Eating Animals

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Why a group of longtime vegetarians and vegans converted to the idea that flesh and other food from animals can be healthful, environmentally appropriate, and ethical

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As Americans gather around holiday tables this year, many of us will be setting places for vegetarians and vegans. In some families, diverse diets co-exist peacefully. In others, well ... maybe there's a health-obsessed uncle who relishes warning that "Meat will kill you!" Or an idealistic college student, eager to regale her complacent elders with grim details of the cruelty and environmental damage wrought by factory farms. Or omnivores who resent the suggestion that they should worry -- or feel guilty -- about eating meat.

The three of us can relate to both sides of such discussions. Though reared by omnivorous families, as young adults we each came to the conclusion that meat was to blame for health problems, environmental destruction, and cruelty to animals. Collectively, we have lived 52 years vegan or vegetarian. Yet we no longer think that vegetarianism is the answer to these ills. Now -- as a rancher, a hunter, and a butcher -- we firmly believe foods from animals can be healthful, environmentally appropriate, and ethical.

Nicolette: I gave up meat as a freshman biology major after hearing that beef was deforesting the Amazon. I'd been a vegetarian for over a decade when I began working as an environmental lawyer focused full-time on pollution from animal agriculture. At first, my new job -- touring factory farms and researching their water, air, and soil contamination -- reinforced my rejection of meat. But as I studied ecologically based food production, I learned that animals were essential to sustainable farms, which don't rely on fossil fuels and chemicals. Animals can increase soil fertility, contribute to pest and weed control, and convert vegetation that's inedible to humans, and growing on marginal, uncultivated land, into food. And as I visited dozens of traditional, pasture-based farms, and came to know the farmers and ranchers, I saw impressive environmental stewardship and farm animals leading good lives. Although I've continued to follow a vegetarian diet, I support other people's choice to eat meat.

As any attentive observer of nature knows, life feeds on life. Every living thing, from mammals, birds, and fish to plants, fungi, and bacteria, eats other living things.

Tovar: I became a vegetarian at 20, after reflecting on the compassionate words of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Soon I went vegan. Almost a decade later, having moved back to a rural community from New York City, I realized that all food has its costs. From habitat destruction to combines that inadvertently mince rabbits to the shooting of deer in farm fields, crop production is far from harmless. Even in our own organic garden, my wife and I were battling ravenous insects and fence-defying woodchucks. I began to see that the question wasn't what we ate but how that food came to our plates. A few years later, my wife -- who was studying holistic health and nutrition -- suggested that we shift our diet, and my health improved when we started eating dairy and eggs. It improved still more when we started eating chicken and fish. Two years later, I took up a deer rifle.

Joshua: I was already eating vegetarian, in solidarity with my brother who was abstaining from meat due to Crohn's disease, when I read Jeremy Rifkin's Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture. I was so moved that I swore off animal products altogether, and was a vegan for more than 15 years. It was only after meeting my wife and starting Fleisher's Meats that I started to introduce dairy back into my diet. Eventually I went, literally, whole hog into eating meat again; it was bacon that pushed me over the edge. Once I saw how the meat we were selling had been raised, and met the farmers who were striving to raise animals sustainably and ethically, I overcame my aversion to consuming meat. I realized I didn't have a problem with meat. I had a problem with the inhumane practices of the commercial meat industry. Once I saw how things could be done, I was happy to support the farmers who make our business possible and profitable.

This does not mean that any of us have shut our eyes to concerns about modern meat, dairy, and egg production. Industrialized agriculture raises chickens, turkeys, pigs, and dairy cows in dreary, crowded confinement, fed and watered by automated systems. Most are continually given antibiotics in their food or water to keep them alive and speed their growth. The federal Food and Drug Administration has reported that 80 percent of U.S. antibiotics are now used in animal agriculture. At their worst, intensive operations cram pregnant sows, egg-laying hens, and veal calves into cages so restrictive the animals can barely move.

But not all forms of animal farming should be painted with the same brush. And it's simply inaccurate to suggest that a vegan diet is necessary for optimal health.

Although health and nutrition research has yielded diverse and conflicting findings, there is consensus among mainstream experts: overconsumption of meat, dairy, and eggs can be harmful, but the optimal human diet includes some food derived from animals. "Animal source foods ... play an important role in ensuring optimal health and function, and their consumption is particularly important for women of reproductive age, fetuses, and young children," states a comprehensive 2010 collaborative report about livestock published by Stanford University, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and five other respected organizations.

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Nicolette Hahn Niman

Nicolette Hahn Niman is a livestock rancher, environmental attorney, and author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (2009). More

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.
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