Why eating vegetarian may not be the most ethical diet
Loading up on fruits and veggies at the superstore won’t save the planet — or your soul.
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Marissa Landrigan stopped eating meat for ethical reasons — and then started eating meat for ethical reasons.
It started with a strawberry.
For a summer job right after college in 2007, she was researching threats to California’s waterways and learned that crops, including the innocent strawberry, could be grown with chemicals that endangered the environment and the people who worked the fields.
It had never before occurred to her, a hardcore vegetarian since her freshman year, that growing fruit and vegetables could be as ethically questionable as farming animals. A decade later, Landrigan, now 34 and a Pittsburgh area-based writing professor, extols the virtues of eating meat in her memoir, The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat: A Young Woman’s Search for Ethical Food, released this Friday.
“Ethical eating isn’t about a black and white choice where vegetarian and vegan is always good and meat is always bad,” Landrigan said in an interview. She now uses “ethical omnivore” as shorthand to describe how she eats.
“I had to decide what was more important: always boycotting meat or generally supporting the most ethical and sustainable and humane food production I could find, which would sometimes involve livestock animals.”
For many like the young Landrigan, achieving a guilt-free diet means cutting out meat, eggs and dairy in order to satiate concerns over animal welfare and the environment — research has generally shown that livestock farming is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
In college, Landrigan disavowed meat as part of a broader sense of anticorporate activism only to discover her faux chicken, veggie burgers, even organic tomato paste could still be products of an industrial food system she opposed. For example, the vegetarian Boca Burger is sold by Kraft, which makes hotdogs and deli meat from the largest pork producers in the U.S.
And there are plenty of other examples of dubious produce.
Demand for quinoa led to overproduction and unstable crop prices for Peruvian farmers. Avocados are associated with drug cartels and deforestation in Mexico.
Water-intensive almond growing in California was partly blamed for water shortage during that state’s multi-year drought. The Vietnamese nut industry has been accused of producing “blood cashews,” forcing drug addicts to shell the nuts through treatment centres doubling as labour camps. Soy crops — though mostly used for animal and chicken feed — have been linked to destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
Though meat consumption in Canada has declined or plateaued in the past four decades — per capita red meat went down nearly 40 per cent between 1980 and 2015, according to government statistics — along with the rise of “plant-based” diets and Meatless Mondays, it’s estimated only 4 per cent of Canadians do not eat animal products at all.
For many vegetarians, eating meat is a non-starter. Australian practical ethicist Peter Singer argued in his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, that causing suffering to any animal is wrong under any circumstance, a position that became the cornerstone of the animal rights movement.
Concerns about animal welfare and the environmental impact of factory farming led Calgary-based Lana Salant, a yoga teacher and former vegan, to found the Ethical Omnivore Movement group.
Ideally, ethical omnivores eat only local, organic and humanely raised meat, and Salant’s personal priority is soil health and biodiversity.
“We can’t support mono crops of vegetables that are being sprayed with pesticides and are not biodiverse and are killing all the micro-organisms in the soil,” she said. Soy, corn and canola, which are farmed intensively and are often genetically modified to withstand pesticides, are found in animal feed as well as meat alternates such as veggie dogs.
Attempts to balance competing ethical considerations can be confusing.
“There are so many different ethical dimensions to food,” said Chris MacDonald, Ted Rogers School of Management professor and business ethicist.
The challenge for consumers is to figure out what they care about most and then shop accordingly, said MacDonald, who eats seafood and eggs.
For example, compare a highly mechanized chicken-processing plant that may commit “unsavory animal treatment” to an heirloom tomato from an organic farm that relies on precarious human labour.
“The vegetarian says, ‘My food is cruelty-free,’ but the (omnivore) says those migrant workers are not exactly treated well or paid well,” MacDonald said.
Like many ethical omnivores, Landrigan tries to shop local, where her money supports her community, not a multinational conglomerate that may operate with unethical practices under some other company name — the realization that led her to return to eating meat.
Toronto Vegetarian Association executive director David Alexander sees the ethical omnivore movement as a “moral cover” for returning to eating meat or continuing to eat meat. There’s no reason a vegan can’t eat conscientiously and avoid animal products at the same time — and most do, he said.
“But I do think reducing the demand for animal products overall is good, and if people are sticking to a ‘reducitarian’ or ‘flexitarian’ diet that minimizes the amount of animal products in their diet, it’s certainly a positive step,” Alexander said.
“The process of thinking through these food choices, whether or not we all end up at the same place, is useful and productive.”
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