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The Trials of Being a Conscious Meat Eater

"Everything I see, hear, or read about standard commercial factory farming and slaughtering fills me with disgust," writes Katz, who explores why people choose vegetarianism.

The following is an excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements by Sandor Ellix Katz. It has been adapted for the web.

I love meat. The smell of it cooking can fill me with desire, and I find its juicy, rich flavor uniquely satisfying. At the same time, everything I see, hear, or read about standard commercial factory farming and slaughtering fills me with disgust. I hold great respect for the ideals that people seek to put into practice through vegetarianism.

Vegetarianism is the original manifestation of food activism. Since ancient times vegetarians have sought to embody ideals that they see as making the world a kinder, gentler place. A small minority of people throughout history -- mostly inspired by religious ideals -- have eschewed animal flesh, among them Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Roman Catholic Trappist monks, and Essenes, an ancient Jewish sect. Historically vegetarianism has been a practice of asceticism: a rejection of material pleasure and an embrace of universal compassion. In more recent times vegetarianism has largely been motivated by political and ethical ideas, as well as the pursuit of good health, as we shall explore below.

I was a half-hearted vegetarian for a couple of years, even vegan (avoiding not only meat but all animal products) for a little while, based on the abstract idea that animal fats are unhealthy, which I no longer believe to be true. When I tried being vegan, I found myself dreaming about eggs. I could find no virtue in denying my desires. I now understand that many nutrients are soluble only in fats, and animal fats can be vehicles of rich nourishment. Of course, much depends upon how the animals are raised, and also upon how you integrate them into your diet.

Animals raised factory-style, pumped up with antibiotics and growth hormones and fed the by-products of chemical agriculture, contain high levels of toxicity that have become concentrated up the food chain. They are also often treated cruelly and live in deplorable conditions. A friend who attends a state agriculture school was in a livestock class that required students to perform acts of unnecessary violence such as dehorning mature bulls, rather than the alternative procedure of cauterization in infancy, which involves far less pain and suffering. Students’ concerns about animal welfare were dismissed by the professor with "Don’t go PETA on me" (PETA being the animal-rights direct-action group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). "The industrial farm is said to have been patterned on the factory production line," writes Wendell Berry "In practice, it looks more like a concentration camp."

Where the meat comes from and how the animals lived are factors that figure into my eating decisions. I am grateful to be meeting farmers everywhere who are talking about the ethics that guide their animal raising and slaughtering practices. I appreciate that they are reflecting upon these difficult questions, trying to learn what exactly it means to breed and kill animals in a conscientious way. Animal-rights activists may consider "humane meat" to be an oxymoron, but for many of us seeking to satisfy our nutritional needs while upholding values of simple decency, humane meat is instead an ideal to strive for and support.

Varieties of Vegetarian Volition

The realities of factory-farmed meat make a compelling case for vegetarianism, though people are motivated to become vegetarians by many different concerns. A number of people I’ve talked to about it just always felt a visceral revulsion toward meat and stopped eating it, even as children, as best they could. Many vegetarians stop eating meat for more ideological reasons. Religious beliefs have inspired vegetarians for thousands of years. Reincarnation, for instance, suggests that the same souls incarnate as animals and as humans, raising the possibility that the animal you are eating was your grandmother or some other beloved soul. Many different ideals, from renunciations of the pleasures of the body to expressions of compassion toward all living creatures, lead spiritual adherents to reject animal flesh.

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