The Aquarian, Fall 2003Ethical Eating
It's time to extend our sphere of moral concern to include the lives that sustain us
By Syd Baumel, Editor
A little over a year ago, two years into my transition from mild-mannered vegetarian to in-your-face vegan, I came to the conclusion that most people don't want to buy what I have to sell. I was failing in my would-be mission as an advocate for the nearly 50 billion farm animals slaughtered every year around the world. The goal posts of vegetarianism, much less vegansim, were set far too high for most people – and some questioned the goal itself.
Might there be a better way, I wondered, for my ethical vegetarian colleagues and I to reach the resistant masses? It has always been anguishingly obvious to people like us that most nonvegetarians do love animals; yet . . . they still eat them.
I found myself meditating on this challenge at the lake that summer, and quickly a vision of another strategy took shape.
Compromise. Tell people any change is better than no change at all.
Get people and organizations of influence – movie stars, political and spiritual leaders, scientists, intellectuals – to speak up with one voice for ethical eating. Reframe the message from all-or-nothing veganism to anything-is-better-than-nothingism and the-more-the-betterism. As I was later to write in a letter to The New York Times Magazine, the opposite kind of all-or-nothing reasoning by the magazine's food columnist – that "if you cannot be merciful to all edible animals, you needn't be merciful to any" – "is a recipe for moral indifference. Every act of mercy is a sufficient act of kindness unto itself."
In other words, I wanted myself, my activist colleagues, and others not yet even involved in this inclusive mass movement to send people an alternative message about food: you don't have to be ethical all the time (or according to other people's standards) to be ethical. You don't have to be the Dalai Lama to be a good guy – indeed, even the Dalai Lama eats meat every other day.*
You're probably not a vegetarian either. Only about 4% of Canadians are. But I bet you're concerned about issues related to your dietary choices – issues like protecting the environment, supporting farmers and other people in the food production chain, being kind to animals, and eliminating world hunger.
Perhaps you're buying organic food more often because it's better for the environment, for farmers and public health, and typically for animals too. Perhaps you're eating more humane-certified, free range, or grazed/pastured animal products because you believe any animal that puts food on your table ought to be treated with at least a little compassion.
Perhaps you oppose genetically modified crops because you believe they pose a threat to biodiversity – and therefore to the world's food security – or because you worry that GMOs threaten public health.
Perhaps you drink fair trade coffee or tea or eat fair trade chocolate so as not to support the exploitation of impoverished farmers in the developing world – even child slaves, in the case of chocolate.
Perhaps you give generously to aid agencies or donate to food banks so that others can eat too.
If you do any of these things, you're part of a burgeoning, spontaneous, and so far nameless movement (I would call it the ethical eating movement, a subset of ethical consumerism) of people who strive to eat not just what's good for number one, but what's good for everyone. You are extending your sphere of moral interest to include the very food chain that sustains you. You are co-authoring a new chapter in the moral awakening of humanity. Ethical eating, like ethical living, is not about absolutes. It's about doing the best you're willing and able to do – and nurturing a will to keep doing better.
This issue of The Aquarian encompasses much of the spectrum of complementary and conflicting views about ethical eating.
In "Elk Spirit," Michele Murray expresses a conviction shared by many that a spiritual communion between human predator and animal prey sanctifies the eating of meat "to live another day."
In a letter to the editor, Bettie Malofie, whose love of animals prevents her from thinking of killing the spent egg-laying hens in her small, home-based sanctuary, undergirds that position with her view that it's hard for people to be healthy on a vegan diet. Speaking personally, I have yet to meet or hear of an "at-death's-door vegan" (to use Malofie's vivid expression) who had also taken care to ensure an adequate dietary and/or supplemental intake of the nutrients that can be low or absent on an animal-free diet (the usual suspects: vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and carnitine; omnivores are more likely to be deficient in such nutrients as folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin K, and fibre, and to eat too much saturated fat, retinol, and cholesterol). My own "at death's door" experience as a vegan (a couple weeks of profound, chronic energy failure) was promptly cured by a vegetarian-source supplement of carnitine, a nonessential nutrient found mostly in red meat. I consider this a very small price to pay (though I have to mail-order it from the US!) and am no more bothered by its "unnaturalness" than I am by central heating or reading glasses.
Also in this Food for Thought issue, Michele Murray's deeply felt refrain about eating prey "so we can live another day" finds its opposite echo in vegan ex-cattle rancher Howard Lyman's avowal that "the thing that gives me the greatest joy in the world is to be able to say to you that no animal has to die for me to live."
What would The Aquarian's advice columnist Ajna have to say about such conflicting views among ethical eaters? I asked her. She answered thoughtfully; but, being the editor, I muscled in with my own answer too (call me "Ahimsa"). Perhaps you would have answered differently. Or maybe you have other views about ethical eating that you'd like to share. Send them to us. We need to talk about this.
*The Dalai Lama tried being a vegetarian in the 1960s, developed jaundice (hepatitis), and was ordered by his doctors to eat meat again. This is not known to be a complication of vegetarianism and may have been coincidental or the result of an unbalanced vegetarian diet: reportedly, the Dalai Lama had subsisted mostly on nuts and milk. In large, controlled, long-term studies, vegetarians and vegans have tended to be slightly healthier and possibly longer-lived than comparable nonvegetarians. The American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada have consistently endorsed the safety and healthfulness of a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet.
UPDATE, December 2004: In a Reader's Digest interview this year, The Dalai Lama said he is now entirely vegetarian, except when he's on the road. "My kitchen is now totally vegetarian," he said. "But when I visit places, occasionally I take non-vegetarian..."