For many people, the decision to become a vegetarian is not made lightly. In many homes across America, most meals must include meat in order to be considered complete. Meat is not simply a ingredient but a part of a broader culture. Hotdogs at baseball games, turkey at Thanksgiving and ham at Easter are all beloved traditions. A shift to a vegetarian diet means not just changing cooking habits, but letting go of some traditions and shifting into a vegetarian mindset.
So, what makes a person decide to become a vegetarian?
According to a 2008 study by the Vegetarian Times, 3.2% of Americans are vegetarians, 54% for reasons involving animal welfare.
In only two generations, the family farm has been nearly eliminated and replaced by factory farming. In the book Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, it is stated that 99% of animals eaten in the United States are factory farmed. These enormous industrial complexes have been designed for productivity, at whatever costs. Animals raised in factory farms have been genetically altered to emphasize desirable qualities–more meat raised in less time.
Muscles and fat on these animals are growing at faster rates than their bones, so factory farmed animals suffer from a number of painful conditions. Raised giant indoor facilities, factory farmed animals live amongst thousands of others, all packed in a single building. In tight quarters, chronically unhealthy animals rarely–if ever–see natural daylight. Even “cage free” and “organic” animals don’t lead happy or natural lives. The average cage free egg laying hen lives in the equivalent of an 8.2 inch square of space.
Factory farms maintain complete control over the environment where these animals are born and die. Exposure to light and food is perfectly timed in order to manipulate the animal’s natural cycles. At the end of their lives, animals are transported to slaughter facilities where they may be killed in a variety of ways that are both gruesome and not always effective–many animals slip through the killing stage of slaughter dazed, but still alive, only to finally die in the latter stages of the process.
In addition, it’s not only the animals who suffer in these facilities. The average factory farm has a 100% worker turnover rate.
Unfortunately, factory farms are necessary to feed the population of the US with its current dietary habits. Family farms cannot produce meat at the rate of factory farms–cannot even come close. Purchasing meat raised by responsible farmers where animal welfare is a consideration and priority is very difficult.
A quote from “Eating Animals”: “Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.” These statistics are backed by studies by the UN and the Pew Commission. Foer goes on to state that “omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.” Likewise, a recent report released by the UN determined a world-wide shift toward veganism would be necessary to combat climate change.
Foer states elsewhere in his book that even the fishing industry has huge environmental effects. For example, the average shrimp trawling operation will produce huge amounts of “bycatch”–unintended sea life caught in the search for the targeted seafood. In some operations, for every one pound of shrimp caught, 26 pounds of bycatch are thrown back into the sea, dead and dying–much of which are endangered species.
Many people who eat meat ask if vegetarians consume enough protein to remain healthy. The American Dietetic Association claims that vegetarian diets, when well planned, are healthful and appropriate for all stages of life, even for athletes. The 2009 ADA press release states that “vegetarian diets are often associated with health advantages including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressures levels and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes”. The ADA claims that vegetarians experience lower rates of cancer, and that vegetarian diets are “lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium”. All indications are that vegetarianism is at least as healthy, if not more healthy, than eating an omnivorous diet.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Safran Foer claims that an unfortunate necessity in factory farms is the regimen of antibiotics that keep these sickly animals alive until slaughter. There are concerns that these regimens of antibiotics are contributing to the development of antibiotic resistant pathogens and the prevalence of animal-to-people transmitted viruses like bird flu.
Shifting Toward Vegetarianism
If you’re interested in becoming vegetarian or reducing the amount of meat in your diet, there are many meat substitutes on the market that allow new vegetarians to eat many of their favorite meat-based recipes. Grocery store chains like Whole Foods offer a wide selection of meat substitute products for nearly every kind of meal. Meat substitutes are also available in many big name supermarkets, in the refrigerator and frozen food sections. Some of these meat substitutes closely simulate the taste and texture of meat. However, non-vegetarians making the shift toward vegetarianism must accept that not all their meals will taste the same. Some recipes will likely be left behind, but new favorite recipes will inevitably take their place. Vegetarians often reach out to new vegetables and new recipes that they otherwise would never have tried, in order to broaden their dietary horizons.
The choice to become a vegetarian can be difficult, and it’s not for everyone. Eating meat is a natural human inclination. People who wish to continue to eat meat but who want to affect change can contact their government representatives supporting reforms to the meat industry. By educating themselves and the public, and by purchasing meat from responsible farmers, consumers can affect the market and the meat industry practices.