Death on a Plate

Earlier this week, while surfing around on Linkfilter, I came across a site claiming to to reveal “The Myths of Vegetarianism,” I filed it away to read later. I though it might be worth posting, if i could find a context for it.

As we shall see, many of the vegetarian claims cannot be substantiated and some are simply false and dangerous. There are benefits to vegetarian diets for certain health conditions, and some people function better on less fat and protein, but, as a practitioner who has dealt with several former vegans (total vegetarians), I know full well the dangerous effects of a diet devoid of healthful animal products.

It is my hope that all readers will more carefully evaluate their position on vegetarianism after reading this article. It is important to note that there are different types of vegetarianism, including lacto-vegetarian diets (dairy products included) and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets (dairy products and eggs included). The nutritional caveats that follow are primarily directed at veganism, or a diet totally lacking in animal products.

For the record, I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian, so the author isn’t addressing me. That means I don’t eat meat, but I do eat eggs, dairy, and other animal products such as honey; though, as my lactose intolerance seems to get wore as I get older, I find myself eating less dairy. I can’t hope to address all the “myths” addressed in the article, but there’s one in general that I thought I might take on.

It wasn’t until I came across Nio’s link to this Bitter Greens Journal post about “The Faultlines of Industrial Agriculture,” that I finally found a context for posting about the “myths” piece. The post, though brief, covers a wide range of issues concerning or affected by agriculture, from the environment to human rights, in a post-Katrina context that I haven’t seen before. I can’t cover all those topics, but it seems to me that they all come down to the question of how we impact the planet and the people we share it with through our choices. At least, that’s the approach I take to my own vegetarianism.

It wasn’t until I came across a book called “Wake up and Cook : Kitchen Buddhism in Words and Recipes.” I picked it up just as I was starting to study Buddhism on my own. It contained a discussion of Buddhism and vegetarianism that helped me put the two in the context. I’d begun to see — and to some extent still do — my own vegetarianism as an expression of the first precept; avoiding the taking of life. In that sense, it would be easy to be judgmental towards people who do eat meat, but this book argued for a more balanced view.

The book is packed away in a box right now, with most of my other books, so I can’t reproduce it’s argument here. But it basically boiled down to the reality that all meals, particularly in the modern world, involve the taking of life; sometimes on a massive scale. This link to UrbanDharma.Org sums it up pretty well.

The issue of meat eating raises difficult ethical questions. Isn’t the meat in a supermarket or restaurant killed “for” us? Doesn’t meat eating entail killing by proxy?

Few of us are in a position to judge meat eaters or anyone else for “killing by proxy.” Being part of the world economy entails “killing by proxy” in every act of consumption. The electricity that runs our computers comes from facilities that harm the environment. Books of Buddhist scriptures are printed on paper produced by an industry that destroys wildlife habitat. Worms, insects, rodents and other animals are routinely killed en masse in the course of producing the staples of a vegetarian diet. Welcome to samsara. It is impossible for most of us to free ourselves from this web; we can only strive to be mindful of entanglement in it. One way to do so is to reflect on how the suffering and death of sentient beings contributes to our comfort. This may help us to be less inclined to consume out of mere greed.

All of that having been said, it cannot be denied that the economic machine which produces meat also creates fear and suffering for a large number of animals. It is useful to bear this in mind even if one consumes meat, to resist developing a habit of callousness. Many Buddhists (especially Mahayanists) practice vegetarianism as a means of cultivating compassion.

Another link to a BuddhaNet discussion on vegetarianism pretty much offers the same argument.

Question:

But if you eat meat you are indirectly responsible for the death of a creature. Isn’t that breaking the first precept?

Answer:

It is true that when you eat meat, you are indirectly and partially responsible for killing a creature but the same is true when you eat vegetables. The farmer has to spray his crop with insecticides and poisons so that the vegetables arrive on your dinner plates without holes in them. And once again, animals have been killed to provide the leather for your belt or handbag, oil for the soap you use and a thousand other products as well. It is impossible to live without, in some way, being indirectly responsible for the death of some other beings, and this is just another example of the First Noble Truth, ordinary existence is suffering and unsatisfactory. When you take the First Precept, you try to avoid being directly responsible for killing beings.

So, every meal we take, whether it includes meat or not, is basically death on a plate.

Like the answer above suggests, I tend to look at it as a question of whether I’m directly or indirectly responsible for taking life unnecessarily. There are certain things I have to do in order to live, and eating is one of them. If you ask me (and probably anyone else that lives or works with me) it’s probably necessary for me to go on taking regular showers, even though doing so involves the deaths of countless microscopic beings. I have to breath to live as well, and chances are I’m killing something when I’m doing that too. So the only way to completely avoid taking life would be to stand in one place and never move. Ever.

