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


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.

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.

Even vegan advocacy groups generally counsel their followers to take nutritional supplements because the majority of vegans are deficient in vitamin B-12, found almost exclusively in foods from animals, and because the human body is far less capable of utilizing the forms of iron and zinc found in plants. Yet there is little proof that pills can adequately provide essential nutrients. "Clinical trials rarely show much benefit from taking supplements," says nutrition professor Marion Nestle. And a new University of Minnesota study raises fresh doubt about the wisdom of relying on pills for iron and other nutrients. It found that middle-aged women who took nutritional supplements -- especially iron -- had shorter lifespans than those who did not. Meat and eggs, in contrast, contain ample iron, zinc, and B-12, in forms that are easily absorbed by the human body.

Meanwhile, many popular beliefs about the health-related downsides of foods from animals are being revealed as myths. Take cholesterol. Early human diets apparently included (PDF) a hefty 500 mg daily dose of cholesterol, more than what's found in two eggs. During the 20th century, consumption of eggs declined and overall animal fat consumption dropped by over 20 percent, while consumption of vegetable fat (which contains no cholesterol) increased by over 400 percent. Yet blood cholesterol levels steadily rose and deaths from heart disease increased more than fivefold. Harvard School of Public Health researchers have concluded that eating foods that contain cholesterol does not affect blood cholesterol levels.

In short, eating animal-derived foods is not a health risk. Only overconsumption is.

At the public health level, the intensive overproduction practices of industrial-scale livestock and poultry operations pose a unique and novel threat. Recent research conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on behalf of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production shows that crowded confinement operations have "amplified opportunities for zoonotic pathogen transmission to humans" and "increased opportunities for the generation of novel viruses." Smaller grass-based animal farms, the Pew Commission concluded, don't pose such risks.

Environmental impacts, too, differ dramatically depending on how and where animals are raised. When farm animals are dispersed rather than concentrated and confined, allowed to graze rather than fed only soy and corn, and integrated into farming operations rather than segregated, they remain healthy and can provide environmental benefits. Under careful stewardship, farm animals can be efficient converters of resources and valuable members of ecological communities.

Moreover, animals, which create high-value foods, often render ecologically sensitive farms more economically viable. Without animals, the movement toward sustainability in U.S. food production would be less likely to flourish.

In considering ethics, it is important to recognize that animals live and die in all kinds of conditions. Whether raised for eggs, milk, or meat, birds and mammals can be treated horribly or humanely. And whether on a ranch, at a slaughterhouse, or in the woods, they can be killed callously, with no concern for their suffering, or killed swiftly and carefully.

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. Humans are part of the food web; but for the artifices of cremation and tightly sealed caskets, all of us would eventually be recycled into other life forms. It is natural for people, like other omnivores, to participate in this web by eating animals. And it is ethically defensible -- provided we refrain from causing gratuitous suffering.

There is also a practical dimension to consider. Americans are far more likely to stick to a regimen that includes meat, dairy, and eggs, all of them staples of our national diet. Most people have no interest in giving up these foods. Over the past two centuries, various groups -- including religious sects, social reformers, naturopathic physicians, environmentalists, and animal rights advocates -- have promoted vegetarianism in the United States. Yet the diet has never really taken hold. Today, only about three percent of Americans are vegetarian and 0.5 percent are vegan. And surveys consistently show that the vast majority of Americans who do try vegetarianism or veganism -- about three-quarters of them -- return to eating meat. Rather than urging people to consume only plants, doesn't it make more sense to encourage them to eat an omnivorous diet that is healthy, ethical, and ecologically sound?

From where we stand -- on a California ranch, in the Vermont woods, and in a New York butcher shop -- we welcome diverse approaches to eating and applaud thoughtful, considered choices about food, including vegetarianism and veganism. But we reject the suggestion that animals should be banished from our farms and our plates. This holiday season, we are pleased that our families (and two of us) will be enjoying pasture-raised heritage turkey, wild venison, and grass-fed beef brisket.

Concerns about health, the environment, and ethical eating do not require giving up meat. What they do require is a new ethics of eating animals: one rooted in moderation, mindfulness, and respect.

Image: R. Fassbind/Shutterstock.

With Tovar Cerulli, a deer hunter and author of the forthcoming book The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance, and Joshua Applestone, a butcher, instructor, and co-author of the recently published The Butcher's Guide to Well-Raised Meat.