vendredi 4 décembre 2009

Vegetarianism is Not a Religion

I follow a diet that is officially called pescatarian, meaning I exclude meat and poultry but allow fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy. This means hypocrisy in the eyes of some people. I offer a rebuttal.
Prelude: I will briefly explain my reasons for (still) eating seafood, while I haven’t eaten meat in over 3 years. In general, when making a significant diet change, it is wise to go gradually, or one risks feeling dissatisfied and giving up the diet completely. This is equally true for cutting down carbs as well as going vegetarian/vegan. Three years ago I decided to give up meat, but I kept seafood in my diet for the nutrition and menu choice at restaurants. One year later, I was off to Japan where it is significantly harder to avoid eating seafood. Now, living in France, I have not cut seafood out from my diet completely but it occurs only rarely—when I’m a guest at dinner, when there is no other choice at a restaurant. I purchase fish or seafood, and I try to avoid choosing fish, especially tuna, when eating out.

Now, sometimes confusion occurs among others (non-vegetarians, for the most part), when I specify my eating habits. Some fail to understand why I make the difference between meat and seafood. Some imply that by allowing some meat (fish) I am betraying my cause, thereby making it void. Here is my response, on behalf of semi-vegetarians, vegetarians, and vegans alike.

Vegetarianism is not a religion

Vegetarianism is a political and moral cause. It is not a health movement, it is not a choice undertaken because one is grossed out by the thought of bleeding pigs. It is a specific political action to counter the system of exploitation of animals that is inextricable to the modern meat industry. There are many distinct causes to protest: the suffering of animals, the health risks present in many meat products, the damage to the environment, the macho culture of carnivorism, but I won’t go into that here. The point is that being an activist movement, participation in any form is useful and beneficial to the cause. There are no fundamentalist vegetarians (well, perhaps there are, but that would be silly).

We are not Orthodox Jews who must keep kosher; we are not Muslims who are forbidden to eat pork. Our rule, the rule of not eating meat, is flexible, because it is an individual choice.

All or nothing

Most people would say, there are vegetarians, and there are the rest of us. You’re either veg or you ain’t. Either you eat tofu or you eat death. But the question is not whether you eat meat or not. This difference is essentially unimportant. This is the difference between meat being 0% of your diet, versus meat being 1% to 100% of your diet (or, being more reasonable, since none of you are actually lions—between 1% to 20% of your diet).

Think about it for a moment—how often do you eat meat? At every meal? Once a day? A couple times a week? More rarely? Everyone’s going to have different responses. Let’s say Bob eats a hamburger for lunch every day, Susan has one twice a week, and Liz never touches one. Susan and Liz have a lot more in common than Susan and Bob.

Mark Bittman, a food writer who hosts The Minimalist video shorts on, has written several vegetarian cookbooks even though he is not vegetarian himself. I like him because he turns the distinction between veg and non-veg on its head, while putting forth recipes that promote a reduction of meat intake. He has suggested diets such as vegetarian-before-dinner, vegetarian-on-weekdays, vegan-for-breakfast, and his recipes often reverse the proportions of meat to vegetables, making vegetables take up most of the focus and the calories and saving the meat for embellishment.

I’ve heard many times, “I tried to become vegetarian once. But I love meat too much.” That’s a false distinction. Arby’s may draw an impassable line between muscled meat-lover and pansy salad-lover, but real people have a combination of both tastes. If you care even a little about any of the causes vegetarianism supports, all you have to do is reduce your meat intake.

Supporting vegetarianism is not all or nothing. No one would venture to say that someone who actively tries to reduce her daily carbon emissions by commuting daily on bicycle is hypocritical because she drives on the weekends.


A friend once told me that her problem with vegetarians and vegans was that they were inconsistent. They might not eat butter from a cow, for example, but they’d wear leather shoes. Well of course we’re inconsistent! For vegans, is it even possible to avoid every single animal product in daily commercial use? This goes way beyond food and clothing. It extends to makeup, perfumes, lotions, wine, toothpastes, tennis racquets and musical instruments, candles, paints, varnish, vitamins and medicines. Even being a strict vegetarian is difficult. It is not always obvious when foods contain animal remains: gelatin (made with animal collagen) is in marshmallows, jello, some pastries, and some yogurts, and vegetable soups often have chicken, beef, or fish stock.

Any system that demands perfection is not sustainable. We don’t demand perfection. We demand a significant change of lifestyle towards less dependence on products that exploit animals.

Bad and less bad

So why eat fish and not meat? Why draw the line there? Is killing and eating a fish or shellfish less wrong than killing and eating a pig? Yes, I would argue. Most animal rights supporters base their beliefs on the idea that causing unnecessary suffering is morally indefensible. It can be argued that fish suffer less than mammals or poultry. Many people might disagree with me here, are there are legitimate philosophical and moral arguments to the contrary, but the fact rests that there is a world of difference between sucking a few live oysters down and the billions of pigs that are raised in horrendous slaughterhouse conditions each year.

Environmentally-speaking, the stakes are a bit different. It’s important to pay attention and be informed about individual species. The over-consumption of tuna is already a grave problem (bluefin tuna will likely be extinct in our lifetime if the world continues its present rate of consumption), the popular seafood menu choices Chilean sea-bass and orange roughy are in severe decline, and Atlantic farmed salmon comes from enormous, over-crowded farms that pollute the nearby waters. Fishing wild Alaskan salmon, on the other hand, does little damage to the environment.

In conclusion:
I hope this post will encourage people to think beyond vegetarian and meat-eater and consider the impact of individual dietary choices. If you’ve thought, even idly, about reducing your meat consumption for whatever reason—political, health, environmental—but felt like you couldn’t cut it out completely, now is the time to think about a more creative way to do it that is sustainable in the long-term. Avoid certain foods, tuna for example, veal, or red meat. Stop cooking with meat, treating yourself only at restaurants. Eat meat only at dinner, or special occasions.

Being conscious of what you are consuming and whose pocket you are lining with your money is not tree-hugging crazy-talk. It’s essential as product manufacture becomes increasingly removed from you and your home, as consumers are increasingly unaware of how and where products are made. Who’s benefiting from your ignorance? And who’s suffering as a result?

1 commentaire:

  1. I really enjoyed reading your article. There are many different angles of the topic that I hadn't explored before and your blog is indeed thought provoking. I hope your vegan readers will learn that they are not so 100% pure vegans and the meat lovers will think twice when they chow down a 5-pound steak at Alexander's. Keep up the good work, Camille.