Monday, December 27, 2010

Thoughts on veganism and America’s addiction to meat

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has named Bill Clinton as their Person of the Year. The former President made headlines this year when he announced that he had been living on a diet largely consisting of “beans, legumes, vegetables, fruit…a protein supplement every morning… no dairy”.

It’s more than a bit disingenuous to promote Clinton as a champion of veganism: First, he still eats fish (which PETA fails to note); Secondly, Clinton has undertaken this restrictive diet out of medical necessity. For decades, he abused his body with cholesterol laden junk food, paid the price with quadruple bypass surgery in 2004 and has since had to have two stents placed in his coronary arteries. The former President represents an extreme case, where there is no alternative but to go “virtually vegan”.

I’m amused by the reactions of the pro and anti vegan crowd to this news. The vegans crow with vindication about Clinton’s late-life change, and the carnivores counter that all vegans are smelly, weird people. Then carnivores inevitably drop the Hitler bomb, even though Hitler was not, in fact a strict vegan or even a vegetarian. (By the way, I listen to Beethoven and Wagner and am not going to stop just because Hitler happened to have good taste in music.) While the vegans claim that Clinton looks astonishingly fit, the carnivores complain that he looks like a feeble old man. For my part, I do believe that Clinton looks somewhat gaunt, although he appears better than he did immediately after his bypass surgery, when his pallor reminded me of late-life photographs of Franklin Roosevelt. Clinton’s voice has also lost much of its projection, and there is a noticeable reduction in his legendary vigor.

As is often the case where both camps are convinced of their absolute correctness, reality is somewhere in the middle.

Fact is, humans are driven by evolution and biology to crave and eat meat (by which I mean all kinds of meat, including pork and poultry). That’s why we have incisors and canine teeth, unlike herbivores which have mouthfuls of molars. Early humans ate meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, and nuts. They did not, however, eat bread (which is a human invention). Neither did they drink milk (once they were weaned from their mothers’ milk) or consume other dairy products such as butter and cheese.

Most Americans, however, eat too much meat, particularly so called red meat. This is for several reasons: historically, Americans have been meat eaters since before our founding: There was a bounty of game animals on the continent that exceeded Europeans’ grandest dreams; in modern times, factory farming has kept meat available in plenty, and at prices most Americans can easily afford. Very few of them care, or are even aware, that the vast majority of meat and poultry is filled with growth hormones, antibiotics, and was raised in conditions that our 19th Century counterparts would have considered indecent. The overconsumption of meat and dairy products and reliance on processed foods (like bread and products made with High Fructose Corn Syrup), combined with the under-consumption of fruits and vegetables and our sedentary lifestyles have placed the American peoples’ health in jeopardy. What happened to Bill Clinton is a sample of what’s in store for many of us if we don’t change our ways. (And overconsumption of certain kinds of fish can lead to mercury poisoning.)

There is also the ethical question. I grew up with foods such as pot roast, steak, burgers on the grill – along with the veggies my parents made me eat. I never gave a thought as to where the food came from or how it got to the kitchen table – and I’d venture to guess that few of my classmates did either. But over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly uneasy with eating red meat and pork. I now try to keep myself limited to one helping of red meat per week – but even that has started to bother me, especially since watching The Cove. For what is the difference, after all, in eating meat that comes from a cow or pig, as opposed to a whale, dolphin, or even the family dog? They are all mammals, and all share the same evolutionary history. It may be irrational or false equivocation, but I do consider mammals to be a higher form of life than fowl, which are essentially reptiles. There is also the environmental impact deriving from the raising or so many cattle, which have to be fed and housed before they are slaughtered. So the struggle I face is between my body’s cravings for red meat, and my growing guilt in consuming it. Last summer, I totally gave up dairy for several weeks, and that combined with my reduction in red meat intake produced some unexpected results – in the form of dreams about cheeseburgers covered in ice cream. I don’t think I will ever be able to give up mammalian meat completely.

In the end, the answer is, as it has always been: moderation in everything. If President Clinton had observed that mantra in his younger years, he wouldn’t have to resort to extreme measures today.

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