To Veg or Not to Veg, Pt. 2: The Moral Implications of Eating Meat

It’s 10 a.m. at the time that I’m writing this post, and I feel great! That’s really saying something, because most of yesterday was a clouded blur. As you already know if you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, I’ve embarked on a 28-day detox program (one that I’m creating myself – I’ll be sharing it on the blog once I’m done!), and part of that program includes eliminating caffeine – aka coffee.

I’ll go into more detail about my caffeine withdrawal experience when I post about the detox, but suffice it to say, the first two days really sucked. I was so freaking tired, emotional and cranky. It’s the third day of my program now, and I’m starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel – thank god.

In any case, it’s time for me to continue my series about whether or not to go vegetarian. It’s easy for some people to say “eating animals is wrong!” and simply leave it at that, but I’ve never been one to believe in causes just because. I’m going to address some common moral and ethical reasons for going veg and explain, with proven facts and respected spiritual advice, why they are or aren’t valid.

So without further ado, here are a few commonly claimed reasons to go veg:

Common Reason No. 1: It’s Better for the Environment

You’ve probably heard by now that eating vegetarian is way better for the environment than eating meat. Why? Think about it this way: growing livestock not only requires the growing and raising of the animal, but also the corn, wheat and soy to feed the animal (most of these animals should really be eating grasses and hay, but that’s another topic).

There’s also the impact of the methane released by animals. Methane (a greenhouse gas released when animals burp, poop, fart, etc.) is 25 times as potent as carbon, according to the EPA, making it pretty terrible for climate change.

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Cuties!!!

Then there’s the issue of transporting the meat. The carbon emissions from shipping meat around the country (and even the world at this point) are pretty astronomical.

So let’s look at some hard numbers. The Environmental Working group ranked the carbon footprints of common food products by kilograms of carbon equivalent per kilogram of food. Lamb has the highest footprint (my guess would be because it’s so often shipped from New Zealand to other parts of the world) at 39.2 kgs/kg. Beef is next at 27 kgs/kg, followed by cheese, pork, farmed salmon, turkey and chicken. Compare these numbers to a common vegetarian protein, lentils: They generate just 0.9 kgs/kg of carbon emissions. (As a side note: Even if you don’t decide to give up meat completely, these numbers show that staying away from beef is probably a good idea: It has 28 times the environmental impact of pork or chicken.)

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Graphic by the EWG

A peer-reviewed study published in the journal Climactic Change rated the dietary carbon footprints of heavy meat-eaters, moderate meat-eaters, light meat-eaters and fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. The heavy meat-eaters generated had a carbon dioxide equivalent of 7.19 kgs per day. Compare that to vegetarians and vegans, who generated 3.81 and 2.89, respectively.

Other environmental issues to consider:

While the carbon footprint of meat is pretty scary, there are other environmental issues to think about as well. While fish may have a lower carbon footprint than poultry or meat, overfishing is a huge problem. I think the World Wildlife Fund says it best:

More than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits and are in need of strict management plans to restore them. Several important commercial fish populations (such as Atlantic bluefin tuna) have declined to the point where their survival as a species is threatened.

Another thing to consider is the ever-expanding human population. We now have 7.3 billion people on this planet, and that number is growing. People in the US consume way more than their share of the world’s resources – as a human community, we should start to consider how we can more evenly distribute these resources. Our planet cannot reliably sustain a meat-based diet for 10 billion people.

Common Reason No. 2: Eating Animals is Simply Wrong

I personally care very much about the health of our planet, but that’s not the only moral reason to go vegetarian. There are those who claim that eating animals is simply unethical. This is something I personally don’t know that I can get behind. My guide to life is science – I trust it, I’m awed by it, and I believe in it firmly (that’s a whole other blog post right there). Despite some debate, science is pretty clear on the fact that humans evolved to eat other animals. No, we don’t have to eat other animals – we’re omnivores! But evolution did bring us to the point that, as a species, we eat meat. I like to honor my natural body.

All that said, there is some trusted spiritual guidance that could point me away from eating meat. This is especially applicable to yoga practitioners.

