For a long stretch of time, when people have asked me, I said that I was vegan. I did that as shorthand so that I don't have to give a lengthy preamble about my views on food, animal welfare, labeling, etc. But I'm not really vegan. It's more accurate to say that I'm vegan-ish. That is, I tend to eat a lot of meals where there are no animal products, but I do eat plenty of vegetarian meals that include eggs and dairy. There's not an easy label for it. But the point is that I don't really identify with veganism, and particularly not with its judgmental disdain for those who do not so identify.
For many years, I ate meat -- a lot of meat. I would have meat twice a day. Several years ago, I began to reduce the amount of meat in my diet, primarily for ethical reasons. I became increasingly aware of the conditions under which meat was produced in the U.S., which are deplorable. Animals raised for meat and animals raised for their products (dairy, eggs) are treated equally poorly. Chickens raised for meat -- broiler chickens -- have been bred to grow very quickly, with enormous breasts, so large in fact that the chickens do not have the lung capacity or bone strength to support their quick-growing bodies. Their lives are torture from beginning to end. Egg-laying hens are packed into tight quarters, with no air, no space, their beaks cut off to avoid pecking, and suffering from living in squalid conditions surrounded by feces. I could go on, but you get the point.
I began to curtail my meat consumption slowly, and my body often rebelled. I struggled with blood sugar issues, which meat had helped to keep in check. But over time I managed to adjust to the point that I could go meat free. I then began to reduce my consumption of dairy, which my body actually appreciated a great deal. My last step was reducing my egg consumption. Because I was motivated by animal welfare, I began to focus on products that rejected the factory farming model. No easy task. Labels only mean so much, and certainly unregulated labels like "humanely raised" mean next to nothing in a marketplace that wants to cater to people's consciences while still maximizing their bottom lines. I began to eat only eggs that were rated highly on Cornucopia Institute's Egg Rating scale or eggs that were Animal Welfare Approved from Angus Acres Farm in Ghent, NY. I had toured the farm and seen first-hand how well the hens were treated.
But as I increasingly focused on reducing my consumption of animal products, I began to question whether the choices I was making were actually good for my health. For example, I noticed a lot of vegan products were made with all sorts of processed, chemical substitutes. I also noticed a streak of ego attachment forming -- an identity around "veganism" was sprouting, like a little bud, telling me that I was a "good" person for avoiding animal products. I also began to wonder what I was omitting when I focused entirely on avoiding animal products.
For one, I began to wonder about the long-term impacts of avoiding all animal products. Vitamin B-12 can be obtained from plant sources, but it's not easy. Nor am I entirely trusting of the science of nutrition -- we are constantly revising our understanding of food and the human body, and learning about how food actually works (antioxidants, phytonutrients, etc.), and the fact is we don't truly understand the full picture of the multitude of chemical reactions that take place when we eat. Many people do well long-term on a vegan diet, but it's a fundamental mistake to assume that one person's experience is applicable to everyone else; this is true in most aspects of life, but somehow when it comes to eating food, people tend to get very prescriptive and doctrinaire. Many vegans out there are not healthy; they tend to eat too many grains and too much sugar. I've met many vegans who are overweight and stressing their bodies because they don't eat properly. Their diets may be vegan, but they aren't whole foods and plant-based.
I also don't know whether it's the best thing for the environment. Certainly reducing our factory farming and the amount of land devoted to livestock --which is largely responsible for the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest and huge amounts of other forests cleared for planting crops to feed livestock and for their grazing -- is absolutely critical to ameliorating out climate change. But there's also an aspect to the treatment of soil that perhaps calls for something else. Regenerative agriculture calls for a symbiotic relationship between animals and the land, and it recognizes that animals play a critical role in ensuring that the soil has the proper nutrients for growing vegetables.
Veganism also seems to suffer from a blindspot. For while there's a considerable focus on animal welfare that I fully endorse, where's the concern for farm labor and migrant workers who are responsible for the food that vegans do eat? I almost never see someone arguing for veganism and, at the same time, pushing for fair trade, farmer's rights, and stronger labor protections or immigration reform. Yet, when you have embraced the welfare of animals and make all of your meals from vegetables and other non-meat products, your attention should shift to the ways that the food system does or does not protect those who are responsible for sustaining you.
On a conceptual level, too, I wonder if there's something missing in the dogma around veganism. There are competing views about animals and what it means to consume meat. Other cultures have treated animals that are eaten from a spiritual perspective, honoring the animals' contribution to their lives and maintaining a sense of humility in the face of the symbiotic relationship between people and animals. Similarly, some contemporary spiritual teachers don't say to avoid meat as a spiritual practice, as if eating meat were a "sin" or not eating meat made one more "virtuous." Certainly, at the very least, we have to question any ego attachment to veganism as a marker of spiritual progress, and the judgments that seem to come from people who identify as vegan towards those who eat animal products or refer to their diet as "clean" (thereby suggesting, rather passive aggressively, that a non-vegan diet is "dirty").
In short, veganism raises compelling questions about what it means to eat, but it does not supply all the answers. It asks us to consider the harms that we impose in order to sustain ourselves, and for that I am thankful for veganism as a practice and a way of life. Issues of animal welfare, human labor, best practices for an individual's body, the effects of agriculture on the environment -- all of these are questions that we have to grapple with when we eat.
For now, I eat a primarily plant-based, whole food diet, with some eggs and dairy from the most ethical sources I can find, occasionally some fish, and every once in a great while I have honored my body's needs by eating meat from an Animal Welfare Approved farm; it did not sit well with my digestion, perhaps because I had not eaten meat in so long. I routinely bless my food before eating and extend my gratitude to all the human workers and, if there are any animal products, the animals that contributed to my meal. Does all of this solve the ethical dilemma? Not entirely. Nor can it. All we can do is do our best to acknowledge and continually try to answer the ethical questions that nourishing ourselves raises.