating a meat-based diet is] like tossing more than ten plates of spaghetti in the trash for every one you eat.

From the meat lovers’ end comes Tamar Haspel, who claims “It is Possible to be a Conscientious Carnivore” in her rather annoying and occasionally smug essay.

Vegetarians had a good claim to the ethical and environmental high ground. Factory farms abuse animals and devastate the environment, and a world where we all eat plants is clearly better than that. When you put the vegetarian vision up against a system of small, sustainable farms, though, the equation changes.

Really? You mean that if you remove the factory farm, there is absolutely no problem left with slitting another being’s throat for your own taste preferences and enjoyment? Hmm. This statement also doggedly ignores the fact that it is simply impossible for Westerners to continue to consume meat at their present rate (10 billion land animals are slaughtered each year in the US alone), while raising all of these animals on the “Old MacDonald” business model. It simply cannot happen in a society that wants animal foods at every meal, and cheaply as possible. The author continues:

But there’s a strong case that giving a farm animal a happy life, making a constructive environmental contribution, and slaughtering it humanely to feed people is ethical.

Why even “animal rights hard-liner” (the author’s words) agrees! First of all, Peter Singer isn’t an even animal rights theologian, let alone a “hard liner”. Secondly, if one should follow this claim to its logical conclusion, it would be perfectly acceptable to take a captive bolt pistol to the skull of one’s young, healthy dog or cat. After all, a great many American pets live very pampered lives, so clearly, it would be perfectly fine for their owners to slaughter them. Right?

Haspel even plays the old “vegetarians, come to our side” card. (Annoying.)

Since grass-fed meat provides some nutrients missing from vegetarian diets (long chain omega-3 fats, for example), it’s just possible that vegetarians might be better off eating a little meat. We don’t know.

Translation: I’ve never heard of vegan omega-3 fortified foods or supplements, and I don’t care to learn. And we finish up with a bit more smug veggie-bashing…

And so we can have the moral high ground and the pork chop. But the point here isn’t to holier-than-thou the vegetarians (all of the sanctimony, none of the tofu!)

In the next chapter, Colleen Patrick-Gordreau demolishes Haspel’s argument in “There is no Such Thing as Guilt-Free Meat.”

[T]here are also many misconceptions about the practices and principles of a “humane” operation. The unappetizing process of turning live animals into isolated body parts and ground-up chunks of flesh begins at birth and ends at youth, as the animals are babies when they are sent to slaughter, whether they are raised conventionally or in operations that are labeled “humane.”

Things on the modern family farm aren’t often how consumers would like to imagine them. Turkeys and cows are still chiefly bred by artificial insemination, she writes, and

“Free range” egg farms perpetuate unthinkable cruelty by buying their hens from egg hatcheries that kill millions of day-old chicks every year.

And then there’s the not so-trivial matter of how that meat gets from farm to fridge..

Regardless of how they’re raised, all animals killed for the refrigerated aisles of the grocery store are sent to mechanized slaughterhouses where their lives are brutally ended. By law, animals must be slaughtered at USDA-certified facilities…

Whose oh-so-delightful reputation we learned all about in Gail Eisnitz’s bookSlaughterhouse.

The slaughtering of an animal is a bloody and violent act, and death does not come easy for those who want to live. –The movement toward “humanely raised food animals” simply assuages our guilt more than it actually reduces animal suffering. If we truly want our actions to reflect the compassion for animals we say we have, then the answer is very simple. We can stop eating them. …There’s nothing humane about breeding animals only to kill them, and there’s nothing humane about ending the life of a healthy animal in his or her youth. In short, there is nothing humane about eating meat.

In the next couple of essays, we’re back to the butcher counter. Diane Hatz sings the health benefits of grass-fed beef. (Of course, most Americans don’t want beef that’s not fed or at least “finished” on corn and grains, because it’s fattier and more uniform in flavor.) Brendan I. Koerner advances the idea that meat can be produced in a sustainable matter, but, as usual, there is a huge asterisk that in no way reflects the way that most Americans eat:

In fact, a recent Cornell University study concluded that modest carnivorousness may actually be better for the environment than outright vegetarianism … But there are important caveats to the Cornell study: First, its calculations assume that all meat is raised locally, rather than frozen and trucked cross-country; second, the study recommended that to optimize land use, residents of New York state (where the research was conducted) limit their meat and egg consumption to two cooked ounces per day—3.8 ounces less than the national average.

Vegetarian Gaia Veenis takes a pessimistic view in “Vegans Have to Constantly Defend Their Lifestyle,” parts of which could be used as case-in-point for Karen Davis’s “The Rhetoric of Apology in Animal Rights.” Consider:

Hens are usually subjected to beak trimming to keep [them] from attacking each other under these stressful [factory farm] conditions. Chickens may be stupid, but they still feel pain and don’t deserve to have their beaks cut off with searing blades. 

*facepalm* Ok, first off, we have a vegan mouthing industry rhetoric. Factory farm interests have changed the name of “debeaking” to “beak trimming,” perhaps to make this painful and mutilating procedure seem like a pet’s manicure at the groomer’s. Vegan.com blogger Erik Marcus has suggested “beak searing” as a far more accurate term. Secondly, we have what Davis refers to as the planting of foregone conclusions in readers’ minds. Who says chickens are stupid? Not scientific studies. Not the people who keep and raise them as companion animals. Chickens are at least as intelligent as many of the ‘cage birds’ and other small domestic animals we keep as pets.

If Veenis is disappointing, Bob McCauley’s “Raw Foods are the Answer” is from outer space. “We are designed to live 120-150 years,” McCauley asserts, with no proof, of course. He commands his readers to drink Ionized water only. “Steamed vegetables are not at all acceptable,” he snaps. “Switch to a raw food diet and disease will disappear from your life for good, or for as long as you remain a raw foodist,” he also proclaims. Sadly, this ridiculousness is the last essay, and thus McCauley gets the last word on the subject. I am reminded of vegan RD Ginny Messina’s quote on the wonderful Skeptical Vegan website:

“Advocating diets that incorporate unnecessary nutrition-related restrictions makes it harder for people to go vegan. That goes for fat-free, soy-free, and raw foods diets. Sometimes these variations on veganism are perceived as steps in the same dietary evolution. They aren’t. Veganism is an ethical choice and it’s a diet that is healthful and appropriate at all stages of the lifecycle. Raw foodism is a fad diet that is appropriate only for adults and is based on shaky scientific principles at best.”

(Review originally appeared at Goodreads.com)

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