Like many families, mine has different food habits. Until a few years ago, I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian, my husband ate poultry and fish occasionally, and our sons ate pretty much the normal American meat-heavy diet. But our personal food universe changed dramatically when our meat-loving older son went to college four years ago, and announced after his first semester that he had become vegan.
I didn’t know much about veganism then, but when I learned more I was struck, at first glance, by how drastic and extreme the vegan lifestyle can be: My son didn’t just stop eating meat and seafood, but eggs, dairy, and honey. He stopped using wool and leather too.
To explain his new choices, he gave us homework assignments: documentaries and links to online videos that showed and explained the different kinds of abuses animals suffered at the hands of humans. I was pained, concerned, proud, and confused all at once. His visits home and our family vacations together became, to put it mildly, somewhat difficult.
It meant finding vegan substitutes and recipes, enduring awkward restaurant meals, and painful meal-time arguments between him and our younger son over food choices. Did I mention that our Thanksgiving got much more complicated, divisive, and labor-intensive (turkey and tofurkey, ordinary and vegan mashed potatoes, for example)?
But I don’t regret it for a minute. The experience has been educational and life-altering.
Dairy Is Everywhere
I learned that the slightly self-righteous nature of my vegetarianism was misplaced, because the milk, cheese, and occasional eggs I enjoyed involved cruel factory-farming practices too. I learned, as I walked through grocery store aisles, that dairy (even more than meat) dominates and pervades our food, especially packaged and restaurant food. Being vegetarian is relatively easy in our society, but being vegan is hard.
Thanks to the knowledge we gained on the topic, my husband and I have slowly changed our food habits. He stopped eating poultry and fish, and we drastically cut down on dairy and eggs. It was hard, of course––I love pecan pie and cheese and pizza and ice cream! But we’ve gotten used to the substitutes or doing without, and though we aren’t as strict as our fiercely vegan son, we are 60 to 75 percent vegan.
Now, four years later, I see veganism as an important movement that’ll save the planet if it catches on, and I’m all praise and admiration for the small but growing percentage of committed vegans in America. Vegans in our meat-heavy mainstream are sometimes seen as preachy, self-righteous, and obnoxious. But we fail to see that they give voice to billions of voiceless, sentient animals that suffer horrific lives and premature deaths.
America, the Paradox
As an immigrant, America is often a paradox to me in its selective treatment of animals: Americans dote on their dogs and cats, and go into paroxysms over the killing or mistreatment of individual animals like Cecil the lion, but are oblivious to the provenance of the abundant meat and dairy on their plates, and sometimes willfully blind to the suffering in factory farms and slaughterhouses.
But things are changing, albeit slowly, for the better. We are, I think, at the beginning stages of the animal welfare movement, one that recognizes the sentience of the animals that feed, clothe, entertain and serve us, and the unspeakable abuse heaped upon them by humans.
In just the last couple years, there’ve been important changes: the announcements that elephants will be phased out from circuses, that SeaWorld will phase out its killer whale shows, that some states have banned gestational crates for pregnant sows. Also, several startups have been creating plant-based burgers and meats, and these ventures are being backed by wealthy entrepreneurs and philanthropists like Bill Gates and Richard Branson.
All this can’t happen soon enough. As the British animal rights advocate Ingrid Newkirk reminded us: “When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Beyond this, pigs are known to be as intelligent and social as our beloved dogs, and in studies can even be taught to play simple video games with their snouts. As anyone who has visited a bucolic farm knows, even hens are full of personality.
Will We Look Back At Meat-Eating As a Dark Period?
In 50 or 75 years, will future generations look back and be horrified and astonished that their parents and grandparents ate meat, supported factory farms, wore fur and leather, and paid to watch majestic elephants, lions, and dolphins do silly stunts? It seems plausible.
And 100 years from now, will Americans pillory President Barack Obama and refuse to commemorate him because he enjoyed and regularly ate meat? That isn’t unthinkable to me, and it highlights the pitfalls of the presentism that we currently practice with our forefathers.
Meanwhile, it’s heartening to see increasing numbers of Americans becoming vegetarians, pescatarians, or flexitarians, sometimes for health or environmental reasons. Those are good or great reasons, but the primary reason, I feel, ought to be for ethical concerns.
But it also doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” phenomenon––the perfect doesn’t have to be the enemy of the good. While it may be impossible for millions of Americans to go cold turkey with their, er, turkey, even a little consciousness and awareness about meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs helps. Cutting down or avoiding these American staples for one meal a day or one day a week will go a long way.
For those who are concerned about protein deficits in plant-based diets, I have two points: Protein, especially animal protein, has been largely oversold to us in America, and there is abundant and healthful protein in the plant world, in the form of legumes, for example.
More broadly, we sometimes think we are a civilized people, but forget that we are on a spectrum. Our human journey over the past centuries has been about a gradual shedding or rethinking of cruel, barbaric practices toward those of our own species: we’ve abolished slavery, lessened torture, reduced use of the death penalty. Many people fight against practices like solitary confinement.
It is only in recent times that we have started debating the long-overdue issues of sexual assault and harassment of women, mass incarceration, police brutality toward men of color, and so on. The next step in our onward march toward more civilized behavior is more humane food choices. The mute animals who’ve suffered for so long deserve this.