Here's how it happened.
'Oh yeah, I used to be vegan'I was vegan for four years, and vegetarian for four years before that (with occasional dalliances such as Thanksgiving turkey so as not to offend anyone, and fish once or twice while pregnant). I was unequivocally a veg*n for ethical reasons. When I learned how meat, dairy, and eggs are produced in this country, I knew I could not participate in that system. But even before that, as a child and adolescent, it seemed incredibly unfair to me that living things were destroyed for my consumption. I've always had a hypersensitivity to injustice, and I think I must have strongly identified with animals who were vulnerable and abused by their caretakers.
When I "went vegan," I experienced some major health benefits within just a few weeks. I stopped being anemic; I had a tremendous amount of energy; I lost weight; I had better sleep and less chronic pain; my skin cleared up; my menstrual cycle balanced and I had less bleeding and fewer premenstrual symptoms; my digestion improved immensely.
I enjoyed these benefits for about three years -- then I had a different set of problems.
I don't think anyone could argue that I "didn't do vegan right." This is a favorite accusation levied at post-veg*ns, but I don't know if anyone could have done it more right than I did. During the time I was vegan I was finishing a degree in nutrition with an emphasis on plant-based diets. I based my diet on whole grains, and when I learned about soaking grains, I was all over that shiz. I ate lots of beans and was careful about my soy consumption. I enjoyed tons of veggies and fruits, nuts and seeds; I focused on organics and avoided processed foods. I didn't use vegetable oils or TVP or other fake foods. I took a B-12 supplement and used ground flaxseed and algae-based DHA. I cooked with coconut oil for saturated fat so my cholesterol wouldn't get too low. I didn't go crazy for the sugary baked goods that are so popular amongst vegan bloggers.
And still, I got sick. I ended up with a serious blood sugar imbalance. I became badly intolerant to gluten. My digestion went all screwy on me despite the large amount of fiber I consumed. I had headaches all the time, every day. I was irritable and exhausted. When I cut back on whole grains to address my blood sugar, I lost the will to live. In one memorable event, I fell asleep on the mat at the gym, 10-pound weights in hand.
In desperation, I went to a doctor who ordered gobs of blood tests that demonstrated poor organ function and impaired protein and fat absorption. Also, I had absolutely no discernible vitamin D in my system, despite spending lots of time in the sun and taking a vegetarian supplement. I had a good iron load and high magnesium and calcium levels, but it was clear that something was very wrong.
So my doctor put me on a vitamin D3 supplement (as opposed to vegetarian D2), whipped up an herbal tincture for blood sugar regulation, suggested additional choline, and gently stated that I'd do well to consider eating meat. I cried in her office because that, I absolutely could not consider. And yet I already was. I'd known intuitively that it was time to move on. My doctor gave me permission to do so, so I started eating fish. And I started feeling better.
I thought that would be it. I'd carefully and consciously choose fish a few times a week in addition to a great many vegetarian meals. This seemed like a nicely balanced diet, the ideal for most people, and it worked for a while. Until it didn't.
The heart-changeA few issues coalesced to encourage me in this direction. First, I started to feel not-so-good again. The headaches came back, and were easily shooed away by eating fish; the exhaustion started to creep in again; depression showed its petulant face, and just in time for the sun to disappear. It seemed I couldn't eat enough eggs to stave off a daily blood sugar collapse; I felt guilty for how often I craved fish, but I was not about to relapse back into that mess.
At the same time, I've plunged head-first into agricultural issues. In this process, I've been influenced, for good or ill, by the writer Derrick Jensen, whose books are tirades against industrial civilization as a whole. I'd read one of his books and then suffer for a few weeks or months in the low simmer of an angry, exhaustive depression before picking up another one. His books make me feel helpless, insecure, complicit in a violence so great and awful as to be ultimately unfathomable -- and yet I also feel hopeful. He puts words to so many things I've known, from the soles of my feet to the crown of my head, yet been unable to express or identify.
