I first became vegetarian when I was 14. I loved the taste of meat, and no one believed me in my family when I said I wasn’t going to eat it any more, but I fundamentally felt that what I was doing was wrong.
In the years since I have given up meat, I have learnt that being vegetarian really isn’t as fashionable as you might think. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that vegetarians and vegans are two of the most unpopular groups for their ideas. And so, instead of sharing our opinions with everyone – as it is often suggested we do – we keep quiet a lot of the time.
People stereotype us a lot too. My evidence of this is largely anecdotal, but I feel we are generally perceived as wimpy, airy-fairy Guardian readers, who can’t ‘man-up’ enough to eat a cow. There is even psychological evidence to suggest that people give psychological profiles to food – vegetarian items are regularly perceived as feminine, whereas meat is thought of as masculine.
But anyway. I’ve had enough of keeping quiet about eating meat. That’s because the other day I watched a documentary called Vegucated, which offers rich insights into the farming industry.
It’s a very simple documentary, where a vegan woman asks three New Yorkers to adopt her diet for six weeks, educating them about the farming industry along the way. I was curious to find out what happens ‘behind closed doors’ in farms, as I don’t really know what does happen, other than death.
The main thing the film showed is that animals are being treated like they’re objects rather than creatures. There’s footage of ‘useless’ male chicks being thrown into grinders, or even bins sometimes like they were paper going into the rubbish. Bulls and pigs are being castrated without anaesthetic, and left to die if they get infections from such operations. I watched pigs burned alive and skinned.
What’s upsetting about these scenes is how human the animals are. Some were desperately trying to run away from their captors, others looked scared out of their wits. I watched a pig getting chased around by a stun gun, shaking madly with terror. It knew exactly what was about to happen to it. The people on the show were just as upset as me and adopted vegan diets quickly.
I have seen others on film get equally distressed by animal cruelty. On Bear Grylls The Island I watched a group of female ‘survivors’ struggle for days over whether to kill two cute pigs despite being starved. There was also a Googlebox episode showing a clip from Channel 4’s Vietnam’s Dog Snatchers: a show about the dog-farming industry in the country. The hypocrisy of it all astounds me when people are suddenly reduced to blubbering wrecks, confronted with the reality of how an animal got to their mouths.
What this documentary showed me was just how much our society disconnects life and food. And how reluctant we are to engage in vegetarian and vegan arguments. I get why people don’t want to do that: meat is one of life’s greatest pleasures and giving it up can feel like the dietary equivalent of celibacy.
But our farming processes are totally messed up. In developing countries we are eating with our eyes closed. We want meat, but we don’t really want to know what happened to it. Some of the cleverest people I know eat meat, and when I – very rarely – question them about it they say things like ‘but it’s so tasty’ or ‘I know it’s bad but I enjoy it’. Basically, they don’t really want to think about it. But what kind of life is that where you don’t think about these things?
Even if you can’t think about the ethics of eating meat, you should watch Vegucated to consider the environmental impact. Meat and fish farming are having a dreadful impact on our planet’s health.
But who cares, right? Because animals taste yum – and yum equals fun. That seems to be everyone’s outlook, and it’s making me despair.
I sometimes think that we are such a rational species. Stories in the news of social injustices and the public’s response make me feel proud to be human. The farming industry is the only thing that makes me feel we’ve completely lost the plot.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. At the end of the documentary its creator spoke of all the people spreading the message of vegan and vegetarianism. To me, they felt a bit like modern day Cassandras. By this, I mean the prophet in the Illiad who warns the Greeks about the Trojan horse, predicting that it will destroy them (it does). But no one listens. We have lots of these modern day Cassandras in today’s society, whether that’s your Facebook friend posting about injustice in Palestine, or global warming, or something else.
These people have so many intelligent things to say and yet it’s falling on deaf ears – because thinking about the truth is painful and incompatible with the way many of us want to live.
But there are hard facts we must confront. There is nothing pretty or honourable about eating animals. In doing so, we are endorsing industries that treat living things with brains and hearts like garbage. For our humanity’s sake, we must engage with documentaries like Vegucated.
And for anyone who is wondering, here are the reasons I do not eat meat (NB. I would never preach these opinions to those in countries where veggie/vegan lifestyles aren’t feasible for economic/resource reasons):
- Fundamentally I do not like the idea of killing an animal for my dietary satisfaction.
- In developed countries we do not need to eat animals. There are more options than ever for vegetarians and vegans. So why should something need to die?
- It is not ‘natural’ to eat meat any more, as so many people proclaim. Perhaps it was ‘natural’ when mankind went out and killed his own prey and had the psychological relationship to the death process. Now we let slaughtering happen behind closed doors in factories. We have no idea what’s going on. We also must remember that practices that seemed cultural norms die out over time as people question the ethics of them. For example, the Romans might have thought gladiator fights were a natural way of life, but where are they today?
- People say that it’s healthier to eat meat and fish because you get more nutrients. That is not true. You can get everything you need from vegetables. In fact, a vegetarian/vegan diet has been shown to dramatically reduce the chances of getting diseases such as bowel cancer. It might take a little more effort to get iron-rich meals, but the more people become vegan/vegetarian the more the food industry will gear up towards feeding us.
- We’re playing God. There is no logic to deciding what animal should and should not get eaten. It is not based on intelligence or emotional capability, mostly cultural relativism. For example, pigs have been shown to be one of the most intelligent creatures and yet we eat them, but we’d cry if someone tried to turn our dogs into a burger. As animals evolve it’s going to get more difficult to decide which deserves eating.
- Further to that point, there is no evidence to suggest we are any better than animals. Why is cannibalism less of a valid choice than being a carnivore? People sometimes use two incompatible arguments to justify eating meat, which are:
- Animals are less intelligent than us, so we should eat them
- If animals eat other animals, why shouldn’t we do it too
You can’t say animals are more stupid than you, so you’re justified in eating them – and then copy the behaviour of a ‘stupid’ animal.
- I couldn’t kill an animal myself to eat, so I don’t think I deserve to have it. People have sometimes told me about the time they went off to Africa one year and killed a chicken to prove they could do it. But that isn’t enough to prove you should eat meat. You need to do it over and over again to understand what it really means – psychologically and physically – to eat meat.
- I hark on a lot about this ‘psychological’ connection to our meat. Death is a big deal. Some of man’s worst atrocities have happened when people were removed psychologically from bad things happening. We need emotional engagement in everything that we do.
- We’ve cheapened life. Our meat industry mocks its sanctity with ridiculously inexpensive products.
The only argument I have ever been convinced by when it comes to why we eat meat is that it tastes good. But, hey, my arm probably does too.