Diets that divide us
The vegetarian vs. omnivore debate reaches boiling point
By George (Butch) Warner, M.A., M.F.T.I., CADCA 08/23/2012
Once upon a time, people didn’t really think too much about what they ate, as long as there was food on the table. Things are different today. Sometimes it appears that there are as almost as many types of diets as there are people, and many of those diets have to do with the consumption of meat. And almost everyone has an opinion on meat.
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, www.peta.org/) pulls no punches in maintaining that meat (and fish and fowl and leather and fur) are just cruel and unacceptable. Activists claim that meat is destroying the planet, and that additives like “pink slime,” “meat glue,” ammonia, steroids and antibiotics have rendered meat inedible and dangerous, for the animals and for humans. Some non-vegetarians believe PETA people are guilt-tripping, annoying busybodies, but the impact they have on animal welfare is inescapable.
Meat ranchers, grocers and carnivores maintain that meat is essential for survival, that some animals were meant to be raised and slaughtered, but humanely.
One thing is clear: There is no impeccable argument that settles the questions once and for all. As certain as the vegetarians and vegans are that meat is unwholesome and cruel, so too are the omnivores convinced that meat is necessary, healthy and civilized.
Let’s begin by discussing the different types of diets, excluding those prescribed for medical reasons.
Omnivores eat anything that looks or tastes good, and that includes meat, fish, fast food, slow food, sweets, pastries, fat, protein, carbohydrates, and Carl’s Jr., which should probably be considered a diet it its own right, since it somehow seems to include pneumatic, writhing, scantily clad women.
For most of mankind’s history, the food eaten has been organic. Organic foods are meats and vegetables that have been grown or raised without the aid of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, steroids or hormones. They are processed in a way that does not include irradiation, industrial solvents or chemical food additives.
The trendiest new development in eating is locavorism, the buying, selling and eating of vegetables and meat grown within 100 miles of its place of purchase.
The largest group of non-carnivores are vegetarians, www.ivu.org, who avoid eating meat but sometimes ingest cheese, yogurt, milk or eggs (ovo-lacto vegetarians). People who eat fish, but not the flesh of other animals, describe themselves as pescetarians. And people who avoid red meat, but do eat fish, fowl and dairy, sometimes describe themselves as vegetarian.
Strict vegans (pronounced vee-gan, or sometimes vay-gan) avoid eating all animal products, including milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt, and even honey (because it is manufactured by bees, who are animals). Stricter vegans eat a “raw” diet, which is never heated above the temperature of the human body, in the belief that “anything that has been heated to above our own body temperature is dying because the enzymes, vitamins and minerals begin to deform and die at this temperature.” Vegan and raw diets are increasingly popular in the U.S., with cities like New York, Portland, Ore., Los Angeles and San Francisco leading the way with scores of raw and vegan restaurants and stores, and there are a growing number of vegan establishments in Ventura County.
Then there’s the macrobiotic diet, which involves eating grains as the main food source, avoiding the use of highly processed or refined foods and most animal products. Finally, fruitarians eat only fruits, nuts and seeds, without animal products, vegetables or grains, and sometimes only after they have dropped from the tree or bush.
Kosher dietary laws generally demand that only meat from certain types of animals — anything that chews the cud and has a cloven hoof, and no shellfish — be eaten, and that meat must come from animals which have been slaughtered according to Jewish law — by a single cut across the throat to a precise depth. Orthodox Jews argue that this ensures the animal dies instantly without unnecessary suffering. Vegans are kosher, but those who keep kosher are not necessarily vegan or vegetarian.
Vegetarianism and omnivorism: Which is best?
One fact is clear: All animals must consume living things or things that were once alive and contained DNA in order to stay alive. No mammal can live on inorganic matter, but plants can and do, with the Venus fly-trap being a beautiful exception. Without (I hope) taking a stand, the following are the major arguments.
Meat, fish and fowl taste great, and I don’t really think about it. That argument needs no elaboration, and it probably represents the opinion of the majority of meat-eaters.