The craving that grows in me from exploring Jensen's work -- and his fellow anti-civ authors -- is to withdraw my dependence on the corporate machine as much as I can. That's why I live where I do -- in a small town with a close-knit community where food can be grown year-round and asset-based community development is plausible. And it's because of this commitment to where I live -- my community -- this sense of place -- that I've decided to eat meat. Because I'm tired of being dependent on producers from far away. Because I want to support localization efforts wherever they appear. And because my pacifist concept of "the least harm" has changed -- drastically.
Pork vs. tofuLet's look at two protein sources. The first is pork, and the second is tofu. I like tofu. Switching to meat is not a matter of being hedonistic. But let's see if we can break down these two sources of protein and see what we find.
The pork I buy is taken from pigs raised by a couple named Keith and Kate. They run a family farm on Lovers Lane, about five minutes from my house. Keith has a beard like my partner's. When I met him at the market, and asked if we could visit the farm, he said, "Oh sure, we do potlucks once a month or so."
The pigs they raise roam freely over their land, munching on acorns (which are very fat this year -- supposedly that says something about how much rain we'll see), mushrooms, shrubbery, scraps, and other treats. Pigs consume waste while producing soil fertility, making them an advantageous addition to a sustainable farm. These pigs are heritage breeds, which is the animal equivalent of heirloom vegetables -- they haven't been genetically-modified to be so enormous that their feet can't support their weight (as is the case for many of the animals I've seen at farm sanctuaries).
Kate tells me that when it's time for the pigs to die, they're slaughtered on-site, in the middle of a meal, in such abrupt circumstances that they don't feel fear or pain. Then, as is required by USDA standards, the animal is transported to a packaging center in Eureka (three hours away) or a smokehouse in Ft. Bragg (on the coast). Then the meat is returned to Lovers Lane and distributed thusly.
Now let's look at the tofu. Vast quantities of land are razed in the production of soy. This means that every living thing is removed from that place, including microorganisms. This is the case, by the way, even in organic production. Soybean plants are monocropped and then harvested each year. Because there are very few integrated soybean farms (meaning that not much else is grown on that land except soy), soil fertility is wasted and nothing else is allowed to flourish on that land -- of plant or animal origin.
After the soy is harvested, it's... transferred to a processing plant, I assume. The beans are dried and turned into tofu using... well. I'm not sure how it's done, except that it includes boiling, a coagulant, and pressing into squares. I wouldn't be able to identify such a station and I don't know what happens there. I don't know how much the workers are paid. I don't know who owns that operation or how much plastic is used to process the tofu. I really don't know very much about this process at all.
Prepared tofu is transferred into plastic containers, covered with plastic wrap, and transported to a distribution center by air freight? or refrigerated ground shipping? from somewhere in the Midwest -- I have no idea where. From the distribution center the tofu is packed into boxes and sent out to the co-op where I buy it and recycle the plastic container, which is probably shipped off to China for processing.
So what I see, when I look at this quantitatively, is a preservation of life as a result of choosing the pork. When I choose to eat bacon or sausage from a local farm, one animal dies. When I choose to eat tofu from the Midwest, countless beings are destroyed, and soil fertility and topsoil are blown away on the winds of industry.
The least harmLovers Lane Farm is a riot of life. Countless plants and animals thrive on that land. Soy production, on the other hand, leaves behind a wasteland. If you're saying to yourself, "So don't eat soy!" know that this applies to all leguminous production. And grain production (the worst of all, actually). And all large-scale vegetable, fruit, and nut production. What's left?
I finally understand this. See, it does matter that so many animals are destroyed in industrial production. Whenever dissenters pointed out this fact, I always asserted that I have to eat, after all, and doesn't intention count for something? Doesn't it make a difference that I'm not deliberately, unnecessarily destroying life? I've never been a vegan purist, certain that I could live entirely without impacting animal life. So I've made excuses for accidental, incidental destruction because I desperately wanted to believe that not being directly responsible absolved me of responsibility. After all, I'm not the one grinding up rabbits, ground-nesting birds, or squirrels while clearing land for rice production. I'm just eating the rice.
