Making Choices: Ethics and Vegetarianism

By DeVries, Juliana | Dissent, April 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Making Choices: Ethics and Vegetarianism


DeVries, Juliana, Dissent


I was seventeen and taking an elective course in Earth and Environmental Science. We were learning about farming and the food system - genetic modification, land use, organic labeling - when our teacher assigned us an article about beef.

The article explained the following process: the U.S. government subsidizes corn, so we feed it to our cows, because corn is cheap and fattens the cows up quickly. Cows are biologically designed to eat grass, so their livers are unable to process the corn. The cows' livers would actually explode if they were permitted to grow to full maturity, but we slaughter them first. This, combined with their living in close quarters and wading in their own feces, causes the cows to get ill often, so we feed them a constant stream of antibiotics, a practice that strengthens bacterial strains such as E. coli. Roughly 78 percent of cows raised for beef undergo this process. Similarly nauseating practices are used to raise chickens, turkeys, and pigs, 99 percent, 97 percent, and 95 percent of which, respectively, come from factory farms. Nowadays, these details are less than shocking. Movies such as Food, Inc. and Super Size Me, as well as books such as The Omnivore 's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation have raised consciousness, if not much action, on the topic of our food system. But, for me, it was a new story.

I had eaten meat all my life, and it had never bothered me. I fished often and, though I had never hunted, maintained that I could hunt, if the situation arose. But I sensed a deeper cruelty in the narrative of the cow than in the timeless hierarchy of the food chain. A classmate agreed to compete to see which one of us could last longer not eating meat. He managed until the end of the week. And here I am, six years later, winning by a landslide.

My knack for vegetarianism did not surprise me. I was trained since childhood to accept that not all available foods are for eating. When I was young, my family kept a kosher home. This meant that eating required effort, not only for the obvious reasons, but also because kosher meat was unavailable in our small town in New Hampshire. We coveted that circled U like addicts. Whenever a friend or family member was driving up from Boston, I would hear my mother on the phone in her auctioneer's voice, "How many can you get me? Three chickens? How about five, can you get five?" Food, especially meat, was valuable and imbued with meaning that extended beyond its flavor. As we grew older, other issues eclipsed dietary laws, and by the time I was in high school, kosher chicken was something we prepared only when my grandparents visited. I wouldn't say I consciously replaced kosher dietary laws with vegetarianism, but I can't help seeing a connection. Vegetarianism is an identity-marker, a reminder of who I am and who I aspire to be.

In my hope to be a person awake to injustice, vegetarianism is a way for me to remain conscious instead of complacent as I go through each day. Every meal requires me to take into account the limitations I have imposed upon myself and to ask others to accept them as well. I must constantly, and often uncomfortably, justify my concerns to those who eat with me or who are kind enough to cook for me, as well as to myself as I ogle a bacon cheeseburger. Again and again, I return to the issues at stake: climate change, land use, animal rights, workers' rights. I pull from my invisible knapsack an explanation tailored to the person I am addressing. As I explain my vegetarian identity to someone, I also scrutinize my own ideals and re-commit to them.

I was surprised to find how many other people my age also identify with vegetarianism. The Vegetarian Times reports that 43 percent of American vegetarians fall into the eighteen-to-thirty-four-age group. According to Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, published in 2009, 18 percent of American college students are now vegetarians (as compared to 2.3 percent of the nation as a whole). …

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