What does it mean to be a vegetarian? Am I a “real” vegetarian? Are you a real vegetarian? Does being a vegetarian mean I do no harm to any living beings? Do vegetarians have to sign contracts and be evaluated by an official jury to become “real”?
In my last Food Fight post I outlined how I eat in detail. I mentioned that I’m a vegetarian and I also mentioned that I eat eggs and cheese and that my feelings are a little mixed about it because eating cheese supports the meat industry and I’m not keen to do that yet I have not chosen to draw my line there at this point in time. Renee, a commentor on the last post, brought up some other details about the dairy industry which I felt were valid points. But then she told me I can’t call myself a vegetarian because I eat cheese and cheese is made with rennet (enzymes from a cow’s stomach).
Dictionary definition (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary): A person who does not eat or does not believe in eating meat, fish, fowl, or, in some cases, any food derived from animals, as eggs or cheese, but subsists on vegetables, fruits, nuts, grain, etc.
There you have it. Some vegetarians (like myself) do eat food derived from animals but don’t eat the flesh of animals. I can most definitely call myself a vegetarian and I most definitely am NOT a vegan. I don’t think it can be more clear than that.
I was raised as a vegetarian from birth. It’s the way I eat. I didn’t choose to be a vegetarian in the first place but later when I tried eating meat and fish and fowl I made a conscious decision to remain a vegetarian but NOT because I love animals. I did it because it feels natural to me to eat the way I was raised. It suits my body. I feel good when I eat this way. I like it. Meat is gross to me. I’m sorry if it disappoints anyone to know that I didn’t choose to be vegetarian for noble reasons. Actually, I’m not sorry. Eating is very personal and I chose what’s right for me. What’s right for me includes eggs and cheese.
My concern for the well being and kind treatment of animals is very real and very strong. But it’s important to reiterate that I don’t think eating animals is wrong. If it’s wrong for people to eat animals then it’s wrong for lions to eat gazelles. If lions can’t eat gazelles, they die off. Nature made many animals dependent on eating other animals and in the natural setting the way the food chain is set up helps maintain a balance of animals and insects that works. Nature also made many animals into omnivores, giving them the edge of not being dependent on one type of food. Humans are such animals. Just because we can choose not to eat meat doesn’t make it wrong for us to choose to eat it.
I take my cues from nature. Humans are omnivores and as far as anthropologists can know – they always have been. I choose to be an omnivore who doesn’t eat the flesh of animals. I respect other people choosing to eat animals and I equally respect other people who choose not to eat any food derived from animals. The only thing I don’t choose is to ignore how animals raised for food are treated and cared for. There is a respect inherent in nature between prey and quarry. In the distant past of human history that respect was inherent in us. It is only in our more recent history that we have disconnected from our more natural relationship with animals as food. People used to have to work harder to have their meat. A human having to kill the meat he/she eats is a lot more respectable than going to the grocery store and buying a slab of animal flesh any time you want it. So we’ve lost our way and have, through overpopulation, ruined the balance that nature designed to keep the earth healthy.
I care very deeply about the treatment of all animals but that doesn’t mean I think it’s wrong that they are used for food. When Max rescued a baby garter snake we fed it tadpoles from our little pond. I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t love hunting out those babies and offering them to the snake but I knew, as all people must know, that a snake is not a vegetarian creature and it would be entirely wrong to impose on it a diet it can’t survive on. So we fed him the tadpoles and knew that it was nature’s circle of life in action. But those tadpoles, until we snatched them out of the pond, lived a natural life. The frogs who live in that pond were not put there by us. They found our pond and chose it as their habitat. My point is (in case it isn’t obvious) is that those tadpoles weren’t raised in a tank in my house under unnatural conditions and they were eaten by their natural predator.
There’s one last point I feel it’s important to make: if you are a vegetarian because you don’t want to cause any injury or death to other living beings, you are fooling yourself to think that you can eat in such a way that you never cause harm to other living beings. Every single person on earth who eats food, no matter what diet they choose, causes injury and death to other living beings. It is 100% impossible to farm vegetables and grains without also causing collateral damage to mice, rabbits, frogs, voles, snakes, gophers, and sometimes the larger animals whose natural habitat we’ve claimed for raising crops pushing them to new territories where they sometimes starve to death as a result. Most people don’t care about insects but even if you’re growing food organically, as I do, there are casualties to insects and sometimes small creatures. When I was working in the community garden a few years ago I was weeding and accidentally speared a frog with my weeding tool. I don’t know if it was fatal or not. I picked the poor fellow up and put him out in the adjacent field of tall grasses. If I, a careful and caring gardener, can injure a frog while weeding, imagine what all those tractors and plows and harvesters are doing to the other little creatures.
We all eat at the expense of other living beings. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact of life.
Where you draw the line is for you to decide. Vegans do considerable less harm to other living creatures than meat eaters do, but everyone has blood on their hands. I think the main thing to focus on is how we are treating the animals we’re raising for meat and eggs and how they’re killing these animals before they reach the dinner table. These things matter a lot.
I said that was all but there’s one more thing I need to say: vegans and vegetarians fighting each other over little details of diet is like Catholics and Protestants fighting over how to interpret the bible and the proper way to worship. The majority of vegans and vegetarians have some common beliefs and concerns and if we all want meat eaters to care about the ethical treatment of animals then it won’t do to fight each other. There will always be meat eaters, there is never going to be an entire planet of vegetarians and vegans. People are omnivores. What is an obtainable goal is to inspire all meat eaters to care how their meat is raised and to inspire meat eaters to eat less meat over all of it can be raised humanely. This should be a shared vision between all people.
I am a vegetarian. Please don’t tell me where to draw my line. Please consult the official definition of vegetarian before telling people what they can and can’t call themselves.