It's indefensible that trillions of animals are raised in confinement for human purposes. Cows are fed a diet that makes them sick; dairy cows are treated like machines and "wasted" many years before their natural death; meat cows slop around in their own mess; and that's wrong. Pigs are packed into crates so small they can't lie down; they have their tails and molars ripped out without anesthetic; and that's wrong. Chickens are allowed less than a square foot of space; they can't spread a wing; they're starved into another laying cycle; their beaks are seared off with a hot blade; and that's wrong. Calves are ripped from their mothers within the first few minutes of birth, and that's wrong. It's all wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Indefensible.
And for a long time, I couldn't agree with the arguments in favor of humane, small-scale, localized production. What's "humane" about killing an animal, unnecessarily? How can we feed the world from small farms? Celebrating "humane" meat gives people an excuse to eat CAFO meat. Better that we all move to plant-based diets. And so on. But then I learned more about agriculture, and I started to have other questions. Questions like, What's the alternative to petroleum-based fertilizer? Oh, manure? Well, shit. And so on.
What's humane about killing an animal unnecessarily? Well, because in the killing of the animal who comes from the farm down the road I'm reducing dependence on soy, bean, grain, and petroleum production, which result in unfathomable suffering. So it might not be very humane to that one individual animal, but I'd like to think I'm taking some responsibility for the care of the land as a whole, including the perpetuation of that healthy species. And so I'd have to consider that killing very necessary indeed.
EntrenchmentIn one of his books Derrick Jensen replays his conversation with a redwood tree. (Stay with me here.) Here's a segment:
And I got in a big argument with some guy a few years ago, because he was saying that because I use toilet paper, I'm just as responsible for deforestation as the CEO of [Weyerhaeuser]. And that seemed nonsensical to me. But that's something that so many of us do all the time, is we take responsibility for actions that are not our own. And he was saying, You know, go ask a tree this.In another part of this conversation he asks the tree about the salmon (he does go on about the salmon an awful lot, but you can't blame him), and the tree tells him that by eating salmon, he takes responsibility for that species as a whole. By consuming one of their numbers he enters into a sort of contractual obligation to ensure their survival.
And so I did, I asked a tree. You know, am I as culpable? And the tree said, Look, you are an animal, you consume things, get over it. And then I realized, Yes, I am actually culpable for deforestation, but not because I use toilet paper. I'm culpable for deforestation because I consume the flesh of a tree, but I don't fulfill my end of the bargain by stopping Weyerhaeuser. So what I need to do is, I need to stop Weyerhaeuser.
This makes sense to me. I have a responsibility to pigs because I eat them. They damn well better be treated like princes, or allowed to live freely, before I eat them. They damn well better not have a moment of fear or pain because of me. They damn well better be ensured survival as a species. That's my obligation.
Once upon a time, I was wracked with guilt if I ate meat. I felt I was taking food out of the mouths of people in less industrialized countries -- and in the case of grain-fed meat, this is likely. I felt I was destroying the land because of the tremendous waste that animals produce -- and in the case of CAFO meat, this is likely. I felt I was financially supporting abuse -- and in the case of confined animals, this is likely. But when I eat this meat, I'm supporting a local farmer, and nothing invested in these pigs could be redirected. This animal fed the land during his time there; he aerated the soil and increased fertility with his waste. And he didn't experience a moment of abuse or neglect.
When I eat this meat, I feel only grateful. I'm surprised to find that I'm not disgusted by it, and I don't have many moments of hesitation. And in the process of eating this meat, I feel... entrenched. I'm setting my feet firmly on this land. I'm eating from this land, this pig, and the acorns in his belly come from this land, and round it goes. I'm a part of this place, fully indebted, fully committed.