A few weeks ago, I preached about the virtues of vegetarianism. I did so hypocritically, because I am not a vegetarian. I have been getting the vegetarian gospel from many sides lately. My friend Wendy likes to say she belongs to the Church of Vegetarianism. She points me to sites like Grist to encourage me to become one and educate me about environmental choices. I also have a sister who is a vegetarian of a quarter century standing. My new sister in law is also doing the vegetarian / all organic food thing. It is a very Boulder, Colorado-ish thing to do.
It seems unlikely to me that after fifty years of eating meat generally at least once a day that I could give it up forever. However, as an experiment I have been having Meatless Mondays. It is not much but if all Americans went meatless one day a week, we would cut our meat consumption by one seventh. Assuming a stable population, that would mean fewer feedlots and fewer animals consuming our nation’s grains. By redirecting these grains from animals and biofuel plants, more grains would be available for human consumption. This would be good news for much of the Third World. The high price of grains, driven by our need to direct so much of it to animals and biofuels, is putting basic carbohydrates out of reach for the poorest, meaning millions are malnourished who were not a few years ago. Some are starving to death because they cannot afford something as basic as a bag of rice. In addition, with fewer livestock there would be less animal waste, fewer pollutants and fewer greenhouse gases. It would be no panacea to global warming, but this strategy in conjunction with many other efforts could perhaps change the current global warming dynamic.
To my friend Wendy, the primary reason she is a vegetarian is because she believes that slaughtering any animal is inhumane. There is no way of knowing how an animal feels about being dismembered, although I suspect it is something far more abstract to them than it is to us with our large prefrontal cortexes. It strikes me as reasonable to assume that animals above a certain brain size probably have some idea of what is going on when they before they are slaughtered. If we must eat meat, then animals should be killed in a way that minimizes animal trauma and suffering. Most cattle are killed by having a bolt shot through their brain. This supposedly rapidly leads to the animal’s death, or at least allows it to be dismembered without being aware that it is happening. I suspect if I paid a visit to a slaughterhouse then I would suddenly find the wherewithal to become a vegetarian. If we were serious about global warming, we would send meat-eating students on slaughterhouse tours so they could see how it is done. Like most Americans, I prefer to have my animals killed far away where I cannot hear them complain.
Not eating meat with breakfast is not a problem for me since I typically do not eat meat with breakfast anyhow. Lunch is more challenging. I am used to a sandwich or some soup where meat is one of the ingredients. One can always have a salad with lunch. I know salads are very healthy but no matter how much I dress them up, they are never interesting to eat so I want to add something more substantial, which I equate with dense food. One can claim to be a vegetarian and have an egg or tuna salad sandwich with lunch. It seems like cheating somehow. Eggs come from chickens, which produce them by eating grain. Calorie for calorie, feeding a chicken is better for the environment than feeding a cow, but an egg salad sandwich defeats my modest goal of making more grain available for human consumption. I should really avoid any dairy or egg products on meatless Mondays. Eating tuna also feels like I am cheating. Logically there is virtually no connection between harvesting seafood and solving global warming and hunger, providing species are not over-harvested. If you are a sea creature, there is no humane way to die. Unless you are a very large creature like a whale, you are likely to die by being gorily dismembered by some other sea creature. Thus far, I have avoided both egg and tuna salad sandwiches on my meatless Mondays. More typically, a cheese sandwich with some lettuce and tomatoes suffices and feels filling. It is not perfect, but it demonstrates intent. If I feel like being bad, a slice of cheese pizza is another easy substitute.
For me, the only challenge comes at dinner. This is when my desire for consuming meat becomes almost Pavlovian. The first couple of weeks I found that I had to exercise mind over matter, because my body told me to eat meat. Meat substitutes help. If you buy the right veggie burgers, you will not feel denied. However, one can quickly get tired of veggie burgers. I am not much of a burger fan in general. It is rare that I consume more than one burger a month.
Most meat substitutes tend to be rather poor imitations of the real thing. They rarely come close to either the taste of meat or its texture, nor do they usually have meat’s heft and density. Perhaps if you eat them religiously your taste buds adapt. I suspect for most vegetarians meat substitutes are transitionary products. At some point, you do not want them anymore.
Other dinner meat substitutes are more prosaic. Peanut butter and grill cheese sandwiches qualify, with a peanut butter sandwich being the better substitute. After three weeks, going without meat one day a week no longer seems particularly difficult. I may well choose to try two meatless days a week soon, and see if that is as simple. All I have to do is be mindful not to eat meat that day. Nor do I feel the compunction to eat more meat on the other six days to make up for the day without meat.
My solitary actions do feel rather pointless. I am just one of 300 million Americans. Perhaps by blogging about it I can help start a trend. Less than 3% of Americans are vegetarians. I cannot claim to be one, but I have found cutting back on meat was simple and relatively painless. Going through this exercise once a week serves another important purpose: it keeps me mindful of my values. If like me you are concerned that your meat eating habit is indirectly causing people elsewhere to starve, you should not hesitate to try my approach of going without meat just one day a week. I suspect that you will find as I did that soon for that day you will not miss the meat at all.