Why I’m a Vegetarian
The following article presents the personal perspective of the writer. We may not necessarily share the views put forward, but there is material here to make us think.
According to my mother, whenever she tried feeding me any meat, I would spit it straight back out. Anxious about my growth, she persevered for a bit but I’d react so violently that, eventually, she gave up. She needn’t have worried because, contrary to popular belief, being vegetarian didn’t harm my development. In fact, six decades later, I’m certain that the reason I’m fitter, healthier, and look younger than my peers is purely down to the lacto-vegetarian diet upon which I’ve lived my entire life. Nor is this difference peculiar to me and my non-vegetarian group of friends. The overriding conclusion of fifty years of scientific evidence is – as Anita Bean, the award-winning nutritionist bodybuilding champion explains to elite athletes – “diets centred around plants have clear health advantages over those based on animal foods.”1 I hope to explore these advantages in a future article, but the primary purpose of this article is to explain why I, a lifelong lacto-vegetarian, view the rise in ‘plant-based food’ diets – the fashionable term for the vegetarian or vegan diet – with some reservations.
From fringe to fashion: plant-based eating turns mainstream
To avoid any risk of misunderstanding, by ‘lacto-vegetarian’, I mean the exclusion of all meat and poultry as well as fish and eggs. As the only lacto-vegetarian in most social gatherings, it’s been usual for me to be the odd one out. Fortunately, aside from arousing mild curiosity, I’ve not been subject to incidents of teasing or ridicule that other vegetarians recount from time to time. On the contrary, in my experience, when new acquaintances learn I’m vegetarian, they either inform me about their ‘just occasional’ meat consumption or give some reason or other to explain why they’re eating meat out of necessity and, really, it’s not because they want to. What I find intriguing is why they feel compelled to downplay their meat consumption. Could it be that, for one split second, my being vegetarian is making them uneasy about their dietary choices? As for my family and friends who aren’t vegetarian, I’ve never tried to bring them around to my way of thinking and they’ve shown me the same courtesy – in fact, more so. Whereas I could never allow meat into my home, let alone buy it, they shop in food outlets and experiment with recipes they wouldn’t otherwise consider were it not to accommodate my lacto-vegetarian diet.
My personal experience has been at odds with the mainstream view of vegetarianism in many Western countries – at least until recently. Once caricatured as the dietary choice of long-haired, unkempt hippies or tree-hugging environmental warriors, plant-based eating is, as they say, having a moment. Although exact figures are unavailable, globally over the last five years, the number of people no longer choosing to eat meat or meat by-products has increased dramatically. Right now, for instance, it’s estimated that around fourteen percent of the world’s population is either vegan or vegetarian.2
Although I could rattle off all sorts of data evidencing the ubiquity of plant-based eating, the level of choice and sheer ease with which one can adopt such a diet nowadays is perhaps the strongest.3 At one time, other than fresh fruit and vegetables, vegetarian fare in the western hemisphere was confined to health food shops, which in turn could only be found in major towns and cities. But enter any supermarket today, entire aisles are stocked with an array of vegan and vegetarian food innovations. Also gone are the days when, upon booking a restaurant, it was customary to check the availability of a vegetarian option. By contrast, from nationwide mass-market chains to high-end, fine dining establishments, today’s restaurateurs are either incorporating more plant-based options into their main menu or introducing a second menu, one designed specifically for their vegan and vegetarian clientele. Set alongside the surge in vegan or ‘pure vegetarian’ restaurant openings, picking where and what to eat has, literally, become an activity in itself!
