On the Veg of Reason

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On the Veg of Reason

I take my responsibility as a writer very seriously.  If I deign to give advice, I do so with caution and qualification.  As may be obvious, one person's tip is another's tribulation.  If I give my opinion, it will be clearly interwoven with personal stories, humor (one strives) and self-reflexive bias. 

On the other hand, when I write to simply stir the impulse to discuss, I do so with a detachment that, I hope, is met with openness rather than as an invitation to intellectual combat. I undertake this entry delicately, understanding that, due to the subject, not every reader will recognize that the call to consider my proposal is a gentle offer and not an aggressive challenge.

Regarding the vegetarian versus the non-vegetarian approach, my aim is not to decide the merits of one over the other.  My objective is not to give advice (all you need is cheese!) or even to give my opinion (meat is murder!) I want to focus on why we humans draw the lines where we draw them in terms of what we eat and what we reject.  On the way to what I will propose is the real answer, we can certainly explore reasons of ethics, health, or ecology. 

However, just like the partisan lines in a certain North American country that is having elections this year and is not Mexico and not Canada (ahem), the issues of vegetarian or carnivorous considerations - be they ethical, environmental or health focused -  are just decoys.  In the case of our controversial discussion here, the ostensibly selfless lines of treatment of animals or environment are drawn to distract from the most narcissistic of motivations.  Stay with me.

Every other species shares with its genetic community a very specific code of what to eat. That is to say lions - all lions - are carnivorous.  Llamas are herbivores while aardvarks eat primarily insects.  Only homo-sapiens make edicts on what our own and - sometimes - others' diets should include and exclude.  The obvious explanation for this capacity for choice is that we are differentiated from our animal kingdom cohorts by our intellect and that this capability is what permits ethically considerate (or culturally motivated or scientifically driven) decisions on whether or not to include other animals' flesh in our diets.

A tiger is considered no more cruel towards the impala it thrashes than a llama is thought of as kind for sparing the impala's life and forgoing it as an appetizer.  The tiger is encoded with the visceral need for that impala and is equipped with the resources to make the acquisition (claws, sharp teeth). The llama has no such designs on the impala and, in fact, lacks the tools to dominate it. The slaughter is a manifestation of the food chain's perpetual orbit. 

Is the llama's digestive system healthier than the tiger's for having been spared the work of processing flesh?  Apples and oranges.  Or should I say tigers and llamas.  We humans are encoded with an omnivorous palate.  Nora T. Gedgaudas, author of PRIMAL BODY, PRIMAL MIND says, in fact, that we have the exact same genetic predisposition to eat meat as our Cro-magnon predecessors​1.  So, if we apply the apples/oranges/tigers/llamas comparative approach, Cro-magnons were not less healthy than their herbivorous underlings on the food chain.  So, Gedgaudas proposes, neither are we.  This is where my non-aligned voice speaks loudly pointing out that while the author is giving advice (fire up the grill!) I am not.

I present to you: The other side. There is an argument that Cro-magnons were, in fact, less healthy as a result of eating meat but that the longevity of this edition of the human being was so short that they would die before meat related disease revealed itself in their bodies. So there are several books worth of information consistent with Gegaudas' point of view and just as many that make a case for the caveman decaying slowly and imperceptibly after too many sabre-toothed tiger dinners.

The bringing forward of both sides of the health-anthropology argument is more to illuminate that neither the tiger, the llama,  the aardvark nor Señor Cro-magon weighed the pros and cons on any ethical, health or cultural plane to decide whether or not to hunt their prey of choice.  They relied on instincts to propel the hunt and the hunted in turn, knew to watch their backs or become an entrée.  

There is a dichotomy to every angle of this issue.  Just as Gedgaudas claims the health of homo-sapiens is dependent on consumption of meat, the equally lettered Anand Saxena decries the vegetarian imperative in his book of the same name.  As well as claiming the health benefits of a plant and grain based diet, he also purports that the earth will not survive with its current carnivorous population profile. 

The husbandry of animals is the agricultural practice most taxing to the planet, he claims​2.  The proposition is that just meeting the meat demands of the world's populations is stressing the earth.  What about the eighty million acres of land in the U.S. alone blanketed with corn crops?  Corn is the cheapest, most subsidized, most lucrative and therefore most prolific sometimes grain - sometimes vegetable (but never animal) to hit the agricultural scene this century and most of the last​3.  The statistic that nearly half of US livestock is produced on just 5% of farms dilutes the environmental case for vegetarianism even further4.

Of course, this last statistic is not at all comforting-even if you are a carnivore- considering it reveals the horrific preponderance of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). This marks our arrival at the final debate frontier.  Just when you thought there could be no possible counter-argument for kindness and humanity, science and its aloof entourage of statistics peek around the corner.  Surely, killing animals for our consumption is less kind than not killing them. 

Isn't never permitting such animals an opportunity to live (albeit in CAFOs) in the first place even less kind, however?  Steve Best, Associate Professor at the University of Texas and noted activist sites 2010 USDA statistics that nearly 10.2 billion land animals were raised for food that year. 10.2 billion animals were also killed for food but, the fact remains, they were put here with the singular purpose of ending up as food. 

Best also moves that the vegan community's claim that an animal is saved with each pamphlet that they distribute is unfounded. "Vegans' he says, 'should drop the moral posturing and just admit that they are vegans for their own health and not the chicken's health​5.

And haven't we already visited the issue of health and come up empty?  Dr. Best's and others' venerable expertise on the subject notwithstanding, there has been no overwhelming argument for or against the consumption of animals in either of the health, environmental or animal rights arenas.  Why are we so divided then?  

That we are divided, I propose, is immaterial.  What is significant is that we are flexing our evolutionary muscles.  The ultimate expression of our position on the food chain is in the powerful and definitive declaration:  I slaughter you or I spare you.   We show the inferiors what we are capable of through the guise of social activism, medicine, or even just random pontifications.  The platform doesn't even matter. 

The irony is that what does matter, is that we order these very primal acts of fluffing our feathers, preening and flirting and marking our territories etc. through a socially sophisticated, empirical methodology.  We establish one of the great dietary debates of all time: the vegetarian myth or the vegetarian imperative.  Whatever side of debate fills your plate is immaterial.  Either way, rest assured  that whether what you grill has eyes or a peel you have a safe, protected spot in that platinum link at the top of the food chain.

The absence of the religion question is palpable isn't it? The role of food in all of the various scriptures both ancient and modern alike is a discussion for another day.  As you consider all of this, if the need arises to hop the ideological fence from the vegetarian to the carnivorous side or vice versa, short of simply making a random choice, I recommend a spiritually driven motivation. While it cannot be empirically verified it can be passionately believed. Perhaps that would be the most sincere expression of our humanity and the strongest argument in favor of us actually being the most intelligent animal.


  1. Gedgaudas, Nora T. PRIMAL BODY, PRIMAL MIND: BEYOND THE PALEO DIET FOR TOTAL HEALTH AND A LONGER LIFE, Healing Arts Press; Rochester, Vermont; 2009
  2. Saxena, Anand M; THE VEGETARIAN IMPERATIVE; Johns Hopkins University Press; Maryland; 2011
  3. Pollan, Michael; On the Table Blog; New York Times Magazine; July 2002
  4. Saxena, Anand M; THE VEGETARIAN IMPERATIVE; Johns Hopkins University Press; Maryland; 2011
  5. http://drstevebest.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/animals-killed-for-food-consumption-in-us-and-worldwide-continues-to-increase/
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