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You may remember from my post about the eight limbs of yoga that there are certain moral and ethical guidelines by which yogis should live, called the yamas. These aren’t rules, per say, but rather advice for living in a way that paves the path toward an enlightened state. The first rule of yamas is ahisma, which means “do no harm.”

The idea of nonharming stems from the idea that all living creates are part of a divine spiritual Self, so doing harm to a fellow creature is doing harm to one’s self. I totally buy this, and honestly, I think it’s the strongest spiritual argument for vegetarianism.

It should be noted, though, that harming one’s self is just as bad as harming others … so if you’re struggling with health issues as a result of a vegetarian diet, you’re not practicing ahisma. (For further reading on this, check out this story over at Yoga Journal about reconciling meat eating with ahisma.)

Ahisma is a core philosophy not only of yoga, but also of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. In fact, all major world religions have some kind of ethical meat-eating guidelines within their ancient texts, such as avoiding pork and eating Kosher food in the case of the Jewish faith, and the concept of Halal meat in the Muslim faith. It stands to reason that if all of these major religions gave such thought to honoring their food by setting strict standards, it is probably the ethical thing to do.

Common Reason No. 3: Today’s Livestock are Treated Poorly

Even if you don’t think it’s inherently wrong to eat animals, most people would probably take objection to the way that livestock are treated in today’s factory farms. Even if we take ahisma – “do no harm” – to mean that we shouldn’t harm our own bodies if they don’t jive with vegetarianism, we still don’t have an excuse for supporting factory farms that treat animals as inanimate objects.

There are many wonderful farms that raise cattle in open pastures, allow mother pigs to leave their crates, don’t keep mammals continually impregnated, and allow chickens and turkeys to grow to their natural size so that they’re able to walk and stand during their short lives. I’m not going to post the horror stories on this blog – this is supposed to be a happy, positive space – but the reality of mainstream American farming is really horrific. I recommend the documentary Food Inc. to anyone who is new to this topic.

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Photo by jdxyw.

Some people say that the only way to ensure you aren’t responsible for the horrors done to animals in modern facilities is to avoid animal products altogether. While I can understand this to an extent, I have friends with farms. I know that there are many good farmers out there who treat animals with respect.

To combat this problem, ideally, you can buy your animal products at your local farmers market. This isn’t always easy, but it is possible in most areas of the country. In my current neck of the woods (Wisconsin) one of the most ethical ways of eating meat is to get venison from a friend who has killed the animal in its natural habitat, preserving the environment and the animal’s dignity. It’s also possible to raise one’s own chickens, to go fishing, etc.

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So, what to do about vegetarianism? There are obviously a lot of arguments both for and against it. Health-wise, I honestly don’t believe it’s optimal, knowing what I do about nutrition. Ethically, I have strong feelings about the environmental impact of meat, the concept of nonharming, and the abhorrent practices of factory farms.

I’ll probably write a follow-up post down the line detailing what I decide to do about my diet. If you have any advice or additional ideas for me about vegetarianism and veganism, please let me know in the comments!

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  • Just finished my dinner of all natural, grass fed, free range, Montana Elk rigatoni! Just trying to do my part.

  • I’ve been a a vegetarian for three years and I personally have never had such a varied, healthy diet as I do now. However, this is because being a vegetarian forced me to be more creative with my meals I’m order to get my nutrients. I am a vegetarian for ethical reasons – whether we have evolved to be omnivores or not, the fact is that the way we breed and rear animals for meat is unnatural, and if it’s possible to get all the nutrients you need without causing harm, why would you take any other option?

    I don’t actually eat a lot of legumes and or processed food because all the extras that go into them make me feel sluggish. I’m currently trying to cut down on cards and gluten but as I’m at the mercy of other people’s cooking it’s not that easy!

    If the animal welfare side of things isn’t something that motivates you (and that’s up to you – no judgement here!) I would recommend just cutting down on your meat consumption and varying your protein sources. At least try to have 1 or 2 meat free days a week. The variety will be good for you, it will cut down your carbon footprint, and there has been evidence to suggest that although meat is somewhat of a staple in our diets, we’re not really meant to eat it all often anyway. I’m not sure others’ anecdotes will help you in this, it’s just a case of trial and error and doing what makes you feel the best. Good luck! Xx