Global meat consumption and production reach record levels
Because of all the attention directed at plant-based eating, perhaps like me you thought that meat consumption was declining. However, as documented by numerous studies and official statistics, global meat consumption is in fact increasing. Take, for instance, findings from researchers at Oxford University (UK) who recently reported that global meat consumption was nearly five times higher in 2017 than it was in the early 1960s,4 or those of a separate group of scientists who calculated that, worldwide, each person ate, on average, 4.5 kilograms more meat per year in 2019 than in 2000.5 These results are consistent with numerous other studies on meat consumption trends, including those undertaken by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. In fact, it was in response to one of its reports that the highly reputable MIT Technology Review ran the following (rather alarming) headline in 2021: “We’re on track to set a new record for global meat consumption.”6
With humanity setting a new global record in how much meat it consumes, this inevitably points to an increase in demand. And if demand has increased, then there must have been a reciprocal increase in supply. Unfortunately, this reasoning is indeed validated by the FAO which, showing meat production reached a global high of just under 340 million tonnes in 2020, reports that this level is “forty-five percent higher compared with 2000.”7 In two decades, therefore, we have virtually doubled the number of animals and marine creatures being killed for food. To put the 340 million tonne figure in perspective, this equates to slaughtering up to 6.3 billion8 fish, land, and marine animals every single day.And to put the 6.3 billion statistic in perspective, imagine if, except for the people living in India and the United States, the entire population of the world was killed, daily!
Why I’m disturbed by the global popularity of plant-based food
Given humanity’s exploitation of the animal kingdom, why then am I disturbed by the surge in people turning to plant-based food? Isn’t this a good thing, I hear you ask? Of course, as a lifelong vegetarian, I’ll always be pleased when somebody forgoes a meat option in favour of a vegetarian one. What concerns me, however, is motive.
People give up meat for numerous reasons, but the three most commonly reported include concern about the environmental impact of meat production, opposition to industrial farming and agriculture, or to realize any of the numerous health benefits associated with a herbivorous diet.9 I’m not suggesting these reasons are illegitimate, and I don’t want to be ‘holier than thou’, but the benefits associated with each one of them would be realized automatically if our choices were driven by morality. In fact, it’s the absence of morality in much of the current discourse surrounding the popularity of plant-based eating that I find troubling. Why? Because when morality isn’t the basis of our behaviour, there’s a risk that it changes according to the zeitgeist. Today climate change is viewed as the world’s most urgent problem, but what if this was to be resolved without making any changes to existing farming methods or if some other problem became even more urgent? Imagine if an illness we’re suffering from could be treated only with animal-based medicine, what then? Are we saying that in these scenarios, it would be okay – paraphrasing Ovid, the first-century BCE Roman poet – to cram our bodies with the death of another living creature?10
Morality – overlooked but, really, the only reason to become herbivorous
Non-judgmentalism – the idea that none of us has the right to mandate how others should live their lives – is a prominent feature of contemporary society. Although this suggests a new era of tolerance, in Being Cultured, the academic Angus Kennedy explains why this results in “moral schizophrenia and irrationalism” whereby we outwardly conform to society’s permissive, non-moral codes through simple “inertia”11 (we don’t want to be different). As Susan Neiman explains in Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, what this means is that the estrangement between morality and mainstream society has become so great that moral judgments are increasingly rare. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre goes even further, arguing that, governed by emotion, modern-day societies cast doubt over the very existence of virtue at all. So, perhaps it’s because we’re living in a “post-virtue” society (to use MacIntyre’s phrase) that morality features so little in the rationales underpinning the contemporary shift to plant-based diets. But like the author of This Is Vegan Propaganda, I believe that the only issue determining our choice about eating animal products should be whether it is right or wrong to do so. The nineteenth-century Indian saint Tulsi Sahib identified “compassion, humility, and benevolence” to be the “gems”12 of this world. I look upon these as the core attributes of what it means to be human and, by extension, humane. If we apply these terms to how we treat animals, we need to ask ourselves whether it is:
“Benevolent” to mutilate piglets or to separate newborn babies from their mothers? Is it “kind” to selectively breed chickens so that they cannot stand and their organs fail?… Is it “compassionate” to exploit and ultimately take the life of an animal who does not need or want to die?