Not possible. Some things are necessary in order to live, even if they involve taking life. The best I can do is to be mindful of the first noble truth when doing them. My approach is to do what I can to soften that impact. If I buy eggs, I get the ones labeled as organic and being from free-range hens. If I’m buying shower gel or shaving cream, I like to buy “cruelty free” products that aren’t tested on animals, if they’re available. And so on. So, how does this relate to eating meat? Towards the end of the “myths” piece, the author has this to say.

As a cleansing diet, vegetarianism is a good choice. Several health conditions (e.g., gout) can often be ameliorated by a temporary reduction in animal products with an increase of plant foods. But such measures must not be continuous throughout life: there are vital nutrients found only in animal products that we must ingest for optimal health. Furthermore, there is no one diet that will work for every person. Some vegetarians and vegans, in their zeal to get converts, are blind to this biochemical fact.

…Conversely, some people do very well on little or no meat and remain healthy as lacto-vegetarians or lacto-ovo-vegetarians. The reason for this is because these diets are healthier for those people, not because they’re healthier in general.

I can’t say that I’ve had any of the problems the author says are inherent in vegan diets, since I’m not a vegan, but I can say that vegetarianism is a healthy choice for me. I can’t say whether it works for anyone else, or whether it’s the right choice for anyone but me.

And if I ever feel that I can say or decide such? Well. I remind myself that we’re basically all eating the same meal. Death on a plate.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
This entry was posted in Books, Buddhism, Food and Drink, Religion, Vegetarianism. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Death on a Plate

  1. Annie says:

    But would you force your child to be a vegetarian/vegan? Some parents do and I don’t think it’s a good idea at all.

  2. Nio says:

    I was a lacto-ovo for a number of years. I still am although now I eat fish but no other animal (poultry, cow, pig). Some days I freak out about eating anything at all and wish I could survive on air alone. I’d be an air-atarian if I could.

    Thanks for the link back. I was never sure if you read my page or not. I’m flattered you do.

  3. Terrance says:

    Actually, we’re specifically not raising our son vegetarian. The hubby is a non-vegetarian, and it would be really impossible to raise the kid as a vegetarian unless we were both vegetarian. I figure, he’ll be exposed to it and make up his own mind when he’s old enough to understand.

  4. Cathi says:

    It really bugs me when physician or health providers base their biases againt vegetarian diets on their personal experience with a few people who had poor eating habits. This is hardly “evidence” that a vegetarian diet is harmful. It is entirely possible to consume a healthy plant-based diet if one is careful to consume a wide variety of foods. The website for the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (a group founded and run by doctors) provides a wealth of medical information about the health benefits of a plant-based diet and debunks many anti-vegetarian myths.

    I myself don’t consume meat products because I can’t condone the cruelty of large-scale industrial agriculture, so I also don’t eschew meat for health reasons, but I have found this information useful when people warn me about the “dangers” of “vegetarianism.”

  5. Nio says:

    When I first went vegetarian–about 10 years ago–I did it because my then boyfriend was pressuring me to do so. Once we broke up, I stuck with it because I realized that I don’t like beef. Or pork. Or chicken. And then I remembered fighting with my mother at meal time to “finish your milk and pot roast” (or whatever the meat product was).

  6. sennoma says:

    there are vital nutrients found only in animal products that we must ingest for optimal health

    No, there aren’t. Not one. Zero, nada, zip. See the ADA position paper for starters. I didn’t bother clicking through to the site you got that from, because it’s clearly nonsense.

  7. Tim Who? says:

    I also was lacto-ovo for several years but I found it too hard to give up meat. I eat less, far less than the average american maybe a pound a month rather than meat at every meal.

    But there are times when I get a deep craving for meat and generally I ignore it for a day or two but if it doesn’t go away I buy a steak and feed the craving. It is now the middle of Sept and I just finished steak #4 for the year. So we’re looking at what? One every other month.

    My understanding is the main difference between vegetarians and non-vegetarians is when injured. (think broken bones) In general, Non vegetarians seem to heal faster than vegetarians. Why that is so I couldn’t begin to guess but it would appear that animal products help up in repairing our bodies and rebuilding bones and cells. Which products, and how they help, I couldn’t say.

    I think you are correct to raise Parker with a normal diet for now because when he goes to school and eats lunch with the other kids it will be too confusing for him because he’ll be offered food choices he doesn’t understand. You stated, when the time comes he can make up his own mind. I agree!

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