In 2012, the New York Times, through its column The Ethicist, invited readers to make an argument for the ethics of eating meat. A quote from winner Jay Bost, a farmworker, plant geek, agroecologist and foodie: “For me, eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.”
There are reasonable meat advocates like Temple Grandin, a doctor of animal science, author, consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior, and not incidentally, a person with high-functioning autism, which she and others believe gives her a unique connection with livestock. “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death.” Michael Buckley of The Ventura Meat Company adds, “I’ve met a lot of the farmers I buy from personally, and they are not cruel people. One of them, Dr. Novy, is a veterinarian. I do not believe that an animal has to suffer simply because it’s going to end up as food.”
Agriculture and vegetarianism are bad for the planet. By far the most controversial opponent of a vegetarian diet is Lierre Keith, a woman and purported former vegan who writes in her book, The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability, “The truth is that agriculture is the most destructive thing humans have done to the planet.” Keith has referred to vegans as “ignorant and child-like.”
Humans were meant to eat meat. Anatomist and primatologist Dr. John McArdle (and others) have argued, “Humans are classic examples of omnivores in all relevant anatomical traits. There is no basis in anatomy or physiology for the assumption that humans are pre-adapted to the vegetarian diet.” Adds Michael Buckley, “Saturated animal fat dominated our diet throughout the majority of our (very long) evolution, beginning about 1.5 million years ago, and ending around 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture. As a matter of fact, it’s the Neolithic foods like grains, starches and sugars, that were introduced after the advent of agriculture, that are the most alien to our diet when put in the context of evolution.”
Humans need meat protein and cholesterol. Proponents of this theory claim that the B vitamins, particularly B12, are essential for life. The best sources are animal sources. Most meat contains cholesterol, and without cholesterol we could not survive. Julian Bernal, a mixed martial arts devotee, says, “I feel meat is essential to my diet, which is geared towards my training in martial arts.”
Some claim vegan and vegetarian food is “rabbit food,” tasteless and lacking variety, and that vegetarianism is expensive. “Restricted diets are boring, and specialized foods are not mass-produced in quantities that are efficient for average people.
Many religions see meat eating and slaughter as essential parts of their teachings. Genesis 9:3 from the Torah says, “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” God gave us “animals to eat, and dominion over them,” so why shouldn’t we eat them?
Many meat ranchers are ethical people who believe that meat production can be humane. There are programs ranchers can follow to properly care for their livestock, including the Beef Quality Assurance Program, the Producer Code for Cattle Care, Humane Handling of Cattle in Transport, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, the National Animal Health Monitoring System and the Humane Slaughter Act.
There are meat advocate groups that are humane, like Global Animal Partnership, www.globalanimalpartnership.org. GAP is a nonprofit organization dedicated to continually improving the lives of farm animals. Another meat-advocating but humane website that discusses cruelty is Sustainable Tables: www.sustainabletable.org/issues/animalwelfare.
The vegetarian viewpoint
Vegetarianism is good for the planet. The Worldwatch Institute says, “Meat production is an inefficient use of grain — the grain is used more efficiently when consumed directly by humans.” A United Nations report entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow” concludes that eating meat is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” Sir Paul McCartney sums it all up, “If anyone wants to save the planet, all they have to do is just stop eating meat. That’s the single most important thing you could do. It’s staggering when you think about it. Vegetarianism takes care of so many things in one shot: ecology, famine, cruelty.”
Chickens and cows are much more intelligent than we think. “Chickens are smarter than cats or dogs and even do some things that have not yet been seen in mammals other than primates,” says Dr. Chris Evans, who studies animal behavior and communication at Macquarie University in Australia. Studies have shown that pigs and cows are also bright animals, able to solve complex problems, demonstrate self-control, and worry about the future.
Vegetarians are healthier and thinner. Eating meat, especially beef, which is loaded with artery-clogging cholesterol and saturated fat, causes impotence, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease and asthma. Vegans are 10 to 20 percent lighter than meat-eaters.