Ed Winters, This Is Vegan Propaganda (And Other Lies the Meat Industry Tells You)
I leave it to each reader to decide the answers to the questions Ed Winters poses. Should anyone think that just because modern-day industrial farming methods are legal and promoted as “humane”, I’d argue that, as consumers, we have a moral obligation to find out the validity of claims made by the animal farming industries about how they breed, rear and kill sentient creatures. So, I’m not going to describe the shocking cruelty, suffering, and pain that occurs with industrialized animal and fishing farming practices. You can find out for yourself. I will, however, include a quote from a group we don’t often hear from, those working in the livestock farming industry. As one ex-slaughterhouse worker put it:
Think about this, as you’re tucking into a roast: you didn’t hear the tortured screams of those animals. You didn’t see them fight with every ounce of their strength to stay alive. You didn’t clean their blood from the factory floor.
I did, and the guilt will haunt me forever.13
My teenage self would have enjoyed explaining to non-vegetarians why they were wrong for eating meat and why the lacto-vegetarian diet she’d adopted was the right one. However, Hazur Maharaj Charan Singh’s wisdom and counsel influenced me not to be evangelical but to adopt a ‘live and let live’ approach to life. Still, I can’t help reflecting upon the extraordinary scale on which we humans are killing animals, especially within the context of the upcoming holidays. With food constituting an integral component of the festivities, wondering what’ll be dished up as families across the globe celebrate Thanksgiving, Diwali, and Christmas brings to mind the following passage from This Is Vegan Propaganda:
Every time we eat, we have the power to radically transform the world we live in. Our choices can help alleviate the most pressing issues we face today: the climate crisis, infectious and chronic diseases, human exploitation and, of course, non-human exploitation. Undeniably, these issues can be uncomfortable to learn about but the benefits of doing so cannot be overstated. It is quite literally a matter of life and death.
As I said, I’ve never tried to convert anyone to vegetarianism and I’m not about to try now, primarily because it’s Sant Mat’s emphasis on tolerance and acceptance rather than passing judgment over others that, above all else, initially attracted me to the path. The present Master, for example, constantly reminds us to respect the views of others even when they are diametrically opposed to our own. We may not judge, or make judgments for, others. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take responsibility for our own behaviour and apply a rigorous moral yardstick to what we do and why. Nor does it stop me from sympathizing with the goal of 101 Reasons Why I’m Vegetarian:
We humans may have an innate desire to eat meat, but our physical make-up also includes a very large brain, which has been used to overcome countless barriers that were also considered insurmountable. To hope that humanity will choose to transcend its nature and adopt vegetarianism is indeed to aim high. Still, our brain has allowed us to achieve some pretty amazing things…. In the end, we can choose to undermine our bodies’ exquisite mechanisms that keep us healthy. We can continue to foster a grievous alienation from the natural world with efficient but cruel systems of livestock production. We can perish by our own hands on a planet ruined by the environmental ravages of our carnivorous desires. Or we can embrace life by creating a vegetarian world.
The author’s vision for a “vegetarian world” may seem a romantic notion to some, but I’ll continue doing all I can to help realize this idea. What about you?
1. Bean, A. The Vegan Athlete’s Cookbook, p. 14.
2. Meyer, M. This is how many vegans are in the world right now. In The Vou.
3. Rattle, K. The rise in vegan food outlets. In Vegetarian Society.
4. Ritchie, H. Which countries eat the most meat? In BBC News.
5. Whitton, C et al. (2021) Are we approaching peak meat consumption? Analysis of meat consumption from 2000 to 2019 in 35 countries and its relationship to Gross Domestic Product. In Animals.
6. Marinovic, D. and Smith, A. We’re on track to set a new record for global meat consumption. In MIT Technology Review.
7. FAO (2022) Agricultural production statistics. 2000–2020. FAOSTAT Analytical Brief Series No. 41. Rome (p. 9).
8. Winters, E. This is Vegan Propaganda (And Other Lies the Meat Industry Tells You), p. 2.
9. Anonymous. Why people in rich countries are eating more vegan food. In The Economist.
10. Ovid Metamorphoses,in N Phelps, The Longest Struggle, p. 27.
11. Kennedy, A. The vital importance of being moral. In Spiked.
12. Santbani Sangrah, Part 1, p. 214.
13. Anonymous. Slaughterhouse Worker Opens Up: ‘It Was a Vision of Hell’. In Plant based news.