I have a memory seared into my mind from eight years ago. I was a vegetarian at the time, but I was hosting a party for my then boyfriend. I wanted to impress my dearest omnivore, so I made a meal of caesar salad, rice pilaf, and roasted chicken (for 30 people, in a university kitchen. Ambitious little thing, I was.) The party went smoothly, and everyone loved the food. As we were cleaning up, I was alone with the remaining tidbits. I had had a full meal, but there was still a gnawing hunger. Barely knowing what I was doing, I grabbed a chicken leg, and devoured it. I started crying – I felt so ashamed, but I had a deep, carnal urge to eat the meat. I don’t know if it was purely a psychosomatic reaction, or if the body can respond that quickly, but I felt a surge of energy and vitality. Before anyone came in, I threw the leg in the trash, and returned to cleaning, and to vegetarianism for several more years.
A few years later, as a 90% vegetarian triathlete, I went to see an RD, for what I thought was just a check-in. I ate every ‘good’ protein and vitamin source in the book – tempeh, tofu, beans, leafy greens, seaweed, you name it. After looking at my blood-tests, she told me that my iron was so low that she was surprised I could climb a flight of stairs. She asked me if I’d be open to eating meat, and after years of tiredness, injury, and illness, I agreed. I introduced it slowly, and certainly knew nothing about the local or organic food movement. My love for local, grass-fed meat and pastured poultry has blossomed in the past two years, and I never plan on looking back.
My best friend and her husband are both vegetarian, and I certainly don’t judge them, or anyone else, for their food choices, no matter if I would make them or not. I don’t think anyone can hold moral high grounds around food – we are all doing what we can to survive and thrive. Food, as Harvey Ussery beautifully writes, is a complicated moral issue.
However, for myself, this I know is true, for today and for now:
- Regardless of if we think paleolithic folks ate beef three times a day or simply enjoyed the occasional cricket, they definitely had one thing in common – they knew their food intimately. They didn’t buy it in a shop with a sticker on it. Know your food. If you can’t grow it yourself, find a farmers market and get to know your farmers. It doesn’t take that much time, and the payoff to your health, the environment, and the support of local business will be worth many times whatever extra effort it may take. I know the people who raised my beef and collected my eggs (Kym and Geoff) and the family who raised my chickens (Scott and Wendy, who grew the best chicken I’ve ever had). It takes some extra time to go and individually get my food rather than just hop into the supermarket, but the familiarity, trust, and taste is totally worth it. We are friendly with the people who grow our veggies at the farmers market, and until the day we can grow all of our own, that is just how we want it to be.
- Telling me I’m wrong for eating meat because on a I can survive without it has the same validity in my mind as saying that one can live without vegetables. Plenty of people do (Fast Food Nation, anyone?) I even know vegetarians who don’t know the difference between a bok choy and a celery stick. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I know that when I started eating grass-fed, locally raised meat, my moods stabilized, my digestion improved many times over, my focus was stronger, my energy went through the roof, and I felt more majestically human. But that’s just me, which takes me to the next point.
- I am my only experiment. As Mark Sisson says frequently, n = 1 in my experiments. Eating grass-fed, well-cared for meat has done more for my health, mental stability, and happiness than years of eating tofu, tempeh, beans, seitan, grains, and vegetables. For others, it may have the opposite effect. I have seen many blossom from taking a plant-based diet, and others bloom when they reintroduced meat after many years. Each body is different, and processes food differently. Check out this article from Berkeley on how populations have evolved to digest milk for an example of this.
- Life is about death. Not to be dramatic or cold, but no matter what, if you eat, something dies. And I don’t mean plants – the rodent, insect and small animal death in crop agriculture is tremendous, just more invisible. I don’t personally believe an insect, or even soil, is any more valuable or less valuable than a cow, particularly considering insects provide a vital part of a highly complex and beautiful multi-species food chain. I feel the same way about soil – using chemical fertilizers that destroy the land for my children so I don’t have to use animals to fertilize is not something I would feel proud of. Unfortunately, a fact of life is death, and if you want to eat, something will have to die for that privilege. When it comes to eating meat, I care deeply about how the animal lived and the grace with which it died, and try to honor each and every bite I take, whether it be animal, vegetable, or other.
- To be a vegetarian because of your compassion for animals, and not have compassion for your fellow humans, seems to be a way of disconnecting the intrinsic and incredible circle of life that we need to survive. Being a vegetarian does not give you an environmental “get out of jail free” card, either. BigAg production of vegetables, with its hybrid seeds, intensive pesticides, and desiccation of soil for the purpose of monoculture growing has a far greater environmental impact than locally raised, grass-fed livestock, which has been shown to have tremendous benefit to land and soil. (See the book Holy Shit for more information on this topic.)
- Growing your own food, even if you only grow 1% of it, does not take a lot of time, energy, or creativity. By doing so, you can make a tremendous difference to the mass food industry. Anthony and I grow our own herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and capsicum. We live in a rental, and everything is in containers. Yes, we certainly supplement these with farmers market vegetables, but even if we grow just 1-2% of what we eat, it will make a tremendous difference.
- Science is subjective. Research, particularly around food, is rarely if ever objective. The results of the research is entirely dependent on A) who funded the studies, B) who interprets the data, and C) who publishes the data. Who do you think paid for the recent study about the lack of benefits of organic food from Stamford? Yup, that’d be Monsanto, creator of a vast array of GMO’s located in a supermarket near you. Check it a report on the study here. You can find a study to support literally any perspective on food and eating behavior, from the benefits of being a hard-core raw vegan to being an animal fat devote.
I am learning more each and every day about farming, raising animals for food, gardening, and being as self-sufficient as possible. I have so much more to learn, but the more I do, the more confident I feel that I am doing what is right for my body, my mind, my spirit, and most importantly, my planet.