Some world-class athletes are vegan or vegetarian. Ricky Williams, running back for Miami Dolphins; Tony Gonzalez, NFL tight end; Prince Fielder, first baseman for Milwaukee Brewers; and bodybuilder Kenneth Williams are all vegetarian. Edwin Moses and Carl Lewis, Olympic track and field stars, have been vegan since their competition days.
Humans were not designed to eat meat. Our anatomical equipment — teeth, jaws, and digestive system — favors a fleshless diet. The American Dietetic Association notes that “most of mankind for most of human history has lived on vegetarian or near-vegetarian diets.”
Factory-farmed meat today is produced with materials that enhance the actual taste, smell and physical appearance of meat. “Pink slime,” processed scraps of beef trimmings and fat treated with ammonia, is what you’re eating when you buy and prepare ground beef from most grocery stores in the U.S. Ammonia is added to kill germs. A substance known as “meat glue” (transglutaminase) is used to glue various bits of meat together so they resemble an actual cut of meat, like a filet mignon. Most ranchers inject steroids and antibiotics into their animals. “I find those practices abhorrent, and we do not use any of them in our shop, nor do we buy from processors that do. They are cost cutting measures, and they are consumer manipulation methods,” says Michael Buckley of The Ventura Meat Company.
Making meat is dangerous. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, slaughterhouse workers are three times more likely than the average factory worker to suffer work-related injuries.
Meat is cruel. Cows have their horns sliced off; brands cause third-degree burns; bulls are castrated, all without painkillers. Animals are confined to overcrowded, dusty feedlots for months. Many of the animals are still conscious throughout the process of slaughtering. Shelly Smith, a county resident and converted vegan, says, “I think it’s cruel the way we are treating our animals that are being raised for meat.”
Some diseases are the byproduct of factory farming. The World Health Organization says that avian flu virus, mad cow disease and hoof-and-mouth disease and SARS can be eliminated with a global shift to a vegetarian diet.
Animal activists claim that mankind has no moral right to enslave and torture animals for the sole purpose of enriching the food supply.
Meat and aggression may be related. Leo Tolstoy claimed that “vegetarianism is the taproot of humanitarianism.” Great humanitarians like Mahatma Gandhi have argued that “a vegetarian diet is the only diet for people who want to make the world a kinder place.”
Vegetarian food is plentiful and delicious. Meat and milk substitutes abound nowadays, and vegan restaurants are cropping up everywhere. Mary Grayr of Mary’s Secret Garden in Ventura says, “I won’t get involved in the pros and cons. I would rather just make great raw and vegan food for people to enjoy and let them decide.”
Nancy Samuels, who with Rick Grenstil runs Hip Vegan Cafe in Ojai, has a similar philosophy: “When people start eating vegetarian and vegan food, their world explodes to a range of grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables that they didn’t even know existed,” Samuel says. “I’d like to see people eating greener, but I’m not going to preach. We’re very fortunate that people love our food, but if you get a good vegan cookbook you’ll see for yourself that vegan food can be delicious.”
Shelly Smith, a converted vegan, says, “If people would allow themselves … they would come to see this supposedly ‘tasteless’ food is … refreshing. It leaves you feeling more energetic. The flavors that can be combined are endless. People should see, smell, and feel the different textures, and taste the healthy food waiting for them.”
Nature is Cruel
It is clear that we can do more to eliminate animal suffering, either by not eating meat or by making sure that the meat we do eat is cultivated humanely. As philosopher Peter Singer, in his classic book Animal Liberation, writes, “The case for vegetarianism is at its strongest when we see it as a moral protest against our use of animals as mere things, to be exploited for our convenience in whatever way makes them most cheaply available to us.” And as Temple Grandin says, “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.”
George (Butch) Warner is an addiction specialist in Studio City and Pasadena. He, his partner Diane, and their three dogs Bambino, Zorro, and Gizmo have been healthy vegans most of their lives.